"Get pressed for success!", is a very good motto for any seamstress! Pressing fabric for sewing is very different from ironing your clothes for work. In simple terms of pressing vs ironing, one technique requires pressure and the other smoothing. This tutorial will show you how to press seams and how to press quilt seams for a perfectly flat finish.
Pressing Fabric for Sewing
If you took a step back in time, you would see that sewers used a ‘smoothing iron’ to press garments. It was a heavy metal iron that was heated on the stove or by the fire and used to smooth creases out of very elaborate garments. Today we have the advantage of being able to press with a steam iron, heated electrically. A good steam iron can press seams flat and reduce wrinkles.
The secret of a well-made garment is to remember to press each seam or section as you construct your garment. Always practice on a scrap first so you can be sure of the effect of the iron on your fabric.
What is Pressing Fabric in Sewing?
If you don't press as you sew, it would be very awkward in some areas to do it at the end. Pressing can also make sewing easier. For example, pressing up a hem before sewing makes the hem sewing a breeze in comparison to just pinning it up.
Pressing Tools for Sewing
Successful pressing for sewing is assisted by some really useful tools.
- A good steam iron. Some irons turn off automatically after a set time. Continous irons are better for longer sewing periods but make sure you turn them off when you are finished.
- Ironing board at a good height with cover and metal frame. You can get covers that assist ironing.
- Tailor's ham – especially for children’s clothing, curved seams and darts
- Pressing cloths for delicate fabrics
Further Reading: More about pressing tools including the essentials and the luxuries.
What is a Pressing Fabric Cloth?
A pressing cloth is just a protective piece of fabric that you put between your sewing project and the iron. It is important to use a pressing cloth so that the iron is not pressed directly onto your fabric.
This will reduce accidents and the worst-case scenario when iron meets fabric and the temperature is too hot. You get that sinking feeling as you lift the iron and your fabric is attached!
Pressing cloths can be purchased, or you can use white cotton fabric scraps. Don't use anything with color, as the dye may transfer.
Differences Between Pressing And Ironing
Pressing is different from regular ironing in that the iron is pressed up and down rather than dragged along the fabric. Slight pressure is needed to set seams.
Ironing is a side-to-side motion, keeping your iron moving along the fabric for as long as possible. The point of ironing is to remove creases and wrinkles in the fabric.
Steam Or No Steam?
This is yet another controversial topic! Using the steam function on your iron can help to flatten seams efficiently, but be aware that if you move side to side at all, the steam can easily stretch and distort your blocks. Because of this, I feel that it is usually best to use a very hot, dry iron. (Only on pure cotton fabrics, though!) If you are trying to flatten a section with lots of points or seam intersections, you may need the extra strength of a bit of steam. Once again, just do whichever you prefer, so that you enjoy the whole process of putting your quilt together.
1. How to Press Seams
Pressing in sewing is the act of using the iron in an up and down motion to open seams and smooth the unfinished fabric pieces.
Press by lifting the iron up and down with a slight pressure. UP-DOWN-UP-DOWN.
This puts pressure on the seams in order for them to open and sit flat. It allows the stitches to meld into the fabric in order to become flatter and less noticeable.
Depending on the fabric, steam or a water spray may be used. I rarely use commercial chemical ironing aids when sewing. Just buy yourself a water spray bottle and keep that handy for difficult fabrics or seams.
Which Side to Press Seams
Press on the wrong side of the fabric and to iron your seams and darts in the correct direction for the best finish possible.
2. Pressing Quilt Seams
Pressing quilt seams is not something most of us are overly enthusiastic about, but it really is absolutely necessary! Why? Well, let me explain...It makes it much easier to join blocks accurately and match seams perfectly. It makes your quilt top lie flat and have a lovely smooth appearance. It gives a neat, crisp, professional finish to your quilt. Let's look at this task in a little more detail.
To make a perfect quilt, your seams need to line up accurately. This is a lot easier if your seams have been pressed flat. In general, every single seam that you sew needs to be pressed before adding the unit to the next piece. For this reason, it is a good idea to keep your iron and ironing board close to your sewing machine, so that it is right there, ready to use each time. If you have to get up and walk to your kitchen every time you finish a tiny seam, you will be much more inclined to skip a few steps when it comes to pressing your seams!
In the past, quilters were always taught to press their seams to one side, specifically to the side of the darker fabric. Lately, there has been some controversy about this, leading to heated discussions on social media platforms. Some quilters are adamant that pressing to one side is the only way to do it. Others prefer to press their seams open.
Pressing Quilt Seams To One Side - Advantages
It is useful to press to one side for a number of reasons.
- You can press towards the darker side, so that the seam allowance does not ‘shadow’ through the fabric.
- Pressing seams in opposite directions allows you to ‘nest’ or interlock the seams, which helps create perfect seam intersections.
- It is faster to press to the side than to press open.
- If you plan to stitch in the ditch when doing the quilting, seams pressed to the side will be much stronger. If you stitch in the ditch with an open seam, you end up stitching over only the threads holding the seam together. This will, in fact, weaken your seam.
Pressing Quilt Seams Open - Advantages
- It is best to press seams open where many seams are meeting up, it reduces bulkiness.
- Your final quilt top will appear smoother when seams are pressed open. Especially if you are using thick fabrics!
- Quilting is easier when seams are pressed open. There is less fabric to quilt through, especially if you are quilting by hand.
Open vs Side Pressing Quilt Seams
So, in the end, it is up to you to decide which method of pressing you prefer. Quilting is such a unique and individual journey. Personally, I like to apply a little of each method, depending on the blocks I am assembling. As long as the seams are well pressed, it doesn’t really matter!
Whichever method you prefer, be sure to press, not iron the fabric, to avoid distortion of the blocks.
Instructions For Pressing Quilt Seams
- First ‘set’ the seam: This means to press the seam flat, just as you have sewn it, before opening out the fabrics at all. Place the stitched together fabrics on your ironing board, just as you have sewn them, wrong side up, right sides facing. Then lower your hot iron onto the fabric for a few seconds. This helps to sink the stitches into the fabric and allows better pressing once the fabric is opened out. It also smooths out any small puckers, and sorts out any thread tension problems.
- Press your seam: Now open out your block or strip and place it on the ironing board wrong side up.
- Side Seams: If you prefer to press seams to the side, fold the seam allowance towards the darker fabric and press the seam flat just by lowering and lifting the iron. If you are pressing a long seam, for example, sewing entire strips together, lift the iron and then move on to the next section.
- Open Seams: If you have decided to press the seams open, lay the fabric on the board and open the seam out with your fingers. Finger press the seam first. To finger press just push the back of your nail along the seam. Once it has been nicely opened, lower and lift your iron on the seam.
- Finishing: Now turn your unit over so that the right side is up and press the seam again on the right side.
Direction Of Iron when Pressing Quilt Seams
- To press straight seams, be aware of the grainline of the fabric, and place your iron parallel to the grain.
- To press bias seams, i.e. triangles and corners, lift and lower the iron at a 45-degree angle to the seam. It will still be facing along the straight grain of the fabric.
Assembling Rows After Pressing Quilt Seams
Once the blocks have been assembled into rows, you need to stitch the rows together.
Assembling Pressed Open Seams
If your seams are pressed open, pin the seams precisely into place before stitching.
Assembling Side Pressed Seams
If you have pressed seams to one side, you need to plan your pressing ahead of time, so that the nesting works out perfectly.
The best way to do this is to number the rows in the order in which they must be assembled. Either write on them with a removable marker or pin bits of paper onto each row.
Then press all the odd-numbered seams to the right and all the even-numbered seams to the left.
This should line the seams up nicely to lock into place.
Another method of aligning seams for nesting is to press all the seams in odd-numbered rows to the outside of each block, and all the even-numbered rows to the inside of each block. This will also result in butting the seams perfectly.
Pressing Quilt Seams When Multiple Seams Meet Up
For example, if you have a place where four blocks all meet up in one corner. This can be very bulky, so here is the pressing method for this scenario.
Using very sharp and pointy small scissors, clip each seam allowance up to a few threads from the stitching. Be very careful not to snip through the stitching!!
Keep the fabric folded as when setting a seam while clipping. Then press left-hand seams all to the top, and right-hand seams to the bottom. This is one case where the seams must all be pressed open. Open out those clipped seam allowances and finger press them all open. It will look like a teeny little four-patch square. Once you have them all sitting nice and flat by manipulating with your fingers, press them with the iron. You should end up with a lovely flat central corner.
Pressing Fabric for Sewing and Quilting - In Conclusion
Taking the time to press each step of the process to complete a garment is such a worthwhile investment. You can look professional in the garment you made because you were "pressed for success".
When I was learning to sew, I started with garment construction before moving on to quilting. Even when dressmaking, we were told to press every single seam before moving on to the next one. Of course, I was impatient and wanted my garment to be complete, so that I could wear it as soon as possible. You can all guess what the results were! Very messy garments, which did not end up being worn very often! So now I am very careful to keep pressing, whatever I am stitching. It’s even more important in quilting!
Have fun constructing your quilts, don’t skip any of the important steps, and you will have a beautiful quilt at the end of it all, well worth the little bit of extra effort! You must just decide whether you are going to press your seams open, or to the side!
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