How to Stencil Fabrics

by Tara Woodbury on April 12, 2018


A really fun way to add some color and life to a canvas bag, tee-shirt or tablecloth is to add a design with stencils. But knowing what fabrics and what paints work best as well as how to stencil the fabric effectively is key. Many of the techniques you use with stenciling walls also apply to painting a stenciled design onto fabric. However, in most cases you will want to use fabric paint. Not only does it work really well for textiles, it will last when you wash your tee-shirt or tablecloth. With a little practice, you can be stenciling fabrics for every room in your home or as gifts for the holidays!

First, you need to know what fabrics work best for stenciling with paint. Cotton is the most versatile and is easy to stencil. One type of cotton, canvas is heavy and absorbent so not prone to bleeds, making it ideal for stenciling. Most cellulose fibers like rayon or linen are similar to cotton and good for stenciling. Synthetic fabrics may be another story as not all fabric paints will work with them. It is a good idea to check the label and test the fabric and paint first. Silk is a little trickier and you may need to buy special paint made for use with silk in order to be successful. Very rustic cloths like burlap work great for stenciling especially using a roller brush. Unlike other fabrics, with burlap you can use a regular acrylic or house paint versus a fabric paint. This will save you some money.

Second, you will need to prepare your fabric for painting. You must pre-wash your fabric. Then practice your technique with some test strips and paint first. Many fabric paints will need some kind of heat treatment to lock in the design. The label should give you instructions for how best to do this. Usually, it simply involves putting the fabric into the dryer once the paint is dry or using an iron.

Third, you must prepare your work surface. A great work surface for stenciling fabric is a large piece of freezer paper. You can iron the freezer paper to the underside of the fabric (make sure the plastic side of the paper is facing away from the fabric). You can also use a firm piece of non-corrugated cardboard and use a little bit of low-tack spray adhesive to keep your fabric from moving around. Choosing a good surface for your stenciling project is important especially with things like tee-shirts where colors may seep through to the other side if not prevented. And unlike with a wall or hard surface where you can paint over a mistake or wipe it away, with fabric once you mess up, you need to start all over.

Fourth, you will secure the stencil to the fabric. You can use our self-adhesive stencils and depending on the type of fabric add tape if necessary. You can also use low-tack spray adhesive for other brand stencils, let it dry and after securing your fabric to the work surface, apply your stencil. You want the hold of the stencil to be lighter than the hold of the work surface so the stencil doesn’t pull the fabric up every time it is moved.

Now, it’s finally time to apply the paint! Because most fibers are pretty absorbent, you will see the paint soaks in without spreading out. But you do need to make sure the paint penetrates the fibers so make sure to work the paint in well. You can use a roller or a brush here and apply the same techniques we go over in our How To Stencil Using a Roller with Liquid Paint blog post. Carefully remove the stencil once done and allow the paint to dry. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for curing the paint.

To add interest, a broken color effect can be achieved by blending colors. If using a brush, try a stippling technique, by making little dots of color over and over again. Apply your first color to the selected areas then fill in the rest with one or more colors, using a separate brush for each. Let the colors overlap but keep in mind when colors are blended, your design can easily get muddy. If using a roller, make sure to have a separate roller for each color. No matter which technique you choose, avoid using complementary color pairs. Colors that are next to each other on the color wheel tend to blend really well.

You can also try streaking colors by using a stiff, flat artist’s brush loaded up with more paint than usual. Sweep your brush from the edge of the stencil towards the middle and be careful around the edges to avoid bleeding. Repeat with complementary colors, avoiding blending them and remember to use a new brush for each color. This can make for a very interesting effect.

Now that you have some basic techniques for stenciling fabric, we hope you will give it a try. Our home and hobby stencils work great for stenciling textiles of all types. If you aren’t sure about a project you are considering, give us a call and we are happy to chat about it.