Decorating clothing at home has become one of the most popular textile crafts. New developments in technology have made it easier than ever to use simple household tools–your inkjet printer, an iron, a pair of scissors–to customize shirts, hats, and more with almost any color image or text. But you need more than just these basic pieces of equipment to get the job done properly. You’ll also need the right kind of heat transfer paper.
What is Heat Transfer Paper?
Transfer paper is a specialized medium used to quickly and easily print custom images or text onto textiles such as jackets, shirts, or sweatshirts. This process is used in both industrial or large-scale garment decoration applications as well as by hobbyists and others working on personalized custom projects.
Made of a thin piece of paper coated with a special kind of polymer, transfer paper is flexible enough to use in an inkjet printer and strong enough for application in high-heat settings. Images or text are printed onto the paper with a standard inkjet printer and then transferred onto the fabric using an iron or heat press.
Choosing the right kind of quality transfer paper is essential for ensuring that the image fully adheres to the fabric you’ve chosen and that the image appears on the fabric exactly as you want it to. One of the most fundamental choices in selecting transfer paper for your project is to decide whether you should use light or dark paper. This choice is based on the combination of the color of the fabric and the color of the image.
Why the Need for Two Different Types of Transfer Paper
In order for ink to be visible and accurately show the precise colors desired, it must be applied to a white background. On darker backgrounds, ink will be difficult to see, and it will be completely imperceptible on backgrounds that match its color. Put briefly, if the image being printed is darker than the surface of the fabric onto which it is being transferred, you should use light fabric transfer paper. If the image being printed is lighter than the surface of the fabric onto which it is being transferred, you should use dark fabric transfer paper.
Transfer paper for lighter fabrics is extremely thin and the white of the paper transfers to the fabric as a transparent layer that is almost imperceptible on the light fabric. Dark fabric transfer paper is thicker and more opaque in order to prevent the color of the fabric from showing through the image. The transfer paper used for lighter fabrics is thin enough to result in a texture that feels like a screen print; the transfer paper used for darker fabrics, however, is thicker and can feel a bit like a sticker on the fabric.
Light Transfer Paper
If you are trying to transfer an image to a white fabric, you must use transfer paper designed for lighter surfaces to ensure that it appears fully and crisply. Light transfer paper should also be used for lighter fabric that is not fully white, such as pink, yellow, or lighter tones, as well as beige or light grey.
When using light paper, the image is printed in reverse onto the paper. The transfer paper is then placed with the image facing down onto the fabric and the backing of the paper facing away from the fabric, toward the heat source. After the heat is applied and the paper cools, the sheet is removed the image has transferred on to the fabric. This is sometimes referred to as “hot peel” transfer.
Dark Transfer Paper
On fabrics or surfaces that are dark—such as brighter colors, saturated colors, black, and dark grey—it is important to use dark transfer paper. This is because inkjet printers do not print in white and so the image needs the white background of the dark transfer paper to be visible. The white background is transferred to the fabric as an opaque sheet in order to reveal the image. If you attempt to use light transfer paper to fix an image onto a darker fabric, when the white background of the paper is peeled away from the image, you will not be able to see the ink of the image very well or at all.
When using dark paper, the image is printed onto the paper facing the right way. The backing paper is peeled off and the image is placed on the fabric facing up. A protective sheet made of silicone or Teflon is lain over the image and it is pressed onto the fabric by the heated element. After the protective sheet and fabric has cooled, the sheet is removed. This is sometimes referred to as “cold peel” transfer.
It is important to trim and remove all of the white areas on the paper that you do not want visible, including between spaces within the image and around the edges of the image. Because of this need to trim the white on the paper, when you transfer an image to a darker fabric, it is easiest to use a design that is squared off or has mostly straight edges. Try to avoid transferring images that are complex and intricate, or that have lots of letters that must be cut out.
For both of these reasons—the placement of the image and the trimming of extra white from the backing paper—the dark paper transfer process can be more time consuming and require more attention to finer details in order to come out right.
It is possible to transfer an image onto a dark fabric using light paper, but because ink and the paper are somewhat transparent, some of the image will likely appear in the color of the underlying fabric or will result in a blending of the colors. One solution is to design your image with a solid background, particularly one that matches the color of the fabric onto which it is being transferred.
Purchasing Transfer Paper
There are a number of manufacturers of transfer paper who sell it at retail or wholesale. Be sure that the transfer paper you purchase is of good quality: an inferior product can result in damage to the fabric or to your equipment, such as the inkjet printer or the heating supply, or in the image failing to adhere or remain adhered to the fabric. And make sure that you are purchasing the light tshirt transfer paper or dark tshirt transfer paper that is the right match for your specific project.
One particularly high quality style of transfer paper is made and sold by Royal Elements, a company that specializes in all sort of vinyl products for use in craft and decoration applications. The printable transfer paper manufactured by Royal Elements is made of vinyl, which means that it is particularly durable, allowing it to stand up to multiple washer and dryer cycles without coming apart or fading, and allowing it to be printed onto stretchable fabrics. It can be used on flat surfaces, like t-shirts, or on shaped surfaces, like baseball caps, and is safe for all heat resistant textiles, including cotton, polyester, and blended fabrics. It absorbs inks evenly and cleanly, providing crisp image quality that will not bleed, and is ideal for all standard heat press applications (350-degrees Fahrenheit). The process of transferring with vinyl is particularly safe and quick, taking only about 10 to 15 seconds. The sheets are sold in protective cardboard sleeves of 10 – 8.5″ by 11″ transfer sheets and two Teflon protective sheets per package and come with full instructions for use. Royal Elements sells both light paper and dark paper.