Prick & Pounce
Marking designs on difficult fabrics
by Christian de Holacombe
Transferring a design to light colored fabric is usually fairly easy. If the embroidery fabric is thin, it can simply be laid over a design and traced. If the fabric is stouter and less transparent, the “window trick” usually works — taping the design to a window, then taping the fabric over it. Light from the window shining through the pattern lets you see and trace the design, as shown in this 16th century woodcut.
Marking a pattern on dark, textured, or fuzzy fabric, however, is not so easy. With dark fabric, you can’t see the design, and fabric with a fuzzy or textured surface makes it difficult to draw clear lines with a pen or pencil, even if you can see where the lines ought to go.
Add to this the requirement that markings either need to be removable, or inconspicuous enough not to show in the finished work, and you have quite a challenge.
Making a mark
A number of years ago, I went down to an art supply store and bought one of every kind of white pencil they had, and ran a test. I made marks with them all on a piece of dark fabric divided into squares, noting which ones were easiest to use. Then I labeled the squares with a marker I knew would not wash out, and tossed the cloth into the washing machine. The results gave me an idea of which markers would work well and still wash out (assuming my finished piece could be washed).
The champion was Schwann Stabilo “Aquarellable” pencils, white only (color #8052). This showed up well, did not rub off easily, but washed out completely. The last I checked, it was still being made. The drawback is that it’s a relatively soft pencil, so it doesn’t make a very fine line unless you keep sharpening it — so it’s not the best for something that can’t be washed.
Another possibility is to buy a new metal pen (like a fountain pen) that has never been used with black ink. Fill it with white watercolor ink (also from the art supply store). Test it first, of course, but this will work well and wash out when you are done. White tempera paint (common for kindergarten children to paint with) usually washes out too, but it may be too lumpy for the pen.
Transfer by stitching
For a particularly difficult project, I once decided to do a very detailed small piece of embroidery on a background of navy blue pinwale corduroy. (I had a reason at the time, but will avoid this in the future!)
None of the methods I knew at the time seemed suitable. What I ended up doing was printing out the pattern on tissue paper, fastening it lightly to the fabric with water-soluble gluestick, and doing a small running stitch in a contrasting color through all the pattern lines into the fabric. Then I tore away most of the tissue and soaked the piece in warm water to remove the glue and any remaining tissue bits. That worked pretty well. The drawing wasn’t as detailed as I would have liked, but all the tissue did come off, since it was only held by a few running stitches, and I could then go on and do the actual embroidery, pulling out or hiding the running stitches as I went along.
Marking the pattern on soluble interfacing would also work, but I never trust so-called “tear-away” stabilizers; in my experience they inevitably leave little matted bits of fiber partly caught under your stitching, which are difficult to remove, even with tweezers.
Prick and pounce
I had been more reluctant to try the period transfer method known as “prick and pounce” because I knew that the chalk lines it creates rub off easily, and I wasn’t sure my hand was steady enough to follow through in the period manner by painting a fine line along the chalk marks. But Iulitta Rowan gave a class on the subject, and my sample went a lot better than I’d thought. So I can now heartily recommend this. And it works even on pile fabrics like velveteen.
First, find your pattern, and draw it out on stout tracing paper to the exact size you want. It’s important that the paper be transparent enough to trace through, but heavy enough that it won’t distort easily. In class we used what Iulitta recommends, 29- pound vellum from Staples, 50 sheets for $9.99. It’s a bit heavier than normal paper.
When the pattern has been traced onto the vellum, take a large sewing needle and prick holes along the design lines about every 1/8 to 1/4 inch — not so close the paper will tear, but close enough to make a clear line. Then place your pattern on the cloth, and pin it securely. Take some ordinary chalk powder, which you can make an almost endless supply of by buying a dollar’s worth of ordinary classroom chalk, putting it into a heavy plastic bag, and pounding it to dust with a hammer. Make yourself a soft, but firm “dauber” an inch or two in diameter by rolling up a piece of felt, fuzzy scrap wool or cotton quilt batting. Use the end of this cylinder to rub or “pounce” the powdered chalk through the holes in your pattern onto the fabric. In the second woodcut on this page, you can see a lady doing exactly this. Lift a corner and peek under the pattern to be sure enough chalk is getting through.
A pricked, pounced & painted sample, with one line couched with cord
Blow off any loose powder and carefully lift off the pattern. Then take a fine brush and watered-down watercolor paint, and “connect the dots” to paint a fine line along where you will stitch. The brush we used was a Winston & Newton sable brush, size 00, available at Michaels for $4.99 each. (Cheaper nylon brushes work well for some people, not for others.) The paint we used was Winston & Newton watercolor. Since we were using both gold and silver twist on our pattern, we painted the lines for silver twist in a very light gray, and the lines for gold in pale yellow ochre.
You can see the result at left. As I said, it worked better than I expected, and the result was a nicely marked line ready to stitch. Try it!