Stencil Painting : 7 different ways to do Stenciling on Fabric

Stenciling is the easiest way to paint any surface – all the professionals will agree to this. You can create patterned surfaces anywhere with the help of this versatile technique and fabric is a beautiful medium for this. You can create beautiful decorations that look like it has been made by professionals very easily.

The advantage of stencil painting is that you can create repeated motifs which are crisp as if it is printed, very easily in less time that it would take you to create them painstakingly and uniformly by hand.  Some designs are more complicated than others and may require you to apply layers of paints spanning over many hours or even days with a subtle build-up of colours and tones to get the effect you desire but whatever it is stenciling is super fun to do.

Other than garments (especially those wonderfully stenciled T-shirts) you can decorate, cushion covers,  table cloth, runners, napkins, curtains, upholstery fabrics like that of chair backs, bedsheets, quilts- there are so many things made of fabric that you can decorate with stenciling. Walls, floors, posters, Stencil Artworks, and furniture are other surfaces decorated with stencils. Colorful floral designs, geometric prints, bows, hearts, border designs – these are the most popular designs used with stencils. Images, words, or a combination of both are the basis of most Stencil paintings

What do you need to do Stencil Painting?

4 important elements of  successful stencil paintings are  a well made stencil, accurate placement of the design on the fabric, best paints and brushes

A well made stencil

Here is a post on the best ways to make stencils. The material you use for the stencil should be able to lay flat on the fabric and will not tear, absorb moisture or discolor with age.

You need really sharp cutting equipment to cut out the stencil from whatever you are making it from – plastic sheet, manila paper, cardboard or even masking paper. Freezer paper/contact paper is best because you can stick it on to the fabric and it is easy to cut these papers.

Make long clean cutting lines. Make sure that your cutting tool has sharp ends. Professionals cut their plastic stencils with a heat knife so that clear cutting lines are made. An exacto knife and very sharp scissors are absolutely necessary cutting tools for stencil making.

Accurate placement of the designs

Usually, stencils are used for repeat patterns. Here is a post to guide you in the placement of the designs better – 25 ways of pattern repeats on your fabric. You have to be careful about the placement and carefully plan it before hand. You can make small marks on the fabric after measuring the placements with a tape measure otherwise you will end up with a fabric with a haphazard design which is not appealing.

Best brushes for stenciling

There are special stencil brushes with short dense bristles to ensure that paint will cover all areas of your stencil. You can get these brushes in different sizes. Sponges also work very well. Basically, it is the effect you are after. Roller brushes, ordinary paint brushes are all used for stenciling.

Best paint for stenciling on fabric

Acrylic paint mixed with a fabric medium or the fabric paint . You can add texture gels to get different textured effects

How to do stencil painting

First and foremost prepare the fabric by prewashing it (if you are using a new fabric) to remove any sizing and then press it to remove any wrinkles. Place a newspaper or cardboard under the fabric to be stenciled. This prevents paint passing into the area under the fabric – be it the ground or the back of the garment.

Keep the stencil on the fabric surface and then secure it there with masking tape ( so that paint will not seep under the edges of the stencil and spoil your design’s clean outline).  You can also use a spray adhesive to adhere the stencil securely – spray the stencil and then place on the surface.

Do your stencil painting with any of the methods described below. After the work is done carefully take the stencil out and wipe it clean thoroughly off any paint residue before using it anywhere else. I can tell you from experience that a small trace of paint on the stencil can mess up your whole work.

After the paint is dry you have to heat set it ( Use the instructions given for the paint you are using, taking care of the type of fabric you are using). Usually you will be pressing a warm iron on the back of your fabric with the painting – but never do this before the paint is dry.

Different methods of doing stencil painting

1. Single colour stenciling 

stencil painting in one single color

This is the normal way of painting with a stencil  – You keep the stencil on the fabric surface and apply a single colour of paint on the cutouts/ open spaces inside the stencil – after the paint if applied, when you take out the stencil the design will be imprinted on the fabric neatly

The application of the paint can be done in different ways – you can dab the paint with a sponge laden with paint or use your paintbrush with the stencil.

