I have shared parts of the making process of my stenciled patterns in this blog before and in this post I thought I’d give you an overview of the whole process. The process I describe is what I use to make complex repeat patterns. To reassure you: when you first start stencil printing on fabric there are ways to make beautiful and more simple patterns with much fewer steps.
Sketching a motif
ill My design process always starts on paper, I sketch my design using whatever material is at hand, often just a pencil, sometimes I use colour. When I use sketches from my sketchbook to start a motif I often need to take time to simplify the motif and make it suitable to make a stenciled print. Sometimes I need to change the size of parts of the motif or the perspective. It often takes a while and multiple sketches to get to a result that feels good to me. It’s not about making a realistic representation, but making a print that will work in a pattern.
Designing the repeat
I then either use a pattern tile template and put the motif into it, or I sketch the motif spontaneously and only later think of how to turn it into a pattern repeat.
Next thing I do is work on tracing the repeat on tracing paper. When I’ve already worked out the repeat by starting with a pattern tile template (I make these myself) I do this directly on the paper. When I don’t know how the pattern will work out I often use the computer to put the motif into repeat in different ways to get a feel of the pattern and sometimes that makes me go back to the motif and make some changes. As soon as it all feels right I start to do the tracing of the whole pattern on the tracing paper.
Making the stencils
When I have the whole pattern traced I need to work out how many stencils I will need. People who have followed my courses know that deciding this it is all about the stability of the stencils. I trace my motif on as many different pieces of stencil material as I need stencils. Sometimes I only need 2 or 3 stencils, but I also have patterns where I need about 10. When I’ve traced them all I start cutting them out. I always cut by hand, most of all because I enjoy the process, but it also allows me to make adjustments at any point when needed. I always use one large stencil (with multiple motifs on it) to help me with registration of the repeat pattern, all the other stencils are the size of just one motif.
Printing the pattern
Sometimes I have a colour scheme in mind when I start designing, but deciding on colour mostly happens when I start making test prints. Having a sketch in colour will not tell me enough about how the colours will work when printed on fabric. There are so many factors going into this: the colour and quality of the base fabric, the darkness/lightness of the ink colours, if a colour is popping or more subdued, the transparency or opacity of the ink. All of this means that I often make quite a few test prints until I get to the right colour scheme.
Putting it all together
When I’ve got the stencils and the ink colours all prepared I can prepare my fabric and start printing for real. This whole process I describe here most often takes place in a day, sometimes when a repeat or colour scheme doesn’t work out a couple of days and sometimes I even file a pattern when I can't seem to make it work. The nice thing about this is that when I do return to it (sometimes much later) it happens that I spot the ‘problem’ immediately and can turn the design around quickly to make it work.
I teach the basics of this process in my ‘Complete Stencil Printing Course’ where you learn to make multi stencil motifs and basic patterns. When you want to learn about making more complex repeat patterns I teach an advanced course on Pattern Design for Stencil Printing.