Best Stencil Material For Fabric Stencils

Best Stencil Material For Fabric Stencils

I am working on a couple stenciling project and have some very specific questions:
  • What is the best material out there for making a fabric stencil?
  • How should I go about designing my stencil?
  • What is the best way to cut my stencil out?
  • What type of paint works best?

While I have found many resources about the process for stenciling, I have found myself experimenting with techniques and materials to “get it right.” I have a series of posts coming up to share my findings. To start with, let’s dive into the best material to make a fabric stencil.

Results

This post is long and goes through my whole testing process and results.  Here is short and sweet take away.  When I need a detailed  stand alone stenciled image, only used 5 or less times, I will reach for freezer paper (assuming I can iron the stencil to the fabric).  When I need a more durable stencil or one for a repeating pattern, I will use Grafix Matte Stencil Film or similar stencil film that is extremely thin.

Materials

There are so many options for stenciling on fabric.  I tested those options that are easily available.  Most of this list of materials I picked up at my local craft store. Specifically, I tested:
  • Darice Reusable Self-Adhesive Stencil blank sheet – a thicker soft plastic with a bit of give, adhesive on the back.
  • Contact Paper, specifically Peel and Stick made by Duck – a plastic sheeting with adhesive backing.
  • Reynolds Freezer Paper – paper backed with a plastic coating.
  • Grafix Matte Stencil Film – very thin hard plastic film with a matte texture, not adhesive.
  • Mylar Sheeting – thicker had plastic material with a textured surface on one side.
  • Grafix Friskette Film – like contact paper, but slightly thinner and slightly less adhesive.

Goals and Parameters

For my testing, I am trying to determine 4 characteristics of these materials:

  • transferring a design to the material
  • cutting out a stencil with an X-Acto knife or heated stencil cutting tool
  •  stenciling process – both crispness of edges of stenciled image and ease of applying paint
  • re-usability and storage of the stencil
My goal here is to find the best material to use to carve stencils for art quilting and for smaller scale projects.  In particular, I am looking for a material suitable for cutting detailed stencils.

Image Transfer Results

If possible, my preference is to print or draw an image on paper and tape it to the stencil material. I then cut through both the paper and the material when making my stencil.  This process works for all materials.  However, sometimes it is necessary to just transfer the image without paper involved.  Here is how the different materials performed when I traced the stencil with either pencil or a fine point permanent maker:

  1. Both Marker and Pencil:  Both the Freezer Paper and Grafix Matte Stencil Film were easy to draw on with either pencil or marker.
  2. Marker Only:  Mylar sheeting and Darice Stencil Material – both only took marker, not able to clearly draw with a pencil.
  3. Neither Marker or Pencil: The Contact Paper and Frisket Film would not easily take either marker or pencil.  The marker beaded up and the pencil was too faint on the plasticky surface.

Cutting Results

I testing cutting the stencils with two tests.  First, I cut out a simple “ABC” stencil by printing my image on paper, taping it to the stencil film and cutting through both paper and film with an xacto knife.  Next, I transferred a teardrop shaped image to the film using a pencil or fine point marker and cut with a heated stencil cutter.

I don’t like cutting with a heated stencil cutter.  It may work well for large-scale stencils, but for smaller ones, I couldn’t get the control of an xacto knife because you need to hold the blade so far away from the heated tip.  While it was a bit easier to cut through the thicker materials, I did not find a substantial difference in ease of cutting my favorite materials – like freezer paper and Grafix Matte Stencil Films.

