The latest computer peripheral is - the iron.
No, it hasn't gone digital. But an iron - teamed with a personal computer, an inkjet printer and the right software - lets you decorate T-shirts with drawings, photos and words. You can go beyond T-shirts to almost any fabric surface, such as golf shirts, sweatshirts, visors, aprons, tote bags, boxer shorts and mousepads.
It works like this: You install the software. Then you run it and choose a basic design - with some sample images and words already in place that you can alter - or you start a new design from scratch. Then you choose from the graphics library that accompanies the program, substituting and adding drawings and photographs as you like.
Most such programs also let you import your own graphics. And if you have a digital camera or scanner, you can import personal photos, too.
The program will give you some freedom to change the size and style of letters. It may even offer special effects for the text, to stretch or squeeze or otherwise mold the letters.
Almost any inkjet printer, even a fairly old one, can print decent words and drawings. If you want to print good-looking photos, you'll want the higher quality of a printer made in the past few years.
The design will be turned into its mirror image on its way electronically to the printer, where you have slipped in a transfer sheet.
You take the transfer sheet, place it design-side down on a T-shirt or other fabric you want to decorate, and run a hot iron over it for 30 seconds or so.
The ink transfers to the shirt. Wait for the fabric to cool, peel off the paper. Voila! You've made a custom T-shirt.
When you wash the shirt, try to stick with cold water. Colors will last longer, although most of the fading comes with the first wash. Polyester shirts tend to take and keep colors brighter than cotton shirts. A 50-50 poly-cotton fabric is better than 100 percent cotton. You can set your iron hotter to brighten the colors on full cotton, but too hot and you'll scorch them and the shirt.
I thought this concept was gimmicky when I first got a T-shirt program. But I discovered it's actually a lot of fun. And with my first trial-run T-shirt I was already making plans to put it to work: family reunions, small-business or departmental celebrations, kids' sporting events, etc.
The cost isn't a problem. The programs initially cost $20 to $50, providing several transfer sheets and a free T-shirt sample along with the software.
Additional T-shirts cost $3 to $6 at your local clothing store, and additional transfers cost from about $2 each in a pack of 10 to as little as $1 each in a pack of 200.
There are two major T-shirt making programs, each with a tight link to a particular T-shirt maker.
Both offer 30-day money-back guarantees if you're not satisfied with the software, and both also guarantee your satisfaction with the printed T-shirts. If you use their transfers on the sample shirt in the box, and don't like the results, you can return the shirt for a replacement.
Art Explosion T-Shirt Factory (Nova Development, 818-591-9600, www.novadevcorp.com) is a $39 package for Windows 95/98 and with a Fruit of the Loom connection. The program has 3,000 designs, 20,000 clip-art images, 1,500 photographs and 500 fonts. The number of images isn't surprising because Nova is famous for its clip-art samples.
Choosing one of those designs is easy. You select an intended target, such as T-shirt or boxer shorts, and see an alphabetical list of designs, such as Computer Repair or Cupid Frog on Heart. The design appears in a standard Windows drawing-program display with all sorts of choices for styling and formatting words and images. Fruit of the Loom extends its replacement guarantee to any of its garments that you decorate using the program's PerfectPeel transfers, though this is limited to three replacements per household. There's a printed catalog for ordering garments and transfers, as well as a toll-free number and a Web site.
Hanes T-ShirtMaker (Hanes, 800-426-3728, www.hanes2u.com) is also for Windows and, naturally, is connected to Hanes garments. T-ShirtMaker comes in several versions. The original T-ShirtMaker & More, now $20, runs on Windows 3.1, 95 or 98. The newer $55 T-ShirtMaker 2.0 runs only on 95 or 98.
T-ShirtMaker has fewer designs than Art Explosion - 1,900 - but organizes them better, with categories such as Business, Family & Friends, Hobbies and Just for Kids. The design and drawing window is a lot less cluttered than Art Explosion's and will probably be more comfortable for computer novices. It's a lot easier to select text special effects, for instance, by clicking on examples rather than selecting from menus. However, there are only 5,000 clip art images and 50 fonts and no photos.
The catalog for ordering garments and transfers is built into the program and includes some professional presses - appliances costing $500 to $1,300 - if that little home iron isn't enough for your T-shirt plans. And uniquely, you can submit your designs by modem to have them printed at a factory.
Before you spend anything on a T-shirt program though, check to see if any of your current printing and publishing software handles reverse-image printing. For example, Canon's Design Essentials Business Image (714-438-3000, www.design-essentials.com )is a $60 Windows 95/98/NT program for designing and printing business cards, letterhead, brochures, signs, greeting cards, calendars, posters and, T-shirts. There are only 20 basic shirt designs, but you can change the words of those designs to whatever you like and apply a few styling options.
A T-shirt printing option may even be hiding in the free software you got with your inkjet printer. It makes sense to check there first.