5 Tips for Successful Stenciling on Fabric

The best vacation is a beach vacation. I love the beach. I love the sand, the noise the waves make, the seagulls swooping about, and most of all I love the shells.  As kids, my sisters and I spent a lot of vacation time walking up and down beaches looking for beautiful shells.  Now, I do the same with my kids.  This summer, before our pilgrimage to the beach, I designed a little bag just for shell collecting.

It is made entirely of waterproof materials ~ nylon webbing, ripstop nylon, and mesh window screening.  No mildew is finding a home here, even after ending up in sopping heap, filled with wet shells.  I wanted the inside to look as finished as the outside, so I made the entire bag with french seams. Last of all, I stenciled on some text so that everyone would know what this bag was all about! 🙂

My favorite part of the bag (other than the french seams – I really get excited about clean looking french seams!) is the stenciling.  I love that it adds a bit of missing personality and detail to the bag.

Stenciling is all about technique, and, for a project like this, stenciled fabric looks best with clean edges and even paint coverage.  But sometimes, everything does not cooperate and you end up with a mess – paint bleeding under the stencil edges and paint that for some reason won’t evenly adhere.  So, for all you crafters who tried to stencil something and ended up with a messy blob of paint, this list is for you.

5 Tips for Successful Stenciling

1.  Use the right fabric.

What is the right fabric?  It is fabric that your paint will stick too.  Cotton is a great choice – it has a smooth surface, but absorbs a good amount of paint.  That’s why you see so many projects on canvas bags, t-shirts, and quilting cotton.  It’s when you move into synthetic fibers that things get tricky.  I stenciled a ripstop nylon bag and let me tell you, ripstop nylon is not optimal for stenciling. The paint slides around on the surface, doesn’t want to adhere to the fabric, and wants to bleed under the stencil. So, know your fabric and be ready to work with the pitfalls.

2.  Make it stick.

Fabric moves and shifts.  I know… not exactly shocking stuff here… but that movement is part of what ends up causing blurred edges.  So what to do?  Two things:

  • If your fabric is lightweight or extra stretchy, like a knit, secure it to your table with some tape.  You could even iron freezer paper to the underside to keep the cloth from moving around.
  •   Stick that stencil to the fabric.  If it is freezer-paper on or a stencil with sticky backing, you are golden.  But if you are trying to use a traditionally plastic stencil, you should spray the back of it lightly….I repeat, LIGHTLY, with temporary adhesive.  I have had good luck with 505 spray on my stencils, but if you spray too much, sticky gluey residue will remain behind and is a pain to get off.

3.  Whoaa there, not to much paint.

The goal is too get some color on the fabric, without overloading it. If you glob on the paint, it has to go somewhere and most of the time it is going to bleed under the edges on the fabric.  You need to load the brush with paint and then get rid of the excess before you try to start applying it.  So, dip your brush in the paint a few times and then tap it on a paper towel to get all the excess paint off. This is called offloading.  Your brush should be almost dry before you start putting down the paint.  You only want to apply a thin coat by stippling – using an up and down motion or small tight swirls.  Try to work your way in from outside the stencil.  You do not want to push paint under the edges when you stipple.  You can find some videos on YouTube demonstrating this if you search for stenciling tips.

4.  Let it dry

After you stipple, there should be a thin layer of paint on the fabric.  Sometime that is enough.  If so, great!  But, sometimes it looks uneven or you want more coverage.  Well, hold your horses! Give it some time to dry.  If you add more paint now, you will just mush it all around and probably end up bleeding the stencil edges.  So, wait, at least until the paint has set before going back and adding another coat.

5.  Practice, Practice, Practice

Do not just jump right in and start stenciling the main event before testing everything out on some scrap fabric.  Especially if you are dealing with  materials, tools or techniques that are new to you.  No one does everything right the first time!  So don’t mess up your project just because you want to get it done quick!  If I hadn’t practiced my stenciling for my shell bag first, it would have been a mess. A good piece of scrap fabric lets you work out any kinks in your technique without the pressure of messing everything up.  And no one needs that kind of pressure with stenciling. 🙂

Looking for more information?  Check out these books:

The Complete Book of Stenciling by Sandra Buckingham

Printing by Hand by Lena Corwin

Hope these tips help you make something beautiful!  -Carolynn

One Reply to “5 Tips for Successful Stenciling on Fabric”

  1. Hi! This post could not be written any better! Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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