How to transfer an embroidery pattern: 5 handy tools

You’ve found a cute embroidery pattern, but … how are you going to transfer that pattern onto your fabric?

There are a few different ways to transfer embroidery patterns. In this post I will go through 5 different tools I’ve used myself, and then – of course – explain to you step by step how to use them and their (dis)advantages.

These are the 5 tools we’ll be going through:

  • regular pencil / ballpoint pen
  • air-erasable
  • water-soluble marker
  • heat soluble marker (my favorite!)
  • carbon paper (the best option for dark fabrics!)

Whatever tool or technique you choose, always try it out on a spare piece of fabric first.

Some tools can leave unwanted marks on certain types of or colors of fabric! “Better safe than sorry!” 😉

TIP: If you’re planning on doing cross stitch, you won’t have to transfer the pattern! You’ll use the cross stitch pattern to count where each stitch will go!

Regular pencil / ballpoint pen

When you’re just starting out with embroidery, an ordinary pencil might be just enough to get you started.

When I first tried out embroidery, I just used a blue coloring pencil!

If you want to display your work afterwards or give it as a present, you should keep in mind that you can’t remove pencil lines afterwards. The lines you make will remain visible, if you didn’t cover them with stitches.

In addition, it is also important to know that graphite / ordinary ink can run and stain when washing your project. So better keep these projects dry!

So, in summary, the disadvantages of an ordinary pencil or ballpoint pen:

  • Not removable, so lines remain visible (unless you embroider on top)
  • Might run when washing

And the benefits:

  • readily available
  • very cheap
  • with a white pencil you could also transfer patterns onto dark fabrics

Show step-by-step >

Air erasable pen

With an air erasable pen like the Prym Trickmarker your drawn line disappears … you guessed it: by air. That means with time and without any action on your part.

I use this pen regularly myself, but only during the embroidery itself, for example when I want to mark of specific areas.

The disadvantages of air erasable pen are:

  • Sometimes the pen disappears quicker than I would like. If you are someone who only occasionally works on a project, you risk your lines having vanished by the time you pick it up again. This can be very annoying because then you will have to draw the pattern .. again!
  • Pay attention when washing! With some air erasable pens, the ink may set into the fabric, if it hasn’t gotten the time to disappear on its own.

The advantages:

  • Leaves no traces
  • Very handy for temporary marks
  • Good for small and fast projects
  • No other tools needed to remove the lines (such as water, iron, hairdryer etc)

Show step-by-step >

Water soluble pen

The water-soluble marker is a popular choice in the embroidery world. Unlike the air erasable pen, the ink of this pen only disappears when wetting the fabric. This makes it a great option for larger projects or pieces that you won’t finish in one go.

I use the blue and white Aqua-Trickmarker from Prym, and the water erasable transfer pen from SewLine.

Many choose this option because they will wash their embroidery by default when it is finished. I wrote a full article about why you would like to wash (and iron!) your embroidery and how best to proceed.

The disadvantages of a water soluble marker:

  • You are obliged to wet your work afterwards, so you also have to take into account the color fastness of your thread, to make sure you don’t get stains.
  • Chances are that after wetting your fabric, you will also have to iron it, which is an extra added step.

Advantages:

  • Leaves no traces
  • The marker doesn’t vanish by itself, you decide when you don’t need the lines anymore.
  • Also exists in a white variant for dark fabrics

Show step-by-step >

Heat erasable pen

My favorite transfer tool!

The heat erasable pen is by far my (and many other embroiderers!) favorite tool for transferring embroidery patterns to fabric. Why, you may ask?

First of all, you can easily find them in different colors. This can be useful to mark different areas of your work. In addition, they are often finer tipped than other transfer pens, which allows you to make more precise lines.

Second, they don’t leave any traces (on most fabrics) and they only disappear when I want them to.

Third: you just need a hair dryer to remove the marks!

The most well known heat erasable pen that is often used in the embroidery world is the Pilot Frixion pen. Although it is not specifically aimed at embroidery or drawing on fabric, there are many embroiderers who use this tool, because it’s so easy and fast.

