This post covers how to press small pieces of fabric that have been sewn together, as well as quilt blocks. To learn about pressing large cuts of fabric after you’ve brought them from the fabric shop, visit this post.
Why does any of this matter?
Pressing directions are important for two main reasons:
1. To help create flat blocks that don’t have bulky seams. Bulky seams create lumps in your quilt and can actually break your needle as you’re sewing or quilting over them.
2. To allow the seams to “nest” later in the process. Nesting seams helps line up the blocks to get points that meet where they are supposed to. This easy technique is done by placing two different blocks or units right sides together, using their opposing seam allowance. The seams will fit together like a puzzle piece.
Steam or no steam
Any quilter you ask will usually have a very strong opinion about whether or not steam should be used to press seams. As a beginner, I strongly recommend starting out with a dry iron (no steam) for two reasons.
The first is that wet fabric stretches easier than dry fabric, and stretching fabric is BAD.
The second reason is that using the steam function decreases the life of your iron. Spend five minutes reading reviews about irons (even the really expensive ones) and you’ll quickly see how true this is. They leak, sputter and die. If you don’t mind replacing a cheap iron every year or so, feel free to try out steam while keeping in mind reason 1 above.
If you are working on a pattern that requires REALLY flat seams/blocks, you can still get the benefit of steam by using a misting bottle and a tailors clapper. Check out Suzy Quilts post about Tailor’s clappers here!
Before we talk about pressing seams...first thing is first.
Pressing and ironing are different. If you’re rolling your eyes, I don’t blame you, I did too at first. 🙄
We iron clothes by setting the iron down on the garment and moving it from side to side without ever lifting the iron. (Ok, that’s a lie. I iron clothes by throwing them in the dryer.) If you iron a quilt block, it will stretch and stretching is bad, remember?
We press quilting cotton by setting the iron down on the fabric, wait a beat, pick it up and move it a few inches in either direction, set it down, wait a beat, and so on. Seems like such a small difference, right? Trust me on this one, don’t be a Sarah and ignore this advice. 😊 This is as important when you are pressing large pieces of fabric that haven’t been cut as it is when pressing smaller pieces.
From here on out, you are a presser, not an ironer! Tell your family that the next time they need a non-wrinkled shirt. Ha!
How to Press
1. Set the seam
After sewing a seam, press it with a hot iron so you set the stitches in place. This is one crucial way to prevent warping the pieces.
Setting the seam
2. Finger Press
Next, finger press the seam open. Gently open up the seam and press it back to create a crease. This is important because it creases the fabric in the right direction without applying heat or steam, which can cause stretching.
3. Press with the iron
This next step depends on the quilt pattern. Instructions to press a certain direction are integral to being able to nest seams later in the process. You’ll often find pressing directions in each step. They might look something like this example:
In the next picture you can see that the seam allowance is pointing toward the dark (red) fabric. The idea here is prevent shading. If you pressed the other direction, you might be able to see the seam allowance of the red fabric thru the white fabric.
You may also see instructions that say press toward the outside of the block or toward the center, as in this example:
And finally, my least favorite way to press seams: open. Pressing seams open takes longer, increases the chance you’ll burn yourself, and if your stitches are too big, can result in seams that come apart. I’d rather have a root canal that press my seams open, HOWEVER, it is sometimes necessary. But I digress…
Pressing seams open is the most effective way to get a really flat quilt block without lumps and is critical in some patterns. Quilt patterns that contain a lot of points usually instruct you to press seams open.
- Use a smaller stich length when the directions tell you to press seams open. I like to use 1.8 to 2.0.
- Do NOT use steam to press your seam open, initially at least. You WILL burn yourself.
And That’s All There is To It!
As annoying they may be, pressing directions are meant to help you achieve a nice, flat quilt top with matching points.
You’ve graduated from Pressing Seams 101! Did you find this tutorial helpful? Do you have pressing tips you'd like to share? I'm always learning something new!