There are so many ways to transfer an embroidery design to fabric, how do you choose? The method you decide to utilize might depend on all sorts of factors, including the type of fabric you’re using, the stitches you might utilize for the project itself, and your own personal preferences.
In today’s post, I’ll be discussing washable transfer paper as a method of transferring your designs, including: what it is; where you can find it; how to use it; and my best tips and tricks for getting a great result.
Please note that there are links to a few products on this page; none of these are affiliate links, I’m just trying to be helpful!
What is washable transfer paper, anyway?
Washable transfer paper is a stabilizer-like product onto which you can either print or draw a design, place directly onto your hoop (much like a sticker), stitch, and then wash away once you’ve finished your stitching. I usually describe it as a “fancy, thin, fabric-like sticker,” because that’s truly how it looks and feels!
Where can you get washable transfer paper for hand embroidery?
I’ve only ever personally used one brand of washable transfer paper, the Sulky Sticky Fabri-Solvy Stabilizer. You can buy this in craft stores or from their website, and can usually find it in rolls or sheets of printable paper. DMC has also recently released a very similar product, which they’ve dubbed “Magic Paper.” I haven’t used the Magic Paper, but from what I can tell it looks to be the same product.
How do you use washable transfer paper for embroidery?
If you receive the paper with pre-printed designs from a kit, go ahead and follow the instructions provided by the designer - their instruction is your best bet to get a good result!
If you’re planning to use it for your own designs, however, make sure to read the package’s instructions before you jump into stitching. You’ll find that the packages usually have instructions for the best sort of printers and/or ink to use, as well as tips on how to remove the paper once you’ve finished.
As for my process, I usually use the 8.5x11” sheets from Sulky and print my designs using a laser printer. To print, I import my designs (which I usually create in the Procreate app for the iPad) into a program that allows me to work with that dimension of paper (such as PowerPoint, Google Docs, or even Canva) and print from there. Before printing, I will sometimes set the transparency of my image to be lighter than its true colors, which helps to minimize the risk of printer ink “bleeding” onto my floss when it’s time to wash it off.
If you don’t have access to a printer or the technology mentioned above, you can also draw onto your transfer paper directly. It’s usually a bit see-through, which makes it great for tracing designs from patterns or books. If you go this route, be mindful of which writing utensil you use, as there is always a risk of the ink “bleeding” onto your floss or fabric when it’s time to wash it off. In this case, I like to recommend using a pen or pencil that you would feel comfortable placing directly onto your fabric (such as a heat-erasable transfer pen or a blue water-erasable transfer pen).
Once you've drawn or printed the design onto your paper, stick it onto your fabric - just like a sticker!
After stitching your design, you’re ready to remove the paper by holding your project underneath running water and gently agitating the paper until it dissolves. I prefer to soak my hoop in a small bowl of water for 15-30 minutes before moving onto the faucet; I find that it helps move the process along a bit more quickly. That said, you want to be careful not to leave your hoop submerged in water for too long; otherwise, you risk your hardware rusting (I’ve never been able to successfully remove rust from fabric!), and/or your hoop warping in shape.
After removing the paper completely, place your hoop on a clean towel to soak up the excess water, and allow your hoop to fully dry. I usually use a piece of yarn or thread to tie my hoop over a fan - this speeds up the drying process considerably!
Tips and tricks for getting a great result with washable transfer paper
The best way to get the most effective result from a transfer paper is to practice, taking mental notes of what works best for you. Here are a few of my best tips and tricks for getting a great result!
Check your colors by flipping your hoop around to the back
If you’re not sure if the colors you’ve chosen for your project are working (because it’s harder to see the color of the fabric against your floss when using the paper), turn your hoop around and take a look at the stitches from the back - you’ll be able to see if those colors are working for you, even if the design looks a bit messy!
Consider changing the transparency of your design
When printing directly onto washable transfer paper, consider printing out your design in a lighter color than the default black - you can do this by Googling how to change the transparency of your design in your chosen program, or by designing the pattern using a lighter color. This is especially important if you’re planning to use a light color of floss that might be more likely to pick up the ink as you wash away your paper.
If needed, consider a gentle hand washing
If you’re finding that the ink you’ve used is bleeding onto your floss, and you can’t seem to remove it with water alone, you may need to use just a small amount of detergent to gently hand wash your hoop. You may also consider gently hand washing your hoop if you're finding that the paper is a bit stubborn to remove. For example, in the photo below, I had to gently agitate the paper away around certain portions of my project to get it to completely dissolve.
How to handle "sticky" needles
You may find that your needle gets a bit “gummy” or sticky as you stitch using this sort of paper. You can remove this residue by gently rubbing the needle between your fingers; this is much more annoying when you start out, but over time you won't even notice you're doing it!
What to do when your paper "lifts" off your fabric as you stitch
Because washable transfer paper is meant to be easily removed, you might find that it lifts a bit as you stitch - especially near the edges of your design. If this happens, simply press it back down into your fabric. To prevent this from happening too frequently, hold your paper down near your stitching as you bring your needle up through your fabric.
Consider saving certain portions of your stitching for after you've removed the paper and allowed your hoop to dry
In some cases, you might consider leaving the “fluffier” portions of your design to be stitched once your paper has been removed. When stitching woven wheel roses, for example, you can use the lines on your paper to stitch your “spokes,” wash off the paper, and move onto the “petals” only once your hoop is fully dried. This will make removing the paper easier, and will help keep the "fluffy" portion of your stitching more in tact.
One final note on washable transfer paper (versus other transfer methods for hand embroidery)
Washable transfer paper is a great option to keep in mind when planning your next project. Some stitchers use this paper for all sorts of stitches and designs, while others only like to use it for specific techniques. For example, I prefer to use this paper when I’m doing a lot of line stitching or lettering, but would prefer not to use it for something like satin stitch; other stitchers might feel similarly, or they may have a completely different preference!
It’s really important to keep in mind that what works for one stitcher might not work for another. The good news is that developing your own personal preferences is part of the overall learning experience!
I hope this was useful, and I can't wait to see what you make! If you'd like to share your work with me, you can always tag me on your social media accounts (@hopebroidery on Instagram and Twitter, @hope.broidery on TikTok). If you don't have public social accounts, but still want to share, consider emailing me a few pictures (firstname.lastname@example.org), I would love the chance to tell you how much I love your work!