Marking Quilting Designs

Once we have decided on our machine quilting design, we may need to mark it on the quilt top. I say “may” because some elements, such as in-the-ditch and random free-motion designs such as echo quilting and stippling, do not need to be marked. Other elements, like motifs, will need to be marked.

Design marking lines should not be visible on completed quilts.  (See the Canadian Quilters’ Association Quilting Standards.)  Any marks that are made on the quilt top should either be removable or be completely covered by the quilting stitches. Here are some tools to help with this task.

Mechanical lead pencils make a very fine line and do not need to be sharpened. While they may not completely wash out, if you can quilt on the line (and that could be a very big IF), the lines will not show after machine quilting. The Bohin Mechanical Pencil works like a lead mechanical pencil but the multi-colored chalk inserts are easily removed from most fabrics.

There are a wide variety of colored pencils available for marking fabric. My issue with most of them is that they break very easily and need frequent sharpening. I don’t tend to use these types of pencils. I do like the white Prismacolor pencil for marking on dark fabrics. It sharpens well, makes a nice line, and rubs/fades out over time.

Removable Markers

Some fabric markers are water soluble. “The Fine Line” is a water erasable pen that marks in blue.  I like it because the tip is very fine and it makes a nice, thin line.  You can also get an eraser pen, which removes the blue markings.  This is great for fixing up mistakes!  But I find the best way to remove the lines completely is to immerse the quilt in water.  Spritzing or dabbing the lines with water appears to work, but often some of the blue returns once the area has dried.

“The Fine Line” also comes in purple and is air erasable. This means that the marks will disappear over time, so they may not last long enough for you to finish quilting over them! Still, I find this marker comes in useful for temporary marks such as registration lines for aligning quilting motifs and background grids.

Clover’s white marking pen is erasable with a hot iron as well as water.  Just take note that the marks take a few seconds to appear, so be patient.  The white lines show up well on the darker fabrics where a blue line wouldn’t.  Sometimes, I go over the lines a second time to make the white lines brighter.  Mistakes are easily corrected by ironing over them, but just be careful not to iron your marked fabric until you’re done with the lines!

Pilot’s Frixion erasable gel pens have been popping up at quilt shops and gaining popularity. The pens come in many colors and the markings can be removed with friction or the heat of an iron. There have been reports about the pens leaving a white line behind after ironing, especially on batiks, and the lines returning when exposed to cold temperatures. You might want to read this discussion before deciding to use them on your next project.

I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here, because I haven’t tried any chalk marking products. Tailor’s chalk triangles and chalk pencils are available as are Quilt Pounce pads with wash-away or iron-away chalk powder. The advantage of the chalk powder is that it can easily be transferred between stencil lines or perforated paper, but I have heard that some people are sensitive to the airborne powder.

Light Box
When machine quilting design lines need to be traced, a light box is indispensable. The light source shines beneath the pattern and the quilt top making the lines easier to see and trace.

Transfer Papers
When fabrics are too dark to allow for tracing, the quilting designs can be marked from the top using transfer papers. Similar to carbon paper, graphite paper transfers images onto almost any surface but can be easily erased. Transdoodle is non-waxy, non-staining, reusable, chalky-color transfer paper for clear guidelines that never set – not even with ironing – and simply rub out with the swipe of a cloth or in the wash. It is available in white, yellow, and blue.

Of course, it is possible to mark your quilts without leaving a mark. We’ll talk about that next week.

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  1. Hi Josie,
    Can’t say I have ever experienced a new marker drying up – usually that only happens after it has been well used! What brand are you using? Perhaps you could consult with the manufacturer?

    It’s not the Clover white erasable marker, is it? That marker takes a few seconds before the marks appear – but I’m sure you would have noticed that.
    Good luck,

  2. Hello, I am wondering if there is any way a person can reactivate a water Erasable marker when the tip goes dry? I have a couple of new markers that I haven’t used yet, that the tip is dry and does not leave a mark. Is all the solution dried up or is just the tip dry. Is there a way to reactivate the tip or do I just throw away these pens. What a waste that would be.

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