How to transfer embroidery designs to fabric

21 August 2020
Learn how to transfer your embroidery designs to fabric, including an overview of transfer pens and pencils and handy top tips!

The first step to beautiful embroidery is a great design. But before a single stitch can be formed, the pattern needs to be transferred to your fabric. So how do you go about this? Here's how to transfer your embroidery designs to fabric whether your material is light or dark…

On the bright side… Using the light transfer method

Because it’s pretty straightforward, transferring your design using light is probably the most popular way nowadays. Your light source can be as simple as a window on a sunny day, or you may have access to a lightbox. This technique works best on fairly thin, pale-coloured fabrics, and ideally ones with a smooth surface. 

bonsai tree design using light transfer method

1. Either print your design onto thin paper or trace it onto tracing paper with a fine black pen. 

Top tip! If your design is featured in Stitch magazine, rather than rip a page out you may wish to make a copy!

2. Draw a vertical line to indicate where the centre of the design is. You'll use this to make sure the grain in your fabric is properly orientated. 

3. Now place the design face up on to the light surface. Use low-tack masking tape to hold it in place.

Top tip! If you don’t have a light box, you can improvise with a clear polythene box that has a flat lid. Just pop an LED torch inside and start tracing.

4. Find the grain of your fabric and run a quick tacking stitch the length of it.

5. Place your fabric on top of your design, aligning both vertical lines. Again, secure using masking tape to hold in place. It’s important there is minimal movement as you trace your design.

6. Carefully draw over each design line using a light but continuous movement of your chosen pen.

bonsai tree design by Ilke Cochrane

Marvel at the precision detailing of this bonsai tree designed by Ilke Cochrane. Find ‘Life In Miniature’ in Stitch issue 125.

Finding this helpful? Each issue of Stitch has a varied selection of embroidery designs from the traditional to the contemporary. Everything is explained clearly with detailed steps and loads of images. So the projects are achievable no matter what your experience! Find out about the latest issue.

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Making your mark with transfer pens and pencils

There are many different types of pen you can use to draw your design, including:

  • HB pencil with a sharp point
  • Water soluble pen
  • Air erasable pen
  • Heat erasable pen

embroidery transfer pens and pencils

As a general rule of thumb, if the stitches will cover the pen lines then using a permanent marker is acceptable. If the markings will remain visible, then look at the erasable options. Ultimately, it’s down to personal choice – there are pros and cons to each. For example, you might rule out a water soluble pen because you don’t want to wash your embroidery. 

Whatever you decide, it’s important to check the pen on your fabric first. Sometimes the results are not quite what you want… Heat erasable pen marks can vanish quickly under the blast of a hairdryer. But they have occasionally been known to leave unsightly ghost lines. And air erasable pen marks can linger for longer than wanted on certain fabrics. So remember… always test!

On the dark side… Using dressmaker's carbon paper

Not all designs feature fabrics that are light in colour. For darker fabrics consider using dressmaker’s carbon paper. It comes in different shades, including yellow. 


1. With your fabric on a firm, flat surface, lay the dressmaker's carbon paper (with the transfer side on the fabric) then your design on top.

2. Secure both layers with masking tape as outlined above. 

3. Draw around the design with a firm, even pressure. 

reach for the stars by alex law

Alex Law inspires with a cushion cover that dares to dream big. ‘Reach for the Stars’ featured in Stitch issue 123.

Top tip! If any of the lines are a bit faint, you can go over them with a dressmaker’s pencil in the same shade. 

With your design transferred, you’re ready to frame up your fabric so the stitching can commence. Enjoy! 

Now you know how to transfer embroidery designs to fabric, learn how to use an embroidery hoop with our hand embroidery beginners' guide.

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