7 Methods for Marking an Embroidery Pattern on Fabric

Tracing over lines of butterfly motif on silk scarf secured to embroidery hoop, close-up
Ruth Jenkinson/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

You can mark or transfer an embroidery design on fabric in a variety of ways, and one of those will probably become your favorite. But even if you have a method that you prefer over the others, it's a good idea to be familiar with all of the options, because the best choice of technique can also often depend on the weight or color of fabric being used.​

Try as many of these transfer methods as you can and keep supplies on hand so that when you need to use a certain technique, you're ready.

1. Tracing

If your fabric is fairly thin, you can transfer the designs directly onto the fabric using a light source such as a light box or window, marking the lines with a chalk-based marking pencil or water-soluble transfer pen or pencil. In a pinch, a finely sharpened standard pencil will also work.

To transfer a design using a light source such as a window, tape the pattern to the glass and cover the pattern with the fabric. You should be able to see the design clearly through the fabric and trace the lines with your marking pencil or pen.

2. Heat Transfer Pens and Pencils

Heat transfer pencils or pens are also an option for marking an embroidery design on fabric and will work on both light- and heavier-weight fabrics.

Transfer pencils and pens are available in different colors and thicknesses, and the ink is activated by the heat of an iron.

However, these markings are permanent. The pattern lines will not wash out, and the marked lines must be completely covered with embroidery so they are not visible.

Use a fine-tipped transfer pen for the best results. 

To use a heat transfer pen or pencil, trace the design in reverse on a lightweight sheet of paper (the design is traced in reverse because the pressing process creates a mirror image of the design marked on the paper). The easiest and quickest way to do this is to print your pattern, turn it over, and then trace the design on the back side of the paper using the heat transfer pencil.

If you're using a pencil, be sure that it's very sharp while tracing. The pattern lines transferred to the fabric should be as thin as possible so that they do not peek out from under your beautiful embroidery.

To transfer the design to fabric, place the paper against the fabric and press with a hot iron, lifting the iron off the paper before moving it to the next location. Do not iron by moving your iron back and forth along the paper, as this distorts the image. 

3. Water-Soluble Stabilizer

When you are working on dark fabrics or if you have a detailed pattern, the water-soluble stabilizer method is a good option. With this material, you can print the pattern directly onto the stabilizer, then place that on your embroidery fabric. 

After stitching through the fabric and stabilizer, soak the embroidery in warm water and the stabilizer dissolves away. 

Because this method requires soaking, you will need to make sure that your fabric can be washed and that your embroidery floss is colorfast.

4. Transfer Paper

Designs can also be transferred to thick or dark fabrics using carbon- or wax-based transfer paper, often referred to as dressmakers’ carbon paper. This lightweight transfer paper is coated on one side with a powdery, colored ink and is made specifically for use on fabrics and will wash out of the finished piece.

Use a light-colored piece of carbon paper to mark designs on darker fabrics, and a darker color on lighter fabrics. Always use the lightest color possible, just in case the ink is a bit stubborn when washing it out. This method also works great when embroidering on wood

To transfer a design using transfer paper, lay the fabric face-up on a hard surface, such as a kitchen counter. Center the transfer paper over the fabric having the waxy ink towards the fabric, and place the pattern on top of the transfer paper. Transfer the design to the fabric using a stylus or empty ball-point marking pen. Be sure to press hard enough with the stylus to transfer the design to the fabric through the layers of paper.

5. Tracing Paper

Another method that works well on fabrics that are difficult to trace onto, but that you don't want to soak, is the tracing paper method.

To use this technique, trace your pattern onto lightweight tracing paper. Baste the paper onto your fabric and then stitch through the paper and fabric. When you're finished, carefully tear away the tracing paper.

6. Hot Iron Transfers

Hot iron transfers are patterns that come ready-to-use and feature a wide range of subjects. They are normally printed in black, blue or gray ink. Transfer these designs to the fabric using a hot iron in the same manner as transfer pens and pencils.

7. Pouncing

Before the advent of transfer paper and iron-on inks, pouncing was a common way to transfer embroidery designs to fabric.

Using this method, a paper pattern is pricked with a pin at regular intervals. The pattern is then secured to the fabric and a powdered pigment is worked through the holes in a pouncing motion using a soft fabric pad. Pouncing supplies can still be found in specialty needlework shops.

Updated by Mollie Johanson