The Pressing Question of Ironing

I come from a clothing and textiles background, having studied this at two different schools, earning an MS in Clothing and Construction.  So I was schooled in the idea that HOW you press a seam can affect how the item looks from the front. I’ve tried to be comprehensive in this post so put to down all my ideas in one place (translation: there’s some reading, but no quiz at the end).  I’ve also been quilting for nearly 40 years, so have some experience in handling quilting fabrics and the controversial question of whether to use a dry iron or a steam iron.  Read on.

Effects of Directional Pressing

Let’s start with the idea of pressing seam allowances open or to the side. While I see a lot of modern quilts — with their abstract blocking of color –  go for the flat look of seams pressed open, when possible I would rather use the seam allowances to enhance other types of design. Lee (of WIP) has some good ideas about pros and cons on this *post.*  But I think it’s helpful to know what seam allowance direction can do to a design.


You may have to enlarge the pictures to get a good look.

In this instance, I pressed the roof (bright green) seams AWAY from the main roof, so the seam allowances fold over the other pieces.  What this does is make the roof “sink into” the design (as shown on the right).  So the main house is in FRONT of the roof, and the sky seems to press in from the top.  The chimneys look like they are sort of in front as well.

In this view, I pressed the roof seams into the roof area.  Look at the difference from the right side.  The roof now seems to sit on top of the house, and in front of the sky.  If you sew clothing, you are aware that pattern directions will tell you to press the dart seam toward the back, or the waist darts toward the front.  The directions do matter on how the clothing looks from the outside.  Likewise, I think we quilters could use the seams to our advantage in our creations.

Certainly if I hit a place with tons of seams, I’m inclined to let the fabric tell me which way to press; while hard to describe you know what I mean.  And if you want the flat look of the modern quilt, yep–it’s press ‘em all open.

Steam? Dry?

To steam or not to steam?  In college there was no question.  Steam.  Of course.

That’s what did the work.  If you pressed hard enough with a dry iron, you ran the risk of breaking down the fibers — esp. if you were working with wool, which in addition gave it a shine (not a good thing). I’ll never forget the day when our professor, who had worked in Germany and US couture industries, took a hot dry iron and burned the wool seam allowances in my gathered wool skirt in order to make them lay flat.  A neat trick that I NEVER want to repeat with my cotton fabrics.  So we used a deft touch (the iron itself was not that heavy) and lots of steam.

So, when I buy an iron, the first thing I look for is LOTS of holes where the steam can exit. Old, icky iron on the right.  New, fancy iron on the left.  I still use the old icky iron because a) it still works, and b) check out those millions of steam holes. Some of the ones on the new iron are just grooves, with no holes.  I’ve read that some people like the flat irons so their piecing doesn’t get “caught” on the holes.  They are probably the quilters that use a dry iron,  just like my Grandmother (born in the 1880s), who heated up her “flatiron” on the coal stove.  I’m not saying that this does not work — it does, but I do think we can learn something from the advent of modern pressing techniques, and the experience of the textile industry.  Let’s draw on their expertise.

I like the new iron, too, and use it when my quilting group all comes over (we run two irons and two boards).  When I bought this at Target, I went down the line of irons counting steam vent holes and if it could give me a “shot of steam.”  This model had both of those features, and yes, they are THAT important.  Nothing else really matters.  I decided against a Rowenta for a couple of reasons.  Yes, we used the steam tanks at school, but these were industrial irons and I don’t think it’s translated well to the home market (and we had that vacuum board).  I get just as good of results with a lighter-weight hand-held iron.  I have that iron in my hand a lot of the time and I don’t want it to make me tired.  Again, it’s not the weight that gives you a press.  It’s the STEAM. We get that idea of pressure from another oft-used tool, the clapper, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

The Ironing Surface

But first — the ironing board. I also pad up my ironing board so that the seams sink into the padding and don’t show themselves as a ridge on the right side.

Cover on.

Cover off, with padding revealed.  I have like 5 pads on there.  Unfortunately, those are hard to come by now.  Mine are all cotton, so I suppose you could layer up some batting.  Wool batting might work sandwiched in between the cotton layers.  Again, in college we had a vacuum board, which sucked up all the steam.  Yeah, I don’t even think they make those for the home market.  What’s important is that our seam allowances don’t show from the front, which the padding helps alleviate.

