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What is the Best Cricut for Making Shirts?

Calling all budding Cricut crafters! Are you wondering about the best Cricut for making shirts? With so many machines, the shopping process can be overwhelming. Let me help you avoid spending more than you need to spend!

Wondering about the best Cricut for making shirts? I’ve got you!

As a Cricut crafter, I can definitely attest to the fact that the majority of my crafting is with vinyl. And a lot of that is with iron-on vinyl to make shirts. Whether they are t-shirts, tanks, baby bodysuits, or whatever, I put them all into the same category.

They require roughly the same amount of iron-on for projects, and you’re working with about the same amount of space. So you know you’ll need iron-on material, probably a StandardGrip green mat, and some tools. But what about the actual machine?

collage with pictures of Cricut machines and text that says best Cricut for making shirts

Let’s look at the machines

With price tags ranging from $130 to upwards of $400, you definitely want to make an educated decision. I own all of the machines and wrote extensively about Cricut shopping in my post Which Cricut Should I Buy? So dig in to that post and then come back to this one—it is specifically about making shirts.

I’m going to structure this post by talking about how you can use each Cricut machine to make shirts and will work from cheapest to most expensive. Because let’s be honest…it’s mostly about money 🙂 Then at the end, I’ll share what my choice is and the reasons why.

workspace with two Cricut machines and plants

1. Cricut Joy

First let’s talk about the Cricut Joy, the smallest and most affordable of all Cricut machines. I have a post titled What Can You Make With Cricut Joy? that goes over all of the machine specs, but here is the overview.

Cricut Joy machine and vinyl cut to say RAMONA

Cricut Joy pros and cons for making shirts

The small size means that it is easy to store and extremely portable; however, the small size also means that your design size is limited.

While the Joy can cut up individual shapes up for 4 feet long and repeat cuts up to 20 feet long using Joy Smart Materials, the maximum cut width is only 5.5 inches. (Reminder: Smart Materials are the special materials that do not require a cutting mat.)

If you are making kid shirts or baby bodysuits—or even adult shirt sizes that have smaller designs—this might not be a problem. In fact, it could be a big pro! If each of your designs is 5.5 inches or smaller, you can use Smart Iron-On to cut up to 43 designs at once! (The math there is 240 inches of smart materials divided by 5.5 inches = 43.64.)

This could really be a time saver if you need to cut a bunch of designs at once. And not needing to use a mat when cutting Smart Material Iron-On is a nice perk, too. So, when considering the Cricut Joy to make shirts, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Will I need to make designs that are larger than 5.5 inches wide or tall? If yes, the Joy is not for you.
  • Do I want to cut a bunch of 5.5 inch or smaller designs at once? If yes, consider the Joy and Smart Iron-On.
  • How portable do I want the machine to be? If very portable, consider the Joy.
pink and white tank tops with Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire designs on them
baby bodysuit that says cats > people in black iron-on

2. Cricut Explore Air 2

Next up is the Cricut Explore Air 2. This is the older model of the Cricut Explore series, and it is still available on the Cricut website. The Air 2 is my favorite machine for a lot of reasons, but it the best at making shirts? Here is an overview—

black Cricut Explore air 2 cutting white vinyl

Cricut Explore Air 2 pros and cons for making shirts

Now let’s cover the pros and cons. This is an older line of machines, but it remains an absolute powerhouse. One of the biggest pros is that since it is an older generation of the Explore line, you can get it for cheaper than the base price of $249.99. Bonus!

The Explore Air 2 cuts designs up to 11.5 inches by 11.5 inches using a standard 12 inch by 12 inch mat. If you use a longer 12 inch by 24 inch mat, you can cut designs up to 11.5 inches but 23.5 inches. So that really covers the overwhelming majority of shirt designs you’d need to cut.

This machine does require a mat and cannot accomodate Smart Materials. Therefore, if you want to cut designs in bulks, you are stuck with a maximum mat size of 12 inches by 24 inches. If you’re just making a few shirts at a time, this is likely more than enough.

Knowing all of this, here are a few questions to ask yourself before buying a Cricut Explore Air 2 to make shirts:

  • Am I okay being able to cut only up to 23.5 inches at a time? If yes, consider the Explore Air 2.
  • Do I want to be able to cut without a mat using Smart Materials? If yes, this isn’t the machine for you.
  • How portable do I want the machine to be? If reasonably portable, the Explore Air 2 works fine at only about 11 pounds.
gray shirt with a glitter iron-on design of a seal saying hi
gray shirt with a glitter iron-on design of a seal saying hi

3. Cricut Explore 3

Now we’re up to the Cricut Explore 3, which is the newest machine in the Explore line. See my post My Guide to Using the Cricut Explore 3 for more. This machine combines most of the good stuff about the Cricut Joy with most of the good stuff about the Cricut Explore Air 2. Sounds like a win-win, but it comes at a price.

Cricut Explore 3 and pink vinyl

If you like this check out my Complete Guide to Using the Cricut EasyPress, my tutorial on How to Make an Infusible Ink Tote Bag, and my post about Cutting Chipboard With a Cricut.

Cricut Explore 3 pros and cons for making shirts

So this is all sounding really similar to the Explore Air 2…so why pay the premium for the Explore 3 when it is a really similar machine? After all, you can get an Explore Air 2 for cheap (it’s on sale for $169.99 as I write this post), where as the Explore 3 is $299.99.

Well, there is a big capability difference between cut length with these machines. The Explore 3 has its own line of Smart Materials like the ones I discussed in the Joy section—that is, the materials that do not require a mat!

