Overview of vintage embroidery transfers
Vintage embroidery transfers have regained popularity today, thanks in no small part to advances in technology that allow designs to be programmed and machine-stitched with beautiful results. Improved fabric paints, dyes and markers allow these great old designs to be used by even the needle-challenged. And, of course, those who enjoy the satisfaction and quality of hand-stitching still use them the "old-fashioned" way.
Embroidery transfers have been available from many, many different companies for well over a hundred years. So whether you're looking for breathtakingly intricate motifs for heirloom embroidery, authentic designs for period costumes, particular motifs to complement a collecting interest, or a comical design to enliven your kitchen towels, there's a huge assortment of vintage designs waiting to be rediscovered.
This overview addresses a major roadblock for the vintage embroidery transfer enthusiast -- the lack of organized material about vintage transfers. Old catalogs are scarce (or non-existent), companies have gone out of business -- histories and product lines have to be pieced together from scraps of information scattered across web pages and collections.
So here's a launching place for research about the designs and the major companies that produced embroidery transfers dating back to the late 1800s. It's an ongoing reference project open for use by everyone who enjoys vintage transfers.
Naturally its value to the stitching community depends on accuracy and depth of information. Whenever possible information has been checked with two or more sources and educated guesses are identified as such.
For those of you who have a particular area or company of interest, here's a quick guide to how this page is organized:
Transfer types and terms
Our overview focuses on embroidery patterns offered for sale between the late 1800s and the late 1950s. At the beginning of this period many transfers were perforated patterns -- the design was composed of small holes in the paper and transferred to fabric by forcing black powder through the holes. Embroidery designs transferred to linens by rubbing and/or moistening the pattern made a brief early appearance, but the hot iron process quickly became the norm.
Most companies produced hot-iron transfers that were single-use -- the unused pattern had raised ink that transferred to the fabric. If the design is composed of small dots, it's a Numo style pattern. (You're probably more familiar with transfers are composed of solid lines.) Designs often were offered in a choice of blue ink (for white or light fabrics) or yellow (to show up on dark fabrics). Expect to find only one or other in an envelope: although it may be marked "blue and yellow," there should be a separate stamp telling which actually is enclosed. Many companies eventually switched to a lighter or "electric" blue that would show up on light and dark fabrics. A few companies used green ink or the Silver-Tex process.
A flat ink transfer, especially if red, may be a multi-stamp pattern that fades as the transfer is used. But if the flat ink is blue, yellow or green, it's probably a single-use transfer that has been used.
The Big Three- Prolific and popular: Vogart, Aunt Martha's, and Workbasket
Any search for vintage embroidery transfers will turn up hundreds of offerings for transfers from Vogart, Aunt Martha's and Workbasket magazine. The transfer packages -- and many of the designs -- are instantly recognizable to their loyal fans. They were produced in large numbers and, happily, many have survived.
Vogart produced many of the same transfer designs for decades and is a primary source for days-of-the-week series, pillowcase motifs, and infants and children's designs. They were carried by major five-and-dime stores like Kresge's (now K-Mart) and Woolworth -- along with Vogart's line of stamped (and sometimes tinted) linens.
Vogart transfer packages from the 1940s and 1950s bear a distinctive red and black banner at the top with color graphics of the embroidery motifs below. Each envelope contains a large tissue sheet of the illustrated motifs in dark blue raised ink -- a single-use hot iron transfer. The tissue sheets are marked with the transfer number and "Made in the USA" but not with the company name.
The first Vogart transfers came to market in the early 1940s and were numbered from 101. Although you'll also find transfers with numbers in the 200s, 600s and 700s, there are actually only about 200 unique patterns. The company reissued popular patterns from time to time, changing the number but nothing else. Vogart switched to multi-use transfers and updated their packaging in the mid-1960s.
You may also come across transfers that have a black and red banner and the same graphics, but an American Thread Co. logo instead of the Vogart name. These are the same transfers -- and the tissue sheets are identical.
For more information about the history of Vogart and its transfers, refer to our Vogart Facts and Trivia page. For a searchable list of its transfer patterns (complete with thumbnails), head to our Vogart Master Guide.
