I have been stencilling for a while now using screen printing inks. All good, except that these inks are totally opaque, and they don’t blend or flow. So they are not that suitable when you want to do something like this.

Screen printing inks are also expensive. My fibre reactive dyes (Procion, Drimarene K) go a lot further for the same outlay, produce vibrant colours, plus they are transparent if thinly applied and flow into each other for soft transitions. The problem is how to stop them from flowing in an uncontrolled fashion like a drop of ink on blotting paper. To achieve this the dye needs to be thickened with guar gum or some such. I have lots of xanthan on hand, which is a similar seaweed based food grade thickener (very suitable for a seaweed stencil, haha, although it works for everything), so I used this to experiment with.

My initial recipe to thicken the dye was 500ml of water, a splash of methylated spirits and a level teaspoon of xanthan. Both xanthan and guar gum lump like crazy, so I used my blender. It worked well and the food grade thickeners won’t poison me. (The meths will hopefully wash off my blender well enough not to send me blind.) In any case, I think meths is probably not needed when using a blender, and was only recommended to paste the thickener before adding water, so the mix won’t get as lumpy.

My idea was to mix up a batch of thickener, keep it in the fridge and mix it with dye when needed. Fibre reactive dyes also need a fixer like soda ash solution to bind the dye to the fabric. But once you mix the soda ash with the dye it deteriorates really quickly. After 20 minutes it loses potency and by 60 minutes it is pretty much gone. That is not enough time for stencilling, so the soda ash can’t be mixed with the dye before painting but needs to be applied to the fabric before hitting it with the dye. The fabric needs to be at least damp with the soda ash solution for the fixing reaction to take place.

I used one of Matisse’s cutout shapes for my stencil. Possibly it was meant to be a plant, but it fits my idea of seaweed pretty well.

Coming from a block printing mindset, I am always tempted to cut a single motif stencil and build up a pattern one by one. But a larger stencil with several motifs speeds up the process, because the stencil does not need to be re-placed as often. So I cut a triple on clear acetate. There is also a opaque white stencil medium you can buy, but when building up a pattern I need to see what I am doing.

I tried out the stencil on paper first, which is a good idea because you get to see the finished pattern. If you barge ahead on your fabric and then discover that you need to make changes once you see the result, like placing things further apart or closer together, it is way too late to rescue your fabric. I like to use linen and spoiling it hurts. A lot.

Below is my paper trial, with also a small sample on the linen I intended to use. I set accents with more concentrated, darker dye on some of the shapes once I had pulled the stencil off. I like the result, but when I started printing for real on my linen I liked the plain stencilled shapes as well. I can always do these accents later if I want. Leave well enough alone, I say.

Once the pattern started to emerge on my fabric I soon got impatient and slapped on the dye quite heavily with my stencil brush, which is a thick, stubby brush capable of picking up a lot of paint. This resulted in a fair bit of bleeding under the stencil line in some places, but with such a wibbly-wobbly organic shape it didn’t matter. If I wanted a clear outline I would have to be more careful and I would also probably need to increase the amount of xanthan in the thickener mix to make my dye less runny. Runny dye is faster to paint with, so there are trade-offs.

I always cut out my garments before printing, as printing the uncut fabric is a lot of extra work. When you have all the pieces of a garment cut out, you also have more control where your prints will be once the garment is sewn up. Below are some photos of the garment pieces drying on my lawn after printing.

I was absolutely champing at the bit to wash the fabric after printing to see how it would turn out, but was worried the loosely woven linen would distort in the wash. So I sewed up most of this shirt except for the collar (the most time consuming part) and put it through the machine and dryer. It turned out so well, I was really thrilled!

So here is the finished shirt. I will write up the sewing process in PatternReview asap.

Could to with darker accents, but not too bad for a start.

Stencilling notes

  • Drimarene K fibre reactive dye, thickened with Xanthan paste
  • Soda ash solution for fixing the dye
  • acetate wet mixed medium stencil, cut with fine tipped soldering iron
  • Stencil brush, short, thick
  • Linen, pre-washed
  • Metal ruler, 1m, or anything that can be used as a stencil guide
  • Newspaper to protect my cutting table
  • Cut stencil with hotknife or soldering iron. Many repeated shapes on one stencil require less re-placing thereof, making building up a pattern easier, but large stencil is harder to handle, especially once wet with dye. Fewer shapes result in a smaller, easier to handle stencil, but it is harder to get an even pattern. I used a triple shape as in photo above.
  • Cut out garment pieces and lay each flat onto printing surface. It may be necessary to iron fabric and newspaper to lie completely flat, otherwise bleeding under stencil outline may occur where the fabric is not completely flat under the stencil.
  • Lay ruler across fabric, evenly from bottom of each garment piece being printed. Butt bottom of stencil against ruler and slide along as you print. This will produce a straight line of the pencilled shapes, parallel to hem line.
  • Get dye ready, mix with thickener.
  • Fill soda ash solution into spray bottle.
  • Wet fabric with soda ash where you intend to stencil. You have the choice of only wetting the shape itself, spraying through the stencil. This will leave a lot of the soda ash on top of your acetate which needs to be wiped off. But the advantage is that any dye smudges/drips on dry fabric may wash out (which may be a fond hope). Alternatively spray fabric before placing stencil.
  • Start stencilling, using only 2 out of the three shapes cut, namely top and right bottom. Leave the left bottom shape clean to act as registration mark by placing it carefully over the previously painted right-bottom shape. Careful not to transfer dye where you don’t want it by doing this, blot with paper towel if necessary.
  • Fill in stencilled motifs with dye on stencil brush, brushing carefully not to go under outlines. A sponge could also be used? Must try next time.
  • When one double row is finished (upper and lower motif of triple are stencilled together, producing 2 rows), measure carefully where to place the ruler for the next double line. Stencil next line and so on.
  • Fill in any holes with a single shape, masking the stencil shapes with paper where you don’t want to print.
  • Spray finished garment piece with more soda ash and lay flat to dry.
  • Repeat with next piece until all pieces are done.