A tracing wheel is a sewing tool designed to transfer markings. It is a really great little gadget designed to help with transferring pattern markings from the paper pattern to the fabric being used. Don’t let the spikes put you off learning how to use a tracing wheel. Try it out, and you will be amazed at how easy it is to use tracing wheels.
What is a Tracing Wheel
A tracing wheel is a sewing device used to transfer markings to fabric using carbon paper. It generally has a wooden handle or plastic long handle and a rotating wheel with spikes on the end. These spikes or teeth make perforations in the paper pattern and mark the fabric beneath.
Tracing wheels can also be called pattern tracing wheels, marking wheels, a pattern wheel, or pattern tracers.
This spiky little wheel is just the right tool to add to your sewing utensils. It will get patterns of all shapes and sizes perfectly copied from the pattern paper onto the back of your precious fabric. A little bit of carbon paper, the pattern of your choice, and the tracing wheel will help you transfer all kinds of patterns.
So where to begin learning how to use a tracing wheel?
When to Use a Tracing Wheel
There are 2 main reasons you would use a sewing tracing wheel, but both are designed to protect patterns and stop you from needing to cut out the paper.
1. Transfer Sizes with a Tracing Wheel
This is a great way to protect your pattern if it has multiple sizes and you don’t want to lose the other marked sizes. It is always a good idea to hang onto all those sizes just in case you want to pull that pattern out a few years later, and your child has grown a few inches – as children tend to do!!
2. To Protect Old or Favorite Sewing Patterns
Tissue sewing patterns can deteriorate over time or through repeated use. You can use a tracing wheel as a pattern tracer to transfer vintage or loved patterns to paper to preserve your originals.
3. Transfer Markings
A tracing wheel can be used to transfer marking such as buttonholes, darts, pleats, notches, marking hem lines, and stitching lines. It is useful for the placement of lines of pockets and appliques.
Tracing wheels can also be used for non-sewing applications. They make interesting dotted or dashed lines in polymer clay projects, leather or fondant.
4. Copying Clothing
You can use a tracing wheel to copy clothing and make a paper pattern. Just lay the clothing flat and trace the shape to a piece of paper underneath. You can then add seam allowances.
Types of Tracing Wheel
There are 2 main types of tracing wheels.
A blunt serrated tracing wheel which is best for transferring markings with carbon paper, and a spiked needle-like wheel that makes holes in the fabric beneath.
The serrated tracing wheel will transfer dashes, while the needle point tracing wheel will transfer dots.
A double tracing wheel has 2 wheels so it can mark both the stitching line and seam allowance at the same time. This double wheel can save a lot of time for sewers. Some of these have adjustable width ranges for different seam allowances.
I usually use the needle point tracing wheels as they make deeper markings and work on all weights of fabrics. Wooden handles normally feel nicer in the hand, but this may be just my personal preference. Go to your sewing shop and see which feels better to you.
Types of Carbon Transfer Paper
When choosing the type of transfer paper, try and get a packet with different colors. You will find different carbon colors mark better on different fabric colors. Always buy a good brand such as Birch or Dritz and do a test first to ensure the carbon comes off the fabric when you have finished.
How to Use a Tracing Wheel - Step by Step Instructions
You need to know how to use a tracing wheel and the carbon paper you have bought and what order to plan for. Here are the steps to using your wheel.
Supplies for Using a Tracing Wheel
Firstly you need:
- A tracing wheel – Available from stores that sell sewing accessories.
- A cutting mat – Or something firm and flat to protect your table.
- Dressmaker’s carbon – These are available in different colors. You will find that certain colors work better for different fabrics and colors of fabric. Note that dressmakers' carbon is different from your regular stationery carbon. It is specially designed not to bleed and run in the wash or ruin your fabric. If you have delicate silk or fabric, you should always test it first.
- Your fabric and pattern pieces – Everything you have planned to use to make a garment!
Step 1: Protect the Table
Put a cutting mat down on the table for its own protection…remember that wheel is a spiky little critter!!
Step 2: Lay the Fabric Out
Put your fabric WRONG side up on the cutting mat. You always want any marks on the wrong side of the fabric in case it doesn't wash out.
Step 3: Add the Carbon Paper
Choose a piece of carbon in a contrasting color to your fabric. Lay the carbon face down (carbon-side down) on top of the fabric.
Step 4: Add the Pattern
Pin or place the pattern piece on top of the carbon with the markings facing up, ready to be traced.
If you use a corrugated pattern cutting board, you can push your pins in gently through the pattern, then the carbon, and finally into the fabric. This makes moving the pattern a little quicker and easier. Don’t go all the way through and prick the table!
Remember, when you lay the pattern, the grain of the fabric is still vitally important.
Step 5: Start Rolling the Tracing Wheel
Breathe, feel confident, and follow the markings around the pattern with the tracing wheel for sewing. Hold it in a similar way to how you hold a pencil and roll with medium pressure. Always do a little test before you start to get the pressure correct. You don't want to finish tracing only to find out you didn't press hard enough.
Roll the tracing wheel along the chosen markings and slide the carbon under the pattern as you go to ensure all the markings are traced onto the fabric below.
Step 6: Transfer Extra Markings
Check for all required markings, from seams to darts to matching notches so that you have it all drawn on your fabric before you cut out.
TIME SAVING TIP: If you are able to work with double-sided carbon, then you can fold your fabric with the carbon inside and use the tracing wheel over the double thickness, and it will mark the fabric on both sides.
Tracing Wheel FAQs
How hard to press a tracing wheel
When you are rolling your tracing wheel, you will find that pressing harder will give you a darker chalk line underneath. Before you start, get the pressure correct on a scrap of paper. If your first roll doesn't show up, try pressing harder or using another color of carbon paper.
Alternative to Using a Tracing Wheel
If you are transferring entire patterns, then using a fabric wheel is definitely the best method. The alternative is to cut your desired size and then trace around the outside. This is fine if you are happy to cut up your pattern, but if you want to preserve it, stick to the tracing wheel.
Smaller markings, such as sewing notches and dots, can be transferred with regular chalk. If you stick a pin through the pattern at the marking, you can lift the pattern and mark it with chalk underneath. Removable marking pens can also be used.