Pressing Concerns

Today I would like to tackle a pressing topic – and that topic is do you press or iron your quilt blocks?  I also will touch on when you do it, how to do it, and hit on some notions which may help in any tedious pressing situation.  First, let’s talk about the difference between pressing and ironing.    

Admittedly, the two terms are often used interchangeably.  Overall most everyone knows both pressing and ironing involve a hot iron and sometimes steam.  However, there is a difference between the two and I have found the easiest way to keep them straight is this:    

You iron your clothes.  Also, admittedly, few people do this anymore.  Imagine my surprise when my adult daughter asked to borrow my iron to get the wrinkles out of my grand darlings’ school uniforms a couple of years ago.  She didn’t own an iron.  Most folks throw their clothes in the dryer for a few minutes and the heat causes the wrinkles to relax. 

But just bear with me here.  If you have a wrinkled shirt, you use an iron with a back-and-forth motion to smooth the wrinkles out.  Pressing is an up and down motion with an iron.  You press your quilt fabric, block units, applique, and quilt blocks.  The reason you use an up and down motion instead of a back-and-forth motion is bias. 

A back-and-forth motion can stretch the bias, and as a result your block, block unit, applique, quilt block, and quilt fabric may be forced off-grain and stretched out of shape.  Lots of horrible wonkiness may be the end result.      At this point, I must admit I have issues with some quilt patterns and quilt teachers/books/videos.  One of two things are occurring with several of them:  Either they don’t press between steps, or they assume you just *know* when to do it and omit this step in their lessons/books/patterns/videos.  For reference with this blog, I am only dealing with pieced blocks, not applique, because pressing applique is a little different.  Anyway, here’s Sherri’s Rule of Thumb about pressing:  Press your block units every time you make a seam. And use an iron.   

I realize this may sound a little extreme.  However, keep in mind that as you’re creating your beautiful quilt top, one of the goals is to have all your blocks lie flat.  Another goal is to reduce bulk.  Pressing with an iron helps you do both.  I also know there are “iron substitutes” on the market, and they do come in handy in a pinch.  Plus I realize many quilt designers are now telling you to “finger press” seams.  This also can work in a few situations.  However, I don’t think anything works better to reduce bulk and make your block units and blocks lie flat as a hot iron.   

Most of the time we press our seams to one side – usually towards the darker fabric —  so our seam allowances won’t “shadow” through the lighter fabric.  I have found the best way to do this is to press the block unit the way it is as it comes from under the needle.   This sets the thread in the fabric.  Then press the seams to one side from the wrong side and then again from the right side.  

Press this way first…just the way the block uniti comes out from under your sewing machine needle…
Then press towards the darker fabric

That’s the short version of pressing.  Let’s examine when there are exceptions to pressing seams to the dark side.  The best quilt patterns will tell you which way to press your seams.  They may do this verbally (e.g., “Press all seams towards fabric B”) or have directional arrows pointing to the right or left.  However, not all patterns take the time to give these instructions, or you may be designing your own quilt and need to know which direction to press the seams.  This is when making a test block is a really good idea (actually it’s a good idea all the time…but that’s another blog for another day).  As you construct the test block and press each unit, then each row, finally the entire block, you can see direction the seams need to be pressed in order for them to nest.    

This nesting is important because it lines up seams and makes your blocks lie flat.  And sometimes in your test block, you may find there are occasions when the seams need to be pressed towards the lighter fabric in order for nesting to take place.  If this happens, there’s no need to panic or think you’ve broken some kind of unwritten quilting law.  The quilt police won’t show up at your house and demand you turn over your sewing machine.  If both of the fabrics are light, you may find there is minimal shadowing (shadowing happens when a darker fabric’s seam is clearly seen through the right side of the quilt top).  If you can live with this minimal shadowing, keep constructing your quilt blocks.   However, if the fabric in the seam is definitely darker and definitely shadows through in a manner you can’t live with, you can minimize this. 

