As anybody who has had to either paint, or embroider on fabric will understand, much of the frustration comes, not from the actual work, but from actually getting the design onto the fabric.
With light coloured fabric, the problem becomes very easy – it is easy to use charcoal to draw the pattern straight onto the fabric. In fact, there is substantial evidence that this was done from medieval times. Parts of the Bayeux tapestry show evidence that the design was first drawn onto the fabric, and then stitched over.
There is also some evidence that designs were also painted straight onto fabric – in living colour no less.
These were not done by the actual embroiderers, or the embroidery guilds, but often by a commissioned artist, and then the embroiderers sewed directly over the paintings. Very useful, especially if there was a lot of intricate shading involved.
By far the most common method – especially after the introduction of embroidery pattern books in the 15th century – was prick and pounce.
In this method, a pin was used to make holes in the outline and details of the design. The design was placed on the fabric, and “pounce” was rubbed over the surface. The pounce went through the holes, and the design was transferred onto the fabric. Sometimes the dots were joined with paint, but not always.
Depending on the colour of the fabric, pounce was usually a mixture of ground cuttlefish bone and charcoal.
Ground cinnamon can also be used for pounce, and this gives your needlework a lovely scent, and the cinnamon does not easily rub off.
This method is only really good for doing sections at once, as the outline can be rubbed out by mistake.
Evidence for the prick and pounce method is found from period pattern books, with the “pricks” in the patterns.
Yet another method you can use is what has been called the “tissue paper” method. You don’t even have to use tissue paper.
What you do is that you draw the design on paper and firmly pin the paper in place on the fabric. Using running stitch, stitch the outlines of the design onto the fabric. Soak the design in water to soften the paper and then tear the paper off: there is your design on the fabric.
Other methods of transfer include iron-on transfer pencils/pens – however this can cause a problem if the fabric is too dark, as many of these pens and pencils come only in pinks or reds.
There are many fabric marking pens and pencils on the market. The best ones are from Japan and are Chako brand. These come in pink, purple and white, and come in either fading or erasable pens. The erasable pens are also fading, but you can, if you make a mistake, erase them using the solvent end of the pen. These are excellent.
Another method that I have heard about is using transfer medium.
This is a liquid that is painted onto the picture or pattern that you want to transfer to the fabric. You then place the design (face and painted side down) onto the fabric and over a period of about 12 hours the pattern adheres to the fabric.
My favourite method, however, is using carbon paper. I find that for anything but really dark fabrics, ordinary pencil carbon (the blue sheets) is terrific. The design is clear and will just wash out of the fabric later. On dark fabrics, however, you may want to invest in light coloured dressmakers carbon, or something called “transfer paper” (however transfer paper can be expensive). The transfer paper is used in exactly the same way as carbon (placed between design and fabric – go over the design and it will transfer to the fabric).
The best advice I can give you, however, is to do some experimentation. Test your fabric first to see which method works the best for that particular project.
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© 2005 Megan McConnell