To Press or Not to Press?

Hello again! I’ve been having a lot of fun talking with you all about the basics of sewing. We’ve had some great conversations so far! First, we talked about how to wash and store fabric, and then last month we discussed how to shop for fabric with children in tow (without going crazy). I loved reading all your comments and stories! Whether you have young children now, or did at one time, we’ve all been there together.

Homemade Vs. Handmade

Today I’d like to talk about something that has the power to change your sewing skills forever. Maybe you already do it the right way, or maybe you’ve been too busy in the past to make much of an effort. Wherever you’re coming from, I think we are all going to learn a lot from this discussion.

The most skilled sewers know that the difference between homemade and handmade is in how you press the fabric. If you want an item to look professionally made, you need to press while you’re sewing. I did a little bit of research on the topic and learned enough to keep me from ever skipping the ironing board again!

Ironing vs. Pressing

Many of you probably know the difference between ironing and pressing fabric, but in case you don’t, I’ll explain. Ironing is what you do to take the wrinkles out of a table cloth after it’s been stuffed in a drawer for a year. (You know you’ve done it). Ironing involves tugging and pulling on the fabric as you beat the wrinkles into submission. Pressing on the other hand, smoothes and manipulates fabric with the heat of the iron in a controlled way. Gentle pressing is used in garment and quilt sewing, ironing is not.

The main reason to avoid pushing or pulling on the fabric with an iron is because this will distort the grain line and directly effect your finished product. After all the time I put into sewing, I want the finished product to look as perfect as possible. Don’t you agree?

I liked what Mie of Sewing Like Mad had to say about this. “Pressing is EVERYTHING!! You can sew perfectly straight but if you don’t press your seams after sewing them, and the finished product, it’s going to look homemade… the bad way.”

Remember, when you apply heat to fabric the fibers become malleable. This is your chance to shape and manipulate them to your use. If you don’t do it the right way first, your seams won’t lie flat, the the fibers won’t be aligned, and you may find a host of other problems in your finished product.

The Cooling Effect

When I asked Jessica of Running With Scissors what she wanted everyone to know about pressing, she said, “One thing people forget is to let the fabric cool how you want it to lay finished.” Since the fibers become warm and malleable under the heat, they will continue to be impressionable until cool.

Set your seams by letting them cool on the ironing board or other pressing tool. This is especially important for curved seams. Allowing the pressed seam to cool will ensure that your garment keeps it’s shape even after you pick it up and move on.

Lock Your Stitches 

Pressing your seams after they’ve been sewn locks them into the fabric. The heat allows them to meld into the fabric, rather than laying on the surface. I’ve had a lot of friends ask me why my seams always look so “finished” and I have one answer for them: I carefully press each seam as I go. This reduces bulk as I sew one seam over another, sets the stitches in place, and helps to control the seam allowance.

Palak of Make It Handmade agrees with me here. She says, “Pressing after you sew will realign the fibers, and make your seam lay flatter and neater in your finished product.”

It’s All About The Steam

Above is a picture of my old, cracked steam iron. If you don’t have a steam iron, I encourage you to get one! My inexpensive iron came from Target years ago and has lasted well, even with the constant use and abuse I give it. When you’re working with cotton fabric, you absolutely must use steam. Your other option is to use a spray bottle on a mist setting, to slightly dampen the fibers as you press. Water is just as important as heat when manipulating fibers with an iron. But be careful not to use too much! Wet fibers are easily distorted, which is why I suggest using the steam feature, rather than spray. If you’ve ever sprayed cotton fabric with water, then ironed it and watched it become wavy, you know what I mean!

Use the Correct Settings

Of course, we can’t have a conversation about irons and fabric without mentioning heat settings. Many of us have melted or burned holes in synthetic fibers by using an iron on the wrong setting. If you’re working with something other than 100% cotton, test the iron on a scrap of fabric first to make sure you won’t melt or alter the fabric in some way.

Finger Pressing

Finger pressing is an easy way to quickly manipulate the fabric before you put it under the hot iron. This can help you avoid accidental creases in the fabric if you press before a seam is opened up all the way, or you aren’t yet sure which direction you want the seam to go. If you’re not sure what I mean by finger pressing, go pick up a piece of cotton fabric and press it in half with your fingers. Press along the fold line and open the fabric up. You’ll see a nice crease there created by the warmth of your fingers. It doesn’t replace a real iron, but it’s helpful in avoiding mistakes.


Well, that’s all for today folks! I hope you enjoyed this survey of proper pressing techniques. If nothing else, I hope you’re encouraged to make your iron an important part of the process when you sew! I’m going to leave the last word to Karen of One Girl Circus. This woman can really sew, so we should all listen to what she says,

I can’t sew without my iron. It’s not negotiable for me. My iron and pressing tools are as important as my cutting tools and my sewing machine. Seams are more accurate, pleats are perfect, hems end up where they are supposed to be, and any curve can be steamed into submission. Nothing kicks up the quality of a garment more than proper pressing during construction.

I couldn’t condense all the ancient wisdom about pressing into one little post, so if there is something I missed please leave a comment for everyone to read below. And I’d like to know: Do you always press while you sew, or never? Can you tell a difference in the garments or quilts that have been carefully pressed during construction? I’d love to hear from YOU today, too. Thanks for reading, and Happy Sewing! 

A special thanks go out to the following ladies who contributed to the information in this post: Palak of Make it Handmade, Mie of Sewing Like Mad, Vanessa of Designs By Sessa, Celina of Petite A Petite and Family, Christine of Heidi and Finn, Hayley of Welcome to the Mouse House, Laura of Craftstorming, Justine of Sew Country Chick, Tasha of I Seam Stressed, Christina of Two Little Hooligans, Melissa of Sew Like My Mom, Heather of The Sewing Loft, Jessica of Running With Scissors, Susan of Living With Punks, Sabra of Sew A Straight Line, Amy of Naptime Crafters, and Karen of One Girl Circus