Aunt Martha's brand transfers have been produced by The Colonial Co. (now Colonial Patterns) of Kansas City since the 1930s. Although some designs are standard florals, look to Aunt Martha's for comical or sweet days-of-the-week tea towel motifs.
The first Aunt Martha transfers came in an unprepossessing brown envelope marked Numo transfers -- usually without the Aunt Martha's name. The design is drawn with small, closely spaced dots rather than solid lines. These are relatively rare: both the envelope and the ink changed early on in the company's history.
One of the earliest revised package designs is shown at right. Over the years both the package size and motif graphics stayed constant, but the logo and outer border were updated several times. Blue and red combinations are the older transfers; the yellow envelopes are relatively modern (and what you'll find in stores today).
Aunt Martha's went directly from Numo type to multi-use transfers in the late 30s or early 40s. Motifs are printed in flat red ink on a sheet of heavy newsprint (sadly prone to splitting at the folds). There's a block of text on each sheet with the transfer number and stamping directions, but the sheets are not marked with the Aunt Martha's or Colonial name.
Once outside of the envelope, Aunt Martha's transfers look very much like Workbasket transfers and are often confused. Keep in mind that an Aunt Martha's transfer will be about 4-1/2" by 6 inches when folded and the number will be in the 100, 3000 or 9000 series. If the number is 2-9xx, it's a Workbasket transfer.
The enduring popularity of Aunt Martha's designs kept many of them in production for decades -- with some of the original designs still being produced today. The transfer numbers and the motif graphics remain the same. But many designs have been "retired" and more are added to the retired list each year.
Our Master Guide for Aunt Martha's transfers is in the works. (Many of the transfer numbers and titles are printed on the back of vintage envelopes.) The Colonial Patterns web site displays its current transfers available online and through retailers, but does not provide any historical information.
Workbasket transfers were supplements to the well-known magazine published by Modern Handcrafts of Kansas City. Workbasket grew quickly from its humble beginning as a small fold-out in 1935 and its transfer sheets were wildly popular. A small sheet of transfers was stapled into some issues; eventually a larger, separate sheet came with each issue; subscribers received free sheets for renewing; others could be ordered by mail.
Like the Aunt Martha's brand, Workbasket transfers are multi-use red ink on heavy newsprint. They are normally found without an envelope and folded with the motifs to the inside, so you have to unfold them completely to find out what they are.
Unlike Aunt Martha's, the larger (about 21" x 30") sheets of Workbasket transfers have an assortment of unrelated motifs. You may find a complete set of cute motifs for tea towels, a stunning cutwork pattern, a dainty layette motif, plus several different floral motifs -- all on the same sheet. (The example picture here is only a small section of the full sheet.) Some of the most prized Workbasket transfers include stamping lines and directions to sew and embroider dolls or baby items.
There's a fair amount of material out there about Workbasket, thanks to the great folks at the Yahoo group devoted to the magazine. The group moderator, June, has posted a company history on her web site; another member has a searchable database of the needlework instructions by issue; and there's much more available to members of the Yahoo Groups. By and large, however, you'll find the group's focus is on the magazine and crochet projects, rather than the embroidery transfers.
Sewing Pattern Giants- Major Manufacturers: Butterick, McCall, Simplicity, Vogue and others
Although these familiar names conjure up images of dress patterns, these manufacturers produced thousands of embroidery transfers as well as their home sewing patterns. Butterick and McCall were founded in the late 1800s and included lines of needlework patterns early on; Simplicity came on the scene in the late 1920s and started doing transfers in the 1930s. Our overview looks at their pre-1960s transfers.
Butterick, founded in 1863, is the oldest surviving pattern company and its early transfers are well worth searching out if your interest lies in Victorian or Edwardian costuming, trim for heirloom christening gowns, or linens with dainty eyelet designs.
Well into the 1920s, Butterick transfers came in the same brown kraft envelopes used for its sewing patterns (although we've seen at least one yellow envelope.) Transfers were single-use raised ink -- generally available in yellow or blue -- on tissue sheets. Sometime in the 1920s the envelopes became glossy white with black graphics and the transfers became Silvertex (raised silver ink). The sheets are marked with the company name and transfer number -- sometimes on the edge, sometimes in the middle.