Graded Seam

Carefully trim the darker fabric in the seam down to 1/8-inch and then re-press the seam.  Most of the time the trimmed darker seam is nowhere near as noticeable as the untrimmed one.  Don’t trim it to less than 1/8-inch or you may find your seam unsewing itself when you complete the top or go to quilt it.    And one last word about pressing the seams to one side – always do this when you plan any stitch-in-the-ditch quilting.  The quilting will go on the side without the seam allowances, making the stitching easier and smoother.  

All of this may beg the question, “Are there any circumstances in which you would press the seams open?”  

Again, the best quilt patterns will tell you when to do this.  However, if you’re designing your own quilt or this information isn’t on the pattern, when do you know to press your seams open instead of to the side?  There are a couple of circumstances which come into play, but remember the goals of accurate pressing are to make the block lie as flat as possible and to reduce bulk.  When you have a quilt block like this:  

And all of the points come together at one spot, there’s going to be a lot of bulk to deal with.  One of the ways to deal with this is to press all the seams open.  This spreads all the fabric out over the area. **   I also press my Y-seams open. 

Again, you have three pieces of fabric converging at one point.  Pressing the seams open not only reduces the bulk, but also helps with accuracy.  It’s easier to see the point where your needle needs to land both when starting and stopping the seam.  And if by chance I am piecing my background for either hand or machine applique, I also press those seams open – again to reduce bulk and to make the block lie flat.     

There is one other “special” pressing situation you need to be aware of, and that’s concerning four-patches of any type.  Wherever you have four blocks of fabric joined – whether they’re half-square triangles or solid pieces of material – generally you’re working with some combination of light and dark fabric.  You know your seams should nest, but no matter which way you press your seam to the side, it will shadow.  Here’s a little trick called “Spinning the Middle.”

  1.  At the center where all the seams meet, use your seam ripper to loosen a few stitches.

2.  Then twist the block at the seam until you get a tiny four-patch in the middle.  This will allow either the light seams to be pressed to the light side or the dark seams to be pressed to the dark.  This same method can be used for half-square triangles.  This method works great to reduce bulk, help the block lie flat, and prevent shadowing.

Four Patch with a Spun Middle
Two Pinwheel Blocks Made from Half-Square Triangles.
One has the seams pressed towards the darker fabric and the other has the seams pressed open. Both have the middle spun. Either pressing method works.

    Just remember as you are dealing with any pressing situation, there are two main goals in mind:  Reduce bulk and make your block lie flat.  If you keep those two ideas in mind, you’ll do just fine pressing your block units, blocks, and quilt fabric.   Before we wrap this blog up, I want to offer a few more tips and tricks about pressing and highlight some new(ish) pressing notions on the market.

Do you use steam when pressing?  This is another one of those issues which generally divide quilters into two camps – those who use and love it and those who can completely live without it.  Personally, I like a little steam in certain situations.  If I am pressing my quilt fabric before cutting it, I will use steam.  Wrinkled fabric results in crooked cutting, so there are occasions when you will need to press your fabric even if you’re not a pre-washer (if it comes off the bolt wrinkled, or it becomes wrinkled from storage).  If there is a lot of bulk in a block or block unit, I’ll use steam to help reduce the bulk because it will flatten the seams better than just a dry iron.   

  There are two ways to utilize steam.  You can keep the steam feature turned off on your iron and spritz the fabric lightly (don’t soak it) with water before you press it.  If you’re pressing extremely wrinkled fabric, I have found (at least for me) this method works best, especially if I can use a spray bottle filled with warm water and allow the fabric to relax a few minutes before pressing.  The other method is to engage the steam function on your iron.  I’ll be honest at this point – if you always keep water in your iron, it can shorten your iron’s life span.  If you do add water to your iron, you may want to empty it when your sewing session is complete.  And be sure to read the directions which come with your iron as to whether your iron needs distilled or tap water (most are fine with tap water). 

