How To Transfer Embroidery Patterns To Your Fabric

Hot damn it took me long enough to getting this out there. I’ll make it highly comprehensive to make up for my tardiness! Now that you all are killing it with the #YearOfStitch some of you who are new to embroidery are wondering how the heck to use these new stitches.  

Most folks start by stitching cross stitch patterns because they are easy breezy to play with because you just count and stitch. Everything exists in squares and grids and as long as you find the center and count properly then your final piece will look just like the pattern.

But what happens when you start working with any of the other hundreds of embroidery stitches? Then the patterns become more complicated and require you to transfer the actual images from paper directly onto the fabric so you have a guide to stitch from. 

There are loads of ways to transfer patterns onto fabric. The technique you select can be driven by many factors: the size + scale of the piece, the type of fabric you are working with, the color of the fabric, personal preferences, etc. 

The short story is this: You want to get that pattern onto your fabric so you can stitch on top of it.

The longer story is this: There are many many methods for doing this and you might have to try a few before you find one that works best for you.

I am going to start with my personal go-to method and then I’ll fill you in on the other techniques I have tried.

Method 1 - Marking Pens:

I generally always just use a marking pen. I prefer the disappearing ink kind because 

1) It feels like magic 

2) It is magic because it just disappears after a few hours/days (depending on your fabric) and you don’t have to worry about it. 

The one downside of the disappearing ink is that if you have to put the project on hold for any significant amount of time, you will have to retrace the parts you didn’t stitch because that shit magically disappears.

There is a different type of pen that is water-soluble so it will stay put until you wash it. This means when you are done stitching, if you haven’t covered up all of the pen marks you will need to wash your embroidery piece. Not a big deal.

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How To Use Your Pens:

1. Print out or draw your own pattern on drawing paper

Here is the #YearOfStitch Q1 pattern (by the talented Heather Muenstermann) if you want to practice your stitches!

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Or you can draw your own patterns like I usually do. Today I’m letting my geek flag fly by drawing out the Gallifreyan sentence “Bow ties are cool” …this is a Dr Who thing for my non-Whovians out there. (Shout out to CapriciousArts for inspiring another Dr Who piece…you guys have to check out her latest weeping angel piece because it’s awesome!)

Ok, I start by drawing it out in pencil on some drawing paper:

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Then I use a fine point black sharpie and go over the drawing:

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Now, I take my fabric and stretch it in my hoop. 

This method works best if you use a light, semi-transparent fabric. The one seen here is just a basic oatmeal linen. 

Next, flip the hoop over and lay it on top of the pattern. In this case, it’s really easy to see the lines so I could just go ahead and use my disappearing ink marker to trace the pattern onto the fabric. Sometimes it’s not so easy and you need some help. In those cases I head to my window.

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and I tape the pattern to the window

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and then you can REALLY see all the lines perfectly. I just hold it there and use my pen to trace the pattern. 

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Tah-Dah! Yours probably won’t look like a drunk 5 year old traced it the way mine does. I had had a few cups of coffee. 

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Then you stitch. In this case, I used all backstitch and just a few french knots for the smaller dots but you can really treat this like a coloring book of stitches and go buck wild. 

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Then you are done! And after a few hours the purple lines just disappear…like magic. If you want to speed it up you can wet/wash the piece and the color disappears immediately.

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Sometimes if I’m feeling cocky I will just freehand draw right onto the fabric with the pen and hope for the best…

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Clearly I was drinking herbal tea this particular morning.

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Want to Buy Some Magic Pens? Good news: Amazon sells them! These are the ones I use but there are a few different brands. You can pick them up at your local craft store too. They are usually in the sewing section. 

Dritz Disappearing Ink Combo Pack

Wrights 8823005 Water Soluble Marking Pen, Blue

There are also pens with white ink for darker fabrics. These will work if you are free hand drawing your pattern but obviously darker fabrics make it hard if not impossible to see the pattern under the fabric in order to trace it. 

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Now, the other two methods are ones that I have had limited success with but some people swear by them so I say, do what works.

Method 2 - Tracing Paper:

First you have to buy the right type of paper. Here’s the type I use: 

DMC U1541 Embroidery Tracing Paper, Yellow/Blue, 4-Sheets

This basically just carbon backed paper so as you trace the image onto the fabric you transfer the carbon. (For anyone over 35, it’s like an old school mimeograph machine. For anyone who doesn’t know what I’m talking about, behold the precursor to the copy machine! I wish I could describe the smell because it was awesome.)  I like this pack because it has a few different colors of tracing sheets in there. That matters because if you decide you want to use a dark fabric you are going to want to use light colored tracing paper and vice versa. This pack makes sure you are covered no matter what color your fabric.

How To Use Your Tracing Paper:

1. Print out or draw your own pattern on drawing paper

2. Put the pattern on top of your tracing paper

3. Put your pattern and tracing paper (in that order) on top of your fabric, making sure the carbon side is facing down onto your fabric

4. Trace over the whole pattern using a pen or tracing stylus

5. Remove the pattern and paper - your pattern should now be visible on your fabric

Pro Tip: I pin or tape the tracing paper to the fabric to keep it from moving around and messing up the transfer. I also always use a tracing stylus versus a pen because I think the results are cleaner. This is the stylus I use: Darice Broad Point, Double Ended Tracing Stylus

Method 3 - Iron On Transfer Paper:

Again, you have to buy the right type of paper. You are basically just printing the pattern directly onto the paper and then ironing it onto your fabric so you can stitch right over it. You need to know what color fabric you are going to be working on before you buy.

For light fabrics I suggest this one: 

Avery T-shirt Transfers for Inkjet Printers, 8.5 x 11 Inches, for use with White or Light Colored Fabric, 6 Sheets (03271)

For dark fabrics this one:

Avery Personal Creations InkJet Iron-On Dark T-Shirt Transfers, White, Five Sheets per Pack (03279)

How To Use Your Tracing Paper:

1. Buy the special paper

2. Follow the directions on the package in order to print the pattern onto the paper and iron it onto your fabric

3. Stitch right over that pattern on your fabric

Pro Tip: Just be aware that you have to cover up the whole pattern because it doesn’t wash off. It just lives under your stitching.  This might require you to work with 6 strands of floss in order to make it bulky enough to cover up the pattern on the fabric.

Method 4 - Photo Fabric:

This is easy but limiting. In this scenario the fabric goes right into your printer! It’s limiting because it only comes in 8 1/2x11 sheets of cotton twill. 

1. Buy the special paper

2. Follow the directions on the package in order to print the pattern onto the sheets of fabric

3. Stitch right over that pattern on your fabric

Pro Tips: The directions tell you to wet the fabric after you print it to remove the light adhesive from the back of the fabric but I will tell you: DON’T DO IT. The minute you wet this stuff most of the dye washes off and you are left with a big sad mess and no pattern to work with. The adhesive is minimal so I say remove the backing, stitch the piece and then if you feel you need to wash it you can do it after you have finished. Another tip: the edges of the twill unravel a bit once you wash it so I suggest basting before you stitch. 

This is the photo fabric I have had success with:

Blumenthal Crafter’s Images PhotoFabric 8.5"x11" Cotton Twill 6pc

I hope you find this helpful. Let me know how it goes!