Tuesday Tips & Tools: Pressing

Posted By on June 13, 2017

Ironing machineIt’s Tuesday and after skipping several weeks of posting Tuesday Tips and Tools I’m back on track, I hope! It’s been a little hectic here getting my mom settled in at our house. In April she decided to take us up on our offer for her to move in with us. So expect to see Helen at the studio more in the future. My mom was never really a quilter, although many of you have met her at one of my midnight retreats or this year’s get-away weekend. She has made a couple of runners over the last few years, but she doesn’t consider herself a quilter. But she used to knit my brother and I a pair of mittens every winter when I was a kid. And she has made me many Easter dresses, an occasional coat and helped me learn to sew. She can tailor a suit and made my wedding dress. She’s a retired home economics teacher, so need I say more. She didn’t teach me to quilt, but I got my love of fabric and sewing naturally from her. And although I never knew her mom (my grandma), she was a quilter and sewer, and I am fortunate to have a couple of her quilts.

When I was a little girl, I remember laundry day and my mom ironing all of our clothes. She would keep an old 7-Up bottle filled with water and a plastic sprinkler lid on the top in the refrigerator. She used a dry iron and sprinkled the clothes with water and rolled them up in a towel until she ironed them. I used to help her and iron my dad’s cotton handkerchiefs. She had these metal stretchers that she used to stretch my dad’s trousers on so they didn’t need to be pressed. I remember the day she found an electric “ironing machine” (I think that was what she called it) at a household sale. She was so excited to buy this efficient time-saver that would mean less time spent ironing sheets, tablecloths and anything flat. She taught me to iron and as I got older, the weekly family laundry became one of my chores. Fortunately, by then there were permanent press clothes and ironing was not an entire day chore.

I was always taught to iron-as-you-go when sewing garments. And I learned from experience that if you did this, your garment always came out better and looked more professional. Everything laid flatter, corners were sharper and things went together easier and better when you ironed-as-you-go. The same thing is true with quilting. However, the rules are different when quilting. Which leads us to:

TIP #1: We don’t call it “ironing” when quilting…we call it “pressing.” And that’s because the proper way to press seams is to “press” them or apply pressure to the seam with a hot iron and not slide the iron around to avoid stretching seams and bias edges. That means pick the iron up and place it down on the seam, no sliding or “ironing.” I’m sure all of my students out there have heard me say many times, “Press, don’t iron!”

TIP #2: “Set the seam” before you press it to one side or the other. Setting the seam means pressing the two seams together from the wrong side with the side you will be pressing towards on the top. This sets the stitches. If you are pressing two long width-of-fabric strips that have been sewn together (for strip piecing), lay the two strips on the ironing board in a straight (not curved) line. This is why I prefer to have ironing board covers with a grid printed on them instead of a cute print. You can use the line as a guide to keep your long strip straight. Remember to put the dark side (or the side you will be pressing the seams towards) on top. Next press down the seam in an up and down motion to “set” the seam and never slide the iron or the tip of the iron down the seam or you will stretch it. If you don’t have a straight line on your ironing board cove, you can always draw one with a permanent pen.

TIP #3: Lastly, use your fingers to gently open the fabric so it will be right-side-up and follow your finger down the seam “pressing” the seam over to the top fabric, usually the darker fabric. However, sometimes we press to the lighter fabric if it reduces bulk. so always anticipate the next step when choosing how to press, since most patterns fail to tell you this important step of which way to press the seams. You don’t want to pull the fabric open too hard or you will flip the seam back towards the bottom fabric. That why I like to follow along behind my finger with the iron.

Thermal ThimblesTIP #4: Never use steam when pressing seams, as this will only stretch the fabric. Also, if you use steam when pressing long strips open as discussed above, the steam will burn your fingers. And if you don’t have asbestos hands like I do, you may want to purchase a quilting notion: thermal thimbles to protect your fingertips from getting burned by the iron.

TIP #5: It’s ok to use steam when you are pressing or actually ironing your fabric before cutting. Also, many people like to use a product called “Best Press” which works like starch, but is archival and won’t attract bugs to your fabric like spray starch. However, I recently read “never put water in your iron” claiming that your iron will last much longer and you will never have any unfortunate leaks or spitting on your fabric. The article suggested spritzing your fabric with water from a spray bottle or using Best Press. I can say from experience the when trying to remove folds and wrinkles from fabric, the wrinkles almost fall out with the heat from the iron after the fabric has been spritzed with Best Press.

TIP #6: When piecing lots of small squares or triangles into pairs, “chain piecing” saves lots of time. It also is handy to leave the pieces chained together until after pressing. Take the whole chain to the ironing board and press, then cut the units apart.

TIP #7: Always press from the right-side not the back-side to void pressing “pleats” in the unit which will be nearly impossible to un-press or press out. The only time I press from the back side is when I occasionally press seams open to avoid bulk. But I always follow up by flipping the unit over and doing a final press on the right-side. The best time to press seams open is when you make stars where lots of seams come together in the center. Again always “press” not iron the seams open in this case. Running the point down the seam will stretch it and your star centers won’t lay flat. A seam roll helps a lot when pressing seams open.

TIP #8: When piecing two pieces together and one seam is bias and the other is straight of grain, always pin and make sure to match up the ends. Then if the bias edge is longer because it stretched while handling or cutting, ease the excess in with pins. Now here’s the magic tip: Put the fuller or bias side on top and set the iron on the seam. the heat from the iron will magically shrink the longer stretched side right back to its original size. Now they will fit together perfectly when you sew them.

press to dark sideTIP #9: I know quilters are always taught to “press to the dark side.” But sometimes it actually works better to press to the lighter side when you want to eliminate bulk. Also when you want a piece in you quilt to appear to come forward when you look at it, you should press the seams toward that piece. This is especially helpful when doing landscape quilting. But it also works when you want the background fabric to appear further back and highlight the star or applique by pressing so they appear to be on top of the background.

Well, I guess I made up for skipping the past few weeks of Tuesday Tips by giving an entire lesson on pressing! Hope I didn’t lose you halfway through. See you next Tuesday for some more quilting tips and tools.


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