Wondering how to make vintage t-shirts that create a sense of nostalgia and build an emotional bond with your brand? You’ve come to the right place.
Vintage tees have a distressed, faded look that can’t help but make us reminisce about the past. It’s no wonder your oldest tees are also the most comfortable—the fabric gets thinner and softer over time.
Technically, a garment has to be at least 20 years old to be considered authentic vintage. But what if you could create t-shirts with a vintage look and feel right off the bat? In this vintage t-shirt guide, you’ll learn tips and tricks for choosing the right fabric and making retro-themed designs from scratch.
From defining your aesthetic and feeling out the perfect material to finding the right design and bringing your design to life, we’ve got you covered.
The first step to creating custom shirts with a vintage feel is to define your aesthetic. Vintage shirt colors tend to be faded and many develop that golden yellow hue, which comes from years of washing, exposure to sun, and general wear and tear. Darker colored tees will look lighter and washed out over time.
Make sure the fonts you choose match the decade and style as well. Serif and display fonts, along with handwritten and cursive fonts, are all great for retro designs since they were available before the internet era. Think of your target audience and what font matches your print’s theme. I’ll talk more about retro fonts later on.
Once you have an idea of what a vintage feel looks like, create a mood board with your unique t-shirt design ideas.
There are multiple places you can look for vintage shirt design inspo like old magazines, movies, posters, music albums, sports teams, company merch, festival souvenirs, commercials, and more. Any illustration, photo, logo, or graphic older than 20 years is great for a vintage design, but you don’t have to limit yourself just to old visuals. Think about modifying the details of any image to create a vintage-looking print (more on that in a bit).
Here are some retro-chic designs to get you inspired:
Okay, so which t-shirt fabric is best for achieving that rustic, weathered look?
Modern designs and prints work best on single-colored t-shirts with smooth surfaces that make the print pop. But the best t-shirts for printing vintage-style shirts are ones with varying textures and colors. Here’s where heathered t-shirt fabrics come into play.
Heathered fabric is made up of two or more different colored yarns that create a speckled effect. The different colored yarns are also typically made from multiple materials like cotton, polyester, and rayon. You most likely already have several heathered garments in your wardrobe.
Source: Eysan Fabrics
Both the color and material contrast of these yarns will give your prints a vintage vibe because the ink reacts differently to each fabric type. With direct-to-garment printing (DTG) or screen printing, the print will look more vibrant on lighter colors and more faded on darker colors. When the ink and fabric color match, the printed area will be invisible. You can use this to your advantage to create that distressed look.
Many t-shirts available in our catalog come in multiple heather colors. Notice how the fabric composition varies for heather colors in the product description. To see how the ink reacts to each t-shirt in real life, make sure to order product samples.
You can also achieve that distressed look on 100% cotton tees, as long as your print has a retro-themed design. Just make sure you go for lightweight fabrics that range from 30 to 150 GSM (g/m²). For example, our Unisex Staple T-Shirt would be a good choice.
A good retro print starts with a classic vintage font. You can go with handwritten and cursive fonts or any other font that’s been around since before the internet age. Serif and display fonts first emerged in the late 18th century, and are characterized by extreme contrast between thick and thin lines. Here are some examples to get an idea:
You can find serif or display fonts in Printful’s Design Maker, ready to use for your vintage tees.
Feel free to play with font color, size, position, arc, outline, and shadow until you’re happy with your design. You can also add retro-themed clipart, like these roller skates and milkshakes.
So you have a free resource for vintage fonts, but where can you find ready-to-use graphics for your vintage t-shirt designs? Luckily, many websites offer copyright-free images in the public domain. This means they’re free to use by anyone for personal or commercial purposes.
Check out our article on Free Images For Print-on-Demand to find over 15 free resources. But let me also share some awesome sites specifically for vintage t-shirt designs.
The Heritage Type library offers beautiful free vintage illustrations so that you can create stunning artwork easily. Just check out how cool this dog collection looks. Heritage Type’s retro images are great for t-shirt printing, and with our background removal tool, you can easily make these illustrations pop on your prints.
From birds, fish, and insects to flowers and fungi, this artwork collection is any nature lover’s dream. Browse their Flickr account for over 260,000 high-res copyright-free graphics, pics, and illustrations for your vintage t-shirt designs.
You could lose hours browsing the Library of Congress’s free online prints and photo catalog with over 950,000 images. When searching, click on a collection, then select View All, and choose Larger image available anywhere. Browse this old-school baseball cards collection or this old photo collection from Farm Security Administration.
Here you can browse over 15,000 images from 100+ public organizations, and I reckon the list of contributors will only grow over time. From these individual portraits from the National Library of Ireland to historical pics from Apollo 11 shared by NASA, you’re bound to find some really interesting t-shirt design resources.
RawPixel is one of the best resources for copyright-free artwork, photos, and illustrations. You can search by category to easily find what you’re looking for. For example, type in 20th-century or vintage illustrations and you’ll have a vast array of beautiful images for printing vintage t-shirts at your disposal. I love this photo of Beach Captain John Boyd from 1978, and just look at these majestic feline portraits.
