Transferring a design to fabric is the first step in most areas of needlework. No method is perfect, and each is better suited to certain fabrics and uses than others. Following is a list of the ten most common transfer methods (that I know about), how to use them, and the pros and cons of each. I've attempted to make this as comprehensive as I can, but there's always more to learn. If something in this article is erroneous or if you have other suggestions, please let me know.

10 Common Transfer Methods

  • Store-bought iron-on transfers
  • Transfer pencil (to make your own iron-on)
  • Pressure transfers (no heat required)
  • Photocopy transfers
  • Fabric markers: water soluble or air soluble
  • Transfer pencils (brush off or wash out)
  • Dressmaker's carbon
  • Tailor's chalk and soapstone markers
  • Pouncing
  • Basting

Purchased Transfers
These are easy to use and they are often reusable - just follow the manufacturer's instructions. The downside is the designs can be sadly limited and they are typically for light fabrics only. One source for a variety of transfers is Aunt Martha's produced by Colonial Patterns, Inc.

Tip #1: A hem gauge is really useful for centering a design and making sure that it is even with the fabric edge.

Transfer Pencils
Using this type of pencil and plain tracing paper, you can make your own iron-on transfer.

  1. Place the tracing paper over the image you want to copy. Press firmly as you trace the design with the transfer pencil. Remember: When you turn the tracing paper face down onto your fabric, you will end up with a mirror image of the design you traced. If you want the final image to face the same direction on the fabric as it is on the original, trace the design on the back of the tracing paper with a regular pencil first, then flip it over and trace the design with the transfer pencil.

  2. Pin the design, transfer side down. Use a hot iron (wool setting) but no steam. Lift up a corner occasionally to check your progress. If it isn't marking as clearly as you would like, go over it with the iron a little longer. Be careful not to scorch your fabric. I've only used this method on unbleached muslin, I've never tried it on synthetics.

Transfer Pencil PROS:

  • It's inexpensive, easily found at fabric stores or from various online vendors. (I bought mine from Aunt Martha's.)
  • It broadens your design options - if you can trace it, you can stitch it.
  • The marks wash out easily.
  • Doesn't require special paper. Regular tracing paper works fine.

Transfer Pencil CONS:

  • The tip doesn't hold a sharp point very long, so large designs can require constant sharpening to keep details from getting blurry.
  • It also requires a fair amount of pressure - complex images can take a while and be hard on your hands and wrists.
  • This method is for light-colored fabrics only. The pencil only comes in red.

I would recommend this for fabrics that are too opaque to allow tracing an image directly onto the material. If you can see through your fabric, with or without light box, I'd recommend a fabric pencil or marker. Save yourself a step.

Tip #2: Before drawing or transferring a design from a carrier sheet to your fabric, place a sheet of light grained sand paper under your fabric. It will keep the fabric from scooting around and bunching up under your marking tool. (This works well for applique and stencilling too.)


Transfer Image

Transfer Image