A Pressing Issue

Do you press, or do you iron your seams?

I know I’ve covered this topic before.  We discussed it a few years ago, but that was on an old Blog Spot.  Since we’re hitting the basics really hard this year, I feel like we need to re-visit pressing and ironing, since the difference between the two is very important.

In any quilting area, there will be an ironing board or surface and an iron.  Quilters know it’s important to press the seams as you piece.  This action makes the points on triangles sharper and the block lie flatter.  Overall, it really improves the look of the block, the look of the quilt, and the quilting process.  Quite often, the terms “press” and “iron” are used interchangeably with quilters and quilt instructors.

So which one is right, and what’s the difference between the two?

Ironing is what you do to a wrinkled, already constructed garment if anybody still irons in this day of dryers with build-in steam units.

ironing clothes

Your shirt is wrinkled, you iron it.  You move the iron in a back and forth motion over the fabric, usually using steam and sometimes fabric starch, to get rid of the wrinkles.  Remember: Ironing is a back and forth motion.

Pressing is an up and down motion.


The iron is not moved over the surface in a back and forth direction.  To do so would stretch the fabric and distort the bias.  Pressing is the action used in quilting, even though the terms ironing and pressing may be used interchangeably.

Now that we’ve cleared up the definition between the two terms, let’s ask some pressing questions:  Does it matter how you press?  Which direction should you press the seams?  Is there anytime at all you should iron when you’re quilting?

Let’s answer that last question first.  And that answer is “No, not really.”  Even if prior to cutting, the fabric is wrinkled due to storage or the fact that you’re a pre-washer and you’ve washed your fabric and it’s dried with wrinkles – don’t iron it.  Press it.  The back and forth motion of a heavy iron can pull the fabric off-grain.  It can stretch the bias.  Press it.  Don’t iron it.

Now, for a more detailed topic…which direction should you press the seams?  There are a couple of important ideas to keep in mind with seams.  First, you want them all as uniform as you can get them.  Second, you want them to lie as flat as possible – this makes your block look better and makes the quilting process so much easier.  In order to get the seam to lie flat, press the seam closed first.

First press

This helps to set the stitches and flattens the fabric.

Most quilt pattern directions will instruct you to press towards the darker fabric to prevent “shadowing” – the darker fabric showing through the lighter.  This is usually the process, but there are times you press towards the lighter one.  I just finished a quilt top where this was the case.  Quilt designers may do this so that the seams will “nest” together nicely and  will match up in the block without too much trouble.  “Nesting” is the term used to indicate that the seams are staggered, meaning side-by-side patchwork pieces have seams facing the opposite directions.  This reduces bulk and increases accuracy.


Seams are pressed to the side, towards the darker fabric most of the time.  And the really good quilt pattern directions will tell you which way press your seams.  However, there are times when the seams are pressed opened.  The tip of the iron or a stiletto is used to help open up the seams and then they’re pressed open.


After they are, flip the piece over and press from the right side to flatten out everything nicely.  We will get into when it’s best to press to the side and when it’s best to press the seam open in just a bit.

Either pressing the seams to one side or open work well until you hit intersections, such as the ones in a four-patch.  With those, there is both light and dark fabrics on the diagonal from each other.  Either way you press that seam, either open or to one side, the dark fabric will show through on the light.  When this is the case, it’s best to twist the seam gently so that a tiny four-patch forms in the center.  This allows the fabric to be pressed in opposite directions at the intersection.

Four patch seams

Now we will deal with some details…

Should I use steam when pressing?  There will be as much discussion over this as there is whether you should pre-wash your fabric or not.  Some quilters swear by steam and others swear at it.  For me it depends on the circumstances.  If I’m pressing a seam without a lot of intersections, I generally use a dry iron and maybe a shot of starch.  But if it’s a seam with a lot of intersections, I have found that a shot or two of steam helps everything lie down nicely and reduces bulk just a tad.  It’s a personal preference.  Try it both ways and see which way works best for you.  No quilt police are going to show up and arrest you in quilted handcuffs.

