Ruth O'Leary Textile Art and Embroidery

'Stories from the Arabian Nights' - part of the Slip cases for books gallery

'Stories from the Arabian Nights' slip case

Transferring your embroidery design onto fabric

This is one of a series of 'hints and tips' articles from Ruth O'Leary. View some of Ruth's work in the Goldwork embroidery, Slip cases for books, Pictures and panels, and Individual pieces galleries.

Equipment for different techniques for transferring a design to fabricOther than with free machine embroidery, and sometimes even then, youíre probably going to need to transfer your embroidery design to fabric. There are a wide range of techniques you can use for this; some are useful for a variety of different applications, while others are more suited to particular techniques.

In this hints and tips article weíll look at a few different ways of transferring your embroidery design onto fabric:


You will need:

If youíre using a light coloured, lightweight fabric such as cotton lawn or a fine calico, itís possible to trace the design onto it as though it were tracing paper.

Using masking tape, attach your design to a light box or a white or pale surface, such as a light wood table or white card. Position your fabric over it, right side up, carefully aligning it to where your finished work is to go.

You can hold it in position if itís a small, simple design, but if itís more complex you may want to consider taping your fabric in place with the masking tape too. Masking tape is easier to remove than Sellotape or Scotch tape and leaves less sticky residue, but even so, if using it, make sure that you only use it to stick down the edges of your fabric that you can afford to cut away if necessary.

Tracing a design onto fabricOnce your fabric is in place, trace over your design using a sharp pencil or a disappearing ink marking pen. A pencil will leave a permanent mark that will need to be covered with stitching, but disappearing ink should fade away in about 18 to 24 hours, or quicker if washed, so you need to make sure that youíve completed work on your piece before then! Always test on a scrap of your fabric first, to make sure that the ink doesnít cause any damage.

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Dressmakerís carbon paper

You will need:

Using dressmaker's carbon paper to transfer a design to fabricDressmakerís carbon paper works in the same way as the old-fashioned sort used with stationery, but tends to be on heavier paper, less likely to tear when pinned. Itís also available in different colours, commonly blue, orange and white, and so can be used with both dark and light fabrics.

To use, place the carbon paper onto the right side of your fabric, with the coloured, carbon, side down. Place your design on top, and draw round it using a pencil or ball-point pen.





The design has been transferred to the fabric by the carbon paperYou need to make sure that neither the design or the fabric shifts while doing this; commonly, all three layers are pinned together, though in some cases you may wish to use masking tape. Try not to lean or rub on the paper while drawing round your design as this can lead to smudges of the carbon marking your fabric.





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Iron-on transfer made with a transfer pencil

You will need:

As well as using commercially-available iron-on transfers, itís possible to make your own using a transfer pencil. As theyíre invariably dark blue, they only work well on a pale coloured fabric.

Cover your design with tracing paper; it helps later if the tracing paper is larger than the design. To prevent the paper shifting, itís a good idea to attach both to your table or board using masking tape. You can now trace round your design using the transfer pencil.

Place the tracing paper onto your fabric, right sides together, i.e. with the traced design down. This means that the version of the design that will be transferred to the fabric will be a mirror-image of your original design. Bear this is mind when marking it up!

Ironing a transfer onto fabricAttach the tracing paper to the fabric with pins or tacking (basting) stitches, and press hard with a hot dry iron. The transfer image will melt and stick to the fabric. This process may take a little time, but donít keep the iron on one place too long or you may scorch the fabric.

If using pins, it helps if the tracing paper is larger than the design as theyíre then easier to avoid with the iron. Itís also a good idea to leave a gap in the pins or tacking stitches, so you can check under the tracing paper to see how well the design has transferred.




The final image on the fabric is a mirror image of the transferOnce the transfer has been taken off the fabric itís very difficult to line it up correctly for another go, so make sure the design has transferred properly before removing it. Any faint lines can be drawn over with pencil.

The transfer outline can be removed by washing.



