Embroidery: the tear-away transfer method


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.


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.