Home » What is a Stencil ? Make your own stencil for fabric painting

What is a Stencil ? Make your own stencil for fabric painting

how to make stencilsStenciling refers to making designs and patterns on surfaces (fabric, wood etc) with the help of a thin cut out with holes through which paint is applied

What is a Stencil?

Stencil is the name used for the thin cut-outs which are usually made of paper, plastic or metal. The paint is applied ( sprayed, brushed or sponged) through the holes and the design is imprinted on the surface of the fabric. The holes in the stencil form the design which is printed on the fabric.

When do you use a stencil? You may have a design that you want to paint on your fabric. But you are not sure about your ability to paint them the same way every time multiple times, without bleeding on the edges. Here is when a stencil can help.

You get ready-made stencils in different patterns and designs, shapes and sizes in craft stores – you place them on the surface of the fabric and do the painting. Easy. But you can make the stencils yourself, as easily, that too with things readily available at home.

You can find your designs online or in books and make it your own with your own changes and then make stencils out of them. No one else would have the same design you have. Isn’t that wonderful?

But you need great precision and perfection in making these stencils for getting the designs printed perfectly. 

How to find designs for stencils ?

If you do not have a stencil design in mind but would like to find one easily, checkout this post on the design inspirations for embroidery – the same applies to stencils. I have found that some of the designs in colouring books belonging to my kids work well when made into stencils.

The most important thing to consider when choosing designs for stencils is that they have broad outlines. Very intricate patterns may make you want to throw the towel in and discard stenciling forever.

Another important thing is to choose a design that does not have details which are disjointed and separate inside them. You will find that it is impossible to make such details without them having a connection to the outline which may turn out looking unnatural. Sometimes you can make connecting lines and they will look beautiful-this of course depends on your design sensibilities.

Designing a stencil

To circumvent all these above mentioned problems, you should make a rough drawing of the design you have selected in the form of the stencil and ensure that when you cut the inside unwanted portions out, none of the inside sections (which you need) will come out detached from the background. If this is ensured your design is perfect for making a stencil

The inside connecting lines of the stencils are called ties. Without these ties your stencil will not make a design with details – these ties should not be too thin or too broad. But broader ties are preferred to narrower ties as thin ties will break or will be overcome with paint and not be visible in the final product

You can make easy symmetrical stencil designs by cutting your stencil material by folding it and then cutting it

First fold your material into a triangle shape by the middle.

Cut out the inside portions of your folded material to make an easy stencil.

make stencil desing

Cut out from the outside to make a reverse stencil.

stencil designs

How to make your own stencils


1. Masking tape stencil

The easiest stencils are made with masking tapes. You find a design area, apply masking tapes on areas where you do not want the painting done and then work the paint on the outside.

2. Acetate /transparency sheets

You can make stencils from thin acetate sheets/See-through plastic sheets (transparency sheets used with overhead projectors) and it is very durable; one which you can use again and again. The plastic covers of files (very thin ones)  old x-ray sheets etc are alternatives. If you get plastic sheets with a matt side and a glossy side this is best as on the matt side you can draw  with pencils and cut without slipping and then when later when using on fabric the matt side helps to keep the stencil still and steady

To cut stencils from the plastic sheets you can take the printout of the design you want, Keep this under the acetate sheet. You can use binder clips to keep them in place or tape them, so they do not move. Cut the sheet with a sharp Exacto knife / blade

3. Paper stencil

You can use any thick paper to make stencils. Thick bond paper, old greeting cards etc can be used to make stencils. Just fold it by the center and mark the design on one side and cut it out for a symmetrical stencil design.

The problem with using thin paper for stencils is that they may only be used just once. But for that purpose to make beautifully symmetrical designs paper is best.

4. Make Freezer paper stencils

Another easy way is to make use of freezer papers available in supermarkets. These are sheets with paper on one side and plastic on the other side. You mark the design on the paper side of the freezer paper and cut out the design. The freezer paper stencil is then kept on the fabric, plastic side down and temporarily fixed in place as a stencil. The freezer paper stencil can be used again and again

If you do not have the freezer paper at home you can make your own freezer sheets by attaching thin plastic sheets on ordinary printer paper. The plastic sheets used are usually the thin black garbage bags. I am using plastic disposable gloves because I have a small design and they are ideal. Cut open the bags/ gloves and cut a piece from it bigger than your design

Step 1. Take the design/ printout and the thin plastic sheet from garbage bag etc.

