Using HTV with T-shirts

Heat transfer vinyl is a fun and easy way to personalize and add flair to a T-shirt using a Cricut, Silhouette, or other cutting machine. If you are new to HTV all the steps can seem intimidating, but this guide will take you through it step by step, so you are making custom shirts in no time.

Heat transfer vinyl is called a couple different names. You may see it as heat transfer vinyl (often shortened to HTV); some brands call it iron-on vinyl. HTV also comes in different finishes. From glossy to glitter to iridescent, all types of HTV will work great on a T-shirt as long as you apply and care for them correctly.

Selecting your shirt is easy. HTV is very versatile and will adhere to almost any T-shirt, athletic shirt, or even a baby’s garment. Simply pick out the size and color of shirt you would like to customize, and you are ready to go.

For really stretchy active-wear shirts, there are even HTVs like Cricut SportFlex and Siser EasyWeed Stretch that are made specifically for these stretchier materials. These HTVs are thinner and stretch with the fabric, making them perfect for activewear, which typically has more stretch in the fabric for movement.

HTV is also very versatile when it comes to picking a design. Just make sure the design is a cutting file, and not meant to be a drawing file. Beyond that it can have multiple colors and floating pieces. Just keep in mind that the more colors there are, the harder the design is to line up, so for beginners, stick to just one or two colors for your first project.

Our website, Craft Genesis, has tons of cutting files to choose from. There are sassy sayings, beautiful artwork, and even seasonal designs with which to personalize your shirts. All of these are original designs created by our own artists.

Once you’ve picked your design, you’ll want to size it to fit your shirt in your cutting software. How big you make it really depends on how big your shirt is and personal preference. Start by measuring the front of your shirt to see what width of design will work best. To make sure you’re not measuring too high or too low on your shirt, simply line the ruler up with where the bottom of the sleeves meets the sides of the shirt.

If your design is square (where the width and height are almost the same) below are some average size guidelines for your shirts. But these will change depending on the actual size of the shirt you are using, so always measure and reference your real shirt for best results.

-Infant: 3” x 3” to 4” x4”
-Toddler: 4” x 4” to 6” x6”
-Youth: 6” x 6” to 8” x8”
-Adult: 8” x 8” to 12” x12”

For designs that are not square (where the width and the height are very different measurements), think of still trying to fit the design in the square that would fit well on the shirt. For example, if your design is taller than it is wide, and a 7”x7” square would fit well on your shirt, max the height (which is the bigger measurement) to the 7”, and allow the width to be smaller. The same method can be used if the design is wider than it is tall, simply max the width to the 7” instead, and allow the height to be smaller.

Before cutting the, design you need to make sure to mirror (or flip) your design horizontally in the cutting software. This step is very important. HTV is cut on the mat with the back (adhesive) side facing up, so if you do not mirror it, the design will be backwards once you cut it out and flip it over.

Every cutting software should have mirror or flip as an option. If you are unsure of where to find this in your software, there are many resources on the internet that can show you how to mirror or flip the design in the software you are using.

HTV has a front and a back side. The back side is the adhesive side that will be activated by the heat of an iron or press (so it is not sticky at all). The front side is the pretty side of the vinyl that you will see once it’s done.

The front side covered by a clear plastic sheet. This plastic sheet does not get cut through while the design is cutting out, so once the design is cut out, it keeps all the vinyl pieces spaced properly. If you are having trouble telling which side is which, simply peel a little bit of the plastic and vinyl apart at a corner to see which side is vinyl and which side is the plastic sheet.

Smooth the sheet of HTV on the adhesive cutting mat with the front side (with the plastic sheet) down, and the adhesive back side facing up.

After smoothing the HTV onto your mat, you can rub or roll a tool across the back of the HTV. This makes the HTV stick to the mat better which will help prevent it from shifting while cutting. A Brayer tool is made especially for this, and work great. However if you do not have a brayer tool, you can also use something flat and hard that you can rub firmly on the back of the vinyl.

Here’s a quick tip that can keep you from wasting any HTV. If your design is smaller than the whole mat, you can cut out a piece of the HTV that is a little larger than the actual design instead of using the whole piece. To do this, simply look at how big your design is in your cutting software. Then simply cut out a rectangular piece of HTV that is 1" or so bigger than the design both height and width wise. Because you are only using this small piece, the rest of the roll or sheet can be saved for a later project. Just make sure to place it where the design is cutting on the mat.

