They may say don’t judge a book by its cover, but what if you want to embellish a vintage book cover to make it more your own? Spoonflower Ambassador Robert Mahar walks us through how he combines vintage book cover photographs, embroidery and Linen Cotton Canvas to create personalized art pieces. You can also use these methods for your own book covers or expand to other projects like bags or apparel.

Robert: Fancy writing a novel, your life story or a bestseller but you’ve only nailed down the title? High fives! Let’s commemorate that accomplishment in embroidery.

I was one of those kids that happily spent a lot of time in the library and went through a pretty serious book phase… a phase I haven’t quite grown out of. For my most recent embroidery sampler, I’ve photographed some of my favorite old book covers, digitally cleaned them up and printed them on Linen Cotton Canvas, ready to stitch with the title of your choice. Let me walk you through a few steps to transfer text to your fabric and then embroider legible, visually appealing typography. 

Shop Robert’s Book Cover Embroidery Sampler

Transferring the Text

Once you’ve brainstormed that perfect title, let’s explore three ways to transfer those words onto your fabric.  

The first might seem obvious, but you can draw your text freehand directly onto your substrate. This could be done lightly with a pencil, or my preferred method is to use a heat erasable pen. Such pens allow you to write or sketch your design and embroider over the lines you created. Once you’re finished, simply run a hot iron over the backside of the fabric and the ink instantly disappears.

Your initial response may be, “But my handwriting is horrible!” If that’s really the case I have other options that may suit you better, but consider two instances in which someone’s perfectly imperfect handwriting may be the perfect choice. I have a total soft spot in my heart for the handwriting of children, often characterized by uneven sizing or even the occasional reversed letter. Perhaps you ask a little one in your life to create the title of your imaginary book and then write it out for you, capturing that sweet moment in the development of their handwriting. The second instance could be to use the handwriting of an adult friend or loved one, again as a sort of sentimental souvenir. My mother has wonderful, distinct penmanship that I recognize instantly and I love the idea of stitching over her neat lettering.

Watch how the iron makes the ink disappear!

A second method of transferring text to fabric is by utilizing a fine tip iron-on transfer pen. Here you can trace over printed letters, flip the paper over so the traced text is facing your fabric and then apply a hot iron to the back of the paper. The key here is that the text must be printed in reverse so that when you transfer it to your fabric, it’s legible. Please note that your iron-on text will be permanent, but your embroidery stitches will beautifully conceal these fine lines.

Pro tip: For a more exact placement of your text, consider tracing your text onto a sheet of see-through heavy duty tracing paper.

Using an iron-on transfer pen to trace letters onto the fabric.

The third, and my preferred, method of transferring text is using a printable water soluble sticker. They are formatted to be used in your home inkjet printerallowing you to type up your title text in whatever font and size you prefer.

Pro tip: Keep in mind that letters scaled below 1/2″ (1.2 cm) in height will be more challenging to stitch and potentially difficult to read.

Once printed, simply trim around your text leaving at least a 1/4″ (.6 cm) border, remove the paper backing, then position and smooth the sticker onto your fabric. Stitch through the sticker and the fabric, following the printed lines. When you’ve finished stitching, dissolve the sticker in water. I’ve found lukewarm water and the spray attachment on my kitchen faucet make quick work of this step!

Embroidering the Letters

Once your transferred text is in place, here are some things to consider when embroidering your book titles:

  • When stitching smaller text, opt for finer perle cotton (also spelled pearl) such as size 11 or 12. Or separate your 6-strand embroidery floss and utilize 2 or 3 ply.  
  • Three stitches that create nice neat lines are the back stitch, the split stitch and the stem stitch (Pro tip: The split stitch works best with an even number of embroidery floss strands perhaps you could consider 4 ply. Don’t use perle cotton for this stitch).
  • French knots can also be stitched side by side to create lines, resulting a highly textured letter.  
  • To make a font appear bolder, consider stitching two or more rows of your selected stitch side by side.

  • Some fonts incorporate tight or abrupt turns. Know that you don’t need to stitch your word in one continuous stitch line! It’s perfectly ok to end your stitch line, and start it again in another spot.  
  • The previous point also applies to serif fonts. Serifs are those little lines that finish off the stroke of a letter.  
  • My favorite way to dress up a basic back stitch is to whip it! The whipped back stitch adds another level of finish, making your text appear more fluid and easy to read.

If you need a review of embroidery basics, here’s a quick video tutorial to get you up to speed. You may also find this video tutorial demonstrating five basic embroidery stitches helpful! 

While your embroidered literary masterpiece won’t result in a Pulitzer, it will look award-winning framed and hanging on your wall. You can find my Book Cover Embroidery Sampler (and all of my other curious samplers!) in my online shop.

More Embroidery Projects

Why stop with just fonts and letters? Discover other unique embroidery projects on the Spoonflower Blog such as these patches and maps by Robert Mahar.
See the Tutorials