How to Stencil Fabric

Stenciling is a great way to customize curtains, table linens and even bedding as well as clothing and accessories. It's an easy way to duplicate a design several times without printing and requires no expensive equipment. It's been a popular household craft for over a century.


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    Choose your fabric very carefully. Make sure it does not have a stain resistant finish. If you can pre-wash your fabric, you will be sure that it is clean of any surface treatment that will keep the paint from adhering. Do not use fabric softener. For your first project, try to avoid any soft or floaty fabric that will be difficult to keep straight. The color of the fabric will affect the color of the paint so try to avoid dark colors, unless you want that "velvet Elvis" look!
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    Prepare and gather your supplies.
    • To cut your own stencil from acetate, you will need a drawing or photocopy of a design, a sheet of glass and a small, sharp matte knife like an Exacto™ blade.
    • To make a stencil out of printer paper, simply print a simple silhouetted design from your computer and cut within the lines. This method is quick and cheap, although the stencil may not last through more than two or three uses.
    • To paint with a custom or purchased stencil, you will need textile paints, specifically designed to be both washable and dry cleanable. These paints will need to dry for 24 hours and be heat set. Nontoxic water-based textile paints are commonly available at crafts stores.
    • If you are adapting a design, make sure it will work as a stencil. Take time to plan how you will cut and try to plan only one overlay. If you have complex interlocking lines, you will need at least two stencil overlays, which will require careful pattern matching.
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    Layer the template, then glass, then acetate on top. Tape everything in place.
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    Carefully cut out the stencil, following the lines of the original. You will probably find that it is easier to cut accurately if you pull the blade slowly towards you. Turn the glass as necessary. If you make a mistake, you can repair it with a small piece of masking tape.
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    Lay out your paint colors on the palette. Do not thin the paint unless it is very, very thick - watery paint will bleed under your stencil edges. If you want pale colors, add white or use a very dry, transparent stenciling technique.
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    Test the colors and practice your painting on a piece of fabric. Make sure your brush is evenly covered with paint but do not load it. A loaded brush will spread paint under the edges of the stencil. Your goal is a nice, even dry brush technique with color that is smooth but not thick.
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    Paint all the colors in your design. Apply the paint with a gentle pounding motion, holding the brush straight up and down. Do not use a stroking motion. Again, this will keep the paint from seeping under the edges of the stencil. If your design has delicate bits that seem to be lifting as you paint, use an awl or chopstick OR even masking tape/ sellotape to hold them down as you paint.
    • Make sure to complete all the painting before proceeding to lifting the stencil. Once it has been moved, it is almost impossible to replace it exactly in the same spot.

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    When you are finished, lift the stencil carefully. The paint should be dry to the touch, but let it dry for 24 hours.
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    After 24 hours, iron your fabric on the back to set the color, using the hottest possible setting.
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  • Natural fiber fabrics with a fairly smooth surfaces work best. Be sure to buy a little extra fabric to test colors and practice on.
  • The thinner the acetate you use for cutting your own stencil, the easier it will be, but the stencil will be more fragile. Use thinner acetate for your first project.
  • Try blending colors. For example, paint the center of a rose with a pale gold and blend in orange at the petal tips with a dry brush technique.
  • If you get really involved in cutting stencils, you may want to invest in a stencil cutter. It has an electrically heated tip, somewhat like a ball point pen, that cuts through the heavier plastic faster and with less effort than a knife.
  • If you notice a small drop of paint after you're done, let it dry thoroughly and very carefully scrape it off with your matte knife.
  • If you can't find any fabric paint, or don't like it, acrylic paint works great, and you don't need to heat set it or anything. Remember though, that it will dry clean off most fabrics and significantly wash off over time with detergent. You'll need to hand wash your textile with soap. It is also less flexible than textile paint if you are stenciling clothing or any stretchy fabric.
  • If you get paint on the fabric where you don't mean to, wash it out immediately and dry it with a hair dryer. In fact, if your stencil colors are not too dark, you can usually wash the whole stencil out and start again, but don't wait!
  • If you see small areas where the paint is too thin or the edge of the design is broken or blurred when you lift the stencil, you can touch it up with a small brush. This works best with minor problems, as the paint will look different when it is brushed on.
  • As a cheap and easy solution, you can print your pattern using a household printer and normal paper and then laminate it before cutting.


  • If you use acrylic paint instead of fabric paint you must be very careful, because you can't wash out your mistakes.
  • Don't be tempted to heat set your fabric too soon. The paint may feel dry but it can smear when heated if not allowed to set.
  • The basic straight up and down painting technique for stenciling is simple to master, but can be tiring with a big project. The number one cause of paint blobs is fatigue. Take a break!

Things You'll Need

  • Fabric
  • Iron
  • Fabric paint
  • Water
  • Brushes

To make a stencil from acetate you will need:

  • Exacto™ knife
  • Acetate sheets
  • Photocopy of image to be stenciled
  • A sheet of glass

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Categories: Featured Articles | Fabric and Clothing Decoration | Stamping and Stencils