I’ve finally worked out a rudimentary method to make t-shirts from photos using stencils and fabric spray paint. Here’s a t-shirt I made for the fan club of professional cyclist Tayler Wiles.
I started with this image:
I then had to convert the image into some sort of high contrast .svg format. There are several ways to do this but I’ve had good luck with a shortcut at this website: https://picsvg.com/ . It works best with clear images with high contrast and not a lot of clutter. I pulled the resulting .svg file into Illustrator and had to learn a few tricks to make it work as a stencil. I had to “create outlines” then I chose to “simplify” the image, which smoothed the lines a bit.
Then came the critical step of making the image stencil-friendly by removing or bridging any holes or islands that would fall out of a cut (like the middle of the letter “o”). First I cut the simplified .svg on cardstock to find out where the holes were. Then I built bridges using the eraser tool in Illustrator. This trick, and the related trick of making small rectangular shapes as bridges and then using the “shape merge” tool, were the critical step in making the image stencil-friendly.
I cut the stencil into draftboard and coated the stencil a couple of times with clear sealant to keep it from deteriorating when wet. I made a backing board the same size as my stencil and a masking board (cardboard with a big hole in it) to keep paint from spraying all over the t-shirt. I got a few different types of fabric spray paint to try. So far I’ve found best results with Marabu Fashion Spray but it’s critical to heat-set it with an iron after two hours or it’ll wash out. I found that it’s important to work fast to prevent blotching and to make sure the stencil sits flush against the fabric and the backing board for a sharp image. The t-shirts have to be 100% cotton. Here’s a photo of my crude setup:
The results have been pretty good. I’m not sure how well this fabric paint will hold up with washing but this technique is pretty quick and easy once you have the stencil cut out so it’s easy to make more.