A stencil is a piece of plastic (or other sturdy material) with a design cut out of it. To decorate a fabric item with a stencil, you position it on the item, then while holding it in place, paint over the cut out parts of the template. When done, just lift up the stencil to reveal your finished design. Voila, you’ve just stenciled. Even though stenciling is really popular right now, it’s actually one of the oldest forms of human art. Stone age painters were using their hands as stencils on cave walls 35,000 years ago. The art form has been used continuously ever since.
Today, stenciling covers a huge spectrum. It’s on the cutting edge of street art, employed by none other than the famous Banksy. It’s also a favorite technique with quilters for laying down a pattern they can follow with free motion stitching. And it’s used by DIYers everywhere to add interest to décor, accessories, furniture, walls, even floors.
We’ve used it to embellish a set of pretty half aprons. A coordinated set of these aprons would make great gifts for a bridal party or a cooking or crafting collective. When you are making four, five, six or more of one thing, cost and complexity are concerns. These aprons are quick, easy, and unique. A line of decorative stitching in a color to match the stenciling is an extra-special touch.
Our trio features a trio of rich pinks and deep green. What’s great about using solids is the nearly endless selection. If you’re planning a wedding, you’re sure to find your perfect colors.
Select a stenciling color to further coordinate or contrast with your palette. We used a burnished brass for both the border and the pocket’s initial, which personalizes each unique apron to its recipient.
There are two main things you should know about stenciling:
- It gives your design a beautifully textured look, especially if you’re doing it on fabric, because the fabric’s weave is visible through the paint.
- It’s really easy to do. If, like us, you had trouble coloring inside the lines in kindergarten, you’re going to be great at stenciling. Because as long as the stencil is securely flat, your paint stays inside the design.
This is the easiest way to start stenciling. Local craft outlets, in-store and online, carry dozens of pre-cut stencils. They’re usually made of flexible, durable plastic that’s easy to clean.
Ready-made stencils are affordable and simple to work with. You can get stencils with a single, large design, or can find them with smaller designs and accents meant to be repeated.
Custom-make your own by hand
Making your own templates is also an option. You need a sheet of clear plastic, an X-Acto knife, and a cutting mat. Position the plastic sheet over the design you want, and cut it out by tracing the lines with the blade.
If you’re just starting out, you should choose a simple design that doesn’t have a continuous line running all the way around. You need a design in segments. If you cut out your design completely, you’ll be left with just a big hole in your plastic! You can find free stencil designs online that can be safely cut out without this problem.
The key to cutting out your stencil is to be patient. Just relax and go slowly.
Custom stencils with a digital cutter
If you have a digital cutter, like the Artistic Edge shown above, you can design your template on your computer. Their software can automatically add little uncut areas to your design so your finished template comes out of the cutter in one piece.
This type of tool can create stencil designs that would be just about impossible to cut out by hand. And the Edge can cut them out very quickly with amazing accuracy.
However you get your stencil, you’re going to love the way it can embellish even the simplest items.
Paint and application tools
Everyone has their own preference, but we like working with fabric paint over fabric pens for stenciling.
In the steps below, you’ll see we used both a foam wedge as well as a stencil brush. Test various options to see which tool handles best for you.
Sewing Tools You Need
- Sewing Machine and standard presser foot
- Quarter Inch Seam foot; optional but nice for the apron edgestitching
Fabric and Other Supplies
As with store-bought aprons, our design is meant to be one-size-fits-all. However, we realize you may still wish to adjust your measurements smaller or larger. Use the illustration below, which shows finished dimensions, as a reference for sizing up or down.
NOTE: Supplies listed are for ONE apron; multiply as needed for your group
- 1¼ yards of 44″+ wide solid cotton fabric for the skirt, lining and pocket
- ½ yard of 44″+ wide solid cotton fabric for the waistband and ties
- ⅓ yard of 20″+ wide lightweight fusible interfacing for the waistband and pocket; we used Pellon ShirTailor
- Design stencil for skirt border;
- Alphabet stencil for pocket
- Stencil paint
- Stencil applicator
- Low-tack tape to help hold stencils to fabric and to block out nearby designs; you can also try a stencil adhesive if you’re having trouble with bleeding on your tests
- All purpose thread to coordinate with stencil color; we used gold metallic
- All purpose thread to coordinate with fabrics
- See-through ruler
- Iron and ironing board
- Scissors or rotary cutter and mat
- Fabric pen or pencil
- Seam gauge
- Seam ripper
- Straight pins
- White paper to use between pocket layers when stenciling
- Plastic to protect your work surface when stenciling
Getting Started and Pattern Download
- Download and print the Pocket Pattern.