Some machines can cut out HTV without an adhesive mat. If using a machine like that, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to load your HTV into the machine.

Different brands and types of HTV need to be cut out using different settings in your cutting software. For best results, use the cutting setting recommended by the brand that made the HTV you are using.

It can also be very helpful to cut small test cuts (such as a small square or circle) before cutting out your whole design. This way you can figure out what setting works best for the HTV you have without wasting a bunch of materials. The right setting will cut through the vinyl cleanly, and not cut though the clear plastic sheet at all. Once you’ve found the right setting, cut out your design.

If there are multiple colors to your design, simply repeat to smooth the different colors onto the mat, and cut out the other colors one at a time.

After your design is cut out it is time to weed the design. Weeding is where you peel off pieces of HTV from the clear plastic sheet that are not a part of the design. After removing the extra HTV from inside and around the design, only the design itself will be left on the clear plastic sheet.

Using small pointed tools or tweezers can make this process much easier. You can even hold the HTV up to a window or light box. The light shining through the cuts will help you find any small pieces that you might have missed that are not a part of the design.

To position your HTV design on the front of your shirt, first lay your shirt on your heat safe surface. Then take your HTV design while it’s still on the plastic, and lay it on the shirt so the front side is facing up like you’ll want it to look when it’s finished. If you have multiple HTV pieces, simply stack them and lay them out together on the shirt like you would want it to look when it’s done.

Then take a ruler and measure from the bottom edge of the collar downwards. Make sure to measure down the center of the shirt. Measuring the distance between the bottom edge of the collar and the top edge of the design is the easiest way to place a design in the right place on the front of a shirt. The measurements here are for a T-shirt with a standard collar. If the shirt has a V-neck or other lower collar, use your best judgement and place the design closer to the collar than stated below.

If your design is square in shape (where the height and width are the same) or if your design is taller than it is wide, you can use the measurements below to determine how far below the collar the design should sit.

-Infant: 1” below the collar
-Toddler: 1” - 2” below the collar
-Youth: 2” - 3” below the collar
-Adult: 3” - 4” below the collar

If your design is wider than it is tall, it will need to be placed lower beneath the collar of the shirt. A good way to figure this out is look at your design’s measurements, and write down how much wider the design is than tall. Then divide that amount in half, and add that half to the measurement above that goes with the size of shirt you’re using. For example, if our design was 8” wide and only 3” tall, the difference in height and width would be 5”. Then if we divide that in half, we would get 2.5”. Let’s say we are putting it on a small adult shirt, using the reference above, I would add the 2.5” to 3”, and place my design 5.5” below the collar.

To adhere the HTV you need two things, heat and pressure. Both a normal iron and a heat press work great to adhere your HTV onto your T-shirt. For both, make sure to use a pressing cloth between the heating tool and the HTV. The pressing cloth will prevent the HTV and plastic sheet from overheating and warping. The cloth also protects the heating tool, so nothing melts onto it. If using a normal iron, also make sure to turn the steam off before pressing HTV.

If making a lot of HTV projects, a heat press can be a nice tool to have. A press evenly heats to the same temperature across the whole heating plate, while an iron has warmer and cooler spots. Most presses are also really easy to set to the exact temperature you need, and show the temperature clearly at the top of the press. A large press can also be nice to simply heat and set over the whole design, so you won’t need to move it around. However, with an iron (or even a smaller press) you will have to move it around to get all the edges of the design.

Before pressing, it is important to look up the brand and type of HTV that you are using, so you can find the best temperature to set your heating tool to. HTV can need temperatures anywhere between 270 - 320 degrees Fahrenheit (135-160 degrees Celsius), so it really helps to know what temperature that specific HTV needs to adhere best. When looking up the temperature, companies usually also recommend how long to press it for. This is also helpful information to have.