What’s the best iron?  You can spend as much on an iron as you would on a low-tech sewing machine.  And there are some pressing systems that cost hundreds of dollars.  Those systems are generally designed for garment makers or folks that make vinyl designs to go on garments or bags.  They’re not really made for pressing seams.  Likewise, there are some irons out there that cost a couple hundred (or more) dollars.  Some quilters swear by a certain brand of iron – likewise, some swear at them.  My personal preference is whatever is the cheapest at Target.  There is a reason for this – I am hard on irons.  They get knocked off my ironing surface and thrown in a bag to go with me to classes and sewing retreats.  If I abuse it to the point of death, no great loss on the debit card – I just go back and buy another one.  My favorite iron?  My cordless Panasonic.


It has a point on both ends and it heats well.  The only down side is that the water tank is smaller than my regular iron.  My pet peeve with nearly all irons nowadays?  That freakin’ automatic turn-off thing.  I get it.  It’s a safety feature.  But I wish there was someway I could control it so that the iron stayed on longer than five minutes.  I hate waiting for the thing to heat up again.

Why is my seam all wonky?  You’re putting too much pressure on the fabric when you press.  You’re just trying to get the wrinkles out or get the fabric to lie flat.  You’re not trying to kill it.  Or you’ve gotten it off-grain because you’re ironing and not pressing.  If this becomes a frequent problem, and you don’t mind marking on your ironing surface, take a permanent marker, pen, or pencil and draw a straight line down the center of the surface.  Line your seam up with this when you press.  Guaranteed non-wonky seams every time.

Okay…you’ve hinted that there are times we need to press the seams open and press them to the side.  Care to enlighten us a bit more? 

Sure!  Here are some times that you will want to press those seams to one side…

  1. If you plan to quilt your top by stitching in the ditch.  With the seams pressed to one side, when you stitch in the ditch, the needle will go through the seam thread and catch the fabric.  This will protect your seam.  If you pressed them open and stitched in the ditch, the quilting would only catch the thread in the seam.
  2. If you need the seams to nest. Nested seams rest nicely with each other and allow them to match up pretty perfectly.  It provides stability for your seams.
  3. Which brings us to the next point, the time factor. Since the seams are more stable, they tend to hold up longer.

So, what are the reasons for pressing the seams open?

  1. The block will lie flatter.  Not only  will the block lie flatter, but the quilt top will lie flatter.  If there are a lot of intersections in the block and in the quilt, you may want to consider pressing the seams open so that the quilting process will be easier, whether the top is quilted on a domestic machine or a mid- or long-arm.
  2. If there are a lot of points, such as in half-square triangles, the points will be sharper. With points, if the fabric is pressed to one side, it can distort the points because the fabric pulls to one direction.  When the seams are pressed open, this distortion is eliminated.
  3. Again, it makes the quilting easier. I never gave this a thought until I began quilting a lot of my own stuff.  Pressing the seams open reduces bulk and allows the needle (no matter what machine is performing the quilting) to glide over the top with ease.  There are no “bumpy” spots to hang your needle on.

Over time, you will determine which method works best in the situation you’re in.  And sometimes, it’s a mix of both.  But the great thing about this is, if you decide to change it, there are no seams to rip out! Just warm up the iron and press it the other way!

There will be no blog next week, as I will be meeting with 27 of my closest quilting friends for our annual “Drop Everything and Just Quilt!” Retreat.  I promise pictures.

I’ve already started packing!

Until week after next, Quilt with Excellence!


Love and Stitches,

Sherri and Sam


One reply on “A Pressing Issue”

I was completely on my own when I started quilting and like with everything I learned the hard way that there might be some value in thinking about which way I pressed my seams. As I like to think of my quilting as an addiction I would say you are now introducing me to the HARD STUFF. Great article.

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