Dating early Butterick transfers can be done, but the transfer numbering system is elusive. (Our 1916 counter catalog has transfers numbered 1991, 10013, 10448, 6690, 10615 and 2358. There's no obvious pattern to the numbers, although most of them are in the 10xxx series.) Until someone cracks the code, researching old print material is the only reliable dating method.
Butterick apparently stopped producing transfers in the early to mid-1930s -- which coincides with a period of financial troubles that led to the company's restructuring. The popular 40s and 50s themes such as days-of-the-week tea towels have many makers, but Butterick is not among them. The modern line of Butterick transfer patterns seems to have started in the 1970s.
One can only imagine that the appeal of Butterick's early transfers came from artwork in its Delineator magazine or counter catalogs -- the motif graphics on the envelopes are so small that the lovely detail is lost. (The motif at right is from the transfer shown above.) Don't be shy about asking for better envelopes photos or even a scan of a small part of the actual transfer -- these are real treasures!
We plan to post much of the 1916 Butterick needlework counter catalog eventually. Butterick, like Vogue, is now part of the McCall Pattern Co. and there is a detailed history of the companies and their sewing patterns at their combined website.
McCall patterns started up in 1870 and its wide variety of transfer patterns have been favorites for well over 100 years. There's something for everyone, but McCall is the name to check for licensed designs of popular childhood icons like Kewpies, Raggedy Ann and Andy, Mickey Mouse and Snow White. (Most of these classics are still under copyright today, so an original is your only legitimate choice.)
Although envelope sizes and styles changed several times, until about 1950 they were marked "McCall Kaumagraph transfer" and contained one or more tissue sheets of single-use transfers in either dark blue or yellow ink. The Kaumagraph logo and the transfer number (but not the McCall name) appear on the edge of each sheet.
The early 50s were a transition period as the company became "McCall's" and transfers switched to an electric blue ink that would show equally well on light and dark fabrics. The Kaumagraph name still appears on some envelopes, but the logo on the transfer sheets is replaced with the McCall's name.
McCall transfer numbers have been reused many times over the life of the company, but its transfers are fairly easy to date. The small (5-1/4" x 6-1/4") brown envelopes with black graphics were used in the early 1900s; the logo style and print resources can narrow the date. Small greyish/brown envelopes with color labels were only used for a few years (late 1920s and early 1930s). The larger (6-1/4 x 8) white envelopes with color graphics appear in the early 1930s and most of these have a copyright date on the edge or flap.
Although back issues of its magazine are the main source of information for the early transfers, the company published separate counter catalogs for its needlework patterns and many survive. If we can't find one online, we'll work on a dating chart. Readers may also enjoy viewing portions of our 1912 Kaumagraph Co. catalog when that's posted.
Simplicity transfers date back to the 1930s and, like McCall, include a wide range of designs. The most commonly seen Simplicity designs are from the 1950s, but you'll find a few offerings in every area from every era.
Simplicity used the same style envelopes for its embroidery transfers as for its sewing patterns -- 5-7/8" x 8" white envelopes with color graphics. The single-use transfers may be dark blue, yellow, or electric blue and the Simplicity name and pattern number appears on the tissue sheet.
From the mid-1940s, the company used the 7000 series of numbers for its transfer patterns. A few include a copyright date; frequent changes to the logo on the envelope also help narrow the dates. Dating can also be done from needlework counter catalogs and a dating chart is on our to-do list.
Simplicity's started in 1927 as a low-cost alternative to the other established pattern companies and quickly became a popular brand. One of their economies seems to have been in the graphics department -- the drawings are less distinct, the designs themselves less detailed, and the envelopes were sometimes misprinted but released anyway. Nevertheless, many of their embroidery motifs were charming and remain very desirable today.
Vogue and Standard Fashion are another source of period designs for costumers and heirloom stitchers, but these transfers are harder to find, and -- like the early Butterick numbers -- uusally found in dull envelopes with black graphics that do little to highlight their charms.
