Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Making T-Shirts

It is now easier than ever before to make your own T-shirts.

Regardless if you are trying to make some custom T-shirts or if you are stating a T-shirt line, you have come to the right place.

In this guide, we will tell you all the basics to get started.

How to Start a T-Shirt Business?

There are different ways to start a T-shirt printing business and all of them come with a varying amount of responsibility.

For example, you can opt to only design the T-shirts and outsource the manufacturing and distribution to a third-party company. This is an easy way to get started, but your margin will be very small.

In this article, we focus on starting a T-shirt business by making the T-shirts at home.

Essential Tools to Make T-Shirts

If you are running a T-shirt business, you will probably have to produce a lot of T-shirts on a regular basis. To smooth out this process and to save a lot of time, we recommend purchasing a vinyl cutting machine and a heat press.

The vinyl cutter is used to cut out your design from the vinyl. You can save design such that you can easily produce patterns in bulk. The heat press is then used to transfer your design in a matter of seconds.

Using a vinyl cutter and heat press for the first time might feel a little clumsy. But once you get the hang of it, they will considerably speed-up your workflow.

how to use a heat press machine to make vinyl shirts

Best Vinyl Cutting Machine for Beginners

If you run a business that makes vinyl T-shirts, owning a good vinyl cutter is crucial.

But you probably don’t want to invest a huge amount of money right from the start.

We will try to help you find the best die cutting machine for beginners that fits your business.

The vinyl cutter market is mainly dominated by two big companies called Silhouette and Cricut. Our preference goes with Silhouette vinyl cutting machines, but either brand has good options. When looking to buy a vinyl cutting machine, keep the following points in mind.

What Criteria to Look for in a Vinyl Cutting Machine?

  • Cutting Area Width: the width of the cutting area can be much smaller than the width of the machine itself. So make sure the check the width you can actually use. This doesn’t always mean that bigger is better. If you only make small vinyl decals and designs, then there is no need to go with a bigger and more expensive machine.
  • Material Compatibility: in this article we mainly focus on making custom vinyl T-shirts. However, most die cutting machines can handle not just vinyl, but also materials such as rubber, fabric, paper, etc. If you want to use your vinyl cutter for more than just cutting vinyl, check if it is compatible with these materials.
  • Tools and Features: it goes without saying that all vinyl cutters can cut vinyl. However, the special features and tools that are included are what distinguishes the best vinyl cutter from its competition. Some examples are an embossing feature or a double tool holder. However, if you are looking for a die cutting machine for a beginner, you might want to skip on this to reduce the price.
  • Software: to transform your design from ideas to reality, you will have to master the software that comes with a vinyl cutter. Both Silhouette and Cricut machines come with software called Silhouette Studio and Cricut Design Space respectively. In general, the Silhouette software gives more freedom while the Cricut software is easier to learn. Additionally, keep in mind that you can only import svg, png, dxf, gif, bmp and jpg files into Cricut Design Space and jpg, bmp and png files to Silhouette Studio.

Best Silhouette Machine

Silhouette offers 4 different machines: Cameo, Curio, Portrait and the Mint.

You will quickly notice that the Mint model is much smaller than the others. The Mint doesn’t work very well with vinyl. It is mainly used to make small tags and for labeling.

The Silhouette Curio is compatible with vinyl. However, it was mainly designed for home decor and specialty crafting. This means it works very well with thicker materials.

If you are looking for the best vinyl cutting machine, we would recommend the Cameo or Portrait. The Portrait is a smaller brother to the Silhouette Cameo. The main difference is the difference in cutting width.

The Silhouette Cameo 3 Starter Bundle is a great place to start for beginners. It comes with 24 sheets of vinyl that is 12 x 12 inch in size and a vinyl instructional guide to learn the ins and outs of your silhouette vinyl cutter. The Cameo 3 can cut projects up to 12 inches wide and 10 feet long and has a variety of tools you can use such as autoblade, scraper tool, hook tool, etc. This set has everything you need to get started making your vinyl designs.

Also read our article for a complete comparison between Silhouette vs. Cricut vinyl cutters.

Best Heat Press Machine for Beginners

If you use your vinyl cutting machine to make small designs you can transfer to your clothing of choice by using a very hot iron.

This can be a good method if you occasionally make a T-shirt at home. But it is difficult to apply heat evenly on bigger designs and it is time-consuming if you make T-shirts in large quantities.

Best Heat Press Machine for Small Business

A heat press will allow you to easily and quickly transfer your designs onto T-shirts, bags, hoodies, socks, etc.

After preheating the press once, you can make one T-shirt after the other in no-time.

