Marking Quilting Designs on Dark Fabrics with a Lightbox

Paisley Pavane, detail by Nadine Ruggles

Marking quilting designs to dark fabric got you down? Don’t despair! Check out this tutorial for instructions and tips to use a light box to trace designs on your fabric, even if your fabric is black.

Transferring quilting designs is quite possibly the bane of my existence. It’s not my least-favorite part of quilting (that would have to be basting!), but it runs a very close second. It’s a different combination of issues and tools for every quilt you make. During my classes, I hear a lot of questions about the best way to mark quilt designs, what marker to use, how to do it, and the list goes on. Everybody wants a quick answer, but there really isn’t one. There is no “one true way” that works best for every quilt or every design when it comes to quilt marking. I’ve tried a few different methods to mark designs on black or dark fabrics when I didn’t have a stencil or the designs were too complex to make one, and so far, I like this one best.

The step-by-step process:

Traced quilting design

Draw or trace your quilting design onto white paper. The lines on the drawing need to be very clear, and I’ve found that a black felt tip marker with a very fine tip, like a Sharpie, works much better than pencil which is usually too light. Using a scanner and your favorite graphics program, import the drawing of your quilting design into the program. Experiment with the settings on the scanner software to get the best import with a dpi of 150 or more, and darken or lighten the image to get the best contrast. The image needs to be clearly black and white, without shades of grey before proceeding to the next step. If there are any stray marks that are not part of the design, use the eraser in the graphics program to erase them. If you have a graphics tablet (an input device like a mouse, except it’s a pen and tablet), try using it to get better control than you can with a mouse when editing drawings.

Inverted quilting design

When the image is clean and clear, select the whole image and use the “invert” command to change the drawing so that you have white lines on a black background. Print the drawing on white paper (the thinner the better). Using a light box, you’ll be able to clearly see the light shining through the white lines on the paper, and transfer your design to black or dark fabrics. The Clover White Marking Pen Fine (affiliate link) works well for this technique; it is clearly visible, doesn’t rub away completely before it’s quilted, and washes out completely for me, but of course, you should always test it on the fabric in the quilt before using. In the photo below, line A and line B have been marked with the white marking pen. Complex designs with lots of detail are easily marked with this method.

Design marked with white marking pen

If the quilting designs are too large to fit onto standard paper to use with the scanner and printer, divide the design into smaller sections and use registration marks to fit it back together when marking the quilt. You can also take the designs to a copy shop and have them reduced to fit standard computer paper, invert the design as described above, then return to the copy shop and have it enlarged to the proper size again. Possibly the copy shop could invert the design in its original size and save a few steps.

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