Although Vogue has been in business since 1899, the embroidery pattern shown here is the only vintage one we've ever seen. It's a yellow Numo-style raised ink and the tissue sheet is marked with the Vogue name and pattern number. Our best guess is that it dates to the 1910s. The envelope back references Vogue magazine, but the logo used was discontinued very early on in the company's history -- we've only seen a handful of sewing patterns with that style.
It's a bit easier to find transfers from another prominent pattern maker that also produced embroidery transfers -- the Standard Fashion Company, which was in business from 1888 to 1926. Their transfers are very much like the Butterick offerings -- single-use raised-ink transfers in a brown envelope with (somewhat larger) black graphics. The tissue sheets are marked "Standard" not "Standard Fashion" and the envelope may bear some variation of the name as well.
Other well-known pattern companies include Advance, DuBarry, and Hollywood. (A few more names familiar to vintage sewing pattern enthusiasts -- like Superior and Pictorial Review -- are in different sections of this overview.)
To the best of our knowledge, the Advance and Hollywood pattern companies did not have a separate line of embroidery transfers. That seems so odd (especially for Advance) that we're probably wrong, but we don't have any transfers from these companies and haven't been able to find any. (If you have one, or have seen one posted, please let us know.)
DuBarry transfers are rarely seen -- the animated dishes shown here is one of the few we've come across. All that we've seen are in the classic 4-1/2 x 7" envelope used by DuBarry in the 1930s. The single-use transfers are printed on a fairly heavy tissue sheet which is marked with the company name and pattern number. The transfers are single-use, Numo-style raised ink in electric blue.
Don't overlook vintage sewing patterns in your search for great embroidery designs -- both Simplicity and McCall included unique transfers with some of their sewing patterns. Check the apron patterns for kitchen designs; layette patterns for dainty motifs; and children's clothing patterns for small to medium designs -- often done in applique.
Transfers included with patterns are on separate tissue sheets marked with the sewing pattern number. The sheets vary in size from a very small scrap of motifs (as usually found in girl's dress patterns) to large sheets which may have a single design (as for aprons) or a number of designs. McCall patterns in particular are likely to have a separate instruction sheet for the embroidery work.
Before buying a vintage sewing pattern for the embroidery transfer, make sure it's actually included. Many sewers had no interest in embroidery and the transfers were lost or discarded. Other patterns (typically layettes) were popular for the transfers in the first place -- they may be cut or missing even though the sewing pattern itself is intact. As a general rule, you'll find the find the transfers folded right into the tissue bundle of unused pattern (but very large sheets may be folded separately). Used patterns often have the transfer sheet tucked into the instruction guide.
Newspaper Favorites- sold through ads: Laura Wheeler, Alice Brooks -- the pattern services
For decades, local and national newspapers included a daily display ad (often in the classifieds) for a single needlework pattern. Readers filled out the order coupon and sent payment to the address provided; each pattern ordered was mailed out in a separate envelope. These are the patterns frequently referred to as "mail order" today (although there were many other mail order companies that sold through catalogs) and they have a loyal following.
Each day's pattern offering was different and ranged from sewing patterns for adult and children's clothing; toys, dolls and doll clothing to sew, knit or crochet; and embroidered or crocheted household linens and decorative items. The patterns may have a brand name or be generic. Whatever the name on the transfer (if there is one), these transfers have many basic things in common:
We still have quite a bit of research to do, but it appears that many of the mail order transfers now collected originated from one or two parents companies. New York's Needlecraft Service, Inc. is certainly one of them. But in the meantime, here's a peak at a few of the better-known brand names used:
Laura Wheeler brand transfers have been available since the early 1930s. Early designs include some very desirable Sunbonnet Sue and Southern Belle motifs; later designs are sought after for the cute nursery animals.
Some of the most interesting Wheeler designs are the early single stitch patterns. These designs -- like the Boston Terrier transfer shown here -- used one or two simple stitches to produce a simple but pleasing and lifelike scene or portrait. These designs are often quite large and intended for pillow covers or wall hangings.
Alice Brooks brand transfers also date back to the 1930s. Like the Laura Wheeler, Alice Brooks patterns were popular for children's items, as well as pillowcase motifs and kitchen series.
