Five Methods for Marking an Embroidery Pattern on Fabric

Tracing over lines of butterfly motif on silk scarf secured to embroidery hoop, close-up
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There are several different ways of marking an embroidery design on fabric, and each person has their favorite. The choice of techniques can also often depend on the weight or color of fabric being used.

The tissue paper transfer method, often called needle tracing, can be used on fabrics that should not be marked or dampened, such as fine silks, wools, and leather. Since this method doesn't actually use any true markings on the fabric, it's not included in this list.

Here are the top five fabric marking method.

1. Use Light

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.

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. Transfer Paper​

Designs can be transferred to thicker 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.

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.

3. Heat Transfer 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 red or blue, and the ink is activated by the heat of an iron.

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

To use a heat transfer pencil, trace the design in reverse on a lightweight sheet of paper (the design is traced in reversed 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.

Be sure to use a very sharp pencil 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. Refer to the Iron-On Transfer Tutorial for additional information.

4. Hot Iron Transfers

Hot iron transfers are purchased ready-to-use and feature a wide range of subjects. They are normally printed in blue or gray ink. The designs are transferred to the fabric using a hot iron in the same manner as patterns traced using transfer pens and pencils (#4).

5. 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.