Monday, February 10, 2014

Loving Heart T-Shirt (+ freezer paper stencil tutorial)

Is this a nice or disturbing valentine for a child? Now that is an excellent question, which the post below will not be addressing.
Before I forget: my helmet enthusiasm is over at the NYT Motherlode blog, here.

Okay. Now. I am renaming this post "Aorta Be Your Valentine," after my brilliant friend Moira. (The best I could come up with was "Won't you be my atrioventricular valve?") If you want lots of different ideas for Valentine's Day, I mentioned a bunch in my post here. Today I'm going to tell you about one thing, and one thing only, and that's how to make a simple freezer-paper stencil to embellish a t-shirt. I did this project yesterday, start-to-finish, in an hour and a half, and that included both making a second shirt and my run to the shop in town to buy new x-acto knife blades. If your blade isn't sharp? You will end up lying on the floor in tears, cursing Saint Valentine and wishing you had just bought the Hallmark card with the singing potato. Get new blades! They only cost $1.99.

Okay, the tutorial. Or, should I say "cute-orial"? I should not. (Directions are expanded and summarized at the bottom, if you want to skip the pictures.) Start by getting some nice cotton t-shirts from the Salvation Army, and wash and dry them. Now find an image you want to use, one that can easily resolve into a simple outline. Think: stencil. I knew that I wanted to do an anatomical heart, so I did a Google image search for "anatomical heart stencil." I did not find a perfect one, so I widened my search to "anatomical heart," and found this amazing series of cards at this etsy shop. You should just buy one of those, and skip this whole thing! UNLESS YOU ARE GOING TO GET NEW X-ACTO KNIFE BLADES.

Print out the design you want to use, re-sizing as necessary. (Easier said than done! And I couldn't even ask Ben for help!) If your outline is not already very dark, go over it in black pen, as shown here.

Ben would have been able to help me turn this into an outline before I even printed it, thus saving me all that red ink. But I could not ask him for help, because SECRET PROJECT.
Now tape a piece of freezer paper over your image, matte-side up, and use a pencil or a permanent marker to trace the image onto the freezer paper. 
If you are new to cutting stencils, a shape with more straight than curved lines is easier. A nice, romantic rectangle, for example. Or, "Happy Valentine's Day. I think you're square!" (Note: this is not a permanent marker! A fact which I lived to regret mildly.)
Now tape down the freezer paper again, and use your very sharp x-acto knife to cut out the image. This is painstaking but not unpleasant, if you ask me. Which you implicitly did.
I added the little thought bubble to make the design both less gruesome and more visually baffling. Notice that I needed to keep the heart I'd cut out, and then I needed to remember to iron it down inside the bubble, which I did, thank goodness.
Now use your iron set to high to press the freezer paper, shiny-side down, to the shirt. (See the expanded instructions below.) I find this strangely fun. But then again, the iron and I don't get a lot of opportunities to spend time together.

There is no mystery here: as soon as it seems stuck down, it's stuck down.
Now dab acrylic paint onto your design (stuff something in the shirt to prevent bleed-through), until it is all filled in. I use acrylic craft paint (the kind that comes in 2-ounce bottles in a million colors) because it's cheap and I hate heat-setting fabric paint and I have had some bad experiences involving heat-setting improperly. Acrylic paint will just dry and be good to go. But it will feel always feel a little dried-paint-ish, rather than getting nice and soft like fabric paint can. Your call. 

I mixed black and red for the heart, and used a kind of dreamy pearlized white for the thought bubble. I used a bristle brush, but a sponge brush works just fine.
Even though you have to do this very carefully, so as not to smear wet paint everywhere, peel the freezer paper off while the paint is still wet. This is not consistent with many freezer-paper stencil instructions, I know, if you are a connoisseur of freezer-paper stencil instructions. But I find that if I let the paint dry, then the stencil will end up lifting some of it off at the edges. Now let the paint dry, and done.

Annoyingly, you will need to cut a new stencil to make a second shirt.
Freezer Paper Stencil How-To
This is easy, thrilling, and slightly addictive.

Materials and Gadgetry
Plastic-coated freezer paper (sold with the other food wraps; don’t try this with regular waxed paper)
Masking Tape
Acrylic craft paint (or fabric paint, though then you’ll have to heat-set it)
Pencil or permanent marker, x-acto knife, cutting surface, iron, paint brush, cotton t-shirt