The Alice Brooks transfer shown here illustrates one of their more elaborate pillowcase designs -- exquisite embroidery that incorporates crochet as a portion of the design. (The transfer pattern includes the crochet instructions.) Southern belles and peacocks were popular for these combination patterns, although floral and other designs can be found in chair sets. The colonial or southern belle designs range from very little crochet (like our example) or with most of the skirt done as a crochet insert and much more limited embroidery work.
Anne Adams and Marian Martin brands are other familiar names, but few embroidery transfers survive. That may simply be because these brands focused on sewing patterns. Our 1934 Anne Adams catalog has 37 pages of dress patterns and only a single page for embroidery and toy patterns. We not have any of these transfers in our collection to show you.
Both of these brands are sometimes found in glassine sleeves (that resemble very thin, brown wax paper) bearing the brand logo. Hang on to these if you have them, but be very careful because the glassine tears easily.
Design is simply a generic version of these mail order transfers -- something like "Design 7343" will appear at the top of the instructions. It's quite commonly found and the designs are often identical to transfers issued under the Alice Brooks and Laura Wheeler brand names.
Magazines- women's publications: Ladies Home Journal, Womens' Weekly, Modern Priscilla and others
While the major pattern companies are associated with famous magazines of their own, this section refers to magazines from companies who were not primarily sewing pattern manufacturers.
General interest magazines include Ladies Home Journal, Womens Weekly, Good Housekeeping, and Woman's Home Companion to name just a few. Along with short stories, recipes, housekeeping tips and such, each issue included a few pages devoted to needlework. There's often a two or four page spread of the latest fashions (which may include embroidery trims for clothing) plus a needlework column or feature article that includes embroidery designs.
Needlework or Fashion magazines include Modern Priscilla, Pictorial Review, and Home Needlework -- plus many more. These publications focused on fashion sewing and/or crochet, knitting, tatting and embroidery projects with the occasional general interest article.
Many of these publications issued catalogs of their needlework designs. (You'll also find vintage and antique catalogs published by the many art needlework companies that did business in the early decades of the 1900s.) For more information about vintage publications, please see our Buying Guide.
Over the years (between the late 1800s and the 1930s) these companies produced thousands of embroidery transfers -- but each design was printed in small quantities and sold for a very short period of time. Not that many of the magazines -- or the transfers -- survive, so finding or identifying a particular transfer might be difficult. Consider the stunning bluebird transfer shown here. We bought it thinking it was from Modern Priscilla, but it is made by Ludington Novelty Mfg. Co. with the brand name Priscilla. Is it from the magazine? We just don't know.
Starting in 2012, we will sort through our collection of vintage magazines and post lists of the transfers featured in each issue -- which will at least help with dating. If there's interest, we'll also include photos of the very vintage transfers in our own collection. If you have vintage magazines or transfers issued by the magazines and are willing to provide information for the guide, please let us know!
Thread Companies- floss brands: Royal Society, American Thread, Coats and others
Once upon a time -- say, back in the early 1900s -- the average stitcher could choose from an amazing number of brands and floss types. Today it may be hard enough find DMCs six-strand cotton floss in a reasonable assortment of colors. Imagine having ready availability of silk and cotton thread, in different finishes, from dozens of different companies!
As a way of building brand loyalty, many of the big thread companies offered stamped linens, kits, specialty magazines, pattern booklets, and hot iron transfers. The transfers tend to be 1930s or earlier, so these are well-worth searching out if you're looking for period fashion or household accents.
J&P Coats teamed up with famed needlework designer Ann Orr in the 1910s and 1920s for a series of needlework pattern booklets promoting the J&P Coats line of embroidery floss and crochet thread. The embroidery issues were books numbers 8, 11 and 12 and included tissue sheets of hot iron transfers bound (well, stapled) into the center fold.
The pages contain photos of items made using the motifs given on the transfer sheet, along with stitch and color suggestions -- complete with the J&P Coats floss number. There is also a guide to embroidery stitches and several cross stitch charts in each issue.
American Thread Co., makers of Star brand threads, printed the Star Needle-work Journal during the same era. The quarterly publication covered crochet, knitting, tatting, and embroidery patterns and included a hot iron transfer centerfold.
During the 1940s, hot iron transfer patterns identical to the Vogart transfers were sold under the American Thread Company logo. For more information, please see our Vogart Facts and Trivia page.