IMPORTANT: The pattern download consists of ONE 8½” x 11″ sheet. You must print this PDF file at 100%. DO NOT SCALE to fit the page.
- Cut out the pattern piece along the solid line.
- From the fabric for the skirt, lining and pocket, cut the following:
TWO 18″ high x 38″ wide rectangles
Using the pattern, cut ONE pocket piece on the fold
- From the fabric for the waistband and ties, cut the following:
TWO 7″ x 31″ strips for the ties
ONE 5″ x 22″ strip for the waistband
- From the interfacing, cut the following:
ONE 2″ x 21″ strip for the waistband
Using the pattern, cut ONE pocket piece not on the fold – just cut along the fold – you are only interfacing half of the pocket
At Your Sewing Machine & Ironing Board
Stenciling the pocket
- Find the pocket and interfacing. Following manufacturer’s instructions fuse the interfacing to the wrong side of one half of the pocket.
- Press the pocket in half, wrong sides together.
- Place a piece of paper between the pocket layers to prevent any bleed through.
- Measure 2″ down from the top folded edge of the pocket and 3½” in from each side. Place a pin at this center point.
- Block out any nearby designs or letters on your stencil with the low-tack tape to prevent accidentally getting paint onto an extraneous area.
- The paint can bleed a little through the fabric, so we recommend using a sheet of plastic to cover your work surface. You may also want to add another piece of fabric or a smooth paper towel on top of the plastic sheet underneath the fabric.
- Have a damp rag or paper towel handy in case you get any paint on your fingers. You don’t want to unintentionally transfer any paint to the fabric.
- Lay the stencil onto the pocket, lining up the center top of the letter with the center pin point on the pocket.
- Tape the stencil in place. As mentioned above, tape securely and/or use a stencil adhesive to insure your stencil is flat as the proverbial pancake!
NOTE: You’ll notice in our photos below that there is dried gold paint on our stencil. We were stenciling up a storm and always using the same color. So, we opted to simply let our stencil dry between uses, and made certain there was never any excess paint on the back of the stencil. If you want to be super careful and/or if you are working with multiple colors, you may want to take the time to wash and dry your stencil in between uses.
- Apply the paint to the stencil. It’s best to bush away from the stencil edges towards the center of the open area. This helps prevent any paint from sneaking under the edges of the stencil.
NOTE: As with many techniques, we always suggest testing everything first on a scrap to make sure it’s all working. We found the metallic paint didn’t look very metallic until it started to dry a bit. Testing first allowed us to figure out how heavy a layer of paint was needed. You can also very carefully lift up one edge of your stencil, checking underneath to see how it’s looking.
- Set the pocket aside to dry.
- When our pocket letter had dried, we added a little heart motif above the letter. This is totally optional; the small heart flourish happened to be one of the secondary designs available on our chosen stencil.
- Center the motif over the top of the letter, tape out nearby designs, secure the stencil in place, and apply the paint in the same manner as above.
- Repeat as needed to create each of your pockets.
Stenciling the skirt
- Find one of the two skirt panels. Find the center bottom of the skirt (the 38″ side) and mark this point with a pin.
- The exact position of the border will depend on your stencil. We wanted the bottom edge of our stenciled border to be approximately 2″ up from the finished edge of the skirt. You need to take into account the distance from the bottom of the stencil cut-out to the actual bottom edge of the stencil. To this, remember to account for a ½” seam allowance. For our sample, this calculation meant we placed the actual bottom straight edge of our stencil 2″ up from the bottom raw edge of the fabric. The inside end of the stencil should be aligned with the center pin point of the skirt. Tape the stencil in place.
- As above, begin adding paint.
- Work across the stencil from right to left (if right handed; you can rotate for a left-handed application).
- Remove the stencil and allow the paint to dry.
- When dry, replace the stencil to create the next section of border. Again, the exact placement will depend on your stencil. Measure the distance between the cut sections of the design motif. Our design sections were approximately ¼” apart. We overlapped the stencil so our new starting point was ¼” from the ending point of the first section. Tape in place.
- Apply paint as above.
- Repeat on the opposite side of the center point. For our stencil, we applied two sections to the right of center and two sections to the left of center, creating a continuous border that ended approximately 2″ from the raw side edge of the fabric on each end.
Finish pocket and attach to skirt
- Find the stenciled pocket, which should be dry. Fold it right sides together and pin in place, leaving an approximate 2″ opening along one side near the top (you want the opening to be along the straightest portion of the pocket).
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch around the outer perimeter of the pocket. Go slowly to maintain a smooth curve. Remember to lock your seam on either side of the 2″ opening left for turning.
- Press the seam allowance and clip the curve.
- Turn the pocket right side out through the 2″ opening. Use a long, blunt tool to gently round out the seam from the inside. A knitting needle, chopstick or point turner all work well.