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Pricking and pouncing

You will need:

The prick and pounce method of transferring a design to fabric is an ancient one, having been used throughout the Medieval period and before. While now mostly superseded by other more convenient methods, it still works, and is very useful for transferring large designs in one go where transfers, carbon paper, etc. arenít practical.

Using a sharp needle, prick holes in the paper design around the lines to transfer. These should be quite close together to avoid a confusing game of join-the-dots later on. Place the design on a cutting mat or card while doing this to prevent any damage to a table or yourself. Depending on the complexity of your design, you can also use special pricking wheels or a sewing machine with no thread to create the holes.

Rubbing fine powder through holes in a design to transfer it to fabricPosition the pricked-out design on your fabric and pin in place. Rub a fine powder, or ďpounceĒ, over the design so that it goes through the holes and onto the fabric.

The colour of the fabric will determine the colour of the pounce Ė the most commonly used is white, either powdered chalk, corn flour, baby powder or similar, though for pale coloured fabrics where this doesnít show up sufficiently, blue powder is also available.





The fine powder has worked through the holes in the design onto the fabricIf the pricked holes were close enough together, the design should be clear enough to be used immediately, but if necessary, carefully draw over any unclear areas with a pencil.






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Tacking (basting) through from the back of the fabric

You will need:

Most methods of transferring a design require the fabric to be worked to be marked up directly, whether with a pencil, disappearing ink pen, transfer, carbon paper or pounce powder. In all these cases itís possible to get marks you didnít intend on your fabric, whether smudges or lines that went astray. Often, this does matter too much as youíre covering the affected area with stitching or appliquť anyway, but on other occasions it can be a real problem.

One solution is to use a two-stage process where the design is transferred onto a backing or lining fabric first, and then stitched onto the final top fabric.

The fabric with the design is used to back the fine fabric, with the image on the reverseUsing the method of your choice, transfer your design to a backing fabric. This is commonly a plain fabric in a neutral colour, such as calico, cotton lawn, or even cotton muslin for fine work.

With your design on the back of the backing fabric, attach your fine fabric to its front. Pinning or tacking (basting) may be sufficient, or you can stitch it more firmly using herringbone stitch or similar.





Sew over the design using small running stitchesUsing small running stitches, sew over the design on the backing fabric with ordinary sewing thread, in a colour that will blend in with the completed embroidery. This is process is a lot easier and neater if the joined fabrics are mounted in an embroidery hoop or frame.

Any running stitches that are still visible when the embroidery is completed can be carefully unpicked, leaving no trace of the marked up design.





The design has now been transferred to the front of the fabric by the running stitchesItís important to remember that the design tacked through the to the front of the top fabric will be a mirror-image of the design on the back of the backing fabric. If using an iron-on transfer, this can actually be a good thing as it puts the final mark-up the right way round again without needing to reverse the original design.



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Transferring photos or other digital images onto fabric

It's possible to transfer photographs or other digital images onto fabric, using specialist papers or pastes. This can be done by using iron-on transfer papers designed for use with ink-jet printers.

Iron the print-out onto the fabricSimply print your design onto the special paper, cut to shape, place it onto your fabric with the printed side down, and press with a hot iron. It's common for a design on the back of the paper to change when the correct temperature has been reached.

Photocopies can also be used, by coating the photocopy - colour or black and white - with a special paste and applying it to the fabric, coated side down. Once dried, the copy paper and any remaining paste can be removed, leaving your image behind.

In both cases, your fabric should be washed and dried first, to remove any surface preparation added during the manufacturing process that may prevent the transfer from sticking.


Peel off the transfer paper to show the image transferred to the fabricYou should also remember that the ironed-on version of your image will be a mirror image of the original, so be careful to make your transfer the reverse of how you want the finished piece to appear.

Once the image has been transferred to your fabric, wash it again at a low temperature to remove any residue. You can now embellish the image with the embroidery technique of your choice.

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Find out more

If you're interested in finding out more about Ruth's work or would like to discuss commissioning a piece of unique textile art, please get in touch.

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© Ruth O'Leary 2007-2011