Iron on transfers and alternative ways to get your embroidery design onto the fabric

Iron on transfers have been used to mark fabric with a hand embroidery pattern for many years.

Back when I was a child in the 1970s, needlework magazines often gave away blue or silver inked iron on transfers.  

I can remember many sunny afternoons sitting with my grandmother, looking through her vast collection of embroidery transfers. There were baskets of flowers, crinoline ladies by the dozen, bows, baby birds and teddies, all ready to iron on to fabric and stitch.

a selection of vintage iron on transfers

Alternative methods of transferring patterns

In the 1980s, as counted thread embroidery became popular, it became harder to find iron on transfers

We had to go back to the techniques of past years for marking our fabric. These include...

Even with the Internet, and the availability of free hand embroidery patterns, we still use these methods today. However, we also have the advantage of ...

So let me explain how each of these alternatives to iron on transfers are, or were, used.

Traditional methods of transferring patterns

Prick and pounce

This is a wonderful method for transferring your design onto smooth fabrics. It will not work on coarse fabrics or those with a pile, such as velvet.

Although laborious, it produces an accurate outline and is ideal for finely detailed designs.

There are a few items that you will need to use this method...

  • a pin-voice or a fine needle with its eye set into a cork
  • a cork mat, or pad of felt
  • pounce powder (powdered charcoal for light fabrics, and powdered cuttlefish or French chalk for dark materials)
  • soft flannel fabric to make the roll
  • fine paintbrush
  • paint, either watercolour or oil - blue or white depending on the fabric colour

Start by making the roll or pad which you will use to push the pounce powder through the pricked holes in the pattern. Take a piece of soft fabric, about 10cm (4 inches) wide and long enough to roll up into a cylinder about 3cm (1.25 inches) in diameter. Roll it tightly and stitch the end in place.

Print the pattern off the Internet, or draw your own on paper, and place it on top of the cork or felt pad. Take the pin-vice or needle and start pricking tiny holes along the outline of the design. Keep the holes close together, especially around curves. Try to fit about 20 holes to each inch of outline. Take your time, you do not want to make any errors at this stage. Take frequent breaks to give your arm, shoulder and neck a rest.

After pricking all the holes hold the pattern up to the light so that you can see the outline clearly. You will soon notice if you have missed anything.

Next place the material you wish to embroider on a hard surface with the right side uppermost. Pin the pricking to the cloth firmly. You do not want it to move part way through or you would have to start over.

Dip your rolled up pad into the pounce powder and rub it all over the priced area. This will push the powder through onto the cloth underneath.

Carefully remove the pricking from the material. You don't want to smudge the powder outline! Pour any leftover powder back into the container to use another time.

Check your design on the fabric. Did it all appear in a fine dotted line? If significant areas are missing, then I'm afraid you will have to start over. Here, pick up the cloth and shake it to remove the markings, then pin it down and try again.

If your pattern is complete, it is time to make the design more permanent by carefully painting with your fine paintbrush over the lines of the design. Try using watercolour paint first, but if it does not "take" on your particular fabric, you may have to resort to oils. Remember to thin the oil paint slightly with pure turpentine to get a fine line.

Leave the paint to dry, then flick off any remaining powder, which will leave you with your design transferred onto your fabric ready to stitch.

A painstaking task, but well worthwhile if you want an accurate pattern.

Tacking method - alternative to iron on transfers

If you have less time to spare, you might like to try the tacking method as an alternative to iron on transfers. Here you'll need some tissue or tracing paper and tacking thread.

This method is not as accurate as the pouncing technique, but it's fine for simple outlines without too much fine detail. It's also useful for textured fabrics that will not allow any other method to be used.

Print the design and trace it onto tissue paper or tracing paper. I have also successfully used the really thin paper known as bank, on which carbon copies used to be made when I first started working.

Place the fabric on a hard surface and pin the pattern on top. Then thread your needle with sewing cotton in a colour that will show up (I try to avoid black or red as they can leave a trace if not completely dye fast).

Do not tie a knot in the thread, but make a couple of back stitches in the same place to secure the beginning and end of each length.

Take running stitches all around the design outlines through both the paper and fabric. Take smaller stitches into any tight corners to mark them clearly. Do the same thing along curved lines. On straight lines you can get away with longer stitches.

Once you have tacked all the lines, carefully remove the paper, leaving the design showing in running stitches on the fabric. You can remove these stitches when you reach them as you do the embroidery.

Dressmakers Carbon Paper

This is another alternative to iron on transfers.

Dressmaker's carbon paper is not the same as the old carbon paper we used to use when typing a letter on a typewriter. It is a thicker, waxier paper and it doesn't smudge.

Dressmaker's carbon paper is normally available in a pack containing sheets of different colours, such as the blue, yellow and orange in the photo above. This pack also had white sheets which are very useful for darker fabrics.

needlework carbon paper

You can only use this technique on smooth fabrics.

Place your fabric, right side up, on a smooth surface. After picking a coloured paper that will show on your fabric, lay the carbon paper, shiny side down, on top. Then position your pattern on top of everything else.

Pin all the layers in place, then with a pencil or biro (ball tipped pen) draw carefully over the outline of the pattern. Don't press to hard or you might split the paper, but press firmly enough for the lines to show on the fabric. Unpin a corner just to check that you are using enough pressure. 

Once you have transferred all the lines, unpin and lift off the pattern and carbon paper and you are ready to stitch.

Using a Light Box

An artist's light box can prove useful when transferring designs onto fabric. Place the design and then the fabric on top of the light box's surface, and switch on so that the light shines through from behind. This allows you to see through most fabrics and you can then draw with tailor's chalk or a fabric pen.

Using a window

If you want to embroider on a fine, sheer fabric, then you can use a window as a makeshift light box. 

Draw or print your pattern onto paper and use masking tape to attach it to a nearby window. Then put your fabric over the top of the paper and again tape in place. Using a hard pencil, draw around the outline which will show through the fabric.

Modern methods of transferring patterns

Iron on transfers are still available if a little difficult to find. Some modern day magazines still include them, and you can order several books of iron on transfers from Amazon using the links on this page.

However, we have some additional ways of getting a pattern onto cloth nowadays...

Disappearing ink pens

There are two types of disappearing ink pens — water soluble and those where the marks disappear by themselves over a short period. There are even some pens on the market with two ends, one of each type.

If you just want to draw a simple shape on a piece of freestyle embroidery, these are great. If you get it wrong, you know it will fade away within 10-20 minutes or that you can use clean water to wash it away. They are also great for drawing parallel lines to act as the top and bottom of a row of stitches so that they all end up the same size.

They are not the best idea for transferring a whole design onto a complicated piece of work as they may disappear before you finish the work.

Transfer pencil and pens

If the designs you want to stitch are not available as commercial iron on transfers, then you can make your own with the help of these pens and pencils.

The principal thing to keep in mind is that you need to draw the design back to front as it will be reversed when you iron it on. This is, of course, especially important when including lettering on your project.

Using your lazer printer

It has also come to my attention that you can use lazer printers to print a pattern and then iron it on from that. This isn't something that I have tried, but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the subject if you have tried it yourself.

Coloring with wax crayons

I am currently experimenting with using coloured wax crayons to draw a design, and colour parts of it in, straight onto the fabric. You put a piece of paper on a hard surface with the fabric on top, crayoned side down, and pass a hot iron over the back. Much of the wax melts into the paper, leaving a faint coloration behind on the fabric as a guide for stitching. Again, I would love to hear from you if you have tried this method before.


As this page has shown, there are many of getting your pattern onto the fabric ready to stitch, iron on transfers being one of them

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