Once you have decided on a design take a printout of the design on ordinary printer paper, if you do not have freezer paper. If you have freezer paper, trace the outline of the design on the paper side using carbon paper or tracing sheets.

create your own stencils


Step 2. Adhere the plastic sheet on the printed paper back side. 

Keep the plastic sheet on the ironing table. Keep the printed paper on top, printed side up. Iron over it . You are using heat to adhere the plastic sheet to the printed paper. Use only enough heat to bond the plastic and paper – do not melt the plastic. You now have an almost functional freezer paper.

Step 3. Cut out the design

Using a very sharp exacto knife cut out the design along the outline, from the freezer paper. You have to make sure that you have precise and clean lines

stencil diy tutorial

Take out the inside cut out portion carefully.

making a stencil

Step 4. Apply stencil on fabric

Keep the fabric on the ironing table. Place the stencil where you want the design to be, plastic side down on the fabric . Iron over the stencil – with enough heat to make the plastic stick to the fabric. Too much heat and the plastic will melt, so be careful about heat

Ensure that the edges of the design are sticking on the fabric firmly enough (to prevent paint seeping inside the edges) 

freezer paper stencil

Step 5. Apply paint

Now use a thick foam or brush to fill the design. You may want to add more than one coat for fully filling the design.

how to use a stencil

When the final coat is dry, carefully peel off the paper. You have your stenciled fabric ready

The problem with reusing the freezer paper stencil is that when you iron over the paint which is on the edges, it may stick on your iron.

stencil diy make your own

After 24 hours you can iron the design from the back so that the paint is fully heat set and will not be damaged when washing/dry cleaning.

If you have no one of the above materials ( garbage bag, paper or plastic files) to make a stencil use the fusible interfacing to make the stencils . Here is the tutorial

5. Stencils from found objects

Use lace as a stencil. The intricate designs of the lace is beautiful when used as a stencil. When using lace you will have to use a temporary adhesive to fix the lace onto your fabric surface.

Use up and down motion with your stenciling brush to thoroughly fill the stencil design. You can use other found objects which can be held flat on a surface like beautifully shaped leaves to make reverse stenciling design. 

Tips for efficient stenciling

When using stencil you have to make sure that you are using paint without too much water. You do not want the paint to seep through the outlines of the stencil. The best way is to use a slightly dampened sponge dipped lightly in paint . You can use this sponge piece to dab the paint on the inside of the design. In the case of stencils, unlike when you paint directly you do not have to bother about the outlines. 

Instead of putting on a thick layer of paint in the first layer and leave it at that, it is better to make thin but multiple layers of colours ; apply the next layer after the first layer is dry. 

Do stenciling on a flat surface where you can leave the work to dry undisturbed for a long time; as long as it takes the paint to dry fully.

What paint to use with stencils – there are beautiful stencil sprays available which can be used easily. You can use regular acrylic paint along with fabric medium or a fabric paint with fabric medium added to it to paint the stencils.

The store bought plastic stencils may have special sprays which hold the stencils onto the fabric surface ; some are paper stencils with peelable backing. But with some plastic stencils mostly you will have to hold them tightly to the surface or tape them down securely.

Wait till the whole design is fully dry before you lift the stencil from the fabric. If you are in a hurry use the hair dryer. Instant drying

The best thing about making your own stencil is that you can make  any design into a stencil – let  your imagination run free 

Related posts : Easy stencil painting – 7 methods; How to paint on fabric ; Easy fabric painting techniques; How to make fabric priniting and painting permanent.

fabric painting on cloth

AUTHOR : Hi, I am Sarina. I am passionate about clothes, sewing, fabrics, fashion and surface design techniques in no particular order and absolutely love writing about all of these including what I learn, what I experience, and what I have bought to do all these. You are more than welcome to stay here and learn with me.