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What Is A Tracing Wheel (And How To Use One!)

If you’ve read any of my pattern making tutorials, you’ll know that I always recommend adding a tracing wheel to your pattern making kit. But, they are also used by sewers who have no intention of making their own sewing patterns.

So today, let’s talk about what a tracing wheel is, and what role it plays in the world of pattern makers and sewers!

Note: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you make a purchase at no further cost to you.

Why use a tracing wheel. Three tracing wheelers on a white background.

The online definition states ‘A tracing wheel, also known as a pattern wheel, pounce wheel, and dart wheel, is an instrument with multiple teeth on a wheel attached to a handle. The teeth can be either serrated or smooth.’

Wikipedia

For many years I stuck to just the one kind of tracing wheel but there are in fact several versions, and which one you opt for depends on what you’ll be using it for!

What Are Tracing Wheels Used For?

Tracing wheels are used to:

  • Trace sewing patterns onto fabric using carbon paper
  • Trace sewing patterns onto paper to preserve the original
  • Trace sections of patterns when manipulating patterns

I only really use mine for the last option.

Tracing Wheels I Use As A Professional Designer

This is my current selection of tracing wheels.

Three different tracing wheels on a white table top.

When it comes to tracing patterns, I prefer to use a spiked wheel. It’s the type of tracing wheel that works for me, because there’s no doubting the solid pin-pricks that a spiked marking wheel leaves behind, compared to the serrated kind.

My first ever tracing wheel is the one below. It’s a plastic handled version, with a brass coloured spiked wheel. I purchased this YEARS ago when still a fashion student, and it has served me well. You can see it still has my name just visible in faded marker – essential to stop other fashion students pilfering your pattern making tools!

A white plastic handled spiked tracing wheel on a white table top.

Because of the current pandemic, I found myself back in the UK for five months without my old and trusty one, so I bought this double pack online.

It’s such great value, because not only do you get the spiked version that I love for modifying patterns, but you also get a serrated tracing wheel as well which is perfect for sewers who like to use carbon paper to copy their sewing patterns!

This is the serrated version. It is comfy to hold for short periods of time, which the metal shaped for your index finger placement.

A wooden handled serated tracing wheel on a white table top.

What astonished me though was how comfy this spiked tracing wheel was! I’m putting it down to the wooden handle being contoured nicely, as well as the metal section where your index would be placed to control the tracing wheel!

A black wooden handled spiked tracing wheel on a white table top.

Since being back in the Netherlands, my go to wheel when drafting patterns or modifying anything, is the one above – yes, I have abandoned my trusty old plastic version! 😬

How To Use A Tracing Wheel: The Serrated Type

Using any tracing wheel is super easy, but let’s talk about using the serrated one to trace a pattern onto fabric!

To start with, you’ll need carbon paper. You’ll place your fabric on a hard work surface, preferably on top of a large cutting mat so that you don’t damage your cutting table!

Place the carbon paper on top of your fabric, and then the sewing pattern on top of this.

Grab your tracing wheel, and carefully follow the cutting lines of your sewing pattern. Apply enough pressure that the carbon creates an outline on the fabric below. You may also need to keep manoeuvring the carbon paper if it isn’t as big as your sewing pattern, so do take care!

How To Use A Tracing Wheel: The Spiked Type

As I mentioned above, this is my idea of a tracing wheel! You’ll want to use the spiked variety when tracing a sewing pattern onto paper to create a copy – great if your want to prevent any damage occurring to the original sewing pattern, or you just want to trace it to manipulate yourself!

Again, you’ll want a large format cutting mat to prevent the spikes from damaging your worktable.

Technique 1: Cloning Clothes

I won’t go into this too much as I do have a tutorial on cloning clothes, but a spiked tracing wheel really is the perfect tool for anyone that wants to copy an existing piece of clothing to create a sewing pattern.

Tracing wheel being applied to the waistband seam on a pair of blue denim Fat Face jeans

Technique 2: Tracing Patterns

The second reason for using a spiked wheel is to trace off an existing sewing pattern. It may be that you love the pattern and it is getting a little old and crumpled. Or perhaps you prefer to work from a traced pattern all the time, so the original is stored away for future reference.

Tracing a pattern is super easy. Simple lay out some pattern making paper onto your worktable. Place the sewing pattern that you wish to copy underneath.

Placing the pattern underneath lessens the risk of the pin prick marks damaging the original pattern!

Use your tracing wheel to trace off the cutting lines of the sewing pattern underneath, making sure to trace also the balance marks / notches and any other sewing pattern information!

Technique 3: Developing Patterns

Once you get into pattern making (I have lots of pattern making tutorials by the way!) you’ll be grabbing your spiked tracing wheel in order to develop patterns and blocks.

It may be that you use it to trace off a section of a pattern before pivoting it (common with dart manipulation!) to move fabric suppression from one spot to another, or it may be that you use it to true darts and other areas of a sewing pattern, as in the photo below!

Pivoting darts in dart manipulation - truing the dart!

As you can see, there are several ways that a tracing wheel can be used, but how you use yours ultimately depends on the outcome you’re looking for.

If you’re not sure whether to grab a spiked tracing wheel or serrated wheel, this tracing wheel twin pack is a great way to try both types out.

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