- Press well, pressing in the raw edges of the opening so they are flush with sewn seam.
- Find the stenciled apron skirt, which should be dry. Fold the skirt panel in half and lightly press a vertical center crease. The crease needs to be visible only from the top about halfway down.
- Place the pocket right side up on the skirt panel. It should be positioned 4½” down from the top raw edge of the skirt panel and 4″ to the left of the center crease line.
- Re-thread the machine with contrasting thread in the top and bobbin (we used gold). Lengthen your stitch.
- Edgestitch the pocket in place, running your seam as close as possible to the edge of the pocket
Add the skirt lining
- Find the remaining skirt panel. Layer this panel and the front panel right sides together, sandwiching the pocket between the layers.
- Pin in place along both sides and across the bottom. The top remains open.
- Re-thread the machine with thread to match the fabric in the top and bobbin. Revert to a standard stitch length.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch along each side and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners.
- Clip the corners. Turn the skirt right side out.
- Press flat.
- Re-thread the machine with contrasting thread in the top and bobbin (we used gold). Lengthen your stitch.
- Edgestitch along both sides and across the bottom, pivoting at the corners.
Gather the skirt panel
- Re-thread the machine with thread to match the fabric in the top and bobbin. Increase the stitch length to its maximum.
- Run one or two lines of basting stitches across the panels, keeping the the basting within the ½” seam allowance. Remember, don’t lock either end of your seam.
- Pull the basting to gather the panels to approximately 21″.
NOTE: If you are new to this technique, take a look at our article: How to Make Gathers by Machine.
- Set the gathered skirt panel aside.
- If necessary, re-thread with thread to match the new fabric color in the top and bobbin.
- Find the two strips for the ties.
- Fold each tie in half lengthwise, right sides together
- Pin down the long side and across one end of each tie.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch along the side and across the one end, pivoting at the corner. Leave the opposite end open for turning.
- Press open the seam allowance and clip the corners.
- Turn both ties right side out and press flat. Use a long, blunt tool, such as a knitting needle or chopstick to gently push out the corners of each tie so they are nice and sharp.
- Set the ties aside.
- Find the waistband fabric strip and the waistband interfacing strip.
- Fold the waistband strip in half wrong sides together and press to set a center crease.
- Unfold, wrong side up, so the crease line is visible.
- Place the interfacing strip on the bottom half of the waistband strip (on the wrong side), aligning one edge of the interfacing along the center crease and centering the strip end-to-end. This will leave ½” of fabric visible on both sides of the interfacing and along its bottom edge. Following manufacturer’s directions, fuse the interfacing in place.
- Along the the top, non-interfaced half of the waistband, fold back the long raw fabric edge ½” and press
- Flip over the waistband so it is right side up and flat on your work surface.
- Find the waist ties.
- Align the raw end of one tie with one raw side of the waistband. The tie will need to be pleated slightly to narrow its end so it will fit the waistband.
- Align the folded edge of the tie against the waistband’s center crease. Place the opposite seamed edge ½” up from the waistband’s raw edge. Fold the pleat down towards the waistband’s raw edge. Pin in place.
- Repeat to pin the other tie in place at the opposite end of the waistband.
- Fold the waistband right sides together along the original center crease line, encasing the ties between the layers. The folded edge of the waistband should now be aligned with the bottom folded edge of the tie. The ½” raw edge of the waistband extends below the folded edge. Pin in place.
- Using a ½” seam allowance stitch each side of the waistband, securing the ties.
- Press the seam allowance towards the waistband.
- Turn the waistband right side out. Pull the ties out into position on either side. There should still be a ½” free raw edge along the bottom of the waistband. Press flat.
- Find the gathered skirt panel.
- Place the waistband right side together with the front of the skirt panel, aligning that remaining bottom raw edge of the waistband with the top raw edges of the skirt panel. Adjust the gathers as needed to fit the waistband. Pin in place.
- Using a ½” seam allowance, stitch across the top of the skirt through all the layers. We find it easiest to stitch with the gathered skirt layers facing up.
- Press the seam allowance up towards the waistband.
- Bring the folded edge of the waistband down into place, covering the seam you just made. Remove any gathering stitches that show. Pin in place.
- Re-thread the machine with the contrasting thread in the top and bobbin.
- Select a decorative stitch. Practice on a scrap of fabric to get the stitch length and width set the way you like it.
- Stitch across the waistband with the decorative stitch, adding an accent and securing the back hem of the waistband in one pass.
- Your decorative stitch line should begin and end at the side edgestitching of the apron skirt.
Project Design: Alicia Thommas
Sample Creation and Instructions: Debbie Guild