Tracing and Marking

Friday’s entry on cutting brought to mind an annoyance I experienced over ten years ago when I hired a small sewing contractor who didn’t have much experience. This is somewhat related to a previous brief tutorial I wrote on marking and cutting. Specifically, this entry is about the proper method of tracing patterns onto fabric, or even paper.

First of all, never use sharpies to trace patterns. Please. It makes the patterns ugly and dirty looking (photo at right). While it’s not technically wrong (caveat noted below), it lends the impression one is careless in their work if they don’t care what it looks like. I wish my house were half as clean as my patterns are.

The biggest reason not to use sharpies is because you may need to have those patterns digitized and the dark line obscures the cross hairs on the digitizing puck. The pattern shown below isn’t too bad but just imagine if the tracer-outer had used a 1/4″ wide marker. Somebody last week said they interviewed a “pattern maker” who used a 1/4″ wide marker -to draft (!) and mark.

The given Sharpie color you chose can make things worse. Even if your patterns won’t be digitized, the pattern maker will have difficulty lining up the pattern edge with the ruler -particularly if you use red Sharpie because the pattern rulers we all use are red. Red on paper edge + red ruler lines =invisible. Between the bleed of red ink and a ruler line, we can be off as much as 1/8th inch. Maybe 1/8th doesn’t sound like much until you multiply the hazard of four pieces coming together, amounting to a magnitude of 1/2″ inch.

The only solution to digitizing a pattern that’s been traced with a sharpie is to retrace the pattern onto paper and digitizing that. It’s not insurmountable but like I said, it is annoying. Still a third reason not to use them is that it makes correcting an edge difficult if you can’t see your corrected pencil line. Fresh sharpie bleeds through the back side of the pattern.

When it comes to tracing tools, you have a couple of options and will likely need a variety. I use chalk wheels, tailor’s chalk, wax pencil and ball point pen. I most often use white wax pencil. On leather, I use ball point pen (with a tiny nib). Some fabrics don’t lend themselves well to tracing with a sticky medium like wax so I’ll use tailor’s chalk. Polar fleece is a nightmare to trace. It doesn’t like anything but the chalk wheel seems to be the best for that. It is difficult to get right at the edge with the chalk wheel so I use it sparingly.

Tracing procedures
You should never hold the pattern piece down. It should be well weighted. The reason is, for most effective marking, you will push against and into the pattern piece which will cause it to shift. This is most likely if you’re using a chalk wheel or tailor’s chalk. This is another reason I prefer the white wax pencil. In marking with the wax pencil, you don’t push against the pattern piece but rather, mark equally on the pattern edge and the fabric (below). This works with tailor’s chalk too. The angle in which you hold the pencil also matters. It is best to mark at an angle as shown below.

Do not hold the wax pencil straight up and down (shown below). Because the pattern edge is slightly higher and there may be the slightest pile making for a bouncy marking, the pencil won’t outline the edge precisely. In the photo below, you can see a visible gap between the pattern edge and the “fabric”. Actually, this isn’t fabric but a pink index card so if a perpendicular marking has this effect on paper, you can only imagine the results in actual fabric.

And don’t forget to review this previous entry on cutting and marking if you haven’t already. All of the above effort will be for naught if you don’t.

The 7 minute cutting test
The 7 minute cutting test pt.2

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  1. Gigi says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I am trying so hard to unlearn some bad home-sewing habits and it is so helpful to see and learn the correct way to do things.

  2. LisaB says:

    Kathleen, thanks for this post and the one on rotary cutters. Even though I’m an enthusiast, I’m trying to learn to do things the right way, and I sometimes need reminding. I appreciate your addressing these issues.

  3. Thank you so much for all those articles about cutting and marking! Now a lot of things make sense to me. (Like why you don’t need pins….) And I know better what to change, to improve my homesewing.

    Thank you again!

  4. Sewer says:

    This was really helpful. I’m still a beginner, but this spring I started analyzing every aspect of my prep technique because I thought I was not cutting with sufficient precision. I’ve tired every marking tool known to man. The points about marking at an angle both on the paper and the fabric and holding the ruler a bit beneath the line are things I haven’t read before.

  5. Megan H. says:

    This is great advice, thank you!

    I personally know the pain of handling patterns that have been traced with a sharpie. A woman I used to work with did so, and often if I had to change the pattern, I’d end up with black marks all over my hands, and sometimes on my clothes from the pattern edges.

    I didn’t know about the angled wax pencil thing. I’ll have to give that a shot.

    What are your views on hanging cardstock patterns rather than storing them flat?

  6. kathleen says:

    Hmm. You mean oaktag patterns? I didn’t realize people stored them flat. How do they manage them, sort them, organize and find the pieces? I suppose if people do store them flat there has to be some reason for it but I can’t imagine what it might be. Explain it if you can find the time, thanks!

  7. Megan H says:

    I don’t know of anyone that does store them flat. I suppose one could with a paper sorter type thing, but yeah, I guess I was just wondering if it is ever done. I guess it wouldn’t be, because hanging them is just so much more convenient.

    At work, we just punch holes in the patterns and thread cord through the holes to hang them. What other methods for hanging them are common, or is this “the way” to do it?

  8. Monique says:

    Thank you SO MUCH I have learned more from reading your blog than I have in fashion school! this will get me to change the bad habits I had gotten from an old sewing teacher, also I am going to change my cutting way’s now that later.

  9. Kathleen says:

    “Sew”, I don’t know the answer to this. It did come up on another post (maybe hard vs soft patterns?). I was speaking of oaktag or hard patterns which are traceable. I can’t say how it should be done with home patterns.

  10. Sarvi says:

    I just tried Kathleen’s grease pencil technique with a home pattern, and it worked pretty well. I traced off my pieces from the original pattern tissue onto thicker tracing paper (I don’t necessarily recommend this, it’s just what I happened to have in the house). It’s Canson 25 lb. tracing paper. I cut away the tracing lines, laid it on my fabric, weighted it, and used a grease pencil as above. Because the edges of the paper want to curl but the paper is thin, I used short, brushing strokes, working down the edge but away from the center of the pattern piece. Have you ever done a stencil with spray paint, or used fabric paint and freezer paper? Same thing. Got a surprisingly crisp line, and this was on linen, which is coarse and wiggles a lot.

  11. Goldie says:

    What type of marking utensil on silk fabrics? Powder chalk or wax chalk? Any recommendations? I only use silk fabrics in my designs so I am on the search for a more effective marking system, since I am getting into drafting more complicated patterns. At this time, I use a little heart shaped chalk dispenser and it works well…other than sometimes the lines are faint and disappear slightly upon moving the fabric around during the process of cutting and sewing. Considered using the Carmel Super Glide Tailors chalk…but it is wax and I am a little afraid of it leaving residue marks from the wax. Any suggestions? Would love to hear them.

    I have learned so much from your site. Thank you for all your efforts teaching us and informing us “how it is all done” :)

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