Quilting With Stencils

Stencils are a wonderful addition to your quilting design tool box. This week, We are discussing stencils and how to use them.

Stencil vs. Rulers: There is a lot of chatter in the FMQ quilting community about rulers. Watching people use them on YouTube is fun, but it takes time to learn to use them well and they are pricey. I rarely use rulers, but I am fond of stencils. A stencil is a design cut out of a square or rectangle acrylic sheet and laid upon your quilt top for tracing with a fabric marker. Stitch free hand and slowly over the marks to make your design. Stencils usually come with instructions or arrows showing the directions needed for continuous stitching. Many quilting pros have their own stencil collections. You can find them at sewing fairs and local shop and there are literally 1000’s on the market.

A good stencil can be used to make multiple designs. My favorite stencils are from Cindy Needham. Her stencil sets can be used in a variety of ways to make different types of designs (she is a whole cloth quilter) and she includes hefty workbooks with her stencil sets so that you can learn how to use them on either piecework or for whole cloth quilts. To use stencils, you also will need markers.

Stencil markers. You will find many conversations and opinions in different FMQ groups regarding markers. There are air dissolving markers (purple markers), water dissolving markers (blue), heat dissolving markers (Crayola, Frixion and others) and ceramic markers (Fons & Porter and SewLine). Many markers are available in a fine line or a wide line. There are wax markers, too. You can also use chalk dust and ponce for marking stencils.

When using stencils, I prefer a marker with a relatively fine tip to fit easily into the cutout lines of the acrylic stencil sheet. You also need a visible line for light, dark and medium toned fabric.

My markers!

From the left, Fons & Porter ceramic marker with a white lead. My favorite for marking medium to dark tones. SewLine ceramic marker with a dark gray lead. Works wonderfully on light fabrics. Wax marker. Clover blue line water soluble markers in thin and thick lines. Frixion colored markers.

Ceramic markers are my favorite. (The two on the left.) They are made to work with fabric and are “erasable” using the marker eraser. They also completely wash out. Fons and Porter makes a good white one and SewLIne makes a charcoal colored one. They are also refillable. I have two of each and refills so I can always find at least one ready to use!

Wax markers iron out and are nice for free hand drawing, and show well on black and very dark fabrics, but they do not give a fine line needed for stencils.

Purple air marker lines may disappear if don’t finish your quilting quickly enough and I don’t use those. I sometimes use the Clover blue water markers but they don’t show well on mid tone colors and the fine line can be hard to see. They also dry out fairly easily and need frequent replacement.

Frixion makes nice colored fine lines that are easy to see, but Frixion is not made for fabric and on some fabrics, it will leave a ghost line after the heat is applied. I tend to use Frixion where I am absolutely certain the line will be covered by either stitching or fabric (applique). Exposure to cold in the future can result in lines reappearing, which has been an issue for people who show their quilts or live in colder climates. You can put them in the dryer or use a hair dryer and they will disappear again. But Frixion does make a lovely, clear line. I use a lot of Moda grunge for applique background and discovered that Frixion leaves a ghost line on most grunge, so be sure to test first!

Ponce and chalk are preferred by some for stencils, but I had a bad experience with them and have moved on. Ponce works best on dark fabrics. The chalk will transfer to your machine when you stitch and that means extra time spent cleaning your machine. You will also need to wash your item to remove excess chalk. I remember breathing more chalk dust than desirable during the project, as well.

Each type has drawbacks and caveats about they should be used. Rule #1 is to TEST the marker on the fabric you are using. Read the directions on your chosen marker. Understand how it works. TEST on the fabric type you will be using. NOTE: * I never use Frixion on Moda Grunge at all because on many of their colors you see a ghost line even after applying the heat.

My stencils!

The most used stencil in my small collection is the “spine marker”. Cindy offers the Ultimate Borders set with two different types of spines that she calls Low Tide/High Tide Borders and each spine has the corner section with a total of 5 different sizes of spines. I can easily match up the width of a border with the type of spine that will fit best. I have made dozens of borders using these two stencils. You can make traditional feathers, funky feathers, use leaves to make them into vines, or hang swirls or circles on them. When I started using the spine stencil, my feathers improved significantly. These can found at https://www.cindyneedham.com/collections/stencils-ala-carte/products/ultimate-borders-ala-carte-low-tide-high-tide. (Paste into browser to view.)

High tide set of three stencils. I love that she includes grain lines and corner sections in this set.
Low Tide stencil with two sizes. Line up the dots with a seam or edge for perfect placement.

Some examples of using the “high tide/low tide” stencils.

Using the “high tide” stencil in the medium size on my table runner.
The Center is first marked with my white ceramic marker. Then the high tide stencil is traced.
Stitching leaves free hand using the high/low tide marks.
High tide stencil with swirls! A nice border design for a 2″ width border.

Low tide spine on a 3.5″ border.
Low tide spine with feathery swirls in metallic thread. 4.5″ border.
Low tide spine for a separating block on a larger quilt.

My other favorite is the Ultimate Stencil, which allows me to make circles and to accurately mark the quadrants of a circle. This is deceptively simple, but it is really helpful in making medallions or marking sections and circles for any square. Cindy also sells a square one, but this has worked for me perfectly.

A good stencil can be combined with other stencils for unique designs like on my Purple Reign quilt. I was in a mood to experiment with my stencils and this is the result.

Circle Medalion stencil (I also have the oval shape.)
The circles are drawn with the Ultimate Stencil. I then used using the Circle Medalion Stencil for marking the cable and rope designs. I used both purple Frixion (on white sections) and the Fons & Porter ceramic maker (on the purple and black sections).
Quilted medallion using freehand feathers around the center circle and swirls around the middle circle. A second circle is marked in the 4th quadrant and freehand swirls added.
I love the texture on our quilt! This was made using a single layer of 100% Bamboo batting (4 oz.) from Winline Textiles. I buy it by the roll.

This is our personal bed quilt! The Ultimate Stencil was used to mark the circles for the gold and brown/blue medallions. Free hand feathers and center design complete the medallions on 10″ blocks. The stylized flower design on the larger gold areas were also stenciled (using a curved ruler as a stencil!) for the flower center and making two feathers on either side of the center. Some of the dark blue/brown squares were quilted in a simple star burst design using the Ultimate Stencil to divide the square evenly.

Are you interested in stencils? Using stencils raised my FMQ game significantly! Now I can plot out a medallion or divide a square accurately and reproduce my design accurately on square after square.

I recommend Cindy Needham stencil for their versatility and her very detailed instructions. But you can also pick up an inexpensive stencil in any quilting shop. Buy one or two and a couple markers and experiment. Most of all, have fun!

Happy and adventurous quilting!



  1. Fabulous I love stencils. I also use Cindy Needham , But I have many more. Use the whole stencil or just a part get creative have fun. Thanks Leanne great blog

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great Tutorial Lennea. After reading your blog I can see the endless possibilities, they just go on and on with just a few stencils. Was interesting to to how you used the high and low tide stencils, these really got me thinking. I use to make mine out of double thickness of freezer paper years ago for my final borders but these would save soooo much time. Cheers Glenda.

    Liked by 1 person

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