So, in summary, why the heat soluble marker is my favorite:

  • Available in multiple different colors
  • Doesn’t just go away by itself, so the pattern remains visible as long as you want it to
  • You don’t have to wet your project afterwards, just point a hair dryer at the fabric for a short minute, and the lines disappea… Magic!
  • You could even, if you wanted to, make your lines reappear by putting your work in the freezer for a while.

However, there are also some disadvantages that you should take into account:

  • Does not work equally well on all fabrics, sometimes a faint shadow remains, even after heating. Very important to test on your fabric first!
  • If you wash your work while the heat erasable ink is still visible, it could bleed, just like an ordinary ballpoint pen.
  • The ink never really goes away completely, but goes invisible on the fabric. So if you put your work in a very cold place (think of transport for example), the lines might reappear. Which ofcourse is easily fixed by reheating it with a hairdryer.

Show step-by-step >

Step-by-step: Transfering a pattern with any pen and the lightbox method

For this technique you’ll need:

  • fabric
  • embroidery hoop
  • adhesive tape or washi tape
  • a bright window or lightbox
  • your choice of (transfer) pen
  1. Print the embroidery pattern in the desired size, make sure the lines are as dark as possible, on a white background.
  2. Tape your pattern against a window or on your lightbox, so that it can’t move.
  1. Make sure your fabric is placed thightly in the hoop. The ‘good’ side, on which you will embroider, should be on the inside of your hoop first for this technique.
  2. Place your hoop on top of the pattern and make sure it is well centered.
  3. With your non-dominant hand, hold it in place while applying the lines to your fabric with your dominant hand.
  1. When you’ve finished tracing the complete pattern, remove the fabric from your hoop and place it back with the drawing facing up … and get stitching!

Carbon paper

We’ve seen a few different types of pens, but there is another transfer method I would like to share.

There is also a tool, called carbon or graphite paper, which you can use to transfer patterns.

For this method you don’t need a window or lightbox, which makes it ideal for transferring patterns onto heavier or non-transparent fabrics!

Carbon paper is available in a white and a black (or blue) variant. In the tutorial below I’ll be using black carbon paper, because I’m working on a light fabric. If you want to transfer a pattern to a dark fabric, use white carbon paper.

Disadvantages

  • Non-removable
  • Can leave stains when washing your project if too much carbon was transferred (by pressing too hard)
  • Advantages:
  • No light box (window or lightbox) required
  • Reusable (just like the pens)
  • Suitable for all kinds of fabrics, including heavier weight
  • Also available in a white version for dark fabrics
  • Carbon paper is not only used for textiles, but can also be used on other surfaces! So a nice if you have other creative hobbies 😉

Step-by-step: using carbon paper to transfer an embroidery pattern

For this technique you’ll need:

  • Fabric (not in the hoop yet)
  • Carbon paper (black or blue for light fabrics, white for dark fabrics)
  • Ballpoint pen
  • Adhesive tape or washi tape
  1. Print the pattern in the desired size.
  2. Place the fabric on a flat surface, right side up. Tape it down with some washi tape.
  1. Place the carbon paper on top with the black side down and tape it down. Make sure to not put unnecessary pressure on the carbon paper! This might already transfer the carbon to your fabric in places where you don’t want to.
  1. Tape the printed pattern on top of the carbon paper
  1. Now you have a stack of three layers: the fabric, the carbon paper and the pattern. Now, with a regular ballpoint pen, transfer the pattern to the fabric by tracing the pattern. Pay attention to where you place your hand or fingers, because those might transfer carbon as well.
  1. If you want to make sure you’re pressing hard enough, you can loosen one side of the tape of the carbon paper and carefully check that the lines are clearly visible. If not, you’ll have to press a little harder while tracing.
  1. When you’re done tracing, you can remove all layers from your fabric. Both the carbon paper and your pattern could be used over and over again!
  2. Put the fabric in an embroidery hoop and start stitching!

Important with this technique is to think carefully which lines you’ll really need while stitching. The lines you make with the carbon paper cannot be erased, so they’ll remain visible unless you stitch over them.