  Is there a “best” iron for quilters?  No.  Not really.  The type of iron you like to use is the best quilting iron for you.  Irons are like so many other quilting supplies.  They can run the gamut from several thousands of dollars for ironing systems such as this:  

To this one which is just under $15 on Amazon.   

Admittedly, I am hard on irons.  They tend to get knocked off my ironing board or pressing surface pretty regularly.  Therefore, my favorite kind of iron is a cheap one because it’s probably going to have a short shelf life regardless of whether or not I put water in it.  I will recommend two irons.  First, is the Cordless Panasonic. 

I have one of these and I absolutely love it.  It re-heats quickly and has a retractable power cord.  This iron is so great when you need to iron large areas of fabric, such as wrinkled yardage, quilt tops, and borders.  There is no cord to get in the way.  It comes with a handy-dandy carrying case and is worth every red cent.   The second iron is this:  

Which, unfortunately, is hard to find.  These have no auto-off, a feature of today’s irons that gets on my nerves.  Some of these have no water tank, but they seem (at least to me) to get hotter than modern irons.  These can be found on-line (Google antique irons – a lot were made mid-twentieth century and died out in the late 1980’s), but also shop thrift stores and estate sales.  You may have to give them a little love and care, but if they work, they’re a great addition to your studio.  Just remember to unplug them or turn them off when you’re through.  

Why is my pressed seam “wobbly”?  If you’ve pressed your seam and it has curves or kinks in it, those are the result of too much pressure.  You’re pressing your seam too hard.  I’ve found this trick is useful to avoid curvy seams.  Take a permanent marker or a pencil and draw a straight line on your pressing surface (if you don’t want the line to be a permanent part of your ironing area, cover the area with a light-color fabric or muslin).  Pin the beginning of your seam to the beginning of the line, matching up the seam with the drawn line.  Then repeat the process at the end.  Now press.  If you’re pressing too hard, the seam will move off the line.  Reposition the seam and press again, this time without so much pressure.  A few times of repeating this procedure will let you know how much pressure too much and how much is just right.  

Finally, we’re wrapping up this blog with a few notions which may help you with any pressing issues you may have.  These are all notions I own and use regularly.  Standard disclaimer insert:  I am not paid by any of these companies to endorse their products.  I have used them all for several years and have found them very useful.  Some of these are fairly new, others have been used by sewists for years.

  1.  Wool Mat – This pressing surface consists of wool fibers which are bonded together.  The mat absorbs the heat from the iron and reflects it back into the fabric, literally cutting your pressing time in half and doubling the effect.  These mats come in all sizes and in rolls.  I keep a medium-sized one near my sewing area for pressing blocks, block units, and applique.  I have a small one in my sewing bag I take with me to sit and sews or bees.  My plan is to purchase a bit larger one for my ironing board. 

Couple of things you want to keep in mind about these mats.  First, they do have a bit of an odor about them when you press.  My DH says it smells like a wet dog (bless his heart).  You can drop some essential oil on the mat if the smell bothers you.  Personally, I don’t find the odor that offensive, but I’ve used my mat so long I could be nose blind.  After a period of use, you may find something like rust stains on your mat.  You can use one of these to remove the stain:

  Or you can wash your mat.  I have not tried washing my mat, but according to the interwebs, there are methods to do this.  Be sure to use a detergent which is specifically for wool and one that won’t leave a residue, such as Eucalan.    Wool mats can be a bit pricey, but I think they’re worth the expense.  

  •  Flatter – This nifty notion comes as both a soak and a spray, both scented and unscented.  It helps the wrinkles relax and freshens the fabric (which may come in handy if your fabric was stored for a while).  It leaves your fabric super-soft, smooth, and static free.  It’s also environmentally friendly and generally can be used by folks with sensitive skin. 
  •  Starch/Best Press – There are a few reasons to use these products besides the fact they can also flatten seams to reduce bulk.  If you’re a pre-washer, you know once dry, the fabric has a softer hand than non-pre-washed fabrics.  A light spritz of starch or Best Press pressed on the wrong side of the fabric helps to restore crispness.  Likewise a spray of either can help the wrinkles to relax.  A couple of words of warning:  First, if you plan on pressing your blocks or fabric with spray starch or Best Press and then storing them a while, you will want to go with the Best Press.  Regular spray starch is derived from potatoes, which may attract bugs.  Best Press isn’t, so there won’t be any buggy issues in the future.

