Make customized t-shirts with your Mac

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Making a holiday gift by hand is often hit-and-miss; if you don’t have the skills to create a good-quality item, the person to whom you give the gift may not like or value it as much as you hoped. One thing you can rarely go wrong with, though, is a custom t-shirt design, and it’s now easier than ever to do so without resorting to tacky iron-on transfers. Services such as Zazzle, RedBubble, and Printfection (and many others) let you upload artwork, choose a design and color, and place an order for delivery by Christmas.

Designing your tee

Because this shirt is intended to be a gift, you’ll need to consider the the person who will be wearing it. My mother, for example, is unlikely to wear a shirt that showcases a collection of cool sci-fi weapons; and by that token, I’m equally unlikely to wear anything with kittens on it. You’ll also have to decide whether or not your artwork will be holiday-themed; if you choose to go with a holiday-inspired design, keep in mind that it might be worn only for a short time each year.

Regardless of the decoration you choose, good tee design always features clean lines and crisp contrast; ideally, people should be able to see and comprehend the shirt design from 20 feet away. Text should easy to read (unless you intend it as a background element) and characters, creatures, and objects should be easy to identify. You’ll also want to design with a specific shirt color in mind so that your final artwork really pops; for example, white text stands out on a deep green shirt whereas navy text would be lost.

Tees are a different medium than print, and so there are a number of technical considerations to keep in mind as you design your shirt.

1. Choose a service and a style of shirt before you jump into the design process. Once you know the target resolution of the artwork, you can create a document with those exact dimensions. In Photoshop CS5 choose File -> New and enter a name for your document. Enter the pixel width and height along with pixels-per-inch (ppi) resolution (if that has been specified) and then click OK. In Illustrator CS5, choose File -> New. Give the file a name, enter the width and height in pixels, and click OK.

Note that I'm demonstrating this technique using Photoshop CS5, but you can use earlier versions of Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, and other image editing or drawing programs that you may have, provided they are capable of creating an appropriate document for the printing service you choose.

2. Your final design should be masked; that is, the artwork should be fully opaque and the surrounding area transparent. However, it can be difficult to design on a transparent background, especially if you want to use white text. In that case, it’s best to create a solid color background layer that approximates the color of the final shirt; you can turn this layer off before you export the file.

3. Don't expect on-demand garment printing technologies to deliver the same color quality and sharpness you’re used to with your color photo printer. Color accuracy and color saturation vary among services, and the overall color of the print is typically tinted by the underlying shirt color. As a result, it’s a good idea to oversaturate colors in your design—even if they look a bit glaring on your screen—to compensate. You should also avoid using gradients and partial transparencies that cover large areas of your design; garment printers sometimes struggle to cope with these kinds of transitions and results can be unpredictable.

Start things off right: create a new file with the correct resolution so you don’t have to change it later on.

Choosing a service

There are a number of online services that can put your artwork on a tee, offering you a choice of colors and, in many cases, style of shirt. Here’s a look at three popular services, what they offer, and their artwork requirements.

Zazzle sells shirts in dozens of styles for men, women, kids, and babies in multiple colors (which vary by style). American Apparel and Bella shirt brands are available; pricing for no-brand, 100 percent cotton shirts begins at about $18. Artwork requirements vary depending on location, but all artwork is printed at 150 ppi. Zazzle recommends a resolution of 600-by-600 for pocket images; 1800-by-2100 for vertical images (typically the front of shirts), and 2100-by-1800 for horizontal images (typically the back of shirts). Zazzle’s shirt printing technology does not print white ink on light-colored shirts; instead, white areas are treated as transparent. White ink can be used on dark shirts, however.

Printfection offers traditional t-shirts, ringer t-shirts, and ribbed t-shirts for men, women, girls, and kids. Shirts are Gildan UltraCotten and are available in over 30 colors; pricing starts at about $15. Recommended artwork requirements are JPEG or PNG format. Front and back images can have a maximum resolution of 2700-by-3300 (at 200 ppi); pocket images should be 1000-by-1000 (at 200 ppi). Printfection’s shirt printing technology is similar to Zazzle’s: white is not printed on light-colored shirts; only on dark-colored shirts.

