Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tips for Using Iron-On Emroidery Transfers

While I love embroidery - the stitching part, that is, I don't much like all the decisions about design and the preparation before stitching. I especially don't like the design transfer step, but it has to be done. Iron-on transfers seem to be the easiest way to get the design on the fabric, except when you can't get a good transfer, then it's just frustrating! The following tips come from my own hard-won experience. I hope they help. Some of these tips seem obvious, unless you are a beginner - then nothing is obvious.

First of all, follow the directions for the transfer. Each type is a little different, so follow the instructions the pattern company gives you. With one *exception, which appears below.

  • Use a good iron. Sometimes old irons develop hot spots and won't deliver the heat evenly over the plate. You probably won't notice it if you're sliding the iron back and forth over fabric, but it is a problem when you want a even transfer. A classic, dry iron with flat sole plate actually works the best.

  • If you only have a steam iron, don't use steam! Turn the steam off and even empty the water from the reservoir. Steam will cause the lines to be blurry or thick and you want clean, crisp lines. Get rid of the steam.

  • Put the dial on the proper setting, as per instructions, and let the iron heat completely.

  • Check to make sure the iron temperature won't harm the fabric. Most transfers direct a high temperature, usually cotton or wool. Test the fabric in an inconspicuous area to see if it can tolerate the temperature.

  • Speaking of tests, there is a test design on the pattern page for a reason. If you use the test design on a scrap of the same kind of fabric, you can determine how long to hold the iron in place to get a good transfer. Since you want to get it right the first time on your project, you'll get better results if you use the test design and gain some valuable information. Depending on how dark the test transfer is, you can adjust the amount of time you leave the iron on the paper.

  • Press the fabric first to remove any wrinkles and make a smooth surface for the transfer. Pre-warmed fabric will take the transfer much quicker and more evenly.

  • Use your fingers to hold the paper in place. Obviously, keep your fingers away from the iron, but your fingers are better than pins. Why? Because the thickness of the pin creates space between the paper and the fabric and your transfer will be patchy. Seriously, your fingers do a better job - just be sure to keep the paper from shifting.

  • Place the iron in one position over the design until the ink transfers. But don't leave it on any longer than you have to as this creates a dark transfer with more ink than you really need. Keep placing the iron over the design until it is transferred. *Some directions say to move the iron back and forth on the paper. This is likely so that the heat doesn't "burn" the transfer too dark or darker in one place. The problem with moving the iron, though, is that the paper can shift ever so slightly. This makes for blurry lines and, particularly with a cross-stitch pattern, the movement can distort the design. I think it is better to hold, lift and place the iron on a new section, rather than sliding the iron back and forth. If you'll use the test pattern, you can determine the length of time to hold the iron, without causing problems.

  • Be very careful not to shift the paper! Before you move the iron to a new spot, carefully lift an edge of the paper to see if the transfer has taken place.

  • Use a padded hard surface. The ironing board works unless it has a nice cushy cover. Cushy again creates thick, blurry lines. If you do a lot of embroidery, you might want to make a surface from a thin board covered with wool felt. (Don't use acrylic craft felt as it will melt at high heat.) Or, use a very thin cotton batting, like Warm n Natural, covered again with a muslin top. This creates an ideal surface for the transfers and you won't ruin your pretty ironing board cover. In a pinch, I use a scrap piece of foam core board that I covered with a couple of old dishtowels.

  • If you choose to use your ironing board, protect the cover somehow, even with an old cotton dishtowel. The ink will likely come through and you don't want to spoil your cover. I sometimes think I can be careful or quick and I so often have a bleed through onto the cover. Seriously, just protect it to begin with.

  • You may not even realize that the ink is likely permanent. Sometimes it will fade with time, or wash out eventually, if the fabric is 100% natural fiber, but if there is any synthetic fiber in the fabric, the ink cannot be removed.

  • Remember that all of the ink on the pattern page is transfer ink. I mention this so that you can be sure to cut off any lines that you don't want to appear on your design. Even the words and directions. Cut those off so that you don't accidentally transfer them to your project. Also check for smear marks from the design being folded and stored or other, unwanted lines of any kind.

  • Cut the paper away from the design close to the edges. This makes it easier to position the design on the fabric. You'll know better where the edges are and get the design positioned just right.

  • Go for as light a transfer as you can manage. Obviously, you need to be able to see the pattern, but thin, crisp lines are better than heavy dark lines. It is harder to cover up thick lines and a thick, underlying color of ink will make your embroidery look muddy.

  • If you are working with 100% natural fabric, don't transfer the design until you're ready to embroider the piece. Sometimes the transfer will fade a little and it may then be harder to see. Keep the project folded and away from bright light until you finish the embroidery.

Do any of you have experience or other tips to share about this process?


  1. Thank you so much, Kathleen! I'm really glad I read these before I tried to use any of the patterns I purchased!!

    1. Happy to help, Linda! Experience is the best teacher, but sometimes the hardest, haha.


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