Our On Design conversation in December focused on the practice of stenciling—including examples of designs throughout history and various techniques used over time. Stenciling is at the core of our Alabama Chanin collections; currently it is the sole means by which we transfer decorative patterns onto our fabrics. We have explored DIY stenciling in our Studio Book series, and are even offering a one-day workshop on the topic next year.
The use of stencils dates back over 37 thousand years, as evident in Neanderthal cave art found in Spain. These paintings are outlines of hand prints; it is theorized that Prehistoric man or woman would place their hand against the wall, and then blow finely crushed pigment around it. These stencils were accompanied by shapes from the natural world and daily life: animals, hunting scenes, and ritual all figure prominently.
Over time, the use of stencils spread throughout the ancient world. Many of the detailed drawings and intricate art found in Egyptian tombs or along the walls of the city of Pompeii were results of stencils. Stenciling was a simple and well-thought-out way to reproduce the same pattern over and over again.
The Chinese were the first to develop a paper-based stencil, around 105 AD, and used the invention to advance their printing techniques. Soon, stenciling made the transition to cloth and colorful patterns were transferred onto garments. The Japanese improved upon the technique by bonding delicate stencils together with human hair or silk. Their method of dyeing fabrics with stencils is known as Katazome, and used the paste resist method. With this technique, a paste (usually composed of rice flour) is pushed through a stencil, defining a pattern on cloth. The places where the sticky paste adheres to the cloth resist color in the dyeing process, therefore creating a negative stenciled design on the fabric.
Stenciling eventually spread to Europe, thanks to the trade routes from the East. The technique of stenciling became quite popular, and was used to add color to master prints. Stencils became handy in mass productions of items, including manuscripts, playing cards, book illustrations, fabrics, and wallpaper.
Immigrants brought the use of stenciling with them to the New World, and once again the technique was employed in a variety of ways and new styles were developed. Stencils were used as decoration in the home, on furniture, and in works of art. Stenciling once again became popular for architectural designs in the early 20th century, as craftsmen took advantage of mass-produced designs from an array of periods, including Renaissance, Victorian, and Art Deco. This stenciling style can still be found in public buildings, churches, and homes.
With today’s technology, it is fairly simple to produce stencils. At Alabama Chanin, we use laser cut Mylar stencils. Our stencils are carefully composed (more on that coming soon) by our design and graphics teams, and then manufactured by Stencils Online. We then transfer patterns onto fabric using an airbrush. Sometimes, we merely leave unembellished paint on cotton for a simple effect. More often, we use these stencils as a map for our sewing methods—appliqué, reverse appliqué, and even intricate beading.