July 4th T-Shirt Making Tradition

I’ve come to realize over the past several years that my favorite holiday is the 4th of July. Not only is it a chance to honor our great U. S. of A., but it’s a holiday filled with summertime activities, friends and fun.

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July 4, 2011 with Kristi and Mary’s kids

For many years now, our family’s July 4th tradition has been to spend the day with either or both of my best friends, Mary and Kristi. In recent years Mary has come up to visit over the 4th with her two younger kids (her now-teenager has stayed home for the past few years since our group is definitely overflowing with girl power, lol!). We’ve gone through various iterations of where and how we watch fireworks and what else the holiday involves, but we’ve almost always included some kind of July 4th related craft for the kids to do. We started off with smaller items like hats or tote bags, but then two years ago we decided to try making our own festive t-shirts instead of buying matching or coordinating ones – and we started a tradition that’s still going strong. :)

July 4, 2008 with Mary’s kids

There really are only so many ways you can decorate t-shirts with kids (at least easily). For one thing, you can either start with colored shirts and remove portions of color – or you start with white shirts and add color. Being constrained by only using red, white and blue is an interesting challenge in itself too. Our first homemade shirts were tie-dyed, using the ‘batik’ style and turned out really fun – but it was a long process, requiring at least a couple of days before the 4th to complete.

July 4, 2012

So, for last year and this year, we decided to try adding color to our shirts in a different way – still with paint, but by using masking tape and star-shaped stickers to ‘mask’ sections of shirt and adding the colors on the rest of the shirt. We learned a lot through both processes, which were similar but slightly different.

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July 4, 2013 with Mary’s kids

For last year’s shirts, we applied regular fabric paint using foam brushes. And we used multiple colors of shirts themselves too – Hannah and Emma chose to add white and blue paint to red shirts, Abbi and Eric (the only boy in our group anymore since Ron stays out of the July 4th festivities altogether) wanted blue with red and white paint, and Becca, Mary and I stuck with red and blue paint on white shirts. We let the kids come up with their own design ideas (they sketched them out on paper first), and they really were very creative and unique shirts – while still all coordinating together. We got many compliments on them at the parade last year, including one from our town’s mayor! :)

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We used a variety of widths of masking tape, to allow for thick or thin stripes, and had several different sizes of star stickers as well. Mary also used some star stamps with white paint on the colored shirts so the kids could have white stars on a blue background, like the American flag.

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July 4, 2014

This year we used a similar technique with the masking tape and stickers – but we tried out fabric spray paint, so instead of brushing the paint on, we sprayed. This had some benefits – we used a ‘soft’ paint that made the shirts much less stiff than they had been the previous year (and therefore more comfortable to wear). But the spray paint was much more difficult to apply – we had to block off areas that we didn’t want to get sprayed with the wrong color (or at all), and the paint did run some underneath the masking tape and stickers, or dripped onto the wrong portions of shirt. Overall, the shirts turned out fine – they sort of have a graffiti-type of look to them which is pretty cool. And we got a lot of compliments on them again too. :)

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The other miscalculation that we made was that it took much more paint than we expected, especially for the red, since we wanted to make sure to have a ‘real’ red and not a pinkish tone, especially for Eric’s shirt. We also had one red spray can that didn’t work very well, so we ran out completely with one shirt (mine) left to spray. Being that craft stores aren’t open at 2am on July 4th and we needed the shirts later that morning, I improvised and spent a lot of time coloring in my red stripes with a fabric marker. I was wishing I’d done fewer stripes by the time I was done, for sure! And I wouldn’t recommend it as an option if you can avoid it – along with being time-consuming, the look isn’t quite the same as with the spray, but it worked well enough to get by with, and I do kind of like the faded effect I got as the marker ran low at the end.

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A few tips to remember, if you try masking and painting (or spraying) t-shirts:

  • Don’t forget to put something between the front and back layers of your shirt, so your paint doesn’t bleed through. I forgot on one of my shirts until I was partly done painting, and there are definite red splotches on the back of the shirt. Plastic grocery or garbage bags work well, depending on the size of the shirt.
  • Make sure that all of the tape and sticker edges are firmly pressed down before you start painting, to minimize any paint bleed underneath. Foam or paper stickers each work equally well, as long as they’re sticky enough.
  • Remember that you are masking the areas where you DON’T want a color change – the portions of shirt where the masking tape and stickers are will retain the original shirt color.
  • Letters are difficult to make with masking tape so if you want letters in your design, it’s best to go with just a few and make them big. Words like ‘USA’ worked well, but one kid wanted to write ‘Happy July 4th’ and after a few attempts to make that fit on a shirt with masking tape, we gave up.
  • Young kids can do their own designs, with help – it’s hard to go wrong with stripes and placing star stickers. And you never know what they’re going to come up with! But although we let the older kids do their own painting (and some of the spraying this year), we minimized the two younger kids’ exposure to paint and didn’t let them handle the spray paint at all since we had to be conservative with it and very careful about not overspraying.
  • You can buy ‘stencil’ fabric spray paint instead of the ‘soft’ type. I’m not sure if this would result in stiff paint designs like we had with the regular painted-on shirts, but it would probably make for a lot less of the bleeding that we had where the softer spray paint ran under some of the tape and stickers. We’ll have to experiment with that another time. :)

So, what will we do next year for our July 4th shirts? Mary and I are already researching and plotting… We’re thinking maybe tie-dye again, if we can come up with a cool way to do it differently or improve upon our previous designs. We have 11 months to decide for sure… :)


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