The Creative Corner · Vintage Needlework

Transfer Vintage Embroidery Patterns

Portion of a linen doily showing an embroidery transfer of simple flowers and leaves. Dates from 1920-1950.
Item purchased with transfer already applied, ca. 1920-1950.

You found this great pattern you want to make. Perhaps you’re following my vintage embroidery lessons and you want to recreate one or two of the patterns I talk about. How do you transfer the vintage embroidery pattern to your fabric? It’s not as hard as it might seem.

In the past, if you found a design you liked, you could get it in two ways. The magazine or catalog often offered an article on a heavy linen or linen/cotton or linen/rayon fabric that you simply decorated with needle and thread. This was more profitable for the magazine and less work for you. However, it could be expensive. You might find yourself paying $1.25 for a pre-stamped piece of fabric when you only paid $1.00 for a yearly subscription to the magazine!

A more economical option was purchasing a transfer and placing the design onto your own fabric. This worked great for small items, because a worker often had fabric pieces left from larger projects. That pillow may be leftover fabric from the curtains or Mom’s best silk. Send away 15 to 60 cents and the transfer is yours.

Today when we think transfer we immediately think hot iron. While most of us who sew or work with fabric do own a clothing iron, other transfer options existed.

Pricking and pouncing

Sometimes embroidery designs appeared with holes punched along the design line. This was known as a perforated transfer pattern. To transfer the design you placed the perforated design over your fabric, and then you brushed some transfer powder onto the design. The dark (or light) powder falls through the holes and you end up with a beautifully transferred design. The process is known as prick, the holes in your pattern, and pounce. Pounce is the powder you use.

You can do this with any design. Here are the basics:

  • Find a needle. The holes it makes need to be big enough that you can see the pattern when you’re finished. A regular embroidery needle would work well. This doesn’t have to be huge. A pricking needle used for bobbin lace (a needle set into a handle) is ideal.
  • Poke holes along the design lines at even spaces. Make them very close together.
  • Find a transfer powder. You can use cornstarch, talcum powder, or even ground up chalk while you are practicing.
  • With a stiff brush, a small piece of felt, or anything else that will let you lift the powder from a container and release it sparingly onto your pattern, dot the transfer medium along the design lines.
  • You should end up with a perfect design, perfectly applied. This takes a bit of practice before it becomes smooth and flawless. Best of all, you can use it over and over again with no extra work, unlike many other transfer methods.

If this technique interests you, do look at these two articles by professional embroiderer Mary Corbet. She talks about using charcoal and talc –– what grades to use and where to find them inexpensively. Excellent information.

You can find pounce powder at quilting shops like Missouri Quilt Company if you don’t want to go the assemble-your-own-from-chemical-supply-stores route.

Carbon paper transfer

Photo of vintage carbon paper package resting on a piece of linen fabric and a simple flower and leaf pattern. Text: Traum Carbon tracing paper for dressmaker's use. New Formula. Marks clearer. Will not smear. Easier to.... [photo cuts of remaining words]
Special carbon paper makes tracing a design a breeze.

The idea behind carbon paper transfers is simple. You choose a color that is close to your fabric but not invisible. Since my fabric is ivory I would probably choose yellow or blue from the package above. Make sure your fabric is ironed with no creases.

  1. Lay your fabric on a hard surface.
  2. Place the carbon paper on the fabric where the design should be. Make sure the color part of the carbon paper is down, towards the fabric.
  3. Place your design on top of the carbon paper.
  4. Trace the design with a pencil.

Your design is transferred and ready to embroider. This gets a bit tricky when you have a large design to reproduce, but not impossible. However, let’s say you want to take one motif, like the flower and leaf above, and repeat it several times. You might be placing this along the hem or down the sides of curtains, for example. In that case you might want to look into the prick and pounce method above. Once you prepare the pattern for prick and pounce you can use it over and over easily without tracing it each time.

Tracing with graphite

You may remember this method from grade school. It’s the scribble-on-the-back-of-the-paper method.

Believe it or not, this was a popular way to transfer patterns during the first half of the last century. It was inexpensive, always at hand, and something anyone could do.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Find a design you like, and make sure it’s on a sturdy paper.
  • Turn the design over and cover the back of the design with graphite from a pencil. This will take a lot of scribbling.
  • Once the back is solidly covered, turn the sheet back over.
  • Place the design over your fabric and trace the design lines onto your fabric. The graphite from the pencil should transfer from the pressure of your pencil.

And there you are! One transferred design and perhaps one very dirty palm. (I could never do this without resting my wrist on the paper somewhere. I’m a mess by the time the design transfers.)

Using a transfer pencil

Photo of simple flower with leaf drawing. A red Aunt Martha's transfer pencil lays across the page.
With a transfer pencil you trace and iron.

With a transfer pencil you trace whatever you want to embroider, turn it over, and iron the page. The pencil markings then reproduce on your fabric. Generally the instructions suggest that you use some type of tracing paper to reproduce your design with the pencil.

While I show an Aunt Martha’s transfer pencil in the photo, I do it because that’s what I have. Many other companies produce these, and you can find them online or at your local fabric store. Clover, Dritz, Ibotta, General Pencil, and Sulky all make hot iron transfer pencils as well.

This is a nice option when you are copying words from another transfer. For instance, the old Days of the Week transfers all have words on them: Monday, Tuesday, etc. If I simply trace it with carbon paper the words will still turn out backwards. Tracing it with a sheet of tracing paper and a hot iron transfer pencil, the letters face the correct way when I turn the page over and iron the design. Magic!

Use your new knowledge

Pick your favorite method and play around with transfers. Any one of these works if you want to transfer vintage embroidery patterns. For practice, you may want to check out my Embroidery Lessons series on Outline stitches.

Happy creating!