On this lovely site, you can find everything from fairytales and botanicals to animals and vintage movie posters. It covers different styles like Art Nouveau, Art Deco, advertising, and scientific illustrations. Check out these free vintage food illustrations or these spooky vintage Halloween drawings.
This list is a great place to start your search, but don’t be afraid to do a deep dive for more vintage design resources. Once you’ve found some images you like, you can edit them to achieve that desired look.
Here are some of the most popular vintage effects for retro t-shirt print designs.
1. Distressed textures: Add distressed or worn textures to your design to give it a vintage and aged look.
2. Retro filters: Apply filters that mimic photos taken with old film cameras or something that’s rusted over time.
3. Halftone effect: Create a classic comic book or newspaper print effect by using halftone patterns, or to achieve that cool glow on neon colors (see how to do this in Photoshop below).
4. Vintage borders and frames: Add retro-style borders or frames around your design to add a touch of nostalgia. You can even do this by adding a Vignette effect to pics on your smartphone.
5. Grunge elements: Include grunge elements like speckles, oil splatters, rust, scratches, or distressed edges (see how to achieve some of these effects with Photoshop below).
6. Retro typography: As mentioned earlier, retro designs call for retro fonts. Printful’s Design Maker offers plenty of free retro fonts for your prints.
7. Faded colors: Reduce color vibrancy and saturation to give the design a more washed-out look. You can even do this on your smartphone—just look at the difference once I applied the Vivid Warm filter to this photo on my iPhone.
Combining these vintage effects will help you create unique t-shirt print designs that’ll have you reminiscing about the good old days. Now, let’s take a look at how you can add some of these popular effects using Adobe Photoshop.
A simple way to create a speckled effect (also called a stipple effect) in Photoshop is to use the brush tool. Once you select the brush tool, choose a small, soft-edged brush. Next, create a new layer and select Sample All Layers from the options bar. Then, click and drag your mouse over the areas of your photo where you want to add speckles.
You can also add noise or film grain to get that speckled effect.
The splatter brush effect gained popularity in the ’80s and it’s making a comeback in vintage t-shirt designs. Here’s a quick overview of how to add this effect in Photoshop.
Open your image in Photoshop, add a new layer, and choose the Brush Tool with a splatter brush. Next, modify the size and color of the brush before painting on the new layer. Use blending modes and opacity to achieve the desired effect and fine-tune with masks or an eraser.
For an in-depth tutorial on the splatter brush effect, check out this video.
Want to give your artwork a rusty feel? Here’s how you can do it.
Open a new document in Photoshop and fill in the background with a reddish-brown base color. Adjust levels to increase contrast and add noise for texture. Overlay a grunge texture if desired for a more realistic effect. To add depth, use a gradient map with brown to orange tones. Apply irregular rust spots with a soft brush. As needed, change the opacity and blending modes. For your designs, save the rusty texture as a JPEG or PNG file.
Here’s an excellent step-by-step tutorial for adding a rusty effect to images.
Glowing neon colors are in, making them a great choice for trending t-shirts. To achieve this aesthetic, you’ll need to add various glow effects, but this can cause semi-transparencies in the image that you want to avoid. That’s where the halftone effect comes to the rescue.
Halftone is a 20th-century printing technique that uses dot patterns to create images (think of classic comic book strips). You can find a detailed tutorial on adding the halftone effect in Photoshop here.
Besides the tips and tricks listed above, don’t forget to:
Use the correct file size and make sure your print is high resolution. Print file resolution (DPI) depends on the product, but should be at least 150 DPI, and no higher than 300—going beyond 300 DPI won’t improve the print quality, just increase the file size.
Check out our 10 Tips for a Perfect Design Print File and get answers to all your questions in our Guide to Preparing the Perfect Print File.
Experiment with ink color, t-shirt material, distressed elements, design placement, and all the little details until you find your unique style.
Preview your designs before listing them online to make sure you’re happy with the result.
Incorporate hand-drawn and handwritten elements for an authentic vintage look. If you’re not confident in your design abilities, outsource the process to a designer on Fiverr or another reliable freelance platform.
Make sure the images you’re using for your designs are in the public domain and have a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license. Always check with the owner or the site to avoid any legal complications.
Utilize free editing tools: Don’t let your budget get in the way, check out these 5 free design apps for creating t-shirt designs.
The coolest thing about vintage t-shirts is that they never go out of style, so you don’t have to worry about constantly updating your product selection. This means that selling dope vintage-inspired tees is a surefire way to make a profit.
Plus, retro-themed garments can evoke an emotional response thanks to the power of nostalgia. If your designs and themes are unique, you can build a niche community of totally loyal customers.
Get designing and make your vintage tee dreams come true!
Zoe Amora Iranzo-Lauriņa
Zoe is a creative writer, multilingual translator, and certified yoga instructor with a passion for learning, traveling, and global cuisine. When she's not typing away at her PC, you can find her teaching yoga in the park, reading on the couch with her cat, or plunging in the Mediterranean.