Besides vinyl, heat presses are also often used to transfer other materials such as heat transfer paper, rhinestone, and embroidered patches.

Different Types of Heat Press Models

You can buy a heat press machine in many different shapes. But there are 4 major types of heat press models out there.

The type of heat press you use can influence your overall work-flow, so choose the one that suits you the best.

  • Best Heat Press MachineClamshell: the clamshell model is what we normally recommend beginners since it is a pretty straightforward and intuitive design. The heat press consists out of two plates. The bottom one is normally stationary while the upper plate opens to around 75 degrees like an alligators mouth. Since the plates open vertically, they can be used in small spaces as well.
  • Swing Away: in this model the upper plate opens straight up and can then be moved sideways. This reduces the chance of accidentally burning yourself to the hot upper plate.
  • Slide Out: unlike the two models mentioned above, the slide out model features a fixed upper plate and a lower plate that can be moved back and forth. They are pretty easy to use but required a lot of space.

Some heat press machines might also be labeled as multifunctional. This means you can replace and use different heating plates or add-ons. For example, this can be useful if you want to print on curved surfaces like caps and mugs.

What to Look for in a Good Heat Press

Regardless of the heat press model you go with, there are some basic criteria to keep in mind before purchase.

  • Temperature: applying the right temperature is crucial for a successful transfer. There are two things to check. First of all, make sure that the heat press can apply the temperature needed. Since this can differ depending on the material (vinyl, rhinestones, paper) you are using. Secondly, check if the heat is applied evenly across the surface of the plates. Many cheap heat press machines have a single heating element at the center of the plate. This means the edges of the plate have a much lower temperate than you think and can ruin your transfers.
  • Size: the size of the heat press obviously limits the size of the designs you can transfer. Although the press should be bigger than the vinyl design, it is ok if parts of the T-shirts are hanging from the plate.
  • Features: if you are looking for a heat press for small businesses, you might just want to go with one of the basic models. However, it is useful to know that some high-end heat presses can come with many useful features such as a programmable timer, automated opening of the plates, saving preset routines.

It is also useful to keep in mind that depending on the country of the manufacturer, you might have to measure temperatures in Celsius or Fahrenheit.

Our Recommended Heat Press

If you read the heat press reviews, you will see that the PowerPress T-shirt Heat Press is consistently listed as one of the best heat press for vinyl.

This popular model is often used to letters, numbers, and images onto T-shirts, bags, etc. If you get used to the PowerPress, you can easily make dozens of T-shirts every hour.

As you can see below, this is a clamshell model with a plate size of 15”x15”. It has an electric timer that can be set from 0-999 seconds and a heat controlled with a temperature range of 0-500 Fahrenheit.

Click here to learn more about other good heat press machines for beginners.

How to Use Silhouette Studio to Design Custom T-Shirts?

Since we recommended buying a Silhouette vinyl cutter, we will use the corresponding Silhouette studio software to design vinyl T-shirts in this section.

If you own a Cricut model, you might be able to find similar options and tools in the Cricut Design Space software.

How to Make Text-Based Designs

If you open the text menu at the top right of the screen, you will see several available options. You can choose from a variety of different fonts such as Arial, Courier, Times and styles like Bold, Italic and Underline. If you are a little more advanced you might want to play around with the character spacing and line spacing as well.

One of the most important steps in making good text-based designs is using the welding option.

Welding allows you to merge overlapping bits and pieces into one. This is especially useful with cursive fonts that have a lot of overlapping letters. Without welding all those letters will be cut out individually.

To weld words or phrases together, select your text box and right click and select “weld”. Alternatively, you can also find the “weld” options under Object > Modify > Weld.

However, keep in mind that welding turns your words into an image. So after you click the weld button, you can no longer change anything about your text. Welding should be one of the last steps in finishing your design.

If you want to learn more advanced techniques to manipulate your text such as creating offsets and curving text to fit a path, check out this awesome blog post by Christine.

How to Make Image-Based Designs

You often want to include an image or your logo into your T-shirt design. However, the Silhouette Studio software is not specifically designed to make illustrations from scratch. We normally advise people to import an image either drawn themselves using specialized drawing software or to use an image they find online.

To turn the image you found or made into something the vinyl cutter can work with, you need to use the Silhouette trace and cut functions as shown by the video below.

In short, you will need to take the following steps.

  1. Import your image by clicking File > Import > Import to Library.
  2. Open the Trace window and drag a selection box over your image.
  3. Click the Trace button.
  4. Send the outline to the machine to cut.

Depending on the image you use, it might be a little tricky to obtain the perfect trace. Slightly adjusting the High Pass Filter, Low Pass Filter and the Threshold will normally be enough to get a good trace.

