Creating t-shirt designs are fun and can even be profitable. There is no need to invest in expensive commercial software packages if you use freeware or free open source packages that rival their capabilities instead. Import and refine your own images from a scanner or digital camera, create them in the software you choose, or find clip art and photos online that are free to use.
Select Software and Find Images
Select, download and install the image and graphics programs you will use for your t-shirt design. The Draw program in Open Office (openoffice.org), Inkscape (inkscape.org), Scribus (scribus.net), Gimp (gimp.org), Gimpshop (gimpshop.com), and Paint.net (getpaint.net) are all either freeware or free open source programs you can use without charge. They have different capabilities and functionality, but all are excellent programs and most work with different operating systems.
Decide on how you will produce your t-shirt designs. Direct to Garment (DTG) printing is relatively new technology similar to inkjet printing, but using colorfast fabric dyes that can produce shirts with complex designs in full process color without screens or setup charges and no minimum quantities. Silkscreen printing is still an excellent choice for larger production runs and is inexpensive for one or two colors of simple line art and typography designs. You can also make heat transfers with your personal inkjet printer.
Create, scan, import camera images, or download free clip art or photos and fonts you want to use for your design and edit them with image editing software as needed. Make sure your images and fonts are of good quality, have crisp colors and adequate contrast, are sharp enough to stand up to being enlarged, and can be output as part of the finished design at a resolution of at least 200dpi for DTG printing and 150dpi for screen printing. Use higher resolution images if you have them and the vendor will drop them to what is needed for production.
Cite the source of images not your own to make sure there are no copyright issues or royalty payment expectations and that you are allowed to use them. Try processing files you find through something like Tin Eye (tineye.com), a free online resource to trace your internet image finds to their origins
Set-Up the Software and Create the T-Shirt Design
Set the parameters for the maximum size area you can print in your software like you would if you were setting up a page layout. DTG and screen printer vendor sites will have this information along with file types and sizes accepted, image resolution recommended and other information in their art specification sections. Heat transfers you make yourself will be 8.5 x 11 inches.
Use the software of your choice to layout all the images, text, shapes and other elements you want into your finished t-shirt design. If designing for a silkscreen press, you will want to separate each color into a different layer. This is easy with any of the software packages mentioned. For DTG production, you will usually distill all the layers into one single file. Some heat transfer sheets require that you flip the image entire layout.
Name and save the file in the default format the software uses, but leave it open on your screen.
Export the file to one of the formats accepted by your t-shirt vendor making sure it does not exceed the maximum file size allowed. Send it off and have the t-shirt produced. If you are making your own from heat transfers, print out the transfers and follow directions for affixing them to your t-shirt.
Many DTG sites encourage you to post your original designs. The companies produce them on demand when others order them and mail you royalty checks on a regular basis.
Using intellectual property without permission is stealing and subject to prosecution and hefty fines. Just because images are posted on the internet does not mean they are free to use. If you cannot source images or if you cannot tell for sure if you have the rights to use them, choose others you know about for sure.
Even "free" clip art may have restrictions prohibiting its use for commercial purposes like selling t-shirts.