The history of stenciling, one who wanted to be a bit wicked could say, is a bit sketchy. And it does seem no one knows exactly when or how stenciling was started. But there is speculation.
Some say it was the Egyptians who first used stencils for decorating mummy cases round 2500 B.C.; others contend it was the Chinese as early as 3000 B.C.The difficulty in proving any of this is that there are no leftover stencils to be found because the materials used were probably perishable things like leaves or skins. Not until the Chinese invented paper around 105 A.D. was there any substantial substance that could keep the stencils.
The idea that stencils originally were made on leaves comes from anthropologists. They discovered that Fiji Island natives adopted shapes from the holes bored into bamboo and banana leaves by larvae of insects and used them as forms or stencils for decorating clothing.
In the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas in western China, scientists found what is considered the origin of stenciling. The contents of these caves date from between 500 and 1000 A.D. and one of the "finds" was a piece of silk with Buddha outlined in stencil form. The pattern was outlined by thousands of tiny pinpricks. Charcoal was poured through the tiny holes and the entire form was colored in by hand.
In China the original stencils were restricted to religious subjects. Only later were more secular subjects allowed. First trade flourished within the Orient, and then between the Orient and the Middle East. Though silk was the material of choice, stenciling also became popular on cotton garments.
But it was in Japan that the art of stenciling achieved its greatest degree of refinement, perhaps because of the Japanese propensity for detail. Their subjects were taken from nature such as flowers, birds and . . . dragons.
When stenciling techniques reached Italy, they were used not so much as decoration but as teaching aids for children learning their letters. Finally, in the Middle Ages, France began to use stenciling for home decoration.
The first wallcoverings were flocked papers. The way the flocking was achieved was to pattern the paper with a stencil, and while the pattern was still wet, bits of shredded wool were brushed onto the paper. Unlike our wallpaper rolls, these papers were only 12 inches by 16 inches and were often used individually or in small decorative clusters.
In England and Germany stenciling began appearing in the mid-18th century on floors and furniture as well as walls, papers and other textiles. It is said that when George Washington was introduced to this art, he had a floor cloth stenciled for the White House.