DIY Stenciling

Make your own one-of-a-kind T-shirts, patches, sweatshirts, et cetera.

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. ♦


  • Lily May 14th, 2013 7:45 PM


  • Sharon May 14th, 2013 7:58 PM

    ohhhh my god when i was younger i looked ALL OVER the internet on how to do stenciling and haha rookie look what youve done marry me

  • MissKnowItAll May 14th, 2013 8:03 PM

    For more complex desgins (like the Ramones shirt) did you stencil each piece seperately or all at once?

  • yourenotfunny May 14th, 2013 8:10 PM

    Great! I need to get back into the habit of making things – some “artist” I’ve turned out to be. How do you wash shirts/can you? I remember writing on a shirt with sharpie but then I washed it and it bled everywhere and it looked really lame.

    • goinghome May 14th, 2013 9:09 PM

      I’ve done a bit of stenciling in the past, and I would use basic acrylic paint from craft stores mixed with a ‘for fabrics’ base from the same brand and follow the instructions provided with it. You don’t need anything fancy, I’ve painted jeans with that mixture (with a paint/base mixture from the dollar store) and washed them once a week in the washing machine for over a year and the paint didn’t fade. Good luck, and have fun :)

    • ashleeann May 15th, 2013 12:15 AM

      I use this method to make shirts all the time and use Tulip Soft Fabric Paint. If you use two layers of paint, the paint washes like a store bought screen printed shirt and lasts through years in the wash (with minimal fading.) It comes in a little bottle, but it’s inexpensive and lasts a while.

  • heartshapedbox May 14th, 2013 8:11 PM


  • Conana May 14th, 2013 8:17 PM

    I loooooooove Marlena’s tutorials! she’s so cute and simple and makes everything look so nice and perfect <3 I think I'll try making a patch with a camera on it!! thank you for the DIY :D

  • Guinevere May 14th, 2013 8:18 PM

    Once again, Marlena has proven herself to be 20,000% times better than everyone else.

    But really this is way cool. I used to do a kind-of silkscreen, without the screen. I would cut a design out of contact paper, stick it to the shirt, and then put fabric paint on the cut-out part of the contact paper. They turned out pretty well!

  • Faith P. May 14th, 2013 8:19 PM

    This is seriously just what I needed! Band shirts can be either too expensive or hard to find, so this is perfect. Can’t wait to try it with an Arctic Monkeys or a Smiths logo.

  • GlitterKitty May 14th, 2013 8:19 PM

    This is the answer to all my “why don’t I have a t shirt of this” problems. You’re awesome.

  • whambamthankyoumaam May 14th, 2013 8:26 PM

    Thank you so much! And your black flag shirt is fabulous!

  • aliosh May 14th, 2013 8:45 PM

    how do you do this on photoshop?? gimp isn’t downloading for some reason

  • mingxi May 14th, 2013 9:14 PM


  • K8 is Gr8 May 14th, 2013 10:16 PM

    <3333 I need to do this!!!

  • Stephanie May 14th, 2013 10:26 PM

    OMG THIS HAS MADE MY LIFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Ruby B. May 14th, 2013 10:32 PM

    I have been looking for a tutorial exactly like this for about a year. I am SO HAPPY.

  • spudzine May 14th, 2013 10:37 PM

    Marlena, the clothes that you stenciled in the examples above are SO. CUTE. Like seriously. You are a fashion GENIUS(note that I didn’t say you had a “passion for fashion” in an attempt to avoid sounding cliche). I love you and your BRAIN(I hope that wasn’t as creepy as it’s read. Oh wait-it is).

  • taste test May 14th, 2013 11:21 PM

    oh my god. this is amazing. I’ve wanted to make my own t-shirts forever, but I can’t do fabric paint and sharpies start to bleed & fade after a few washes. I think my closet will have like 5000 more t-shirts by the time summer is over…

  • foreverslaine May 14th, 2013 11:49 PM

    We need a place to send pictures of the finished product. I want to see what everyone created!

  • kathryn-s May 15th, 2013 12:16 AM

    This is AMAZING! I definitely want to copy that witch heart meadham kirchhoff design thing because it is SO COOL omg

  • elliecp May 15th, 2013 2:12 AM

    I love stencilling! It actually works really well too :)

  • unicornconnect May 15th, 2013 3:50 AM


  • Charlotte CallaGirl May 15th, 2013 6:26 AM

    OMG I AM SO GONNA USE THIS IDEA!!! I agree with all of the previous comments, but mostly, this is just a NECCESSITY in life! See me around again, certainly!

  • thebrownette May 15th, 2013 10:21 AM


  • harriet.the.unicorn May 15th, 2013 10:57 AM

    I am so going to try this!! I love Marlena’s tutorials <3

  • Mimi7 May 15th, 2013 11:56 AM

    Thank you so much!! ! I’ve always had ideas for t-shirts that i wanted to make, but it seemed hard. I am totally going to do this right away.
    I <3 Marlena!!

  • Microbyte1 May 15th, 2013 3:23 PM

    this is the best article ever !

  • I W May 15th, 2013 3:49 PM

    This is awesome!! I have made some t shirts before, including one with the phases of the moon on (I pretended it was revision for my Astronomy exam) but I always just use a tiny paintbrush and it takes SO LONG. This will make my life about a zillion times easier. I am not exaggerating at all.

  • adler May 15th, 2013 4:23 PM


  • ghoststakepolaroids May 15th, 2013 7:16 PM

    this is perfect! I have been looking for a good stencil tutorial agesss, and here it issss

  • FlowerPower May 15th, 2013 7:20 PM

    OMG rookie. stahp. Too much coolness, and finals are in a week!

  • loonylizzy May 15th, 2013 10:22 PM

    so awesome!! i can’t wait to try this!

  • leavesofyggdrasil May 16th, 2013 12:01 AM

    This is so cool omg
    the only thing is when I open an image in gimp and index it, I can’t use the eraser or paintbrush. Like, whenever I click the image with it, nothing happens. Am I just missing something totally obvious? :C

    • leavesofyggdrasil May 16th, 2013 10:35 PM

      never mind I got it. the brush wasn’t on. i’m going to go hang my head in shame.

  • Mary the freak May 16th, 2013 4:47 PM


    This made my life complete!!

  • Sinead May 28th, 2013 7:05 AM

    Ah I’ve done something like this before, but with a fabric pen (like a sharpie, but it doesn’t wash out).

  • ueno54 May 29th, 2013 5:39 AM

    omg omg omg this is great! rookie, you rock!

  • afternoonrose June 11th, 2013 1:36 PM

    This is such an amazing idea !! but does anyone know an alternative paper that will work as well as freezer paper?They don’t seem to sell it in Ireland or it has a different name.I tried using grease-proof paper and it just clogged up my printer :$

  • book_kitty June 14th, 2013 7:34 PM

    YUS! I finally got a tank top to use for this today. Also anyone with a laser printer – DONT PUT FREEZER PAPER DIRECTLY IN!!! Because laser printers use heat to create your text/image, it may melt the waxy part and jam your printer. You can either use a inkjet printer or print on regular paper and trace onto freezer paper. ;)

  • flightdust August 17th, 2013 6:57 AM

    I have looked everywhere for how to do this!!!! How are you this awesome all the time?!