This tutorial will teach you how to create your own ‘screen printed’ items using ordinary freezer paper. This tutorial is written for adults, but may be done with children under close adult supervision.
Since the birth of my son I have sought alternative, environmentally friendly, less toxic, processes for a lot of the art techniques that I practice and teach. I recently discovered freezer paper. That’s right, the very stuff you buy in the supermarket to wrap your food in. With a little experimentation I was able to find a comparable method to silk screen printing for the creation of custom printed t-shirts.
I regularly use this process for creating matching tops for the longies that I knit. I have even taught my high school students how to use this method. They have found this exciting since they can do it at home, without the nasty chemicals and expensive supplies used in the traditional printing process.
While I currently hand-cut all of my freezer paper stencils, I have discovered that I can use a Cricut Expression Personal Electronic Cutter to cut stencils. I recently acquired one of these machines, and I can't wait to experiment with it.
It should be mentioned that one disadvantage to this method is the fact that the stencils that you create are one-time-use only. In other words, once you print with it, the stencil is garbage. With traditional silk screen printing you can reuse the screen multiple times. So if you aren't mass producing shirts, this shouldn't be a problem.
plastic coated freezer paper*
cutting mat or table surface protection
t-shirt printing ink, fabric ink, or acrylic paint
foam or stiff bristle brush
a design or image to work with
t-shirt or (other item) to print onto
*It is important that you have real freezer paper to work with. Wax paper and freezer paper are NOT the same. If your product is waxy on BOTH sides, you’ve got the wrong item.
1-2 hours are needed to complete this project.
The materials that you will need.
First, you will need to collect all of the materials. Freezer paper can be purchased at most supermarkets. One roll will go a long way and enable you to create a lot of printed items. T-shirt printing ink, fabric paint or acrylic paint can be found at craft supply stores, along with paintbrushes, X-acto knives, and cutting mats. A household iron is also used (although I prefer to use one that is strictly dedicated to craft projects). For this tutorial I used brown, yellow and white Speedball Fabric Ink and an 18 month 100% cotton Cherokee t-shirt.
Next, you will want to find an image or design to work with.You may choose to trace an existing image, or draw your own design. When you are starting out, it helps to choose images that have bold lines and chunky shapes. As you become more skilled, you can choose more sophisticated and detailed images.
Once you have decided on the image you want to use, you will need to transfer it onto the freezer paper. Cut a piece of freezer paper that is large enough to cover the entire area of the t-shirt you are printing. Since the freezer paper acts as a stencil that masks the ink from the shirt, a larger piece will help to protect it from unwanted ink smears.
If you are drawing your image, you can do this directly onto the freezer paper. Make sure that you transfer your image onto the DULL side of the paper. If you are tracing an image, you will again, do this on the dull side. The freezer paper is translucent enough to trace images placed directly underneath it. If you are having trouble seeing the image through the paper, you can use a window as a light table. For this tutorial I chose to draw the oak leaves and acorn directly onto the freezer paper.
The oak leaves and acorn design drawn onto the dull side of the freezer paper.
Now you will begin cutting out your ‘stencil’. Place your freezer paper onto some type of table surface protection. I use a self-healing cutting mat specifically designed for use with craft knives to protect my table surfaces. If you do not own a cutting mat you can use a sheet of thick cardboard or an old (smooth) cutting board. Carefully cut out your image. Make sure you are using a sharp blade to do this. This way your cuts will be crisp, and the pieces of your stencil will come apart easily. You will be cutting out all parts of the design that you want to be printed on the t-shirt. Make sure that you save ALL of the pieces that you cut out, as they will be needed when you attach the stencil to the t-shirt. In my design I am cutting away all of the black lines, but I do not want to discard the white center pieces of the leaves and acorn.
Cutting out the design with an X-Acto knife.
Save ALL of the pieces that you cut out and remove. You will need them later.
The design completely cut out. Notice that I saved ALL of the pieces, including the ‘background’ where the design had been drawn.
After you’ve cut out all parts of the design you will get ready to assemble the pieces onto your t-shirt.
Iron the t-shirt that you will using. This will allow all of the stencil pieces to lay flat on the surface of the shirt, and will help them to stick properly.
Iron your t-shirt before assembling your stencil pieces on the shirt.
Now you will assemble all of the stencil pieces onto the t-shirt and start to iron them into place. When doing this you must place the freezer paper’s SHINY side so that it is touching the shirt fabric. This way when you iron the freezer paper, the wax will melt and adhere to the shirt, creating a secure bond. If you try to iron the freezer paper with the shiny side up, it will stick to the iron and you will have to start over (and probably buy a new iron).
Set your iron to medium/high heat setting without steam. When ironing on the freezer paper pieces, use brisk strokes and make sure to iron down all edges. Don’t leave the iron on the freezer paper too long or you may scorch it. First, iron the ‘background’ onto the shirt. This will help you to place all of the other pieces back into the design.
Iron on the background piece first.
Now start placing all of the other pieces back into the design. You will be placing the white pieces onto the shirt. The white pieces act as a mask and prevent the ink from touching the surface of the shirt. Everything that you drew is left off, since that is where you want the ink to print. (Refer to the pictures on the following page for assistance.)
After all of your pieces have been ironed onto the t-shirt you can start painting the stencil.
Start adding in the other parts of the design. Each time you place a piece, run the iron over it to attach it to the shirt. If you want to reposition a piece after it has been ironed on, carefully peel it from the t-shirt and re-iron it into position.
When you have finished ironing on all of the freezer paper pieces double check that the edges of each piece is securely attached. If any of the edges lift, iron them again. If they are not adhered properly ink may get underneath the stencil.
Place a sheet of scrap paper inside your shirt to prevent ink from bleeding through the shirt onto the backside.
A sheet of scrap paper placed inside the shirt will prevent headaches later on.
With your brush, apply a small amount of ink to your stencil. The technique that you will be using to paint on the stencil is called ‘dry brush’. This simply means that you will be adding a light coat of ink to the stencil at first. If you glob on the ink it could ruin your design and prevent the stencil from giving your clearly defined edges. If you find that the initial coat of ink is too light or transparent, you can add a second coat after the first is dry. Make sure that you are getting the ink onto all parts of the exposed fabric of your stencil design. I use perpendicular motions (up and down, side to side) to get the ink completely into the weave of the shirt and ensure solid coverage.
Start applying the ink in small quantities.
Evenly coat the entire stencil. Apply a second coat if necessary.
Allow the ink to dry completely. This could take up to an hour or more depending on the type of ink that you used, and how thick it was applied.
Once the ink is completely dry you can start to peel off the stencil. I usually remove the background sheet first, then all of the smaller inside pieces. If the smaller pieces are stuck to the fabric you can use the tip of your X-Acto knife to help peel them up.
Allow the stencil to completely dry before removing the stencil pieces from the shirt.
The finished shirt.
Read the instructions on the container of your ink. Some fabric and screen printing inks require that you iron the design after you print it before laundering, others do not.
For this project I used Speedball Fabric Screen Printing Inks in brown, yellow and beige. This ink does not require that you iron the garment after printing.
That's it! Pair your shirt with your favorite longies and you've got a perfectly matched outfit. When laundering your shirt I recommend turning it inside out and using cold water to preserve the design. Of course, it's best to follow the ink manufacturer's instructions for proper care.
Download the PDF of this tutorial here.