I have the most amazing nephew in the world and he turns three in April. Gifting for him is always fun because I get to figure out creative and clever presents that will keep him engaged. He’s rather particular about his appearance, so I thought this year I’d give him a bit of an activity-gift that he can add to his wardrobe.
During my early pre-Christmas online shopping, I came across this cool “design your own monster” shirt kit. It’s such a fantastic idea, and I love the execution of it. There was just two things keeping me from snatching this up for my little buddy: 1) he’s growing so fast that I worried he would outgrow the $40 t-shirt before he could really enjoy it, and 2) my sister was pretty sure he would be afraid of the monster on the shirt.
So I resolved to make him a set of “design your own robot” and “design your own dinosaur” t-shirts that would be less expensive and give him more options. And, most importantly, they would be way less scary!
As I do with most DIY projects, I started by ordering materials and made things up a bit along the way.
Since cost was a driving force here, I decided to go with blank white t-shirts and then dye them naturally. My sister and brother-in-law have bought several tie-dye shirts for my nephew, so I thought even a patchy dye job would look cool on the finished product.
I also decided to hand-draw the base creatures using a fabric marker and then give him a full set of iron-on accessories. He can mix and match what eyes, mouth, hats, and other silly things go on each shirt. The key here was making everything scaled right for maximum creative flexibility.
Once again, Amazon was my dear friend on this project. I ended up getting everything except the natural dye ingredients with Prime shipping. Time = saved!
- Pack of five 100% cotton t-shirts – $6
- Fabric marker – $6
- Iron-on t-shirt transfer printer paper – $8
- Tumeric, beets, coffee grounds, carrots, gentian violet, and vinegar (all on hand) – free!
Total cost for materials: $20
Natural Dye, Dye, My Darling!
I was perhaps most excited about the process of making and using natural fabric dye. It’s just the right amount of fun risk and unexpected reward. Plus you are kind of making a mess on purpose — what’s not to love?! I decided to dye four out of five shirts and use the lightest/best three for the final product(s).
Having done a small amount of research on natural dyeing, I assembled the ingredients I had on hand and jumped in. I washed and dried all the shirts before I started, just in case they had any residue or treatment on them that would make the cotton less absorptive. Then I made a salt and vinegar fixative solution (about 4 cups water, 1 cup vinegar, and 1/4 cup salt) and let the shirts sit in it at a low boil for about 2 hours.
Next, I made my four dyes: coffee, beet, turmeric carrot, and gentian violet. Coffee dye was just made with coffee grounds (about a cup of grounds to a cup of water). The turmeric carrot was made by boiling equal parts carrot shreds and water in a pot for about 30 minutes, then adding a tablespoon of turmeric and boiling for another 30 minutes. I made the beet dye by smashing 3 small beets and boiling them with a cup of water. And for the gentian violet, I just poured a teaspoon of the stuff into about 2 cups of water on the stove.
I submerged all the shirts into their respective dyes and let them sit for about an hour. I mixed the bowls every few minutes to ensure even-ish color distribution. After an hour, I pulled the shirts out and started rinsing them. My strategy here was two-fold: I wanted to see how deep the color was after an hour, and I wanted to get out as much dye as I could before they went in the wash (so as not to destroy my washing machine.) The results were varied and distinct.
Most notably, the coffee and beet shirts washed out to almost white. The turmeric carrot shirt emerged a bright and pungent yellow. The gentian violet shirt looked pale purple but definitely held color. Although I can’t explain exactly why, my next move was to shock the rinsed shirts in a bowl of Oxyclean.
The turmeric carrot shirt transformed the second it hit the Oxyclean! I could barely believe my eyes! The color mutated from an intense yellow to a muted, rusty orange. A gorgeous tone, no doubt, and better overall, but I have no idea what caused the change. Curious, I dipped part of the gentian violet shirt into the mix as well. Surprisingly, this time, the Oxyclean had a tie-dye effect on the shirt, leaving behind a greeny bluey purple marble on the fabric.
I love the results and used the coffee, turmeric carrot, and gentian violet shirts for the “design your own” project. But I had no idea what to expect when going into my first foray with natural fabric dye, and I am pleasantly surprised at the experiment!
How do you draw a chill dinosaur?
Turns out that getting materials is the easy part. Now I had to actually draw! I surfed Creative Market for inspiration and finally settled on some references for the robot and dinosaur. I still had one shirt left and decided to give into my impulse to make it kind of adorable. Enter the lion! (Who I apparently only captured on SnapChat because I’m an idiot???)
I measured the rough area where each of their head/faces would be so that their eyes, mouths, hats, etc. could be at a consistent scale. Each face is 4″ wide and about 3.5″ tall. Using the fabric marker on the shirts was a bit of a trial. Fortunately, I wanted my creatures to look hand-drawn and sketched out, so the slight bleeding of the marker worked in my favor. I found that stretching the t-shirts over collapsed cardboard boxes helped keep the fabric tight and made it easier to maintain a clean, smooth line with the marker.
It was important that all these dudes had hands so they could hold various accessories. I also wanted to make sure there was enough space at the top so that they could wear hats.
Building a “Design Your Own” Wardrobe
I relied on Noun Project for the critical accessories that would bring these guys to life. A few quick searches allowed me to quickly populate an assortment of hats, eyes, mouths, and toys for my nephew to mix and match. After assembling a test run of the images, sized based on the dimensions of my drawing, I printed them out and trimmed them to assess fit.
I’m really glad I did this test run on normal paper, as it turned out that several items were wrong-sized. Hats were too tall, mouths were too big, and some items (the vest!) just didn’t work. So I made notes, tweaked sizes, and ended up with just three pages of print-outs.
Another hurdle! Printable iron-on transfers only work in inkjet printers (they melt in laser printers) which are almost impossible to find today. Work printer? Nope. FedEx Office printer? Nope. Parents’ printer? NOPE! It was a few days before Christmas and I was getting worried. Thankfully, my wonderful sister offered to pick up my order of iron on transfers in Houston and use her inkjet to print the accessories out. On Christmas morning I trimmed everything out and had the present under the tree!
Meet Your New Friends!
Upon opening his present, my nephew quickly understood how he could to design his own shirt and he beamed. He loved the robot, the dinosaur, and the lion, and we had a blast figuring out what they should wear. Once he had laid out the designs, it was a quick task to press them in with the iron and then they were ready for wearing.
I’m really pleased with how these turned out and, most importantly, the little guy had fun bringing his Christmas gift to life.