Sewing Back-to-School: Ironing and Pressing

This post is part of the Sewing Back-to-School series, 30 days of helpful sewing articles by guest bloggers. Feel free to check out the original Sewing Back-to-School post for schedule and previous posts!

Lee from Freshly Pieced is the guest blogger for today! I know that summer is over, and so is her Summer Sampler Series, but I just wanted to tell you about it because (as well as being on my to-do list) it is a wealth of information! Each of the 12 blocks is accompanied by a thorough tutorial. So check it out, and check out Lee’s blog!

Hi there! I’m Lee from Freshly Pieced, and I’m here today to talk about (drumroll please) … ironing and pressing.

Yeah, I can pick ’em, can’t I? : ) Not exactly the most exciting or glamorous activity. It can be tempting to do a quick, slap-dash job, or even skip over it entirely. But here’s the thing—in the four years that I’ve been quilting and sewing, I’ve learned (often the hard way) that pressing is a deceptively important part of the process. In fact, if you do it right, it can noticeably improve the accuracy of your piecing, and your finished quilt will look more polished. So stay with me here! I’m going to talk about pressing mostly as it relates to quilting, since that’s the majority of the sewing I do. But many of these tips are applicable to other sewing projects as well.

First things first. Pressing is different from ironing. Ever heard that one? You probably have, especially if you’ve taken a quilting class. But what exactly is the difference between ironing and pressing?

Ironing involves sliding the iron back and forth, using lots of pressure. Think elbow grease and lots of movement. Pressing is placing the iron carefully onto the fabric and lifting it again at frequent intervals. Think small, gentle movements and a light touch. Why is this important? Because ironing can stretch and distort your fabric. Ironing is fine for completed garments, which generally have no raw edges and therefore are not as subject to distortion. But it’s not going to do you any favors when sewing or piecing a quilt. Pressing—and pressing correctly—is the key.

So how do you press correctly? One of my biggest tips is to use a dry iron. Steam is not your friend when it comes to piecing. I used to love pressing with steam—it makes for such a crisp, clean finish. But it can also really do a number on your piecing and distort the heck out of your seams, especially bias seams. I am now in the habit of using a bone-dry iron for all of my piecing, and my accuracy has improved because of it.

Here are a few more tips to help you get the most out of your pressing:

• Always press fabric before cutting. A wrinkle-free surface will give you more accurate cuts.

• Press on the wrong side of the fabric whenever possible.

• When using unfamiliar or delicate fabrics, test your iron’s heat setting on a scrap first to make sure it doesn’t scorch. You may also want to use a pressing cloth in between delicate fabrics and your iron.

• Don’t press over pins—pinheads can melt.

• After pressing, allow your fabric to cool for a few seconds before moving it. This prevents stretching and distortion.

• I personally don’t use any starch, but I know many quilters who swear by it. So that aspect might be a matter of personal preference.

Okay, so now that we know how to press correctly, let’s get controversial here.Should you press your seams open, or to the side? That’s right, I’m not afraid to tackle the tough subjects head-on. LOL.

And my answer to that question is: It depends.

I know. Sorry to be so wishy-washy. But there are pros and cons to both methods. In my opinion, each method is suitable for different situations.

Pressing seams to the side

I think this is the way most people learn to press when they first start quilting, especially if they take a formal quilting class. This method seems to be more commonly used by traditional quilters. Here are some pros and cons for pressing to the side:

PRO: You can press seams to the side in opposite directions and then “lock” them together for better seam alignment later (see photo). I really don’t understand how people sew 4-patch or 9-patch blocks accurately with seams pressed open. I just find it so much easier and faster to align those seams when they are side-pressed.

PRO: Pressing to the side is usually easier and faster than pressing seams open.

CON: Depending on the pattern, it may take some planning to figure out the optimal sides to press toward, so that you can take advantage of the seam “locking.”

CON: The finished seam is not as flat and neat as one that is pressed open, so seam allowances are bulkier, which can cause problems when quilting.

