4 ways to transfer embroidery designs to fabric

Transferring designs to fabric

Yesterday on QUILTsocial I talked about 3 great uses for WonderFil’s Eleganza thread – Sashiko, hand embroidery and wool applique. All of these techniques lend themselves to quiet hand stitching time which is especially nice during the busy holiday season. But in order to do some of these techniques, you have to be able to follow a pattern that is marked on your fabric. For quilting, stitching and embroidery there are MANY, MANY different ways to mark your fabric. Today we’re going to talk about 4 ways to transfer embroidery designs to fabric.

A hand embroidered quilt label by Carla Canonico from her QUILTsocial blog post on June 26, 2016

Marking quilt tops for machine or hand quilting

When I’m machine quilting I almost NEVER mark the quilt top. There are a couple of reasons for this: 1. I’m always in a hurry and don’t want to take the time to do it and 2. Sometimes it’s really hard to follow that marked line LOL. But, I do know that lots of people like to mark their tops before they quilt them so when I’m teaching my machine quilting class at our local quilt shop I do take a bit of time to go over the different types of fabric marking products and their benefits and drawbacks. Here’s the list of products I handout to my class:

Pounce: This is chalk in a bag. Pounce or pat the bag on a stencil, leaving a chalk design on the fabric. The chalk disappears easily, so mark as you go with a pounce.

Mechanical pencil: Use hard lead (0.5mm) and mark lightly so that stitching or quilting will cover it. They mark very lightly, don’t have to be sharpened all the time and they don’t smudge. Only mark them as dark as you need to see the mark when you’re quilting, as darker lines may never entirely disappear after washing. These are good only on light fabrics.

Colored pencils: There are many quilters’ pencils on the market usually in white, silver, and yellow, the choice depending on the color of the fabric being marked. These work just fine with two significant drawbacks. They have to be sharpened constantly and they break inside when tapped or dropped making it impossible to keep them sharpened. Clover makes a mechanical pencil with yellow or silver lead that works like the mechanical pencils mentioned above.

Soapstone marker: If kept sharp, these markers will show up on light and dark fabrics. These make a nice line and come out easily. They’re available in quilt shops and need to be sharpened in a hand cranked pencil sharpener. They leave a pale gray line.

Soap sliver: Sharpen the edges of leftover soap for a marker that washes out easily.

Chalk pencil: The chalk tends to brush away, so it’s best to mark as you go with these pencils.

Wash-out pen, pencil or graphite marker: These markers maintain a point and are easy to see. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions to remove the markings and test them first on the fabric scraps to make sure the marks will wash out. Note: Humidity may make the marks disappear, and applying heat to them may make them permanent.

Chalk roller and chalk wheel: Powdered chalk in this wheel makes a simple, fine line. These work fine if you’re going to quilt the object right away. The chalk is easy to see, comes in different colors, and brushes right off.

Hera markers: Use a Hera marker on black quilts that have simple quilting patterns. You don’t have to wash the quilt when finished. They work very well if you’re going to quilt immediately.

Frixion pens: come in a variety of colors and leave a nice sharp line. The lines are removed by applying friction or heat BUT the lines may reappear in extreme cold.

A free hand embroidery pattern from www.french-knots.com

Marking embroidery lines on fabric

Oftentimes the best technique to transfer a design onto fabric depends on the color and thickness or weight of the fabric. Many of the marking tools that I mentioned above can be used with the following techniques.


To transfer a design on paper to a lightweight, and light-colored fabric you can place the design under the fabric and using your preferred marking tool copy the design by tracing it directly onto the fabric. If you have problems seeing the design through the fabric you can use a light box or tape the paper and fabric onto a sunny window. Here’s a little video that I found on YouTube that explains how to do this. If I decide to use a white fabric to do some sashiko embroidery with my Eleganza threads, I’ll probably use this method to trace my design.

Transferring a Design to Fabric – YouTube

How to use a light box or window to transfer a design to cloth

Tracing Paper

To use tracing paper or transfer paper, you place a piece of the paper, color-side down on your fabric and place the pattern on top of the paper. Transfer the design to the fabric by tracing the pattern using a stylus or empty ball-point pen. Many times the papers come in yellow to use with dark fabrics and blue to use on light-colored fabrics. This technique can be used for any fabrics that are too thick to see through such as wool or denim.

Tracing Paper “Chacopy” – 5 Sheets

For use with tracer pen (#7843500) to copy work onto craft & sewing projects. Includes 5 pages in blue, green, red, white and yellow.

Iron-on Designs

Paperbacked iron-on transfer designs are available in a variety of colors and styles. Be sure to follow the manufacturers directions before using. Keep in mind that heat transfer methods usually create a permanent image that must be completely covered by stitching to be invisible. This type of product has been available for YEARS!! I’m pretty sure that the embroidered pillowcases that my grandmother made were done using this type of transfer product. If I can find some at my local craft store it would be fun to do a couple using my Eleganza threads.


Stencils are great for repeat patterns and for mixing and matching for a unique style. You can also use just parts of a stencil to create a unique design. Tracing stencils works best on medium-weight fabrics such as cotton, lightweight denim, silk, linen, rayon and various synthetic blends. To use a stencil, position it on the right side of fabric and secure in place using tape. Use your preferred marking tool to trace the design following the cut-out areas of the stencil. If the fabric has any stretch to it, you may find it easier to make small dots with the along the cutout lines, rather than drawing a solid line.

Blue Birds 4″ – The Stencil Company

Can be used for embroidery or quilting.

There are also many other techniques that have been developed using computer printers, special papers and other interesting tools. There’s always something new being developed so the next time you’re in your local quilt or craft shop ask them what’s new! Many times when I’m doing hand embroidery I just make the pattern up as I go, but for my Sashiko project in a couple of days I’m definitely going to be using one of these 4 ways to transfer embroidery designs to fabric.

Join me tomorrow as we continue our stitching fun with WonderFil’s Eleganza threads.

This is part 2 of 5 in this series.
Go back to part 1: 3 great uses for WonderFil’s Eleganza thread

Go to part 3: Using Eleganza thread for Sashiko embroidery

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Jean May 2, 2018 - 4:29 pm
Hello, I am not a quilter, but I have made baby quilts (tied) for my grandkids. I found a cute Sunshine embroidery stencil and You Are My Sunshine fabric. The primary color of the fabric is yellow so I want to use orange embroidery thread to embroider the sun stencil. My questions are: 1. Should I start at the quilt sandwich center for the first embroidered sunshine? 2. If so, from there should I do straight rows, staggered, or random positions throughout the rest of the quilt? Thank you for your expert advice.
Donna Simpson January 8, 2017 - 9:40 pm
Thank you so much for this blog post! I learn how to quilt by articles like this. So good to have as a resource and it gives so many different ideas. Thank you.
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