Embroidery: the tear-away transfer method

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A very old, traditional way of transferring an embroidery design to fabric is by drawing the design on very fragile paper, basting it to the ground fabric, and then stitching the design with a running stitch through both paper and fabric. When the whole design has been outlined, the paper is gently torn away. This isn’t a how-to, by the way…it’s probably more like a how-not-to.

I tried this method the other day. I don’t know why I did—I already have my preferred technique for transferring a design to fabric that is clean, precise, and reliable—but I guess it all boils down to laziness and impatience. Didn’t feel like tracing the design to interfacing that night, didn’t feel like reversing the drawing, either. I just wanted to start stitching right away, so I plunked the drawing (of my camera) on top of some brown linen, and basted it down.

I’m not disparaging this method…it’s been used for centuries by some of the greatest embroidering cultures of the world (Chinese, Japanese, Indian) so it obviously works, and that it proves a little difficult is more likely the fault of the practitioner than the method.

The design moved a bit as I stitched…I found that by stitching down a large part on one side of the design, the paper would warp a bit between the stitched and unstitched parts. Very possibly because of the poor basting job I did!

Sometimes, a very short stitch would tear the bit of paper underneath it, so that the stitch would disappear beneath the paper, and often I couldn’t tell whether I’d stitched that part or not, and so had to push the paper aside with the tip of the needle to see whether there already was a stitch there.

I used a backstitch, rather than a running stitch, and found that because I couldn’t actually see the fabric, my lines weren’t always straight, my stitches didn’t always line up end-to-end. This little bit of crookedness didn’t bother me for most of the design, but for the little letters at the top of the camera, little gaps and crooked stitches did matter…

None of which compared with the annoyance of removing the paper, afterward. I didn’t mind the slow job of gently tearing paper away in small pieces, or having to pick dandruff-like fragments that were stuck underneath the stitches with a pair of tweezers. What really bugged me was how, no matter how gently one worked, the job of pulling the paper bits out would sometimes yank on the stitching, loosening it and creating loopy bits of thread…in some cases, when the part pulled on was the end of a thread, the bitter end would come popping up to the surface of the fabric—after I had so carefully woven these loose ends into the stitches on the back of the fabric, because I don’t use knots.

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It came out all right in the end, I won’t have to repeat the whole thing, though I must say the thread looked a bit scruffy and fluffy after all that, and the lines have a slight jitter to them, and some of the stitches are so loose that from the side they look like terry cloth. 😉 Not really, but you know what I mean. And I don’t know if it really allowed me to start embroidering sooner…I was still picking bits of paper out with a pair of tweezers this morning.

The verdict? It works, and in a pinch (in a granite hut, in a remote rural area of Szechuan Province, during the Warring States Period) it’ll do the job admirably. It certainly isn’t an excuse for the subsequent embroidery to be poor—marvelous work has been done using just this method of transferral to first mark the fabric.

But there are so many more precise ways to do this, now, and I think any transfer pen or transfer paper, iron-on, or print-on method would be preferable.

Experiment over, I started stitching today. Had an intense craving for shades of green (I can crave certain colors the way others crave salt, or chocolate. For the next 48 hours I’ll probably be all “Green is my favorite color EVER!” And then I will drop it, fickle and unfaithful, and declare an all-time-high of passion for ecru. But right now, I am loving this Kermit the Camera.

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99 thoughts on “Embroidery: the tear-away transfer method

  1. Love your embroidered camera! how fun. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have 3 embroidery machines. I used to be an embroidery addict, but I haven’t been doing it much lately. Years ago, I did lots of crewl, that was very fun. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed. So fun to find a new crafting site

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  2. Love the embroidery on the camera! Reminds me I still have a little unfinished embroidery project lying around (it’s been there for the last 20 or so years ;-)). Your post is encouraging though.

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  3. You know, I’ve been thinking about using this method too, and your experience tells me I would probably have the same struggles! I’m so glad this was “Freshly Pressed” so I could finally find out about tear-away paper! I embroider too, doing it all with transfer paper for one of my projects that depends on straight lines – others I just freehand! Fun isn’t it! So glad to have found your blog!

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  4. I’m so glad I clicked on the link on the WordPress homepage. Your camera embroidery is beautiful. I too crave certain colours at certain times, but at the moment I’m into the full spectrum. Walls covered in coloured pencils, rainbow coloured rugs – yum. But I LOVE your green camera – great choice!

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  5. Found your blog by accident. I’ve subscibed. Your stitching is lovely. This transfer technique does work, but the secret is in the paper. Now that you’ve reminded me I’ll do a tutorial on my blog at some point and link back to you.

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  6. I like it very much.In china,it is very usual.I have embroidered once piece before,but until now i have not finish it yet.

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  7. That’s my Fuji FinePix! Can’t believe it’s so famous now!!! Cool stuff, very unexpected and it certainly made my day.

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  8. What a great blog! I do a historical blog, but recently I have just started to sew ( I have not done so since 8th grade and I am in my 40s) and I love the idea of maybe creating some vintage looking items to go with my Civil War dresses and such. Thank you for your creativity and for the inspiration!

