How I transfer embroidery patterns: light method

How I transfer embroidery patterns: light method

Today, finally, I would like to tackle an important topic – transferring embroidery designs on fabric.


Before I start, I would like to stress the fact that this post will cover mostly how I personally transfer patterns, which in no way should limit you in exploring any other methods! Moreover, I will try to quickly list the other methods in the end of the post (but won't go in much detail, because I prefer to write about stuff that I can give a personal insight on).

Transferring patterns with the help of light

So, light method! What is that?

As follows from the name, we are using a source of light for transferring the pattern. The basic formula would look like this:

light source → printed pattern → fabric

Both paper and fabric have a common trait – they become see-through when they are lit from behind.

Practical examples


There are few ways to implement the formula in real life:

  1. Window method
  2. Lightbox
  3. Laptop/tablet
  4. DIY construction


Window method


As for the first one, the window method, it's probably one of the most common ways to transfer patterns. What you need to do is to wait till it's daylight and your window is getting a good portion of sunlight coming through. Then, take a sticky tape and stick the pattern right to the window glass so that it doesn't move. Then, take the piece of fabric you're going to use as a ground for your embroidery and tape it over the pattern, aligning it as you need. Thanks to the light you will be able to see the pattern clearly.

Although there are few cons.

It mostly works with white, beige and other light colored and rather lightweight fabrics, but the darker and heavier fabrics might be not so transparent despite the light source.

Also, I would recommend being careful with the sun and choose the time when it doesn't hit your windows directly, or choose the window which is not on the sunny side. Indirect sunlight is totally enough for tracing a pattern, whereas if the sunrays hit right on your face through the window, tracing the pattern will be a literal torture for the eyes.

Lastly, depending on the size of the pattern and the number of detail in it, the process might take a while. And considering, that you are tracing it vertically and maybe while standing, it's going to be a little tiring – I'm warning you.

Nevertheless, despite all the cons (the windows in my flat are all on the sunny side and I have weak arms, so they get tired quickly), it is still the method I use most frequently to transfer embroidery designs. This one, and the lightbox.

Tracing lightbox


Okay, you're going to laugh now, but I'm still going to show it.

How I transfer embroidery patterns: light method

This is my lightbox. This thing is prehistoric.

I will be honest, I'm terrible with various devices and stuff. So when I set myself a goal of buying a lightbox and found one at the nearest craft store I purchased it despite the questionable price. As soon as my Dad saw it, he declared he could make the same one and even a better one for me himself...

Well, whatever. It works, so I'm fine. Men in my family just had to switch the light bulb to a LED one, because the original one was probably of a low quality as it heated up too quickly.

How I transfer embroidery patterns: light method

Of course, today you can find much better, modern and functional versions of lightboxes. They are actually mainly used for tracing drawings so you could try searching one up in art or/and craft supplies store.

As you see, my experience with buying a good quality lightbox failed miserably, so I'm not in a position to give any tips. But if I were to buy this device now, I would search for recommendations and reviews from watercolor and calligraphy artists or architectures. I didn't see any reviews from stitchers, to be honest, so if you know, drop the links in the comments below!

The main plus of tracing lightboxes is that you don't depend on the time of the day to trace the pattern – you can do it in the evening or in the night. Also, the pattern is lying horizontally on the surface of the lightbox as you trace it so your hand will not tire as quickly as with the window. As for the color and weight of the fabric – the gray quilt cotton that I used for the snowflake mandala and the recent floral wreath is an example of fabric that is still lightbox friendly.


Laptop/Tablet


Using laptop or tablet screen for transferring a pattern is also a good option. If it is a design with lots of intricate elements I would consider taping the ground fabric to the corners of the screen, so that it doesn't move while you're tracing. But if it is a simple and smaller pattern, you can trace it quickly while holding the fabric with the other hand.

The advantage of this method is that you don't have to print anything – you can trace directly from the surface of your device. The cons are that the scaling might be distorted and some screens (especially tablets) are sensitive to touches, so you should make your tracing movements as light and careful as possible.


DIY construction


When my Dad said he could make a lightbox for me himself, he didn't lie – people actually do those things or at least something similar and equally effective. You can look up “DIY tracing lightbox” and see plenty of tutorials.

You will need some light source (a small lamp, a bulb, light sticks. I'm not sure about candles – you have to be veeery careful with these) and a transparent surface – usually, a glass one, but a plastic one will do as well (it's just more sensitive to heat). 

For example, if you have a table with a glass top, you can just put a lamp under it – and your lightbox is ready.

If you don't have any glass surface or plate at home, you can buy a big cheap photo frame and take the glass out. That's actually something I used to transfer these Needlepainting pansies. They are so so tiny, that I just a took a glass out of a standard photo frame, put the cutout pattern on it, fabric on top of it all and held it in front of the window so that the daylight would shine through. And traced it in the comfort of my sofa without going to the window and taping anything to it.

Well, what I did was very simplistic. That's the “when you're lazy and don't want to leave the sweet spot on your sofa” method, and it will fit only a tiny pattern with minimum elements. But for more demanding cases you or anyone skilled in your family or among your friends can possibly make a whole real lightbox.

Other methods


I guess that's enough for the light method of transferring embroidery patterns. Now, let's quickly name some other methods:

  • Iron pen. That's something I haven't even used before because it's a rare item where I live and the water-soluble marker works fine for me, so I take it easy. However, many find it very handy and convenient! The thing to know about it, though, is that its inks are permanent. Meaning, you can't wash it away, so you have to be careful when tracing the pattern to not make any mistakes. And another thing is that you will need a reversed pattern to trace because when you iron it, it will be mirrored on fabric.

  • Carbon transfer paper. Uhm, I did try some but I didn't like the quality, and the result was pretty much non-existent – I could barely see any lines and they were smudgy. There are special carbon papers for tailors and dressmakers though which must be better suited for such purposes so you can look them up. It's definitely on my list too, just like an iron pen, but I'm taking my time, haha.

  • Tracing paper, water-soluble paper. Have your pattern traced on any of these types of paper, baste it to the fabric and stitch directly on top. After that, you can tear out the tracing paper or put the fabric in a bowl of water so that the water-soluble paper disperses. With the water-soluble paper you can stitch any design you want. But when it comes to the tracing paper – tearing it out from small details is terribly difficult and exhausting. So I would recommend it only with simple patterns.  

Now, what is your preferred way to transfer embroidery patterns? Have you tried any of the methods listed above and what is your opinion on them? Share your thoughts!