Just a few of the things I've attacked with stencils.

Just a few of the things I’ve attacked with stencils.

Hi guys. Today we’re gonna to do some T-shirt stenciling! Stenciling is a cheaper, less messy, and somewhat easier alternative to screen-printing, and the results aren’t as detailed-looking or slick, but I actually like the lo-fi, handmade look of a stenciled tee. (You can stencil just about anything, but I mainly stick with T-shirts…I need to branch out.) All you need is:

  • An image-editing program like GIMP, Photoshop, Illustrator, or Paint

  • Freezer paper (more on that below)
  • An X-ACTO knife
  • A T-shirt or something else that you want to stencil (I’m using a piece of scrap fabric to make a patch.)
  • Fabric paint
  • A small paintbrush
  • A sponge brush

How to do it:
1. First, pick an image that you want to put on your T-shirt(s). The images that work best are very simple, without a lot of detail or shade, and black-and-white—like the picture of Siouxsie that I’m using here. If the image you want to use is in color, you’ll need to convert it to black-and-white before moving on to the next step. I use GIMP, a free program you can download here; but you can use any app you want—just adjust these instructions accordingly!


2. In GIMP, click on the Image tab and find Mode in the drop-down menu; you’ll get a second drop-down box with an option called Indexed—choose that.


3. Yet another pop-up box should appear—from that menu pick the option that says “Use black and white (1-bit) palette,” then click Convert.


Just like that, your image is now stencil-able!


4. Since you’re going to cut this image out of a sheet of paper, you need to make sure that the “negative space” areas are all connected—in this case, the white parts of the image. In GIMP you can use the eraser tool to create little bridges, or lines, between unconnected islands of negative space. In the image above, you can see that Siouxsie’s teeth and the whites of her eyes need to be connected to their nearest white sections, or else my final print will look like this:


How scary is that? Make sure you add those bridges!


5. Print out your design. You can use regular printer paper, but I don’t recommend it—in my experience the paint bleeds all over the place unless you use this stuff:


Freezer paper! It comes in rolls that are usually by the tinfoil at the grocery story. It’s about $5 for a huge roll, and it’s the absolute best for stencil making. Freezer paper has two sides: a regular paper side that you can print your design onto, and a glossy side that you can fuse to your fabric with a hot iron—that will prevent any horrible paint-bleeding that would blur the lines of your image.


6. Now you’re gonna cut out your stencil. This isn’t hard to do at all, but it can be a bit tedious! Put on some good music or a podcast or something. Using your X-ACTO, cut out and remove the black areas of your design (unless you’re printing on a dark background, in which case reverse these directions) and pop them out. Be sure to keep those bridges connecting the white parts intact—the last thing you want to do is cut through them (remember Scary Zombie Siouxsie?).


7. Place your stencil on your T-shirt/fabric scrap/whatever and run an iron (on low heat) over the whole thing. This will stick the shiny plastic side of the freezer paper to the fabric to prevent the paint from bleeding out.


8. Using your sponge brush, press your paint into the open areas of the stencil—don’t like glob it on and push it around, or else you might push the paint into places it shouldn’t go (like under places the paper is covering). Leave everything alone to dry for a while.

9. When the paint is dry, check and see if you’ll need to add another coat (sometimes one doesn’t do the job). Wait until all coats are dry before moving on to step 10.


10. Peel the stencil off.


11. Use your small paintbrush to fill in the blank lines where you made those little bridges in step 4.


12. And there you have it! One hand-stenciled Siouxsie patch (with a kind of wonky O). Don’t be discouraged if your first few attempts at stenciling aren’t perfect; you’re bound to have little mess-ups here and there. Those just add more charm! That’s what I tell myself anyway. ♦