Tools of the Pressing Trade

We get the idea that we should press down to make those seam allowances behave from the use of the clappers.

My other tools of the pressing trade.

The taller one with the pointy nose, called a Point Presser, is quite handy.  It’s easily made at home.  Sometimes you want to press open a seam that’s hard to get to (like near the bottom of a bag, or in clothing construction).  Lay the seam on that narrow ridge and you can get it pressed.  I use it more for when I’m making clothing.  I also use the base as  giant clapper when I need to. And there’s the trusty iron cleaner (just follow the directions on the package, but iron iron press press steam steam onto a piece of scrap cloth after using it to get all the cleaner off).

The oval item is a clapper.  After you have steamed a seam and it just won’t lay flat, place the wooden clapper directly on the fabric and lean on it a bit.  The heat will transfer to the wood, the fabric will cool, setting the seam.  I use it only occasionally when quilting, but it’s the transference of heat that sets the seam, combined with the pressure from you.  Pressure, without the cooling transference will leave you a hot, sticking-up seam.  Pressure, with the cooling transference, sets the seam.

Underneath it all is my pressing cloth: an old diaper, but sometimes it’s an old dishtowel.  Handy to have those around when you don’t want to lay the iron directly onto some textile or composite .  Instead lay the gauzy, lightweight pressing cloth on top of the fabric, then apply the iron (but don’t use for fusing).

Further Tips and Tricks

One of my friends once had a terrible accident with the hot water from her iron (not even an issue anymore with our plastic water chambers) so she never used water in her iron.  Instead she would dampen the press cloth, lay it on the seams and get the steam into her pressing that way.  We have WAY too many seams to do that, but there you go.  Another trick of the pressing trade.  And one last one? What do you do if you are trying to lower a hem on a dress and the line they’ve pressed into your hem won’t come out?  Dampen a pressing cloth with a combo of white vinegar and water, and then press.  The old hem line will come right out.

If your iron is spitting when you use the steam–turn up the heat.  You can also clear out some problems with steaming by laying the iron on a pressing cloth and giving it a couple of blasts of steam.  My iron calls for water out of the tap to function well (doesn’t like soft water).  But our water is so hard, that I mix the tap water half-and-half with distilled water.  This way I also prevent a lot of hard water build-up in the steam vents.  I’ve had the old, icky iron for probably 15 years now.  I love love it.

When quilting, think about your seams.  If you like the flat look — or if you have a lot of bulky seams in one area — press open.  If you want to sculpt your piece a little, press them one way or the other.  But always turn that quilt top over and press it from the top, to finish it off and to make sure that you like what you see, speaking strictly of pressing, that is.

The design is up to you.

Hide and Seek

Right now I’m playing hide and seek with my brain.  Like, where is it?

That was triggered by a hide and seek game for the fabrics which I need so I can make binding for my Christmas Quilt.  It’s been a looooong week at school, so I thought I’d shove all the grading to the side and make the binding.

But where-oh-where is that fabric, so carefully put aside back in July?


Not here.

Not here.

Nor here.

I thought for sure, this closet.  Nope.

Okay, now I’m checking the drawers.  Maybe I already cut the strips and tucked them away in here.

It’s about this point I’m beginning to get that despairing feeling, like where in the heck is this?  I’ve been through everything twice.

Of course, it’s always the last place you look–in a clear plastic box on the shelf in here.

Anyone want a lovely yellow lamp with a hand-cut paper lampshade? And that iron is one I bought two years ago because I was sure mine was on its last legs and the irons were on sale at Target.  I spent last week helping my sister clean out her (new to her) house–the first wife’s things were everywhere and the children had not yet claimed the possessions yet.  After our experience together, she sent me a link to this blog, where the woman catalogues the things she’s getting rid of.  I vowed to do a little cleaning out myself, but later–after I get the quilt bound.  It’s always later, isn’t it?

Found it.  Now to get busy on cutting and sewing before the guilt over ungraded papers takes over. Or the guilt over cleaning out.