Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Iron-on Transfers & Embroidery


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Iron-on transfers and embroidery? Is it the “easy way out” when it comes to getting your design on fabric? It depends on what you want…

Iron-on transfers on t-shirts and other items are really in vogue right now, with the do-it-at-home, do-it-yourself creation of personalized transfers. All you really need is an ink-jet printer and some special paper to get started, and you can transfer just about anything following a few easy steps.

The question is, can you create and transfer embroidery designs for hand-embroidery the same way? Simply put, the answer is no. If you do a line-drawing on your computer (of if you have, for example, an embroidery pattern like the ones found here), if you print these in your computer on transfer paper then transfer them to your fabric to embroider, you’re still going to get the film from the paper in between the markings. So, this isn’t the way to go when you want to transfer hand-embroidery designs! I have heard of doing this if you want to fully cover the design you’re embroidering, but I still don’t think it’s such a good idea. For one thing, given the relative newness of the technique, I don’t know if the fabric and transfer medium would withstand the test of time. How will it affect, for example, your floss or threads over time?

So that’s the ink-jet transfer technique, and I personally say forget it for fine embroidery…

Is there another way? Sure there is! If you like the idea of iron-on transfers, you can make your own pretty easily.

What do you need?

1. The iron-on “product.” There are a couple kinds available out there:
Dritz makes a red iron-on pencil, which you can use on any tracing paper. You can find a picture of it here. It’s easy to use and works well, and is pretty inexpensive. For precise designs, you’re going to want a couple pencils on hand so that you can keep them sharp while you’re working.

Then there are Aunt Martha’s hot iron transfer pencils, which require hot iron transfer paper. These are “ok” – but I figure the Dritz pencils work just as well, and you don’t have to have the paper.

2. Designs to transfer: these can be as simple or complex as you’d like. There are some hand-embroidery designs on this site here. You can also use designs from Dover coloring books and such, or from design books. There are heaps of these out on the market, and some of them have great designs in them. Or you can go free-hand.

3. A regular iron and a relatively hard surface. If you have a padded ironing board cover, you may want to put something heat-resistant and harder on top of it, and cover whatever you’re using with an old sheet. You want a firm surface for ironing.
4. Fabric: natural fibers always work best, and, for iron-ons, the smoother the fabric, the better. You don’t want to use a waffle-like kitchen towel, for example, with an iron-on pattern!

How do you do it?

Set up your fabric first. If you want, for example, to mark the center of your fabric, you should baste in some lines, “cutting” the fabric in half horizontally and vertically. When you baste these lines in, the place where they intersect will be the center of your fabric.

Trace a “mirror image” of the design onto the paper – use any tracing paper for the Dritz pencil; for the Martha one, you need to use the specific stuff mentioned above. It’s only necessary to trace a mirror image when you want the design to point in a certain direction, or when you are using text. It will require you to trace the design twice – trace it once, turn it over, trace it again. If you have your design on a computer, you can just flip the design horizontally in your photo editing program, print it out, and trace it once.

Now, if this is a design you want centered on your fabric, I suggest marking lines on the back of the paper (the part the iron will touch) so that you can see the center of the design. Line these lines up with the basting that you have already done on your fabric.

Place the design “pencil side down” on your fabric, and line it up carefully. Using even pressure and the correct iron setting for your fabric, firmly but gently (in other words, don’t mash the fabric!) press over the design. Don’t go “back and forth” with the iron – you don’t want the paper to move around. You can carefully lift off a corner to check the progress of the transfer. Do not leave the iron on one place too long, but be careful when you move it – you do not want to shift the pattern!

You can keep your pattern from shifting by pinning it on the edges to your fabric – outside the area of the transfer. This will help a little bit, but you must still be careful when you iron.

Iron-on transfers like the above are a great way to set up an embroidery project for kids, or to transfer a design onto a quilt square, etc. For very fine embroidery, I suggest using other transfer methods – because guess what? The iron-on transfer pencils don’t wash out well! But don’t lose heart!! It’s no big deal if you’re going to cover your lines with your stitches, right??

Have fun with it, be creative – you can even draw free hand with it, and skip the tracing altogether!

If you have any suggestions on creating iron-on transfer designs, do share them!



