Transferring Designs Part 1 – Traditional Methods

6th May 2022

A question was sent to us recently asking about the best way to transfer embroidery designs on to the fabric. Most designs from books or magazines are printed on paper and the challenge is to get it onto our fabric so we can start stitching.

When we started to research the question, we realised that there were more ways to transfer designs than we thought, so we have split this article into two parts, with the second half coming to you next week. 

Prick and Pounce

One of the earliest methods for transferring a design is the prick and pounce method. A design is drawn or printed onto paper and then tiny holes are carefully pricked along the lines at short, regular intervals. The secret is to ensure there aren’t so many holes that the pounce will spread, but there aren’t so few that it is difficult to join them.

Images courtesy of the Opus Elenae website (source)

Once the holes have been pricked, the paper is carefully laid on the fabric and secured to ensure it won’t move during the pouncing process. Pounce is a powdered pigment, usually in white, black or grey.

Traditionally, white pounce was made from powdered cuttlefish and black from powdered charcoal, with the grey coming from a combination of the two.

The pounce is carefully dusted over the paper with a soft pad or sponge so that it falls through the holes. The paper is carefully lifted so the pounce won’t smudge and then, using a very fine paint brush and paint, the artisan joins the dots.

Images courtesy of the Opus Elenae website (source)

This is still a method used by some and it results in an accurate transfer although a steady hand is required for the painting. It is then important that one’s stitches cover the paint lines as they cannot be removed once they’ve been applied!

Tracing and Tacking

Another method that was used in the past and continues to be used today is tracing and tacking. 

Firstly, the design is transferred onto tracing paper. The tracing paper is then carefully secured to the fabric. Using a sewing cotton in an easy to see colour, tacking stitches are worked along the lines. Once the entire design has been tacked, the paper is scored along the lines with a needle and can be gently torn away.

Like prick and pounce, this can be a highly accurate method of transferring a design although it does take time. Also, the tacking stitches need to be removed, especially if they have been made in a contrasting colour. There is an element of ‘dot to dot’ thinking required, as tacking necessarily has gaps in the line, but this method is a lot easier than painting.

It is preferable to draw the design onto tracing paper using something other than lead pencil as the graphite can transfer with the stitches to the fabric. Especially if your fabric is a light colour, removing graphite marks afterwards isn’t always straightforward!

Direct Tracing

If you have access to a lightbox and your fabric isn’t too dark, you can also directly trace a design onto it. If you secure the design on to the lightbox so it doesn’t move, then secure the fabric over the top, you can see the lines of the design through the fabric when the lightbox is turned on. If you don’t have a lightbox, a sunny window works just as well although it means you have to trace standing upright rather than sitting down.

Images courtesy of the Instructables website (source)

The big question with direct tracing is what do you trace the design with? As mentioned before, lead pencil isn’t always advisable due to the difficulty of removing it afterwards. Fortunately, we now have erasable pens that work beautifully on fabric. They commonly come in three types: water-soluble, air-soluble and heat-soluble.

Water-soluble pens are fantastic for fabric that can be immersed in water, so if you know you are going to wash your project when it is complete, it is an excellent choice. 

Although if you live in a humid environment, water-soluble lines have been known to mysteriously disappear between stitching sessions!

Air-soluble pens do just what they say on the tin – they disappear over time in the air. The amount of time they take to disappear depends on the pen and the environment, but if you are one of those people (like several of us are) who take quite a long time to finish a project, then there is always the risk that the design will disappear before you’ve had a chance to complete it. You may need to keep going over the lines periodically.

Heat-soluble pens, also known as Frixion pens, are fantastic and come in a range of colours. They disappear when you iron over them or, if you can’t iron your project, just get the hair dryer out and the lines will magically disappear beneath the hot air of the dryer. 

However, people in very cold countries have discovered that the lines can reappear when it gets cold, and it is known that if you put your needlework in the freezer, they may reappear as well. There might be times when it is necessary to put your needlework in the freezer, but we aren’t exactly sure of when those times are! However, it is good to remember. Ensuring the lines are stitched over accurately will save unwanted reappearances!

For all pens, before you start you should try it out on a corner of your fabric first and have a try at removing it in the way it is meant to. If the pen leaves a mark or a shadow even after its ‘removal’ then it would be wise to look for an alternative method of transferring your design on to that particular fabric.

Next time we will look at some of the more modern methods of transferring designs, but we’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences about design transferral as tips are always greatly appreciated.

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