There are three basic ways to transfer patterns onto fabric. The first two will be covered here, and the third under Transferring a Pattern Onto Dark Fabric.
Technique 1: Tracing
This is probably the easiest, and only possible with light fabric. In this method, the fabric is used like a piece of paper.
Step 1: Prepare fabric
Cut a piece of fabric the size you will need — a few inches larger than your embroidery hoop or the frame you would like to use — and iron it flat.
Step 2: Trace pattern
Tape the pattern underneath the fabric over a flat light source, and trace it directly on.
✂︎ Low tech — use a window as your light source, and a pencil as your tracing tool (it can be difficult to get pencil off of fabric, so try to use light lines.
✂︎ High tech — use a tracing table, and a fabric pen.
Fabric pens come in multiple styles. For quick projects, I prefer vanishing pens, which start off as a bright color, but slowly fade away completely, over 1-3 days. Depending on the fabric, they may not be completely gone, and can then be rinsed out. Don’t worry when you start rinsing and suddenly they look more bold–it will come out! For longer projects (or when I am preparing fabric well in advance of when I will actually work it), I prefer water soluble pens that I can rinse out when the project is complete.
Technique 2: Ironing
This is my least favorite way to transfer a pattern, mostly because I mess it up almost every time. I’ll briefly outline how to do it, but I have yet to perfect it myself! This technique works best with tight-weave, smooth fabrics. The more textured your fabric, the less likely the pattern is to transfer well.
Step 1: Prepare Iron-On Pattern
You can purchase patterns that are already to go, or make one. Iron-on pens (and pencils) are available at most craft store and online. Trace the REVERSE image of your pattern (just flip your pattern upside down before tracing it) with the special pen or pencil.
Step 2: Iron
A warm piece of fabric will often “take” the pattern better, so run the iron over the fabric briefly before proceeding. Then, place your prepared pattern face-down on your fabric and apply heat to the back. Placing a thin, clean cloth between the pattern and the iron can help prevent burning.
This is the step I ALWAYS mess up. Be sure to keep the pattern pressed firmly to the fabric, and do not allow it to shift. Follow all directions on the pen or pencil’s packaging (e.g. no steam, appropriate temperature, time for transfer).
I’ve used a variety of pens and pencils for the iron on method, and so far my most successful attempts have been with Sublime Stitching’s Fine Tip Iron-On Transfer Pens. They come in a variety of colors (though the orange and red look the same to me once they are on the fabric), and I generally use the black pen.