Do not take too much paint into the brush – thick blobs of paint on the painting is unattractive and will surely seep through the edges of the stencil to the outside. If you want a thick layer, make a light layer first and then when it is dry add one more layer.

When stencil painting with a paint brush, do not sweep and paint as when you paint normally- you should be applying paint up and down at right angles – this will prevent the paint getting under the edges of the stencil.

2. Multicolour / layer stenciling

stencil painting in more tha one color

You can do multi color stenciling on fabric using many stencils or one stencil.

Using more than one stencil – After one layer is painted using a stencil wait till the paint is dried before placing the second stencil on this for painting. You can use several stencils like this to create quite multidimensional color designs.

If using the same stencil some of the open spaces are covered using  masking tape or even paper and then later opened up to paint with a different color.

Both are effective and can create beautiful effects. Just remember that you should clean your brushes thoroughly between different colors of paint.

3. Reverse stenciling

reverse stencilling

This technique uses a negative image with the painting done on the outside of the stencil image. Here you will need to use the cut out portion as the stencil ie the portion you earlier cut out is here used as a stencil. Paint is applied to the outside portion of the stencil – you an either spray paint for a beautiful effect or use dabbing to spread the paint or the paintbrush to make a thick outline.

stencil painting with stencil kept to do reverse printing

4. Stippling

stippling with stencils

Stippling creates a beautiful three-dimensional look to your design. It involves painting the inside of your stencil with numerous small dots or specks. You can use the stencil brush held vertically and loaded with only a little dry paint for getting this effect, or use a sharp tipped tool (pencil tip, knitting needle) dipped in paint

One method is to just make the stippling effect on portions of the design – like the outside of the design or inside of the design and filling the other areas with solid colors. Another method is to fill the designs with stippling done in different colors. An ombre look (gradual blending of one color hue to another) is quite nice.

5. Stencil painting with dry brushing

dry brushing with stencils

As the name suggests, you will be using a dry brush loaded with paint – paint is taken sparsely. This leads to a subtle coloring inside your design.

6. Fill the designs with sponge

stencil painting with sponging

You can use ordinary sponges cut into small pieces or a roller with sponge you get in shops. The sponge rollers come with a cylindrical shape with handles – the sponge is affixed onto the cylinder. You get it in different shapes -buy according to your design.

Load the sponge with paint ( remove excess with towels) and use dabbing motion to apply the paint. You can load different colors at the same time on the sponge and paint away to get a colorful effect.

Remember that sponge covers a wide area – so if you want details you better use a brush. A sponge is used to cover large areas pretty easily. Another advantage of using the sponges to do your stencil painting is the texture it gives – the small speckles of paint that you apply with the sponge looks beautiful.

7. Fill the design with textured  paints

stencil painting with textured paints

There are many easy ways to add  a texture to your design other than using the commercial gels – add salt  to your design or add sand or add wax crayon shavings, metallic glitter etc.Use puffy paint for an embossed effect or outline using an outliner.

4 Precautions to take while using the stencils for painting.

1.Use only as much water or less than you need.

Too much water is your enemy when stencil painting – the water will seep through the stencil and dilute your design – it will defeat the purpose of the stencil and getting clean cut design lines. So use water sparingly.

2. The stencil should be closely, tightly adhered to the fabric so that paint do not seep underneath

When the stencil is small you can keep it tight with your other hand but if the stencil is big you may have to use masking tape pieces to keep the stencil attached. This is especially important for the connecting strips ( ties) – If these are not touching the fabric it will be painted over and the design will not have the details you wanted. So keep the ties pressed as you paint with a thin sharp tool like the back of a zero brush etc.

3. After the work is done do not be in a hurry to take out the stencil and continue with your work.

Wait and then carefully take the stencil out.

4. When you are using the stencil again ensure that the stencil doesn’t have wet paint on it

Clean it up thoroughly after every use and wipe with dry cloth to be doubly sure that paint is fully gone

And, follow the directions in this post How to do fabric painting ; 10 easy fabric painting techniques

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Author: Sarina Tariq

Hi, I love sewing, fabric, fashion, embroidery, doing easy DIY projects and then writing about them. Hope you have fun learning from sewguide as much as I do. If you find any mistakes here, please point it out in the comments.

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