  1. Begin by drawing or tracing your design onto the non-shiny side of a piece of freezer paper. Use a permanent marker so the ink won't later bleed when it comes into contact with the paint.
  2. Tape the freezer paper to a cutting board, and use the x-acto knife to cut out the shape to leave the open stencil behind. This takes patience but is not difficult; if anything tears or gets cut away by accident, patch it with masking tape. If there are little pieces you'll need later, such as the heart I cut out of the thought bubble, be sure to save them.
  3. Position the stencil on the t-shirt shiny side down, and, with the iron set to high, press straight down for a few seconds until the stencil sticks. Lift the iron and press back down as needed, rather than sweeping the iron back and forth. Don't iron down all the outside parts of the stencil, as this will only make it more difficult to remove later.
  4. Stuff a piece of cardboard or paper into the t-shirt to prevent paint bleed-through. Now use the brush to fill in your design, dabbing paint from the outer edges inward, and using an up-and-down motion rather than a back-and-forth one (you want to keep paint from leaking under the edges of the stencil).
  5. Peel off and discard the stencil (it’s not reusable) and allow the paint to dry before wearing.


  1. strangely, I didn't see this one in Family Fun this Feb... ; ) These are fantastic. I am so very grateful your children are growing up along with mine and that your awesome crafty ideas are keeping pace! Thanks for the great idea!

  2. I love the design you chose, and I love freezer paper stencils. I've never heat-set my paint, not out of rebellion, though. I just didn't know that was a thing. We paint shirts for the kids' birthdays every year, and letting them pick the picture is part of the fun. Well, except they start off by picking impossible pictures that would never translate to a stencil. We also paint with those dinky foam brushes that go on sale 20 for $1 at Michael's. They make it through a few shirts if you rinse them well. Also, instead of tracing, I tape the printed design onto the freezer paper, and cut out the shape through both layers of paper. I'm lazy.
    Thanks as always for the inspiration!

  3. Hey it look great, simple and beauty
    check my t-

  4. I want that shirt but I have no craft skills:-( You lost me at owning an x-acto blade....) How about making extras to sell? Or a fun giveaway! Ps- I followed the link and will make my kiddo wear her ski helmet to sled at the local big hill. She can skip it in the yard though.

  5. Shiloh7:01 PM

    I made 4 appliqued shirts for my nephew for Christmas, he freaked out over them (3 year old who loves clothes!). Now I'd love to make a stenciled shirt, how awesome! It hadn't even occurred to me that plain acrylic paint would work on shirts, I have about 60 bottles of every color you can imagine because I have a very childlike love of (poorly) painting things. Do the shirts need any special care when washing, like don't put them in the dryer or something?

    Also, I basically read the entire post aloud to my husband because I thought it was so funny. He agreed :D

    Hopefully the kids will love their new shirts, I would!

  6. What I love best about this (you know, besides everything) is that I clicked your link to last year's Valentines day post (baby ben and birdy pictures!) and then clicked another link and before you know it, I was fully saturated. Thank you always.

  7. I was very happy to see you post a freezer-paper stencil tutorial, because I was all prepared to complain that I could never get the paint not to leak through and then the edges to not peel off a little when I removed it. But you were obviously reading my mind, because, wow, take it off while it's still wet! I see again how you like to live on the edge. And now, with your vast freezer-paper stencil experience, and your willingness to try crazy things (take it off before it's dry, you say?), we will all benefit. I might even be brave enough to give it another try myself. Although I've also been looking into something called adhesive flocking (there's definitely a joke in there somewhere). It's that slightly fuzzy fabric-y paper-y stuff that can be put on fabric instead of painting. It looks pretty neat-o.


  8. Awesome design. I think these T-shirts are perfect for women. T-Shirts color awesome. pink color match perfect for these T-Shirts. Thanks !

    Funny Shirts

  9. Tina G3:28 PM

    I still remember when you posted Birdy's interesting valentines in '07.....

  10. Smooches6:08 PM

    I was, just yesterday, explaining the concept of freezer paper stencils to some moms. I have had good luck with reusing the stencils (just wait till the paint dries of course). I just re-ironed the stencil onto another shirt. The hardest part for me is coming up with an idea for a stencil. I love your "real" heart. :-)

  11. maxanyamom2:45 PM

    "Aorta be your Valentine"? YES! Totally brilliant. Love your design and the tutorial! I have a brand new role of freezer paper in the kitchen drawer just waiting for me to get off my arse and DO a few of those artsy projects I've "pinned."

    Don't know if you will find this helpful for future projects, but I ran across a tutorial for using a web-based program to re-size images for free. The program is called Pic Monkey ( and the tutorial was posted on The Graphics Fairy, a simply fabulous source for free vintage images, if you are into that sort of thing. ( I thought it looked easy to use, and I played around with it a bit. I don't know exactly how pixel size relates to printed dimensions, but I'll figure that out if/when I need it.

  12. I love the way you style this holiday. You are the very, very best.

  13. this is great! and I love your sense of humor ;) As to needing to cut the stencil out again for the second shirt, would it be possible to cut out 2 stencils at once if you know you need them, or is the paper too slick for that? Thanks!