To press your HTV design onto your shirt, position your design, lay your pressing cloth over the HTV and clear plastic sheet, and allow your iron to heat up to the desired temperature. Once it is fully heated, set your press over the design and let it sit for the recommended time (usually anywhere between 10-20 seconds). Then pick up the press and allow the HTV to cool slightly. If your iron or press is not big enough to cover the whole design, simply repeat to move the press around, so you can press each area of the HTV.

HTV usually needs to be pressed 2-5 times to adhere to the T-shirt. Allow the HTV to cool slightly, and lift one corner of the plastic sheet to see if the vinyl is separating from it. If not, repeat to press the design for a few seconds, allow it to cool, and check if it’s separating again. Repeat these steps until the vinyl is stays on the shirt and does not come up with the plastic layer.

If your clear plastic layer begins to warp, shrink or discolor, stop ironing as your HTV is probably adhered to the shirt, but is just stubbornly also stuck to the plastic sheet. In this case use a small tool to hold the vinyl against the shirt as you pull up a corner of the plastic sheet to see if you can get them to separate (It should not be hard to separate. If it is hard, the HTV needs more pressing time, and you are probably pressing for too long at a time which is causing the plastic sheet to warp). If this works, you can move to the next step. If it doesn’t, keep pressing and cooling, but in shorter bursts.

Once the vinyl is adhered to the T-shirt and has cooled a little, you can slowly pull the plastic sheet off. Watch closely, and if you see any of the vinyl trying to come off with the plastic sheet, lay the plastic sheet back down, and press the trouble area one more time. Then repeat to allow it to cool a little before slowly try to remove the liner again. Some vinyls also like to be a little warmer when taking the plastic off, so keep this in mind if it’s really not working.

If you’re dealing with a stubborn vinyl like mentioned in the last step, you can also use a small tool to hold the actual vinyl against the T-shirt as you pull the plastic sheet off. You should really only need to hold some edges down. If the whole design is trying to lift, it needs to be pressed more.

After the plastic sheet has been removed, lay the pressing cloth back over the HTV design, and press the design one last time with the pressing cloth on top. This allows the vinyl to really adhere into the fabric of the shirt.

If desired, you can also turn the shirt wrong side out, and press the design from the inside with no pressing cloth. This can be done instead of pressing it on top again. You do not need to do both.

If using a smooth vinyl, it is easy to see if your design is fully adhered to the fabric. If it is, you will be able to a slight imprint of the fabric’s weave pressed into the smooth vinyl. If your vinyl is not smooth, simply make sure it is not easy to lift any edges of the design.

If your design has multiple layers or color of HTV, repeat the previous steps to position them on the shirt and press them until they are adhered well. Make sure to pay attention to what layers go on top of what layers, so you can know what order you should press them in.

To make lining up multiple HTV colors as easy as possible, have an image of the finished design available for you to reference. This could be the design printed out, or even simply having a picture of it up on your computer or phone. This way you can look at the finished product closely, and make sure the layers touch and overlap where they are supposed to. This also helps you to see how far apart to place pieces that do not touch.

Multiple color designs can fit together in a variety of ways. Some sit side by side, some are made to overlap, and some (with large sections of color overlapping) have areas of color cut out, so the color below has no vinyl where the color on top goes, making them fit together more like a puzzle. Use your reference and your best judgement to press all the HTV layers into place.

Taking proper care of your HTV customized shirts is easy, and can help them last a very long time. Improper care (including too much heat) can cause the HTV to melt, crack or peel.

First, it is very important to let your HTV shirt sit for 24 hours before you wear or wash it. This allows the vinyl to set.

When washing, turn the shirt inside out, and wash it in cool or cold water. Use a mild detergent, and do not use bleach or fabric softener. Do not dry clean anything with HTV on it.

When drying, dry the shirt on low heat only. For best results, you can even air dry these projects to make them last even longer. If you need to iron the shirt, either iron it with a pressing cloth or iron it inside out to protect the HTV from the heat.

After completeing a project or two, we hope that you find the confidence you need to explore all the options that HTV has to offer. Not only can this medium be used on T-shirts as explained above, but it can also be used on totes, pillows, and other fabric crafts.

Take a peek through our slideshow (left) to see some of our favorite T-shirt projects using HTV. And discover our collection of T-shirt ready designs by clicking here.

Let your creativity run wild. HTV is a great place to start.


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