Fabric pens, pencils, markers, highlighers...oh my.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

One of the most popular questions we get here at the store is, "Which marking tool is best?" And, with the vast array of options that we have available, it's often far too difficult to explain quickly. The short answer is it depends on what you're making. And, the long answer is what inspired this blog post.

We decided the best way to explain each tool was to just show you how each one acted on light fabric and dark fabric, after ironing with steam, and after running under cold water. Here's how it all went down.

From left to right, these are the marking tools we tested...

  1. Vanishing Fabric Marker - Makes a bright purple mark yet marks will not vanish within 48 hours without washing. However marks may be removed earlier by simply washing in cold water.
  2. Sewline Marking Pencil - Makes a really thin line, and comes off with an attached eraser. It washes out with cold water.
  3. Washable Wonder Marker - Marks can be easily removed with plain water. On rare occasions certain dyes in material (dyes containing red in particular) may make marks difficult to remove. Occasionally the mark will reappear when the fabric dries. Simply repeat the process.
  4. Frixon Highlighter in Blue - Makes a thick or thin line just like your office highlighter. Comes off with a quick press of the iron.
  5. Frixon Highlighter in Pink - Makes a thick or thin line just like your office highlighter. Comes off with a quick press of the iron. 
  6. Frixon Pen in Red - Makes a thin line similar to the pencil, but comes off with an iron.
  7. Allary Chalk Pen - Pen comes with a wide array of chalk colors. Easily change out between them depending on the color of the garment you're working with. Do not iron. Chalk lines come out with cold water. 
We used each pen, pencil, and marker and drew a line on a piece of both light and dark fabric.

Some differences to note from this simple test.
  • The pen was difficult to see on both scraps, but more so on the dark. The ink is red which should stand out, but the line is so thin that it sort of just disappears into the grain of the fabric.
  • The blue highlighter shows up beautifully on the light fabric, but not so much on the dark. Maybe because our dark fabric was blue, but it doesn't get much better on blacks, purples, or greens.
Next, we ran a hot, steamy iron over each piece.

You can see that both of the highlighters and the pen ink disappeared during this process. That's what they're supposed to do. But, if you look close, you can see that the highlighters left a slight white residue on the dark fabric and the pen left one on the light fabric.

Finally, we ran both pieces under some cold water in the bathroom sink.

You can see that the vanishing pen, pencil, washable marker, and the chalk lines came out. The white residue the highlighters and pen made after ironing also disappeared.

So, you can see by our quickie experiment what we mean when we tell you that the best pen really depends on what you're working on.

Generally, here's some rules of thumb:
  • If you're a fast sewer, go for the Vanishing Pen. You can see it held up on light and dark fabrics. But, if you don't typically finish your projects within 48 hours, you must find another option. Otherwise, you'll go back to your project and all your marks will be gone. That's no fun.
  • If you're quilting, give the pencil or pen a shot. The super thin lines are perfect for those 1/4 inch seams. And, since you're sewing right over the lines you mark anyway, the washability of them doesn't really apply.
  • We give all our beginner sewers the Washable pen. It works great on all fabric colors and fabric types. It's a great go-to general use pen. It may be basic, but sometimes, those are the best.
  • A lot of our students grab the highlighters as their second marking tool after they get used to the Washable. Mostly, the convenience of being able to iron it away is what draws them in...and that feature is great. But, you can see from our test how you really need to buy two colors (one for light fabrics and one for dark fabrics) and they aren't always truly iron-off as they left some residue on the dark fabric. Misty also suggests this pen for knit fabrics because it glides easily and doesn't snag on the stretch of the fabric like the pens and chalk do.
  • We always suggest the chalk pen for our younger students because it just works. It's really easy to see on all kinds of fabrics and washes away easily. 
In addition to these marking tools, there's always the option of using an iron-on transfer pen. To use this, you trace over your marking lines on your pattern, then place the pattern face-down on your fabric. Iron over the pattern and the marks transfer to your fabric.

Of course, you can also use the oldie-but-goodie tracing paper and wheel. To use this, you place a piece of transfer paper face down on your fabric and then place the pattern on top of that. The wheel glides over the pattern lines and transfers the lines to your fabric.

Both of these options are ideal for marking darts, pleats, and other long-lined markings.

All in all, you will ultimately have more than one marking tool in your sewing kit, but which ones you have are completely up to you. Hope this experiment at least helped you see how each one worked and some of the pro's and con's of each.


  1. Thanks for the review, very helpful!

  2. great review; i have a rather extensive fabric marking pen choice since I'm always on the lookout for the better performing pens. ATM i really like the Frixion pen to mark out a pattern out when using vintage patterns when i'm too lazy to make a copy of the pattern. I have found that instead of drawing the pen in one long line it's best to make a series of flick type dots on the fabric. It's gives a fabulously accurate line to follow when cutting out. I'm yet to test it out to transfer embroidery patterns.

  3. Thanks! Just what I needed!


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