That greatly expands the cut lengths you can make. For the Cricut Explore 3, the cut sizes are the same if you are using a mat and regular iron-on: up to 11.5 inches by 11.5 inches using a standard 12 inch by 12 inch mat and up to 11.5 inches but 23.5 inches with a larger mat.

But if you’re using Smart Materials Iron-on, your maximum design size is 11.7 inches by 4 feet. So you can do repeat cuts of larger designs. Say you have a design that is 11.7 inches by 11.9 inches. You could use one roll of Smart Iron-on to cut that design out 4 times in one pass, saving you time.

This all sounds great, but is it really necessary? Does it save that much time? Here are the questions to ask yourself before getting a Cricut Explore 3:

  • Is cutting without a mat important to me, and if so, am I willing to buy Smart Materials? If yes, consider the Explore 3.
  • Do I want to use off-brand vinyl, thus requiring me to use cutting mats anyway? If yes, then the Smart Materials and cutting up to 4 feet in one pass is not appealing.
  • Even if I want to use off-brand iron-on or regular Cricut iron-on and mats, will I want the extended cutting capability for other projects? The Explore 3 can cut Smart Vinyl up to 20 feet long, and that’s a lot!
Cricut Explore 3 machine
iron-on pieces for a popsicle design
little girl with a shirt that has iron0on popsicles on it

4. Cricut Maker

And next up is the Cricut Maker—the absolute powerhouse DIY machine in the Cricut lineup! The Maker can cut a bunch of stuff and is also a very popular option. It’s also the earlier version of the current Maker 3 machine. Here is an overview:

Cricut Maker machine on a desk

Cricut Maker pros and cons for making shirts

So the Maker really shines when it comes to using the unique quick swap tools that can do lots of cool stuff. Those include the perforation blade, the engraving tip, the debossing tip, and more. And of course there is my favorite—the knife blade, which can cut thin wood.

All of this sounds great, but is it really necessary to make shirts? The short answer is, well, no. If the only reason you’re getting a Cricut machine is to make shirts, then paying the premium price for the Maker is not going to be worth it for you.

If, however, making shirts is only going to be part of what you do, you might want to take advatange of the many other Maker capabilities. Cutting fabric with the rotary blade, cutting wood and thicker chipboard using the knife blade, cutting using the specialty blades, and more.

With that in mind, if you’re just out to make shirts, ask yourself the following:

  • Do I want the best Cricut machine the company has to offer regardless of cost? If yes, then the Maker might be for you.
  • Do I want to do fabric and wood crafting, as well as use all of the other speciality Maker cutting tools? If no, then the extra money for the Maker probably isn’t worth it.
  • Do I want a more diverse machine at a lower price point? If yes, then the Maker might be for you since it’s an earlier version of the current Maker 3.
white shirt with an Infusible Ink design that says I Hate People
toddler shirt with a spaceship design made using Infusible Ink

5. Cricut Maker 3

And finally, the newest Maker machine, the Cricut Maker 3. This one rolled out the same time as the Cricut Explore 3, and it incorporates a lot of the enhanced features that the Explore 3 has.

Cricut Maker 3 pros and cons for making shirts

There isn’t a ton to say in this part because, honestly, the Maker 3 doesn’t differ that much from the first-gen Maker. First of all, the original Maker is often on sale, so you can get it for cheaper. (As I write this, it’s on sale for $249.99.)

The key differences between the Maker and the Maker 3 are cut size, material types, and speed. For cut size, the maximum material width for the Maker 3 is 13 inches when using Smart Materials, 12 inches when cutting iron-on with a mat.

For the cut length, however, the Maker can cut Smart Materials Iron-On up to 11.7 inches wide and 4 feet long. So, the same benefits as the Explore 3 when it comes to cut length and the lack of the need for a mat when working with Smart Materials.

The Maker 3 also cuts faster than the original Maker, but that hasn’t really been much of a concern for me. It might be for you, though, if you’re cutting a lot of designs and want to shave some time off. So here’s what to ask yourself about the Maker 3 and making shirts:

  • Do I want to cut without a mat and invest in Smart Materials? If yes, then the Maker 3 is worth looking into.
  • Do I want the best Cricut machine the company has to offer regardless of cost? If yes, then the Maker 3 might be for you.
  • Do I want to do fabric and wood crafting, as well as use all of the other speciality Maker cutting tools? If no, then the extra money for the Maker 3 probably isn’t worth it.
toddler shirt with a robot design using Infusible Ink
shirt with a holographic iron-on design

So what’s my take on the best Cricut for making shirts?

The Explore Air 2. But I think it’s pretty obviously from how I talked about them! The Explore Air 2 is my favorite machine because of its versatility. I love cutting special materials on my Maker, but I do use my Explore Air 2 the most.

Generally I don’t think making shirts would require large, long cuts that using the Explore 3 and Smart Materials can offer. And since it can only repeat cuts up to 4 feet, I don’t know that it would save much time. Instead, I’d recommend cutting multiple designs out on a 12 inch by 24 inch mat.

And as the biggest bonus, with the Explore 3 out on the street, you can typically snag an Explore Air 2 for a steal of a deal! Make sure to check out the bundles, too, as they can be really cost effective if you’re getting started from scratch.

You can also use that extra money you saved choosing an Explore Air 2 to get an EasyPress instead! I do think an EasyPress 2 is a great investment if you’re doing a lot of iron-on projects. I love mine!

If you found this overview helpful, I’d love it if you used my affiliate link to purchase your Cricut swag! I will receive a small percentage of your purchase for referring you—at no extra cost to you!

easypress 2 machines on a table

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pinnable collage with the text what is the best cricut for making shirts including images of shirts and cricuts

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