Second, dollar store establishments often will stock spray starch.  Be aware some (not all) of these cans of starch are seconds and may have a higher water content than those found in grocery stores, big box stores such as Walmart and Target, or drug stores.   

  • Tailor’s Clapper – If you think this looks like a chunk of wood, you’re correct.  Tailor’s Clappers have been used for hundreds of years to smooth seams and fabric, as well as help reduce (or at least smooth out) some bulk.  The wood itself absorbs the steam and traps the heat inside of your fabric, instead of setting it free into the air of your sewing room. This is the magic of the tailor’s clapper. Your fabric needs the right combination of hot to cool, steamy to dry in order to make a perfectly flat seam. These are available in stores and on the web.  If you decide to invest in one of these wonderful, retro quilting notions, be sure the TC is made from a hardwood, such as tulip or maple. 

To use a TC, you need steam, so you’ll either want to spritz your fabric with water (or spray starch or Best Press) and then hit it with a hot iron or engage the steam function on your iron.  Press your seam or bulky area, remove the iron, and then press with the TC for 5-7 seconds.   

  •  Pressing Tools When an Iron Isn’t Available – As much as I try to plan ahead, sometimes I forget my iron when I attend different sit and sews or find out I can’t bring one.  If either of these are the case, there are a couple of smaller pressing tools I keep tucked in my portable sewing back which work to flatten an area until I can get home and give it a proper pressing with an iron.  The first one is this:

This wooden tool, when run down either a seam pressed to one side, or an open seam can deal with the bulk and flatten seams.  The same goes for this:  

Which you may have used to help seal seams in wallpaper.  Side note on this notion.  This is the one iron substitute which works well with paper piecing.  It’s heavy enough to make the paper and the fabric behave.   And if all else fails, a fingernail run down a seam works well enough until you can gain access to an iron.

I hope this blog has cleared up any confusion between pressing and ironing.  I also hope I’ve given you some tools and notion ideas to make pressing easier.  Whatever iron, pressing notion, or iron substitute you use, just be sure to press those seams.  Accurate and consistent pressing is part of the Holy Trinity of quilting (along with accurate cutting and keeping a consistent seam allowance).  

Until Next Week, Remember the Details Make the Difference!  

Love and Stitches,


**Here’s a helpful hint if you have a block like where there are lots seams coming together at one point. 

With a block like this, it’s almost impossible to get all the seams to open up fully so you can press them accurately.  My standard go-to in this situation is a circle.    I simply trace a circle template over the area where all the points converge, then I cut the bulk out slightly inside the tracing line.  I make a circle applique patch out of another fabric and applique it over the hole (either by hand or machine).  Bulk is eliminated and I’ve added a bit more interest in the block.   

2 replies on “Pressing Concerns”

Can you go into a little more detail about “twisting the block” until you have a little four patch in the middle? I seem to remember a placemat tutorial that had something about picking out a couple of stitches, but I’m afraid my seam will come out. Also, any help you can provide about pressing sawtooth star blocks would be appreciated. I find the four at a time flying goose method helps my accuracy, but I have a ways to go. Thanks!

Sometimes a video is worth a thousand words: Copy and paste that into your search engine or YouTube and a great video by Laundry Basket Quilts comes up which shows and explains about twisting the block (also known as spinning the middle).

As far as the Sawtooth goes, the beaks of the geese should be pressed towards the outer squares. This means you would need to press the seams on the four outer squares on the Sawtooth towards the squares to make your seams nest in the rows. This process would be repeated on the bottom row. For the middle row, press the seams towards the large center block. This should make everything nest nicely.

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