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Pens and Potions

When I was a child embroidery patterns came on tissue paper – slightly yellowed, or has my memory become jaded?  The lines were dark blue.  You pinned the pattern into place on your fabric and you switched on your iron to transfer the lines.  Do you remember those?  Do they still exist?  I certainly haven’t seen them around for years.  But that may be because I live far away from the proper world.
If they are still available, though, it won’t help me because I draw all of my own designs.  I sit down with a big piece of paper, a pencil and rubber.  There are times when I just sit and no Muses pay me a visit.  That’s quite often and if nothing comes well, nothing comes and I go and do something else.  But I need to start another book so yesterday I just sat there until something came out of my brain and I was able to put pencil to paper.  It took the better part of an afternoon to get something that I was happy with.  Then I needed to transfer those lines onto paper.
I know that there are all sorts of more acceptable methods that involve pricking the paper and using powders, or using a lightbox and a pencil…………………  But like most things in life and embroidery I do what works best for me.  There is nothing quite like using dressmakers carbon.  Let me tell you how it’s done.
The first thing that I do is take a photocopy of my original drawing as I don’t want to use the only copy that I have. 
I pin that photocopy onto my fabric, place dressmaker’s carbon – ink side down – between the photocopy and the fabric then pin it all into place so that nothing moves when I’m in the middle of transferring the lines.  It would be a disaster if it moved because I wouldn’t be able to line it up again, so those pins are vital.  Before I start transferring the lines I put it onto a surface that has a bit of give so that the lines transfer smoothly.  For this job I usually use my Olfa Cutting Mat.  And then I go over the lines on the photocopy.
The thing about using this method is that you need to press hard because if you don’t you’re going to make no impression at all.  The other thing that you need to do is use a hard writing tool, so a pencil is not going to work.  In fact, there is not much that’s going to work – except for a ball point pen.  The very thought may cause many needle workers to throw up their hands in horror.  But here’s the thing.  You’re not writing on the fabric with the pen, you’re using it to draw over the lines on the PAPER.  And it is not going to work if you use one that has run out of ink because then you won’t be able to see what you have and haven’t done.  So a ballpoint pen it is, and the good old yellow Bic is still the best one there is.

Once you have gone over all of the lines in the design, unpin one side and check that you have transferred everything.  Only when you are satisfied that everything is there should you take the rest of the pins out and remove the drawing and carbon paper, If you’ve forgotten just one line, you won’t be able to put it back in the right place so be careful here or you will have to do some freehand drawing.

And here it is, all the lines transferred and ready to start stitching.  Well not quite.  I almost always back my embroidery fabric with cotton voile.  It provides stability which means that I have a wider range of fabrics that I can use.

I cut a piece that is give-or-take the same size as the embroidery fabric, pin the two together and overlock around the four sides.  This is important.  If you don’t own an overlocker, use a conventional sewing machine set on a zig zag stitch, or turn over a hem and tack it.  If you don’t the edges will fray, they will get fluffy, your threads will catch on them and quite apart from all of that, it will look like something the dog brought in or brought up as time goes on.
What often happens is that I get my newly-drawn fabric into the hoop and discover that my lines are a little too faint.  Not quite good enough for my aging eyes and this is when I commit what many try to tell me is the worst sin of all.  I go over them with a blue washout pen!  See, clear lines:

I like the blue washout pen.  It’s easy to use and it does wash out.  Many people complain that it doesn’t, but that is because they haven’t used it properly.  The trick is to rinse it out with cold water before you wash your embroidery in any kind of soap or detergent.  The other thing that I’m told is that it hasn’t been around for long enough to know whether it will eat into the fabric in, say, a hundred years time.  You know what?  I don’t care.  I’ll be long gone by then and I’d rather make my life easier now.  So, the blue pen it is.
It does, however, bleed on some fabrics so if I’m working on silk I use the Sewline Ceramic Pencil.  Nice tool that.  The PhD (project half done) below is on silk and I have gone over my lines with the Sewline Pencil.

And just to assure you that these things do wash out very easily, here’s the completed project, suitably washed, with no lines visible.
If I’ve transferred a drawing onto a dark fabric and need to make the lines clearer, or if I want to change something while I’m stitching, I use one of the white washout pens.  These haven’t been around for long and are a really worthwhile addition to the needle workers stash of marking tools.  Mine is made by Sew Easy and I know that they are available from Clover as well.  You just need to know that when you are using it, the lines take a while to appear so don’t think it has run out.  It hasn’t.  That’s how it works.  And once, again it does wash out as the little number below proves.

I don’t ever use a pencil.  I did once.  I was doing a bead embroidery project on cream silk using transparent ivory beads.  I used a pencil because the blue pen would have bled.  The result?  The graphite from the pencil got into the transparent beads as I stitched through them and never came out.  Despite the fact that it one of the marking tools that is often recommended, you’re not going to get a recommendation from me.  In my view, pencils are for paper, not fabric. And why would you want to use something that is, in a teenage girl’s words “so last century” when people have slaved in laboratories inventing things that work better?  Doesn’t make sense to me.
We are terribly busy in my studio at the moment.  Preparing, first of all, for the International Quilt Convention Africa which is happening in Johannesburg at the end of this month.  Quilt Convention?  Yes, we need to be there to show them the value of embroidery, even if it they only use it on Crazy Patch.  The other thing that we are madly working towards is a teaching trip abroad.  This is going to involve a couple of days in Dubai, followed by three days in Kiev.  Although that is only happening in October much of the preparation takes place now and what it means is that I don’t necessarily get to posting on this blog as often as I (or you) would like.  I promise though, that I will continue to steal time when I am able to write something that will, I hope, inspire and amuse you.  Till next time……….I leave you with a photograph of just some of my marking tools!




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  1. Aha! I am a chalk paper transfer girl. But I use a fine um, can't think of the name of the tool, drat it. Has a rounded head. (it's like an awl, but with the blunt tip). And I've had trouble missing lines. Use a biro!
    And the tip using the non-slip mat! Again, brilliant! Thankyou so much 🙂

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