Royal Society brand was on the market from 1915 until at least the late 1920s. The company advertised extensively and old publications often featured beautiful ads for their thread and yarns, kits (stamped goods, floss and trims), and various needlework pattern books.
In the early 1920s the company produced a series of hot iron transfers in book format. Each book had a theme (bedspreads, baby motifs, etc.) and consisted of assorted embroidery motifs printed on tissue sheets and staple-bound together in a heavy cover. These do come up for sale from time to time, but it can be difficult to find one that is both intact and has not been folded down the center.
These three companies are just a few of the many thread manufacturers that existed and no doubt there are hot iron transfers out there from other companies as well. We haven't done any research on this area yet, so we can't point you towards sources of information. But we can warn you to be cautious when buying vintage magazines and hot iron transfer books. Many times the transfer sheets are missing or cut into, and casual sellers often don't notice. Know your seller, and ask questions if the condition is not clearly stated.
Former Glory- gone now: Walker, Superior, Monarch, Betty Burton and others
There may be hundreds of other companies that once produced embroidery transfer patterns but have a long since gone out of business. Here are a few of the names we've seen most often.
Betty Burton and Superior were the house names of the embroidery transfers sold at Sears Roebuck. The Betty Burton line was first and reliable sellers date the patterns to the 1920s and 1930s. We don't have any Betty Burton patterns, so there's not much we can add at this time.
The Superior name appeared in the late 1930s or early 1940s (and was also used for sewing patterns). The transfers are come in a 6 x 9 two-color envelope; the single-use raised-ink motifs are printed in green on fairly heavy stock. (The sheets and pattern styles closely resemble those sold under the Laura Wheeler and Alice Brooks names.) The sheets are marked with the transfer number and "Made in USA" but not with the Superior name.
Walker's hot iron transfer patterns were produced by the Joseph Walker Co. of Irvington, New Jersey -- since 1879, as a small logo on later envelopes proudly proclaims. Early envelopes are about 6-1/4 x 9-1/4 and brown or cream with black graphics -- and later a few small splashes of color. By the 1940s the company switched to a 7" x 8" envelope with color graphics and navy blue borders. You'll also see window envelopes like the one shown here.
Walker transfers are single-use in an electric blue raised ink, printed on tissue paper. The company's name does not appear on the sheets, which are simply marked "Serial Number xxxx." To the best of our knowledge Walkers was the only company to give their transfers serial numbers, so they are easily identified even when the sheets are no longer in their original envelope.
One buying note: many Walker transfer packages are collections of several different transfer sheets. The serial numbers of the sheets are listed on the back of the envelope, along with color and stitch suggestions for selected designs. Be sure to check the pattern numbers and the serial numbers if you're trying to avoid duplication -- these collection were reissued many times over the years and although the envelopes may look very different, the contents are the same.
Monarch is another name that was on the market for many years, but we haven't been able to track down any information on the company or its history as of yet.
Our earliest Monarch transfers are 1930s vintage in small envelopes like the one shown at left; the patterns are Numo-style on heavy tissue. By the late 1940s Monarch transfers changed to a larger envelope similar in size and style to the Superior transfers.
Yes, there are many more... We haven't mentioned Briggs, or Weldons, or Home Arts. There are many other small brands that were produced in the United States, and brands produced overseas that sometimes turn up for sale in the United States. But this is work in progress. Your questions, information, links to resources, and scans of significant transfers are always welcome.
Sources and Errata
Often the best source of information is the original transfer patterns themselves. We have a large collection and the envelope sizes and ink and paper descriptions used in this overview -- as well as the photos -- come from those transfers.
Company history and pattern dates have been researched in old magazines, catalogs and newspaper articles as well as online sources. The dates of many vintage sewing patterns are known, so a comparison of envelope types and graphic styles helped us establish the era of many transfers.
Much of our research was also done online, and we're grateful to the many collectors and needlework sellers who share what they know. To guard against perpetuating well-meant but inaccurate information, we looked for two or more independent sources to verify most information found online. A few sites, especially those of quilters, are extraordinarly well-researched and accurate: we relied on their information without hesitation.