How to Use a Heat Press Machine to Transfer Designs

If you have prepared your designs according to the steps above, it is time to use a heat press to transfer the designs.

Using a heat press is probably the fastest way to transfer your designs and make vinyl T-shirts.

Just keep in mind that when heat pressing T-shirts, your design will be flipped. So if your design includes letters or an image that is not symmetric, consider mirroring it in the Silhouette Studio software before cutting.

Step by Step Instructions on Using a Heat Press

Regardless if you use a small heat press or a big one, a clamshell or a slide out, most T-shirt heat press machines operate according to the same basic steps.

  1. Open the heat press, turn on the power and set the thermostat to the right temperature for your material.
  2. When the machine indicates that it has reached the desired temperature, spread your T-shirt on the bottom plate of the heat press and put your vinyl design on top. Make sure the vinyl faces the T-shirt and the plastic backing is facing upwards.
  3. Set the timer of the heat press. If your model does not have a timer, make sure to prepare a watch or use your cell phone.
  4. Firmly close the machine until it is snaps locked.
  5. After the time is up, you can open the heat press and remove the T-shirt. But be careful not to burn yourself.

The right temperature to heat press T-shirts depends on the material you are using. Even vinyl from different supplier might need different temperatures. So make sure to check the instructions that come with the heat transferable vinyl and don’t throw it away mindlessly!

Additionally, some vinyl transfers are hot peel, which means you peel off the plastic backing as soon as possible. While other transfers are cold peel, which means you should let it cool down before you peel away The backing.



How to Make Rhinestone Shirts?

So far we have been talking about making vinyl T-shirts. But if you have a Silhouette vinyl cutter and a heat press, you already have most of the things you need to make rhinestone shirts. If you want to give making bling shirts a try, make sure to keep reading.

What Rhinestone Type to Use?

how to add rhinestones to clothingRhinestones can come in different sizes, shapes, and colors. Of course, you want to use the one you think is most pretty. There is just one thing you need to check before buying rhinestones.

Rhinestones are sold as either glue-on rhinestones or as hotfix rhinestones.

The glue-on rhinestones are the most basic option. As the name implies, you can use a special glue to manually fixate these stones one-by-one to your T-shirt. This is a great option for hobbyists since you will be in full control. But it is also a very tedious and time-consuming option.

If you are aiming to run a small T-shirt business, using the hotfix rhinestones is a better choice. These stones contain a small layer of glue that will melt by applying heat. This means you can easily fix all the rhinestones for a single T-shirt in one go.

Making a Rhinestone Transfer for Shirts

If you are on a low budget you can opt to place the rhinestones on the T-shirt yourself and then heat press them. However, it will be difficult to keep all the stones in place and facing the right direction at the same time.

The easiest way to prepare your rhinestone design is by using your vinyl cutter and use a material such as sticky flock instead of vinyl. If you upgrade the free Silhouette

If you upgrade the free Silhouette Studio software to the paid Silhouette Studio Designer Edition you will unlock some extra features. One of these options is the rhinestone window.

To make one of these heat press rhinestone transfers, simply follow the same steps as described in the “How to Use Silhouette Studio to Design Custom T-Shirts?” section of this post.

Once you have a nice trace, go to the rhinestone window select the effect and rhinestone spacing of your choice. You can also improve your design by using the Single Click Tool and the Freehand Tool to add individual stones or a line of stones.

Before sending your design to the machine, make sure you select the right template material you are using, such as sticky flock.

Filling the Rhinestone Template

Once the machine is done cutting the material your custom rhinestone t-shirt is already half made.

Simply remove the backing paper from the sticky flock and remove all the holes that didn’t come off.

Then fill all the holes with the hotfix rhinestones of your choice. You can do this by manually filling each hole with a tweezer. But a much faster method is to flood the design with rhinestones and brush them. Most stones will naturally fall into place correctly. And only then use a tweezer to fill in the remaining holes.

Once all the rhinestones are in place, use a transfer mask to move your design onto the T-shirt. If some of the stones are missing you can use a tweezer to attach the missing stones to the transfer mask.

You can then use the transfer mask instead of your vinyl design to heat press a T-shirt as described in the “Step by Step Instructions on Using a Heat Press” section of this page.

Taking Care of Rhinestone Shirts

To make sure you get the best out of you new rhinestone T-shirts make sure to follow the following tips.

  • Do not wash the shirt within 24 hours of attaching the stones
  • Wash them by hand or use a very gentle laundry machine setting
  • Hang dry the shirts rather than tumble drying
  • If some rhinestones fall off, try to attach them again yourself using glue