As expected, I found the thinner the material, the easier to cut through with either an xacto knife or a heated stencil cutter. Here are my specific results:

  1. Freezer Paper – The easiest by far to cut through. Freezer paper essentially cuts like paper because it is paper with a plastic coating on one side.  It was easy to make clean cuts around curves and in points or corners. The downside of freezer paper is that it also tears more easily than other materials because it is….paper.
  2. Grafix Matte Stencil Film- This was just as easy to cut through as the freezer paper and had the added benefit of being a bit more sturdy.  the points and corners that I cut popped right out without the concern of them tearing.  While very thin at 1 mil, it had more stability without the drag on the knife while cutting.
  3. Contact Paper and the Frisket Film – Both were very similar in form and cut-ability.  Both were a sticky backed plastic sheeting.  The Frisket film was a bit thinner and less sticky than the contact paper.  For purposes of cutting, both were slightly more difficult to cut thorough and had a bit more stretch to them.  mainly because they were a soft plastic.  I was able to get good detail with my stencil, but didn’t prefer the softer material.
  4. Darice Stencil Material – This material was also adhesive backed soft plastic, only much thicker. It had a cushy feel to it and require a bit more pressure to cut through.  I was still able to get a crisp line around curves and points.
  5. Mylar Sheeting – This performed the least well of the group.  It was thick and awkward to cut through, especially compared to the thin Grafix Matte Stencil Film. This thickness led to extra drag on the blade while cutting and also made navigating curves and corners more difficult.  I had the hardest time removing the insides of the stencils from this material.

Stenciling Results

After cutting out all my stencils, it was time to put them to the paint test. Using an 11 in. square of Muslim and  a very tight weave cotton fabric (Pimatex), I tested out each stencil at least twice.
First, I taped down my fabric to my work table.  Then I either adhered the stencil by ironing, with the adhesive backing or by taping it.  I printed each stencil using a foam circular stenciling brush and removed the stencil while the paint was wet.  My goal was to easily print a crisp image.  That depended on a few things.

Fabric

I found the tighter weave fabric lead to crisper lines.  The Pimatex had a better print than the looser weave muslin.  In the past, I have found the same to be true with more textured fabric. A coarse canvas will not be as easy to print with a precise edge.

Paint Application

I will discuss paint types and how to best apply it in a later post.  Basically, for the image to have clear edges, the paint needs to be thick enough to sit on fabric and be applied in thin layers with an up and down brush motion to avoid bleeding under the stencil edges.

Stencil Thickness

Going hand-in-hand with paint application is stencil thickness.  The thicker the stencil material, the blurrier the edges.  While stencil thickness may not matter as much for airbrushing or some other stenciling applications, for direct application to fabric, I found that it made a huge difference.  When a brush is pushing paint onto the fabric, the thicker stencil barrier allows more room for the edge line to bleed.  Because of this, my least crisp stencils were out of Mylar and the Darice material, while the best were from freezer paper, contact paper and the Grafix materials.

Stencil Adherence

The last factor that affects ease of printing and quality of image is how closely the stencil sits on the fabric.  Adhesive backed contact paper and frisket film gave nice prints with no bleeding under the edges.  So did freezer paper.  The plastic stencils that just sit on the fabric, positioned only with tape or a light temporary adhesive spray were the most difficult to print with no blurring of the edges.  I was able to get nice prints with the Grafix Matte Stencil film, in part because it was so thin.   But it was not as easy as with the freezer paper or adhesive backed products that practically sealed the edges of the stencil to the fabric.

Re-usability

The last issue to consider in determining what stencil material to use when making stencils is how you are going to use it.  Even thought freezer paper was the easiest to cut and use, it is a temporary stencil.  I tested re-using my “ABC” stencil and was able to reuse it 6 times, getting a clean print each time.  I just let the paint on the stencil dry and ironed it again.  The need to iron is also something to consider.  Freezer paper is great for a single detailed image, but you can not easily stencil a repeating image or an image layered on wet paint because of the need to iron it to be fabric. Similarly, the adhesive stencils seem to lose some of their stick, the more times they are used.

The hard plastic stencils made from stencil film and mylar are the most durable when it comes to cleaning and reusing.

So, what is the best material to use?  It really depends on your project.  For me, freezer paper, Grafix Matte Stencil Film and contact paper will be my go to choices, depending on the type of stenciling I am doing.  For example, a single detailed image – freezer paper, a repeating background print – stencil film, a three-dimensional surface that can’t be ironed – contact paper.  Whatever, your project, here is a table that can help you decide: