The History of Stencilling


Stencilling is a simple method of repeating a design by means of a cut out shape; the word stencil means the outline of an image. Using laser cut Mylar film and paint; it is easy for even the beginner to produce stencil work of a very High Quality on Furniture, Walls, Floors, Fabrics, Windows and almost any other surface. The secrets is in the paint you use, professionals nearly always use the non-messy dry brush method which we talk about on the instruction page, How to Stencil!

The earliest examples of stenciling are found in Palaeolithic cave paintings dating from as early as 30,000 BC to 9,000 BC. Some of the first stencils were cut from leaves. The Fiji Island natives traditionally used bamboo and banana leaves to make their stencils. They cut holes in the leaves and forced vegetable dyes through the leaf openings onto their bark cloth or "Tapa". The Eskimos of Baffin Island are said to have used dried sealskin but unfortunately nothing remains of these early stencils as they were made from perishable materials.

 In the ancient world stencils were used in the decoration of Egyptian tombs. The artist would stencil an outline of the figure or hieroglyph onto the wall, after which a sculptor would incise the outline in low relief. Once this was done a thin layer of stucco was added to receive the paint. The Egyptians tended to use very bright primary colours mainly red, blue and yellow.

In ancient Greece stencils were used to outline the mosaic designs. In classical Rome the letters, painted on signboards, directing people to the Games were also made with stencils. Many different stencils were also employed in the painting of the Murals that both the Greeks and Romans loved so much.

More durable stencils of varnished mulberry fibers were made in China and Japan and were used mainly for decorating cloth. Then during the period of the six dynasties of China (AD500 - 600) a new use was found for them, the mass production of images of Buddha.

Katagami stencils have been used by the Japanese for over one thousand years to pattern textiles in a technique called Katazome. This delicate dye resist technique, or reverse stenciling, traditionally involves applying rice paste through a stencil onto silk. There is then a time consuming period of realigning the stencil and applying more paste until the pattern is repeated over the whole piece of material. The silk is then dyed, repeatedly, usually with an indigo pigment and finally the paste is removed, revealing an exquisite pattern underneath.

In the traditional Japanese stencil making process many thin sheets of mulberry bark are cured in persimmon juice. They are then stacked together and cut with a sharp curved blade. In this way the artist could cut several stencils at a time and know that the pattern would be exactly the same on all of them. With the invention of paper artisans started cutting 50-60 tissue thin sheets of paper at one time.

Paper was invented in China around AD200 and some time between AD500-600 the Chinese started cutting paper stencil patterns for embroidery. Cut paper stencils were used to place patterns onto material and porcelain and also to dye textiles.

One major difficulty with early stencils was the isolated parts of a design, such as the center of the letter O which would fall out as soon as the outer ring was cut. The solution the Japanese came up with was quite ingenious. They would hold loose pieces in place by gluing them to the main body of the stencil with human hair. Later on they used silk thread thus forming a bridge, but a bridge so fine and strong that when the stenciling was finished it was all but invisible. This was the for-runner of Silk Screening.

From Asia, the knowledge of stencils and paper cutting spread gradually along the trade routes to the Middle East, reaching Turkey by about the 8th century. During the Middle Ages, conquests and crusades spread the art of paper cutting and stenciling throughout Europe. By the 16th century, stencilling was being used along with wood blocks and brush painting for religious pictures and illuminated manuscripts.

Once the Printing Press had been invented, pattern books full of stencil designs were circulated throughout Europe. Wood craftsmen found that these stencil patterns could be used to make veneers. In fact, until the late 17th century, many patterns used for furniture, embroidery and stenciled art could be traced back to their paper cutting origins.

Stencils, at this time, were also being used to make playing cards and from there it was but a short jump for French craftsmen in Rousen during the 17th century, to begin producing wallpaper in the form of stencilled segments called dominoes. These wallpaper dominoes were much cheaper than the expensive cloth that had formally been used to cover the walls.

The wallpaper was not produced, as it is today, in 10m(33ft) lengths. But, being made by hand, it came in segments 1-1.25m(3-4ft) long by 46cm(18in) wide. The stenciling was done before the paper was hung and unfortunately the paperhangers did not seem to pay much attention to the designs or try and line them up properly. This led to a rather patchwork effect.

The early settlers in North America, who could not afford imported wallpaper or decorated furniture, used direct stencilling. From about 1760-1840 itinerant travelling artisans, who took their brushes, pigments and stencils with them as they moved about the homes of New England, did the stenciling.

The surviving stencil designs from this era have been attributed to only about 15 artists. One of the best know and most prolific of these travelling artisans was Moses Eaton jr., who painted and stenciled in New England from about 1800-1840. Stencilling remained the usual method of decorating walls until wallpaper became cheap at the end of the 19th century.

By the early 20th century stencilling had all but vanished as a decorating tool and was only kept alive by the Arts & Crafts Movement and the Bloomsbury Set. Although in 1899 the writer Rudyard Kipling, of Jungle Book fame, described a ‘cosy study’ as one “decorated with a dado, a stencil and cretonne hangings.”

In the USA films were just coming into fashion and people wanted to see them in color. The hand coloring of frames was a common and widely accepted practice in the early cinema. The films screened by Edison at Koster & Bial's Music Hall in 1896 were already coloured in this fashion. In 1906 with the introduction by Pathé of a mechanized process for coloring frames, using a series of stencils, it's popularity only increased.

Stenciling re-emerged for a short time during the Art Deco era of the 1920s and 30s. With the style of the day being spare, and ornamental forms so popular in books and advertising, it was considered chic to have stencils in your home. In 1936 even Harpers Bazaar used a stencil for its logo.

At this time French publishers, influenced by Japanese printed textiles, were using stenciling to produce color separations for book illustrations. Their technique was similar to the hand coloring common in England a hundred years earlier. Craftsmen reproducing works by Fauvist painters such as Derain, cut separate stencils for every tint. Stenciled reproductions of Picasso's designs for the Ballet RuPablo in 1920 are among the more notable examples of fine printing during this era. As printing technology developed however, the art and craft of stenciling in book design declined.

By the late 1970s stencilling was starting to come back into fashion, people were fed up with wallpaper and wanted to do something for themselves, crafts were in again. At this time due in part to the influence and persistence of ladies like Adele Bishop many future stencillers were made aware of the craft.

From banana leaves to mulberry bark to paper to woodblocks, stencil card and now polyester film. Today's stencils come in thousands of different designs from hundreds of different designers. They go from 1 layer, and because of the translucent polyester film (Mylar) now used, to multi layers. A simple flower border to an intricate mural can easily be made with a stencil or two.

Laser cut to ensure perfection every time, registration marks to get the positioning exactly right, paints that are dry and don't bleed, what more can we ask for. It's so easy now!


 So this is the history of stenciling, I hope you found it interesting. You can also check out our How to Stencil or Stenciling Video and even learn how to Cut Your Own Stencil

Happy Stenciling - but be Warned, it's Addictive