Pressing Seams Open

This method has gained a lot of traction recently. It seems to be the favored method among more “modern” quilters and the blogging set in general. Here are pros and cons for pressing open:

PRO: It makes for a beautiful, flat, perfect seam. Pressing seams open actually improves the look of the finished quilt, in my opinion.

PRO: Bias piecing, in particular, tends to be more accurate when seams are pressed open. My flying geese were ridiculously wonky until I tried pressing the seams open with a dry iron. Once I did that, I had perfect geese, just like that.

CON: Pressing open can be more time-consuming than pressing to the side.

CON: Pressing open can result in burned fingers (although, if you’re using a dry iron like I recommended above, you’ll find that to be less of a problem).

CON: When you’re pressing open, you miss out on the “locking mechanism” described above, which helps align seams later.

Personally, I press seams open unless there is a compelling reason to press to the side, such as 4-patch or 9-patch construction. I always press open when I’m doing any type of bias piecing (including half-square triangles and flying geese). And I press open the final seam of any piecing, to reduce bulk. As long as nothing needs to line up, I like my seams to lie as flat as possible.

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s tour through the scintillating world of ironing and pressing. While it may not be the most exciting subject, it’s a necessary part of the process, and my hints above might just help with your accuracy. Thank you, Sara, for inviting me to guest post today. And I hope you’ll all come visit me at my blog, Freshly Pieced, sometime soon!

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19 replies on “Sewing Back-to-School: Ironing and Pressing

  • Peggy

    Sara, thank you for having Lee on to talk about this subject.

    I have always used steam, but I am willing to try pressing without seam and see if it works for me. (It would save me some time, if I didn’t have to fill my iron all the time.)

  • Chay

    I’d like to recommend the Continental dry iton. Having always been a steam-iron user I’m now a convert. This iron doesn’t have steam holes so there’s nothing for tiny pieces of fabric to get caught in. It’s heavy, it gets and stays hot and it doesn’t automatically shut off. I got mine at Home Depot online for about $25, free shipping. You can always spray your fabric if you need moist heat.

    I’m making a Dear Jane quilt and I’ve learned a lot about pressing in the process. Here’s how I press my finished blocks: smoothe the block out on a towel – I use a hand towel that’s folded in fourths – and spray very lightly with starch or a starch alternative like Best Press. Press (don’t iron!) the living daylights out of the block, middle, top and bottom. Really bear down. You will get a perfectly flat block.

    achay23 (at) msn (dot) com

  • Sara

    I use a dry iron as well,but I do use starch and have to remind myself from time to time not “butcher” the fabric,but be sweet to it and PRESS!!

    I press my seams open just about every time cuz it is SOOOO much easier to line them buggers up with the other guys:):):)

  • Linz

    You know, I have known from a long time that the iron was a quilter’s (or any sewer in general)best friend. But this was actually really helpful for me too! Way to go Lee!

  • queenopearls

    Great article and will check out the Continental dry iron Chay suggested.
    One thing I have been doing that has helped my seams remain flat is putting a ceramic tile on top of the hot fabric and letting it cool. I have a 1′ square and a 1′ x 2′ rectangular tile.
    Great discussion on open versus one side seams. Thank you!!!!
    Christina in Cleveland
    PS Love your blog!! 🙂

  • Letterpress

    Funny. Great minds think alike as I wrote about pressing on my blog too.

    However Lee and I differ HUGELY on the steam issue. Since my education is in clothing and textiles, I can not envision ever pressing without steam, unless the fabric can’t take the moisture. Yes, steam can distort your pressing, but so can dry irons. Dry irons can also make your fabrics shiny and break down fibers, esp. if they are wool. As she noted, it’s all in how you handle the fabric.

    But it’s steam that does the work in the pressing world, along with letting it cool.

    Just my .02. I loved the rest of the post–very interesting.

    Elizabeth E.

  • Sarah@Pings&Needles

    lovely post … I press dry or with steam depending on my project/fabric/bias.

    Ironing your fabrics prior to cutting is the best advice you could ever give … for a start it gets you into the ‘use the iron’ headspace!

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