Search here...

taking back the T-shirt: stencil project


Who was the genius who thought up the logo T? I’ve been doing an informal study on my walks around Lake Merritt lately, and I’m amazed at the variety of ads we choose to sport on our chests. Many are college affiliations (or desired affiliations), locales (I hella “heart” Oakland!) and sports teams; a fair number are bands, but a lot of them are corporations – Gap, Banana, Abercrombie, AAA, pharmaceutical companies, you name it – who under slightly different circumstances would be paying very good money for the visibility we offer up on our torsos.

According to legend (and numerous postings on the internet), the USC Athletic department came out with the earliest stenciled T-shirt in 1932 and established the now ubiquitous “property of” T’s. Originally intended to prevent theft of the (at that time) unusual and innovative undergarments, the “Property of USC” stencil emblazoned on the front only managed to make the T’s even more desirable, and a wave of T-shirt theft ensued.

Fourteen years later in 1946, Thomas Dewey’s presidential campaign leveraged the idea and used printed t-shirts to popularize the slogan “Dew it with Dewey”. (And here we are, 62 years after that with “Hope” and “Yes We Can!”) By the 1960’s the T-shirt worn as outer garment was fully mainstream (thanks in part to James Dean’s 1955 role in Rebel Without a Cause, which etched the image of the T-shirt-clad heartthrob into our psyches forever), and played an essential role in espousing the political and social sentiments of the day. Peace signs, tie dye, band names, and political figures and mantras began cropping up as printing processes advanced and became more sophisticated.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s, though, that the T-shirt really became the advertising vehicle that it is today. Cigarette companies, soft drinks, television programs and just about every brand you could think of bought into the jersey invasion. I still remember my friend’s soft-to-perfection Mello Yello T that I thought was just about the coolest thing ever. I’m not sure that the logo ever enticed me to actually drink the sickly sweet yellow fizz, but I certainly knew the brand.

Now, I have nothing against signing your chest space over to Gap or Nike or Coke (or even Harvard!) if that’s what’s nearest and dearest to your heart. But with so much important stuff going on in the world today and so many things to get excited about, why not give a little love to something more personal to YOU and make your own logo T? How about a shirt featuring a favorite politician or charitable organization? Or a philosophy, plant or animal you really dig (I hella “heart” llamas!)? Perhaps your child or grandchild deserves to have their face on a T-shirt? That’s the beauty of making it yourself: the possibilities are literally endless! Today’s project: how to stencil your own T-shirt.

How to Stencil a T-shirt
A stencil is really just a barrier that allows paint to pass through cut out areas while keeping it from the white spaces. The trick is that the white areas (or non-cut areas) must remain connected. To begin, you will need a two-color image (white and a color, say, black), either text only, an image or a combination. To create this image, see tips, below.

Other things you will need include:
– water-based screen-print or stencil paint, or acrylic or spray paint
– a stippling brush
– water

– clear shelf paper (optional)

– a cutting mat and an exacto knife (if you don’t have a cutting mat, heavy cardboard works okay)
– extra exacto blades, if your stencil is large or complicated

– a folded newspaper or newsprint (at least 2 layers thick)

– an iron, if using screen print paint

– a clean and pressed t-shirt

1. To begin, take your 2-color image and coat each side with the shelf paper. This creates a stiffer stencil, which will repel the paint so you can use it again. Alternatively, you can draw your image on heavier paper or cardboard, which will hold up to at least a few uses.

2. With your exacto blade, cut the black areas out of your drawing, and making sure to keep the white areas connected.

3. Place the newspaper or newsprint inside the t-shirt to prevent the paint from soaking through to the back of the shirt.

4. Arrange the stencil on your shirt where you would like the image to appear. Take care to consider the fit of the shirt, so you don’t end up with your stencil on your belly if you want it on your chest. You may want to tape the stencil in place to help prevent it from moving.

5. If you are using paint, put a small amount in a on a plate or in a dish, and load The stippling brush by dipping it in the paint and tapping off any excess on the plate. Stipple the stencil by tapping it perpendicularly on the fabric. Try to keep the stencil from moving, and prevent any paint from slipping under the stencil. If you are using spray paint, spray the stencil at close range so the paint stays within the cover of the stencil.

6. When you have finished, let the paint dry completely, and if you are using fabric or screen print paint follow the directions to set the paint (this usually ,involves ironing). Wipe the excess paint off the stencil, and rinse off your brushes.

Tips for creating your 2-color image
You can get stencil letters and numbers at most hardware or art stores, but if you want to make your own, you can find references for stencil fonts here:, or on any number of other sites on the web.
For images, you can just use your imagination, or if you want to capture a certain likeness, say, your child, it helps to trace – either by hand or on the computer using Photoshop or a similar program. Group the darkest areas together into the “color” areas, which will be cut out of your stencil and will be the painted areas on the final shirt.




  • bellathreads

    Your stencil turned out great. I have only used freezer paper as a stencil, but this seems like it might work better. I will have to give it a go. Thanks.

  • xxloublouxx

    Think I might give this ago!!! I’ts so cute! I love your work ^_^

Comments, questions? We'd love to hear from you!

Monaluna Design