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  9. It is so much easier to be out own critic.. especially with stitch work.. looking at the photos you shared this looks incredible.. kudos on trying this technique.. it is definitely fun to try something different.. PS love-love the greens too!

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  10. Oh how awesome!! I am loving the colors too! wonderful work!! And salamat sa pag-share tungkol sa tear-away, hindi ko pa na subukan yan na technique pero parati ko iniisip, lalo na pag dark yong fabric. 🙂 Can’t wait to see this when it’s done!

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  11. Kermit the camera! LOL I love it! It’s been so long since I’ve stitched. I think you did an excellent job of it. I can’t wait to see it finished as well. Your blog is lovely. 🙂 Thanks for the smile today.

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  12. I tried this method once and it was such a headache :D. Thanks for the “what not to do”
    It’s really going to help. I’ve found that the freezer paper works pretty well, actually….Fewer of the little sticky bits in the fabric

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  13. Hi there!
    Loving the design! When creating intricate embroidery, I tend to use dissolvable fabric. It can be drawn onto, stitched over and then once put under water, it dissolves leaving just the pattern. Its been a life saver compared to using the ‘paper and tear’ technique.
    Katie x

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  14. I love this! You don’t often get a this-is-how-it-is when it comes to embroidery tricks and tips, usually what I’ve seen is all about how this is the BEST METHOD EVER! Well!
    Your camera outline looks fabulous! And green is *my* favorite color, so I really like your color choices!

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  15. That is very very cool! and I agree – the green is very funky looking for a camera that was likely a boring combo of black and grey in its original incarnation 🙂

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  16. I think they have updated the tear-away sheets from the Ye Oldde Ages. There’s a brand out there now that has the far more helpful option of being broken down by water. Stuff darn near dissolves in it! Stitch out the design as usual, but spritz some water on top and give it a rub. Poof! Much better than fishing out those teensy bits with a tweezer.

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  17. I love it! I think it is so interesting that you took an older art form and created it into something modern fresh and rather trendy. You could even take it a step farther and personalize your accessories such as bags. Maybe it could turn into something you could profit off of. I loved it and hope to see more 🙂

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  18. I love the theme of an embroidered camera. The outline alone looks like a finished product, but I’m loving whet you’re doing wth the green. Thanks for the info on what not to do. I’ve never tried any type of transfer so this is very helpful information.

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  19. Well, My Mom usually does the Embroidery, or I should say used to do it quite often & even though it used to be time consuming we generally talked a lot in between so it was fun too. So even though I have never done any of this myself, I still have seen my Cousins & Neighbours coming to learn few tips from my Mother. So I do have an idea of it.
    What I can say after seeing this one of yours is that, its a very good one. I know that the critique that you wrote yourself is about the difficulty that you faced while doing it, but its looking LIKE A FADED THOUGHT,,,, u see its like an expression that we sometimes get while talkin to someone or giving speech or when we are teaching younger ones & suddenly looking for a good example or word & we get a Hazy picture in mind.
    This is what it is…. it looks wonderful.
    I would have loved to have this with me, specially as I love Photography & am mad for Camera’s.

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  20. Kermit the camera, I love it! A truely unique idea! Personally, I’m not much into embroidery because it’s so difficult to get all the stitches straight and even. My favorite craft is knitting. You can see some of my work at theknittedrose.wordpress.com.

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  21. I use your interfacing method, but with machine freehand embroidery, so just have to flip it over to add applique and pattern! This is wonderful – must have taken hours, even without all the picking! I used to pay my daughter to do jobs like that when she was little – give her a pair of tweezers and 10p and she was happy! Most of the stitches would probably have disappeared too tho … !

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  22. this is very cool, i love the camera motif. what about dampening the paper before tearing it off? that might help. congrats on getting freshly pressed. Great blog!

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    1. Yay, Flossy Bobbin, me too! Me too! *does dance* I don’t work with green often. But I love olivey and limey greens…HOT greens. I feel like making everything green these days. 🙂

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  23. I think this is looking pretty god despite the troubles you had with your drawing moving around! I’m so lazy about doing transfers for embroidery that I just draw directly on the fabric most of the time.

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    1. Hi, Denise! It came out all right in the end. The thread I used for outlining does look a bit scuffed and furry, doesn’t show in the photograph, though. I like to draw straight onto the fabric, too, but tend to ‘stroke’ things into the right shape, leaving lots of lines that don’t get covered up, later. I wanted to keep this one neat and clean. 🙂 Not very confident with freehanding.

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  24. I love it!
    I wonder if you drew the design on freezer paper if that would work? Because you can iron freezer paper down. None the less, it’s beautiful!

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    1. Thanks, Bari! It would certainly stick down better, but it would be very hard to tear freezer paper away without affecting the stitching, because of that plastic coating. Even something as fragile as tissue paper seems tough when you are trying to tear it around stitches!

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    1. Nathalie! Shouldn’t be much longer…it’s quick to do, and I am really enjoying making it; both the green and the patterns keep me excited. Thanks for the visit and comment! I love your blog, too!

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