Monday, June 6, 2016

DIY Presidential T-Shirts

A couple months ago I mentioned that my cousin and I are going to start playing Hooverball this summer. It goes without saying that no amateur Hooverball scrimmage is complete without thematic t-shirts, so I got to work.

In less than an hour, I had made two matching-ish shirts for us using freezer paper stencils. This is a really easy way to make t-shirts for all your presidential sporting events or other special occasions. When you iron on the paper, it forms a seal with the shirt, allowing you to paint away. When you're done, it easily peels off. It's really very cool.

Here's what you need:

  • A t-shirt (duh) or some other fabric item, preferably cotton or at least something that can be ironed
  • Freezer paper. You can find this in the foil aisle of your grocery store. (Make sure it's freezer paper! Not parchment paper, not wax paper.)
  • Fabric paint. (I used Tulip Soft Fabric Paint. Don't use puff paint unless you're going for a George Bush shirt and want it to look authentically like something from the early '90s.)
  • An applicator for each color---preferably sponge brushes. I used the Tulip Sponge "Pouncers." 
  • A Sharpie and/or pen
  • An X-acto knife
  • An iron
  • Some kind of image to copy, which might require a computer and printer
Let's talk about choosing an image. Simpler is better with this method. An easy way to find a good image is to Google your subject and add the terms "silhouette," "line drawing," or "clip art." Those will likely bring up some more basic options that are good for stenciling.

While googling, I found a neat posterized Herbert Hoover image that would be perfect for stenciling. Since I knew I was going to write a post about it, though, I didn't want to use that particular image since it's probably copyrighted. Instead, I decided to use the same public domain image and posterize it myself.

So I took this photo:


Cropped it, plugged it into my PhotoStudio app, selected the "posterize" effect, and got exactly the image I wanted:


Okay, not exactly the image I wanted, since this one has devil horns and a big splotch on his neck, but no big deal: I didn't trace them, so they didn't end up in the final product. I also decided to go with a round border so it looks like a ball. A ball of Hoover. A Hooverball...

Anyway, once you have the image you want, you can paste it into your word processing program of choice, resize it to the size you want, then print it out. Then it's time to trace the image onto freezer paper.

First, a Very Important Thing: There are two sides to freezer paper: a shiny side and a matte side. You want the shiny side down (this will eventually adhere to your shirt) and the matte side up. Make sure you're tracing onto the matte side. You can use a regular pen for this. (For some reason I used a Sharpie, and in retrospect I should have used a thinner one. X-acto knife blades are very thin and my lines were thick, so I kept finding myself wondering whether I should cut on the inside or outside of the line. Don't complicate things for yourself.)

The tracing step is probably a lot easier with a light box, but I don't have one. If you're having trouble making out the lines of your printed image through your freezer paper, you might want make the lines bolder by going over them with a Sharpie before you trace it onto the freezer paper. That often adds enough boldness and contract to be able to see the lines easily. I've also read about people tracing directly from their computer screen. That idea makes me nervous, but it's sort of brilliant.

When you're done tracing, your stencil might look weird, and you might be questioning your decision to do this, but stick with it.


Once the image is traced, it's time to cut. Here is another Very Important Thing: Don't throw away any of your cut pieces until you're sure you won't need them! Anything you iron down will be the same color as your fabric. Any "holes" will be the color of your paint. Make sure to add/keep a border if you need one so your paint has a clean edge. If your image has any "islands" that need to be cut out, make sure you keep the right part (the island or the border) so you can iron them on later. Also, even if there's a part you won't need, it can help to hang onto it for aid in positioning things later on.

The cutting stage is where the "simplicity" of an image really comes in handy. Complex images can be done, but you'll spend a lot of time cutting. (I made some shirts once with scenes from Steamboat Willie, and I think each one took half an hour---and a hand cramp--to cut out. Hoover took a couple minutes.)


All right, now it's time to iron! Make sure you've washed and dried your shirt first to ensure it won't shrink later. You'll also want to iron out any wrinkles so you have a nice smooth surface to work with.

Take your stencil and position it how you want. Then go ahead and iron it on! Use the high setting and press down for about 10 seconds. Be sure the edges are well sealed! If you have more than one piece to iron, you can do them one at a time if you need to.

Now it's time to paint! (Another Very Important Thing: Put something between the layers of your shirt to keep the paint from seeping through. Cardboard will give you a nice firm surface underneath. I couldn't find cardboard so I just used another piece of freezer paper.) I squirted my paint onto a paper plate, then used my sponge brush to dab away. Just get the paint on there, and don't be afraid to get it on the freezer paper--it won't bleed through.

After a few minutes if it looks like you need another layer of paint, go ahead and add it.

At this point it might look even weirder and you might be sure this was a bad idea, but it's not. I've made several freezer-paper shirts and haven't had a dud yet. I'll admit I did start to worry when this image of Hoover made him look like a demon who has come back to haunt the earth (note to self: write screenplay), but I still had faith that it would work.


Once you've painted it's time to wait...but not too long. All the other freezer paper tutorials I've read say to let the paint dry (usually several hours) before peeling off the paper. The problem with this is that if the paint dries onto the shirt and the paper, peeling the paper off is likely to take out chunks of the shirt-paint, too. Since I don't want the paint to come off my shirt, and because I like living on the edge, I peel the paper off while the paint is still wet. I know. But trust me. (It helps if you can have someone else hold the shirt down while you peel off the freezer paper. Also, the X-Acto knife or some tweezers can help gently lift up edges or peel off tiny parts.)


After that, you really do need to wait for the paint to dry before you do anything else. Go away for a few hours or overnight. Once the paint is dry, you can put a clean cloth over it and iron it to "heat set" the paint. (I don't really know how necessary this step is, but other people say to do it, so I do.)

And there you have it!


The one Hoover looks a little more Hoover-y than the other, probably because for one shirt I traced my image onto the paper, and for the other I traced the tracing rather than the image itself. It might also have to do with inconsistent cutting along my thick Sharpie lines. But whatever. I'm happy with them.

Like I said, you can use this method for more than just presidents. Here are some shirts I've made for an upcoming trip to Disney World:




(That Lion King shirt is one of my favorite things I've ever made. I got the idea from here.)

And here are the Steamboat Willie ones I mentioned:


If you're feeling really ambitious, you could do, like, a scene from JFK's inauguration or Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill. Make sure you share if you do.

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