10 Ways to Transfer Embroidery Designs onto Fabric

Have you ever wondered what are the steps for transferring embroidery designs? You have your lovely new pattern, you are excited to get started but – oh heck – how do you actually transfer the embroidery design onto fabric? Or, you may have wondered how to transfer an embroidery pattern onto dark fabric or denim for example. I know for a long time I’d see all these luscious patterns but, among other things, wasn’t too sure as to how you actually put a design on fabric in the first place.  After all, how do you trace a design on cloth?!

Well, now I know, and like most things sewing related there is more than one way to go about it, there is no set ‘right way’ to do it, and one of the best things you can do is figure out what works for you and just go with it.  Read on to discover the different methods you can try for transferring your patterns onto fabric, and decide which ones you prefer the most.

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Light boxes and light pads

A light box is designed to emit a light source from within, enabling you to see your pattern clearly enough to trace with confidence.  You place the pattern on the box, and your fabric on top, then trace off the design from there.  This is particularly effective if you want to use heavier or darker fabrics, which would be virtually impossible to see the pattern through without the aid of additional light. And over-all I find it really helps with accuracy when tracing designs on any type of cloth for embroidery.

Some boxes are better than others; if the light source is central to the box it can radiate brightest in the middle, making it harder to see the pattern clearly around the edges. Some can also get hot if a more state-of-the-art light source isn’t used.  And they can be small, which is harder to manage for larger pieces of work.

But boxes do exist that deal with each of these issues; they use LED lights that give bright, even coverage without emitting any heat, and they come in many different sizes.  If fact, whole light-tables do exist for the keen and affluent embroiderer.  So its worth doing a bit of research to find out the pros and cons of each product available, and be aware that, as with most things, the cheaper options may come with some draw-backs.

As an alternative, I have found a light pad really useful for putting a design on fabric. They tend to come with a USB lead rather than standard plug, have an even surface of light to work with and have different levels of brightness. And on the whole they tend to be more reasonably priced.


For a cost-free option, you can always use the tape-to-a-window method.  The same principles apply, the light enables you to see the pattern clearly enough to trace onto your fabric.  The difference here is that your pattern and fabric are taped to a window, which of course means you are working at a completely different angle.  If you can trace effectively in this way, it may be worth a try.

I’ve also seen people suggest using computer screens in the same way, and quite a few DIY options for making your own light box involving picture frames, fairy lights…you get the picture.  If you are good at that sort of thing, you might want to give making your own a try.

Carbon paper

Dressmaker’s carbon paper has a plain side, and a coloured side.  Its the coloured part of the paper that allows you to transfer the embroidery design; if you are using darker fabrics you’ll want a lighter carbon paper and vice versa.

For this method, you place the carbon paper on top of your fabric with the coloured side face down.  You then place the pattern on the very top and draw over the lines.  You may need to press quite firmly as you do this to make sure the design transfers evenly, so there’s a bit of technique involved in getting this to work well for you.  But with practice it may serve you well as a relatively inexpensive option to try.

For step by step photo instructions that demonstrate how to transfer an embroidery pattern to dark fabric using this technique, you might like my post ‘How to turn sketches into embroidery motifs‘.

Trace and tear

The principle behind this method is to trace off the pattern onto tracing paper, and pin this to your fabric.  You then stitch through the paper and the fabric together, until the design is complete.  Finally, you gently pull the tracing paper off, leaving your beautiful embroidered design in place.  You do need to be careful when removing the paper that you keep the stitches in tact, and you can buy products like ‘Stitch’n’tear’ which are specifically designed to come away easily when torn.  You may also find you need a pair of tweezers to remove any tiny bits of paper caught under your stitches.

I used this method to make my Shooting Star Embroidery Hoop and my Embroidered Heart Charm as part of my Creative Sewing Challenge.  Take a look to see the results for yourself, the patterns are free to download if you’d like to have a go.

Water soluble paper

This method works in a similar way to trace and tear, but you use paper designed to disappear when soaked in water.  So you trace off the design as above, and attach to your fabric.  Some papers have an adhesive backing so can be stuck straight onto the fabric which is handy, otherwise you need to pin or tac in place.  You stitch through the paper and the fabric as before, but this time the paper gets removed by introducing it to water.  Follow the manufacturer’s guidance to get the best results, remove any excess water and hang up to dry.  This takes out the more fiddly aspect of tearing away the paper, although you may need to watch out for your needle getting a bit sticky as you sew through due any adhesive backing.

Some papers are also designed to be compatible with computer printers, meaning you can print your design directly onto the paper and take out the need to do any tracing at all, which can really help with accuracy (although for some reason I do quite like the tracing part of the process, no idea why).

Prick and pounce

Aha, this is a completely unknown one to me but I thought I’d add it in the mix for the sake of being thorough.  For this method, you punch little holes into the embroidery pattern, and then place onto of your fabric.  You then use ‘the pounce’, which is usually powdered charcoal, to transfer the pattern by tapping the powder over the holes.  Special tools exist for the punching and the powdering part of this method, but you can also use a sharp needle and a rolled up piece of felt.  Its also important to consider the thickness of the paper you are using for the design, as thin paper may not fare too well when having lots of holes punched into it.

And whilst that may all seem a bit time consuming, once you have your design punched out, it can then be used over and over again with a simple sprinkling of powder, so this becomes quite a quick method in the long run if you are using a repeat design.  And another great one if you are wondering how to transfer an embroidery pattern to dark fabric. Maybe one to try one day!

Heat transfer pen

A heat transfer pen or pencil is specially designed to leave a permanent mark when introduced to heat.  This method requires you to trace the design in reverse onto paper.  You then place the paper onto your fabric and iron over the design, following the manufacturer’s guidance to get the best result.  As mentioned, the design is then permanent so you need to be careful in your sewing that you don’t leave any lines peeping out from under your stitches.

Disappearing pen

OK, so this isn’t a method in its own right, but probably worth mentioning here that you can use disappearing ink for any of the methods that involve tracing directly onto your fabric.  These can either be air, heat or water activated, but they mean that your design will eventually fade away so if any pesky lines do happen to be peeping through your stitches once you’ve finished, all is not lost as they won’t be around forever.  What you need to watch out for is that the pens are 100% reliable, so worth doing a test patch before you start to make sure the ink will indeed disappear.  And be careful with the air-fading pens, if the ink fades too quickly you may be mid-way through your sewing when your design suddenly disappears.

Print directly onto fabric

Some fabrics are designed so that they can be fed into computer printers, which makes transferring the design a complete blast because you can simply print directly onto them.  However, you need to look out for a few things, such as the quality of the fabric and whether they have an adhesive backing which may not work for your particular project.  You are also limited here to the size of your printer, so most papers will be A4 only, meaning they are better suited to smaller projects.  They can also be a tad expensive, so not ideal if you are making to sell, and of course once again your design will be permanent so you’ll need to make sure you cover it up completely once sewing.

Use a pre-printed design

Whilst this isn’t a transfer method at all, it is also worth considering that some designers create kits whereby the pattern is printed directly onto the fabric for you to embroider in part or as a whole.  If you are new to embroidery, this could be an ideal first step to get you sewing and developing your confidence before having to get into transfer techniques.

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