RedBubble, a service I've used at various points, lets you choose standard tees, girly tees, baby tees, v-necks, and hoodies in over 20 colors. Shirts are American Apparel brand, and pricing starts at $20. Artwork requirements are PNG format with a resolution of 2400-by-3200 (no ppi specified); front and back of shirts and hoodies. RedBubble’s shirt printing technology can use white ink on shirts of all colors.

RedBubble is one of many services that let you put your ideas—however geeky—on a tee.

If any of these three sites fail to meet your requirements, you can also consider CafePress, Spreadshirt (European), or T-Shirt Monster (Canadian). Remember, every service has its own nuances and artwork requirements will vary; to ensure there are no surprises, take some time to read the service’s tutorials and FAQs.

The quality of the product will vary from somewhat from service to service (and by shirt brand), but most of these t-shirt shops allow you to return the product and get cash back if you’re not completely satisfied. Of the services listed, I favor RedBubble. I’ve ordered many shirts from the company and the ink is very durable; in fact, I have a number of shirts that are well over a year old and scarcely show any signs of wear and tear. Additionally, RedBubble is one of the only services that offer white ink printing on all shirts, regardless of color. It’s also worth noting that all of these sites have marketplaces, letting you sell the tees you design to the general public. All you need to do is set the markup over a preset base price (i.e., 10 percent, 35 percent), and then get to work promoting your design in forums, on your blog, and on your Twitter feed. Most services pay monthly, as long as your accumulated profits reach a preset minimum; i.e., $25. (Who knows? T-shirt design could become a fun sideline for you!)

Preparing your artwork

All services require raster artwork, typically in JPEG or PNG; of these two formats, PNG is preferred because it can include transparency.

Artwork created in Photoshop is already in a raster format, but you’ll need to make a few cross-checks before you can export it as PNG. First, turn off the background color layer we referenced earlier; all areas around your artwork should be transparent. Now inspect the edges of the artwork to ensure there aren’t any unusual jagged edges, graphic artifacts, or partially transparent areas. Finally, choose File -> Save As, select PNG from the Format pop-up menu, and click Save.

Vector artwork will need to be converted to raster format before you can upload it. Open your artwork in Adobe Illustrator or the drawing program you're using and turn off any layers you do not want to appear in the final picture (including the background color layer). Although you can export PNG directly from Illustrator, the anti-aliasing is a bit rough; for smoother edges, you’ll want to open the Illustrator file with Photoshop and then save it as a PNG. Illustrator saves files in a PDF-compatible file by default, but if you’ve accidentally deselected that option, simply choose File -> Save As, click Save, and then make sure the option to Create PDF Compatible File is checked.

Make sure you choose Crop To: -> Bleed Box when you import your file into Photoshop from Illustrator; otherwise, it will be cropped improperly.

Now open the file with Photoshop; in a moment, you’ll see the Import PDF dialog box. Choose to Crop to: Bleed Box, set the resolution to 72 pixels per inch and click OK. Once your artwork loads, you can change the pixels-per-inch resolution to meet the service’s requirements. Choose Image -> Image Size. First, uncheck the option to Resample Image; then enter the correct pixel per inch resolution and click OK. As a last step, choose File -> Save, select PNG from the Format pop-up menu, and click Save.

Placing your order

With your artwork is finalized, it’s simply a matter of signing up for a service, uploading your artwork, and placing your order. At this time of year, however, you need to be aware of lead times for delivery of your tee. (You don’t want it arriving after the holidays!) Most sites will post the latest possible order dates for delivery by Christmas, but to be on the safe side, order at least one week ahead of the posted dates. These t-shirt shops cannot predict shipping delays caused by wintery weather, the sheer volume of holiday deliveries, or customs (if the package is crossing a border).

Once the post office delivers the final product, take a good look at it, and take pleasure in the fact that you’ve created a cool, unique present for about the same price as a dreadfully boring gift basket.

[Chris McVeigh is an author, illustrator, and toy photographer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.]

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