Eco Tutorial: Stenciled T- Shirts

Tutorial submitted by rikrak.

We’ve always loved to give handmade gifts in our home. a few years ago, when our son was 2, i was looking for an easy, inexpensive way to share my wonderful son’s adorable toddler drawings with the world! :) i just love those clean, dramatic lines and thought they would be wonderful on a t-shirt! having them made at a store was too pricey, so i did a little research, and came across an amazing group of handcrafters on flickr that were making easy stencils and then using them to create handmade t-shirt masterpieces! I fell in love!

Mr. rikrak & little rikrak in their adorable handmade stenciled shirts, made when our little one was 2.  (don’t worry – they don’t always wear matching shirts! :)

So here’s my variation on contact paper stenciling for you and your child, or niece or nephew, or kids that you just love and want to make projects with! (or hey – just make them for yourself – it’s so superfun!) and no need to just make t-shirts! we’ve made stenciled canvas totebags for our non-t-shirt wearing family members, and little stenciled pencil cases for other friends! basically, anything fabricy works!

Better then a fabric transfer, there seems to be no peeling or cracking with this method! woohoo!

Above: the original drawing we chose, created by my little sweetie
when he was 2.  he named it: mr. sunny.
Above: another image that was a great hit.
drawn by our little sweetie, age 2, as stenciled onto a t-shirt.

For this project, you’ll need:

a fun drawing (sized how you’d like for the project)
inexpensive contact paper (plasticized sticky-backed paper available in dollar stores, craft stores, hardware stores and more. shelf paper works well. available on a roll)
cuticle scissors (or an exacto knife, if you’re doing the cutting away from children!)
newsprint (or another used paper scrap, as large as the shape of your drawing
a ballpoint pen
a square of cardboard (large enough to fit inside the tshirt)
fabric paint in the colour(s) of your choice
paintbrush (inexpensive foam brush works great)
masking tape
(now, there is some debate about if a freezer paper stencil is better then a contact paper stencil. here are my thoughts on it. both are great. i prefer the contact paper one for this project for a couple of reasons. 1) contact stencils are reusable, if you’re careful with them. that means you can do more then one print, on a different item, without redoing the first few steps. also, 2) contact paper is readily available here in my hometown. freezer paper was a bit challenging to find when i was looking for it a few years ago. however, if you decide to branch out into more detailed projects, the concensus seems to be that a freezer paper stencil gives you more detail possibilities!)

1. Choose the drawing! with your little sweetiepie – choose one of their favourite drawings. keep a few helpful hints in mind: try to find a basic linedrawing, perferably with thick lines, and focus on one main shape to start. decide if you need to enlarge, or decrease the size of the original image for the size of the shirt you are making. (this can easily be done by using a photocopier or scanner).. can’t find an image? draw a new one! for older children, who might have more advanced drawings, perhaps a fun silhouette workshop session would be fun, then you can use the results for the tshirts!

2. Prepare the t-shirt: on a flat surface, insert the cardboard square into the middle of the prewashed t-shirt. this way, as you work at painting the shirt, the paint won’t bleed thru to the back. place the shirt (with cardboard inside) face up on the surface. i also like to add a layer or two of newsprint, or used paper between the front of the shirt and the cardboard, for extra blotting protection.

3. Transfer the image to the contact paper: on a flat surface, place the drawing (or photocopy) face up. place an unpeeled piece of contact paper over top. you can tape down the contact paper on the sides, so that it won’t slip, if your child would like to do the tracing! using a pen, carefully trace the outline of the image. in the image we’re using (mr. sunny!) , it needs to have an outline, then two *floating* eyes and a *floating* mouth… so we drew the inside line of the sun shape, then the outside line. then the outlines of the eyes and mouth.

4. Cut out the stencil: unless the child is older, this step is best done by an adult. untape the stencil. carefully cut out the stencil. in ours, we are carefully cutting out the white space inner image line, then the white space outer image line, then the *floating* eyes and mouth. many sources suggest an exacto knife, but i prefer tiny, sharp cuticle scissors. i feel they give me more control cutting, but use whichever you feel more adept at! divide up the parts you’ll be using, and non-usable parts. (for example, we *used* the inner white body of mr. sunny, and the outlying white space. we were *not using* the cut out eyes, the cut out mouth, the cutaway line/space between his head and the sky.) i think the cutting and figuring out which are the right parts can be the most confusing part of the process. be patient! you can do it! it is easier if you are just using a silhouette, and have no floating parts.

5. Placing the stencil on the shirt: before peeling the paper backing off, decide together where the image will go on the front of the shirt. remember… where the stencil is will end up being the colour of your shirt. where the stencil isn’t will be the colour of your paint. now carefully peel off the paper backing from each part and stick onto shirt. then carefully smooth each part of the stencil with your finger, to ensure it is fully stuck, so that no paint bleeding will occur. the parts that will be the colour of the shirt will be covered. the parts that will be painted will be exposed.

6. Painting the shirt: we just use regular foam mini-paintbrushes. dip the brush into the fabric paint. it will be nice and thick. try holding the tshirt while your child gently paints in the open-stencil areas. this should be a nice slow process. be careful not to paint outside the contact paper edge, or it will land on the shirt where you don’t want it. after one coat, take a close look with your child and see if there are any uneven spaces. we like to make ours nice and even, and not too thin, and not too thick (without being gloppy!) – this way it will have a solid line look, even after 100′s of washes!

7. Letting it dry: let the paint dry for an hour or so. go do something else fun! some folks say wait longer, but we always found we were both too excited to wait any more! once fairly dry (or else it might bleed), gently peel off the stencil parts. and tada! a magical homemade tshirt awaits, with your kidlet’s art on display! now let it set for up to 24 hours to ensure it’s totally dry.

8. Set the image: the fabric paint we use needs to be heat-set as the final step. follow the paint instructions (which might just be to gently iron the image to heat-set it)

9. Enjoy the shirt!! we made matching ones for our whole family! and gave away a whole bunch in different colours as gifts a few years back! ours have been worn & washed 100′s of times and the paint remained in tact perfectly! and i gotta tell ya, i think everyone loved them! :) it’s so fun to see fun friends and family wearing them around!

* as a further idea, you can use a fabric marker pen to have your child sign their name, and date it, too!

* you can also use any image to make your stencil. maybe after using a drawing, you’d like to try your hand at a favourite silhouette from the internet, or try this fun idea for making a silhouette of your kiddies from inhabitots! i gotta tell you, making your own reusable stencils is wonderfully addictive, and so much fun for everyone. great to try at a party, if you have lots of helping adult hands, or with a group!

* you can reuse your stencil a few times. i’ve used most about 4 times each. if you are taking a long break inbetween, affix the stencil to saranwrap, in order to save the stickiness of the backing.

This post was written by

Kate @ KnitStorm – who has written posts on Eco Etsy.