Over the years of writing Needle ‘n Thread, I’ve tried to keep careful track of needlework questions that I’ve received through the website. I always think that some day, I’ll categorize them and publish all my answers! But Wow, there are lots! I have over 1,000 e-mails saved that fall under the “Question and Answer” category! But this is understandable, because the beginning embroiderer faces quite a few challenges, especially when going it alone.
While I can’t categorize and write about Every Single Question, I would like to address the most frequently asked embroidery questions – perhaps the top five. In addressing them in dedicated posts, I can hopefully pull together a good bit of the information and resources here on Needle ‘n Thread that might help answer the questions, all in one place. Plus, we can all benefit from valuable reader input in the comment sections, if you have other answers to the questions.
So, without further ado, here’s the question that gets the prize for Most Frequently Asked:
1. How do I transfer my embroidery design to my fabric?
There are lots of different ways to get your design on fabric, and it seems each stitcher has a favorite way. Here are some popular choices:
- Tracing: Using a light box or a sunny window, tape your design down, and then tape your fabric over it, making sure the fabric is square (on the grain). Use either a fine-lined permanent pen, a water-soluble pen (or pencil), or a light touch with a regular pencil to trace the design. Don’t use sketch strokes while you trace – use a smooth continuous line. Some pens I’ve used successfully for tracing include the Sakura Micron Art Pen (which is permanent on paper but the company does not recommend it for fabric that will be washed) and the Papermate Ultra-Flair (it’s water soluble and washes out well). My go-to instruments for tracing are mechanical pencils and the Micron pens. I’ve also had good success with the Martha Stewart Crafts writing pen, which is permanent and archival, in the color “moonstone” (a gold-ish tan).
- Carbon: Buy a package of dressmaker’s carbon from your local fabric shop. Dressmaker’s carbon comes in small packages with about 5 colors of carbon in each package. The “carbon” is not really carbon – it’s a graphite-free, wax-free transfer stuff that works like old-fashioned carbon paper. Put your fabric on a hard, smooth surface (I would tape it down to keep it from moving), decide where you want your design and tape your carbon onto the fabric, and then tape your design above the carbon. Using a stylus or a old ball point pen and a firm, steady stroke, carefully trace over the lines of your design. Again, don’t sketch – draw in long, continuous lines. There’s also a specific brand of this kind of transfer paper called Saral Wax-free Transfer Paper that works well, is sold in larger sheets & rolls, and that won’t set if ironed.
- Iron-on Transfer: You can buy designs as iron-on transfers and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for ironing the design onto your fabric. There are lots of popular options available for iron-ons. You can also purchase books of iron-on transfers for embroidery (that’s a link to my review of a few), or sets of iron-ons from more obscure (but good quality) manufacturers, such as these iron-ons from Mani di Fata or these iron-ons from Mains et Merveilles. If you like the vintage-style designs that are popular today, you can try Aunt Martha’s Iron-On Patterns (a link to my resource review). Another option is to purchase an iron-on transfer pen or pencil and try your hand with one of those. They’re available through various sewing / craft stores online. Here’s a brief tutorial on making your own design transfer and using an iron-on pen or pencil. You might like this iron-on transfer pen from Sublime Stitching – it creates fine lines for ironing onto the fabric.
- Prick and Pounce: This is a more complicated process, but it works well on dark fabrics, fabrics with a pile (like velvet or velveteen), and for larger, complex projects that will be set up and worked on for a while. Here’s a tutorial on using the prick and pounce method to transfer an embroidery design. I also used this method on my Agnus Dei project, and I was really glad I did!
- Ink-Jet Printer: There are a couple options here. Lisa Tressler wrote a guest post here on Needle ‘n Thread, on using silk gauze and an ink-jet printer to transfer embroidery designs. Others I know use their ink-jet printers directly. Using a fine (usually vector) graphic image, they print the image directly on their fabric, taping the fabric to regular computer paper (or ironing it to freezer paper) and running it through the printer. This works best with a printer that spits the piece out the back, without rolling it around the rollers and back out the front. And of course, the fabric and design size have to fit the printer.
- Water Soluble Stabilizer: Did you know you can use a water-soluble stabilizer on top of your fabric, and stitch through the stabilizer and fabric, then rinse away the stabilizer? A while ago, I wrote a two-part tutorial / experiment on using Solvy. Here’s Part I and here’s Part II. It’s not my personal favorite as far as transferring goes, probably because I just don’t like stitching through something that feels like plastic. But it does work. Obviously, you have to make sure you’re stitching on something washable – and that your threads are colorfast!
- Transfer Mesh: I haven’t tried this stuff, but Clover makes a product called “transfer mesh” that’s used in quilting, and has been recommended for embroidery design transfer. I intend to try it eventually, if I can get my hands on some, just to review it and see how it works. I’m a little skeptical that it would work for very detailed embroidery designs, but I would imagine that it would work ok for larger, bolder designs. I’m willing to eat my words on either of those statements – like I said, I haven’t tried it yet! This is what transfer meshlooks like and how you use it. I’ve never personally ordered from that site site, but it has a good photo of the actual mesh.
- Tissue Paper & Tacking Stitches: Though time consuming, this process works well, especially if you are very concerned about leaving any kinds of transfer marks on your fabric, or if you’re stitching on a fabric that doesn’t take any of the above transfer methods well. Simply trace your design on tissue paper, arrange the tissue paper on your fabric where you want the design, baste around the outside of the design to secure the tissue paper in place (using regular sewing thread and a fine needle), and then use small “tacking” stitches (running stitch, or plain sewing stitch), stitch over the lines of your design. Use small stitches, relatively close, on finer, detailed parts of the design. Here’s my photo tutorial for using tissue paper and tacking stitches to transfer a design. Again, it’s a bit more time and labor intensive, because you’re stitching twice, but it always works!
- Stitch or Transfer from the Back: I’ve used this method successfully before on pieces made from “dressy” fabrics that were dark, but that allowed light through, like this embroidered pouch for altar linens. I traced the design on the interfacing in very dark ink, then basted the interfacing and the front ground fabric together, then mounted them on a frame. Putting a light behind the embroidery, I was able to see the design lines well enough to stitch. This worked well with that particular moiré silk, because the light from the back shone through it and the light interfacing. If you’re using a heavier fabric, you can draw the design on the lining fabric, and then stitch little “tacking” or running stitches in light thread from the back, following the design. The design will then be on the front in the light stitches, which you can then stitch over and hide, or snip out as you go. Like the tracing paper and tacking stitches above, this is another method that always works. Just remember that on fine, detailed parts of your design, you have to use small stitches.
I hope some of these tips are helpful! What about you? What are your favorite methods of transferring designs? Any particular one that has been a No-Fail option for you over the years? Any method that I missed that you’d like to add to the list? Do leave a comment below to help out your fellow stitchers!