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(21) Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this article! I was wondering how I could get my own designs on fabric for me to embroider them. 😀 Once again, THANK YOU!!

  2. Thanks to google I found your article! I’ve wanted to transfer more complex designs than the Aunt Martha’s (so not 21st Century!) to pillows for my grandkids. I’ll be ordering the pencil from the web site if my local craft store doesn’t have it!

    Thanks so much!

    Sally in CA

  3. ::Thank you so much for this information. I was just discussing this very thing with my boyfriend and googling different things and found your article. I have so many designs I want to use and will give the pencil a try. i think I used one years ago and forgot all about it.

  4. For years I have made my own transfer with clip art or scanned drawings, a dot matrix printer and a embroidery transfer tape ande regular typing paper. That is the wasiest way to make embroidery tranfers. nancy

  5. Do you mind telling us how you transferred using the dot matrix printer? How can you transfer using just plain paper? I’ve been trying to figure this out for months. Thanks!

    1. Hi, Sarah Jane – Hmmm… you have me stumped! I didn’t use a dot matrix printer. What I’m talking about in this post is using the iron-on transfer pencils or pens made by different companies. Dritz makes on, and so does Sulky. You use your printer to print out the image you want to iron on, then trace it on your paper, and then iron it on. Hope that helps! ~MC

  6. help my cousin would like to have embroidery transfers scottish thistles or something like that for a large table cloth
    thanks for your help

    1. Hi, Jane – Have you checked online for images of thistles? If you google “thistles clip art” you’ll probably come up with some decent images that can be adapted into a pattern for embroidery. That might work for your cousin! Hope that helps! ~MC

    1. Hi, Olive – I tend to iron all my needlework from the back, but I’m not sure if there are specific instructions for Hardanger. I just figure if anything is going to go amiss, I’d rather it go amiss on the back! ~MC

  7. I realize this is a super old article, but as a long-time embroiderer of self-made transfers, I wanted to offer a brief correction and addition for anyone (like myself) who stumbles upon this article.

    The correction: You do NOT need special paper for Aunt Martha’s brand of pencils. I use them with good success with your every day tracing paper. But you do want to use them with the lighter paper. Heat just doesn’t go through heavier (printer/writing paper) the same way.

    An addition though are the Sulky brand transfer markers, mostly available online. I have success with them, but they do not wash out (and are labeled as permanent). They give good lines but run out quickly. Depending on the number of transfers you need from a design, they can be a good option, especially if poor eyesight requires vivid lines. They can be used with standard paper, no tracing paper required (although lines may be darker with the thinner barrier).

  8. I have the Aunt Martha’s hot iron transfer pencils. I have had bad luck trying to sharpen these suckers, if you have some advice I would appreciate it a lot.
    Thank you

    1. Hi, Melissa – I don’t like the iron on transfer pencils, personally. I’ve never gotten them to work well for me. Have you tried Sublime Stitching’s fine-tipped iron on transfer pen? It works great!

  9. Does anyone know if I can use anything to bring out a faded transfer. I used a transfer pattern some time ago and began the work but failing eyesight defeated me and I had to put it aside. as often happens, other things took up my time and now, having got myself organised with a good magnifyer, I would like to finish it but find that the transfer has faded to almost nothing, I can just see it but not enough to work with. It may not be possible but worth a try. Thank you

    1. Hi, Janet – a stabilizer does help. I find that transfer-eze or Sulky’s sticky fabri-solvy solves a few problems: it makes design transfer easy, it stabilizes while you stitch, and then it washes away so that you don’t have any stabilizer front or back when the design is finished.

    1. Thanks! It is professional. I do it myself – I invested hugely in the equipment to be able to do it. For home transfers, I recommend the transfer methods discussed here: https://needlenthread.wpengine.com/2010/09/beginning-embroidery-design-transfer.html – read the comments on that post, as there’s lots of good advice. If you’re looking for an iron-on transfer method, I recommend Sublime Stitching’s fine-tipped iron on transfer pen (you can google that). The blue is a good, standard color for most iron-on situations. Hope that helps!

  10. I would like to ask you a question please. I’m taking up tapestry, so i would like to know if i can download a picture from the computer and transfer it to canvas. If yes, do you have blank iron-on transfers? Thanks.

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