A stenciled tote bag is both useful and beautiful. Stenciling is a fun way to decorate almost anything. Some of the first stenciling projects I ever did were adorable stenciled tote bags for my kids. I stenciled ballerina bears on small bags and my girls used them to carry their dance shoes to their dance classes.
Materials and Tools to Make Your Own Stenciled Tote Bag
- Tote bag
- Stencil Brush
- Paper Towel
- Palette (plastic or foam plate)
- Flat surface that fits in the bag
Details about the Materials and Tools
(This post contains affiliate links to one or more of the items I used in this project – which means, if you make a purchase after clicking a link I will earn a small commission. There is no added cost to you!)
- Tote bag: The bag I used in this project is canvas. Use what makes you happy. Pre-wash (do not use fabric softener or dryer sheets). Iron out the wrinkles.
- Stencil: You can use any stencil (see more info about stencils below). Use one that fits the tote bag or use several smaller ones together for a fun design.
- Stencil Brush: I only use brushes with natural bristles. Plaid makes a good stencil brush at good price and over half my stencil brushes are Plaid.
- Paint: There are many types of paints you can use for stenciling. A tote bag is typically a stiff product so you don’t need to worry about a fabric medium to soften it. Regular craft acrylics work well. I have tote bags that I stenciled 20 years ago that still look fine, just a little faded from washings.
- Tape: I prefer blue painter’s tape but use anything that will keep the stencil from shifting.
- Paper Towel: Working with paint always means there is the possibility of a spill.
- Palette: I prefer foam or plastic plates. Coated paper plates are okay. Do not use uncoated paper plates. The moisture from the paint will work up the paper fibers.
- Flat surface that fits in the bag: You may not need this. My bag has a gusset which is difficult to stencil on.
Getting Started on Your Stenciled Tote Bag
I want to talk with you a little bit about stencils.
I should probably wrote a whole blog post just about stencils.
You can find stencils at most major craft stores. You may find “fancier” ones through stencil designers’ websites. Stencils can be found in a few types of material. The stencil I used is one that I had professionally laser cut out of 5 mil Mylar around 20 years ago when I taught a class at the annual Stenciling Convention (there’s a convention for everything!). It is a very thin but durable plastic. I prefer working with Mylar stencils when I need a good reusable stencil. I have cut many of my own Mylar stencils (by hand with an X-Acto knife).
Some other stencils you may find are a thicker plastic that comes in various colors. One of those would be okay for this project. They are VERY cleanable which saves time at the end of the project. If you want to cut your own stencil, you could use transparency film (the kind used in overhead projectors). Transparency Film is found in office supply stores or online. It cuts very easily but is also easy to tear. For those with craft machines like the Cricut (or if you know someone who has one and is eager to create and cut a design for you), you could use it to design and cut a stencil.
Prepare the Work Surface
Insert your firm work surface into the tote bag. I used a marble slab kitchen board in mine because that was handy and the right size. I have used self-healing mats, magazines/catalogs, cutting boards, thick paperboard, etc. Do not use corrugated cardboard. As you stencil, those ridges in the corrugation will show up in your painted product. I learned the hard way. Though, that might make an interesting intentional design for the right stenciling project. 🙂
Secure the stencil to the tote bag. In stenciling, you do not want the stencil to shift around. I know some people use a spray adhesive on the back of their stencils. I don’t. The adhesive can get onto the project that you are stenciling. And, frankly, it’s a pain to clean off the stencil.
Ready for Paint!
The surface is now ready for paint. Squeeze out a dollop of paint onto the palette. This project will need more paint than what I squeezed out here but I prefer to keep squeezing out more paint as I need it than to over estimate how much I will need and end up throwing out the extra paint.
Lightly touch the end of the bristles onto the paint. Touch onto not push into. Stenciling is a dry brush technique. Your brush will seem fairly dry in this process. You will NEVER dip a stencil brush into water. When stenciling on something canvas, I will use a little more paint than when stenciling on walls, wood, paper, etc. because that paint needs to be driven down into the fibers of the canvas.
On another part of the palette, swirl the bristles around to evenly distribute the paint on the ends of the bristles.
If you very lightly touch the end of the bristles with your finger, you may not get any noticeable paint on your finger.
Hold your brush perpendicular to the stencil and, with a pouncing motion, start tapping the ends of the bristles onto the surface. You will need to go back to your dollop of paint to reload the brush when the paint application begins to fade. With my stencil lifted up a little in this picture so you can see, the pouncing technique with a dry brush allows you to stencil with nice crisp edges and no bleed under the stencil.
Here is a video of me stenciling this project to give you an idea of what I have described.
And Now the Stenciling is Complete!
This design is 10 inches x 10 inches (25cm x25cm) and took me about 15 minutes to complete. Your stenciled tote bag will now be ready for the unveiling.
The surface will be mostly dry as soon as you are done. Peel the stencil off the surface and admire your new stenciled tote bag.
For this type of project, I will let it air dry for a day then press it with a steam iron to help set the paint into the fabric.
Clean-Up is Still Important
While you want to enjoy your newly stenciled tote bag, try to clean your stencil and brush as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to clean. For Mylar stencils, I found that the best thing to get the stencil paint off the Mylar is to soak in Simple Green. I lay my stencil in the sink and spray Simple Green on it. After about 5 minutes, begin swirling off the paint with the stencil brush. Be patient so you don’t damage the stencil and apply more Simple Green if you need it.
Additional Stenciling Links
I have a post about stenciled canvas panels that I made to decorate the walls of my home office. It might inspire you to make something similar to decorate your home.