how to apply a vintage transfer

April 29, 2015 in the 101 by stacey


Create your very own custom vintage t-shirt the cheap and easy way.

I’ve mentioned before how much I love a good vintage t-shirt. I’m especially fond of 70s-80s concert tees and silly iron-on decals. But in 2015, those cool finds have become difficult to come by. And the ones you do come across are either pricey or the graphics are so faded and cracked, it’s really not worth the money.

One way that I’ve been able to enhance my t-shirt collection while not breaking the piggy bank is by buying vintage transfers and applying them to shirts myself. They’re surprisingly easy to find on eBay and usually fairly cheap — I’ve never spent more than $15 on one. And there are literally thousands to choose from. I’ve gotten some sweet deals on everything from Rolling Stones and Beatles to a sparkly roller disco-flavored ‘I Love NY’.

Working with a hot iron and a one-off piece of vintage memorabilia may seem daunting because if you make a big mistake, you’re done for. But trust me — even though most of these iron-ons are 30-40 years old, they still transfer flawlessly. You just need to work slowly and patiently.


ironing board (or large flat surface)
clear tape


1. If the shirt is new, wash and dry it according to the care label. New shirts have a finish on them that could prevent proper application of the transfer.

2. Iron or steam the shirt. A smooth surface is crucial since you don’t want any creases or wrinkles beneath the decal.

3. Measure about 2-3 inches down from the neckline and make a small pencil mark right in the center of the shirt. Don’t worry about the mark, it’ll be covered with the decal. Also place a pencil mark on the back of the iron-on paper. The mark should be exactly in the center along the top edge.


4. Switch on the iron and turn the dial to the highest heat setting (but turn off the steam). Allow the iron to completely heat up, which will take about 8 minutes.

5. Drape the shirt over an ironing board and place the transfer face down. Alternatively, you can do this on a large table if the decal is wider than the ironing board, which was the case with mine. Just be sure to protect the surface with a few pieces of poster board placed on top of a towel (the heat from the iron can cause a little sweaty situation on the table if you aren’t careful.)


6. Line up the pencil mark on the transfer with the mark on the t-shirt. Make sure the transfer is perfectly straight and centered and tape the corners down to hold in place.

7. With the iron all heated up, press firmly on the transfer paper, moving the iron back and forth for a good 20 seconds. Lift the iron up.

8. Reposition the iron onto another part of the transfer and repeat this process. Lift the iron and up and repeat until the entire has been pressed.


9. Let the shirt cool off for 3-5 minutes. You cannot peel the paper off until the shirt is completely cold.

10. Here comes the fun part! From one corner, gently peel the paper back up and away the shirt. The decal will be stuck to the shirt and slowly reveal itself (it’s like opening up a present!). If you see that the paper is lifting the design with it, STOP! This means the decal isn’t totally adhered to the shirt. To fix, simply put the paper back down and re-press.



I’m really picky about what kind of shirt I use. I really want the end product to have a vintage look and feel which to me, means 100% cotton, a straight slim fit, and no lycra or stretch. Baseball, ringer, and muscle styles are all boss looks. The shirt I used here is a regulation baseball style from Sport Tek, which I love for the authentic curved hem.

To clean your finished shirt, hand-wash in the sink with a gentle cleanser (like Woolite) is the best way to go to keep the transfer in the tip-top condition. However, sometimes hand-washing just doesn’t get it clean enough. When that happens, I toss it into the washing machine. I just use the delicate setting, cold water, and Woolite, turn the shirt inside/ out, and place it into a mesh zipper bag. As for drying, always (ALWAYS!) air dry. The heat from the dryer will kill all of your hard work and create cracks and peels in the design.