How To Use Stenciling + Machine Embroidery

Add stenciling to your embroidery for bold effects and added detail. Learn the basics of stenciling below, then discover ways to combine stenciling and embroidery in part 2.

Lead 1 682x1024 How To Use Stenciling + Machine Embroidery

Getting Started

Stenciling really requires only two tools: a stencil and a coloring media. There are many possibilities for each tool, ensuring a combination that’ll work for any project.


  • Stencils range from simple openings cut in paper to metal plates with detailed cutout motifs. The design size and the number of times the stencil will be used help determine which stencil is best for a particular project.
  • Paper stencils are the least durable, but they’re easy to cut and utilize a material that’s always at hand. Use heavy card stock to give the stencil more body so it won’t come apart when moist paint is applied or brush strokes are applied across its edge.
  • Freezer paper is another good stencil material. It can be ironed to the background fabric for stenciling, which is a great benefit if the stencil includes small areas that can easily shift as the color is applied. Two or more layers of freezer paper can be fused together with an iron for a sturdier stencil.
  • Many purchased stencils are cut from plastic sheets. Plastic stencils, being waterproof and resistant to tears, are more durable than paper. Find precut plastic stencils at craft or discount stores, or cut your own from blanks. Suitable plastic sheets can be found next to precut stencils, or use template plastic from the quilting department. Draw or trace the stencil design onto the plastic with a pencil or a pen. The plastic sheets can be cut with scissors, but a craft knife or stencil burning tool is useful for cutting narrow areas and fine details.
  • Metal stencils are durable and can be reused indefinitely without losing any design detail. They’re also more expensive; metal stencils tend to be smaller than precut plastic stencils. They’re also inflexible; metal stencils should only be used on flat surfaces. Metal stencils are often found with embossing and card-making supplies, but they can be used for traditional stenciling as well.
  • Designs for stencils must not have any islands or areas that float freely within larger areas that are cut away. This requirement results in the familiar appearance of stenciled letters, where the letter “O” becomes two semicircles that don’t quite meet at the top and bottom. When making original stencil designs, plan ahead to minimize the number of bridges needed, making them as small and unobtrusive as possible.

Color Selection

  • Coloring media for stencils range from pen and ink to paint and dye. The choice affects the finished appearance of the motif, depending on the material being stenciled, the finished project use and the desired appearance of the stenciling. Some media are opaque enough to use even on dark fabrics.
  • Acrylic paint is an easy option for stenciling on paper or fabric. The paints are available already compounded for use on fabric. A textile medium can be added to regular acrylic paints to adapt them for fabric use. Always read and follow the manufacturer’s directions for application and care. Many paints must be heat set before they are permanent on fabric.
  • Paint is applied to a stencil with a brush. Special stenciling brushes are cylindrical in shape, with all their bristles the same length. This shape facilitates a tapping motion called “pouncing” or “stippling” for applying color. Dip the brush in the paint and tap it on scrap paper until almost all of the paint is removed. Pounce the brush up and down over the cutout in the stencil, tapping the color onto the fabric or paper underneath. This dry brush technique applies a little paint at a time, and allows a buildup of color for shading or blending two colors for subtle variations. The technique also drives the paint into the fabric for a more supple texture and shorter drying times.
  • figure 300x225 How To Use Stenciling + Machine Embroidery Another method for applying paint to stencils results in darker edges and pale central areas. Place a heavy line or spot of paint on the stencil near the cutout area, rather than on the fabric or paper within the stencil cutout. Stroke a brush through the paint and into the cutout, dragging the paint onto the fabric beneath.
  • Acrylic paints are easy to clean up with soap and water. Be sure to clean and dry the brush and stencil between colors, or have separate tools to use with each paint color.
  • Inks can also be used for coloring stenciled designs. Choose permanent inks on the fabric. Stamp pads are a convenient distribution method for ink used in stenciling. Tap the brush on the inkpad to apply the ink to the bristles; use the stippling technique outlined above.
  • Fabric markers can be used with stencils in a variety of ways. Use a brush marker to stroke ink inward from the design edges, beginning on the stencil itself, as previously outlined. Fine tip markers can be used to outline designs by simply tracing the stencil onto underlying fabric, or to add details within a stenciled motif. They can also be used to add squiggles or crosshatches for shading on top of flat color applied with another method.
  • Oil crayons and paintsticks are wonderful for applying a layer of smooth color to a stencil. Unlike acrylics, oils dry slowly and must be cleaned up with turpentine or paint thinner. Plan ahead, and have the necessary cleaning tools available before stenciling. Drying takes 48 to 72 hours, so allow plenty of time between stenciling the motifs and adding embroidery to the project.

Other notions

  • Freezer paper ironed to the wrong side of the stenciling fabric stabilizes the fabric during the application of paint or ink. It also serves as a barrier, preventing bleedthrough onto other fabric layers (as when stenciling on a T-shirt) or the work surface. An iron-on stabilizer can be used instead and left in place during embroidery.
  • Masking tape or blue painter’s tape is perfect for temporarily holding a stencil in place. The tape prevents the stencil’s shifting between applications of different colors, or when working with a large, complex design.
  • Apply temporary spray adhesive, stencil adhesive or basting glue stick to the stencil’s wrong side to keep it flat against the decorated surface. Unlike masking tape, adhesive will attach all of the stenciled parts to the surface without interfering with the coloring process.
  • Chalk or temporary marking tools are needed for making registration marks when a stencil must be moved and realigned–like when creating a continuous border.


With the variety of media available for coloring stenciled designs, stenciling is adaptable for virtually any fabric. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Prewash fabric for stenciling to remove finishes that can interfere with color absorption.
  • Smooth fabric with a fine weave works best for finely detailed stencils.
  • Rough textured and napped fabrics are less satisfactory candidates for stenciling. Stenciled designs on textured surfaces may appear jagged or broken. Test first, and then select a different embellishment technique if the result is unsatisfactory.
  • Ink and dye penetrate into the fabric’s fibers, so they have little effect on the fabric’s hand (the way it feels and drapes). Choose penetrating color for lightweight or sheer fabrics.
  • Paints tend to sit on the surface of the material. If applied heavily over a large area, surface paints seriously affect the drape of the underlying fabric. Because they’re widely available in opaque formulations, paints may be the best choice for stenciling on dark colors.

Now that you know all about stenciling, check back on April 25, 2019 for Part 2, all about combining stenciling and embroidery!

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