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Whatever you’re sewing, there’s likely to be a lot of seams, edges, and layers happening in the background. If they haven’t been properly pressed along the way, your finished item will never have the crisp, smooth appearance that marks it as a professional looking project. 

What’s the difference between pressing and ironing? They are often used interchangeably – we’re guilty of doing that ourselves now and then, but pressing and ironing are as different as jumping rope and roller skating.

When you roller skate, you’re making a similar move to ironing, which is the process of gliding your iron back and forth over fabric to smooth away wrinkles. Ironing tends to stretch fabric a bit, and it can skew the grain (the weave of the fabric). If used within the construction process, this can result in crooked or puckered seams. Ironing is best for finished garments, and as we explain below, we like it for preparing yardage prior to cutting.

Pressing is more like jumping rope. You press with an up-and-down motion. Most pressing is done on the wrong side of the fabric. When you sew, sometimes you iron, but you always press.

Press as you go

Your iron is such an important tool; make it as convenient as possible by setting up your ironing board and iron near your sewing machine. You can also find small ironing pads that are compact enough to site right on your sewing station. Either way, you won’t be as likely to skip a pressing step because, “Oh – it’s too far away.”

We can all be annoyingly eager to cut corners in the rush to finish a project, but it is so crucial to press as you go. Pressing throughout construction sets your stitches, blending the seam into your fabric. It flattens and smooths puckers and can also even out minor thread tension differences. Press after every seam, or at a minimum before crossing two seams. Also, press any time your project instructions call for it.

If you wait until you’re done, hoping a final pressing will save everything, prepare to be disappointed. Like lumpy gravy, there’s not much you can do to fix bulky, badly flattened seams and layers. When each element within your project is properly pressed along the way, the end result is so much better.

Before sewing

Be sure to use the right temperature for your fabric. Most irons have a setting guide that indicates which setting is suitable for your chosen fabric. If you’re unsure, test on a scrap or the back side of one corner of your fabric. The best option is to start with your iron at a low heat setting and gradually increase it as needed.

Make sure you are using a quality iron. If your iron isn’t up to par, it can spit seam and ruin the finish of fine fabrics, drag or snag when moving across your fabric, take forever to heat up, and otherwise add unnecessary frustration to your sewing process.

Our favorite brand is Oliso. The full-size Oliso Smart Irons are known throughout the industry for their iTouch® technology that allows them to rise up from the ironing surface as soon as you remove your hand, preventing scorches, burns, and tipping. It’s not only safer, but it also saves time as well as your wrists!

We’re also fans of how incredibly smooth their trademarked soleplate is; it glides like butter! Oliso irons heat up very quickly, have an extra long (12’), 360˚ pivoting cord, and a unique 2” Detailer Tip that is perfect for seams, bias tape, and tight corners. You can also use it to press under and over pleats, as well as to smooth pockets, cuffs, and collars.

Do you need a pressing cloth?

Pressing works best from the wrong side of your fabric, but that’s not always possible. Often, you want and need to press from the right side. With some substrates, you’ll need to use a pressing cloth to avoid creating an unwanted sheen or other damage.

A good pressing cloth is a necessity. It keeps your iron from contact with your fabric to avoid scorching, shiny spots, and little stains. It’s a good idea to use a pressing cloth over decorative stitching and/or machine embroidery. It also protects your iron when you use iron-on products or fusible interfacing.

You probably have something in your house right now with potential to become a pressing cloth. A section of an old white cotton bed sheet works well, because it’s likely thin enough to see through to what’s going on underneath it. You can also use a clean white cotton tea towel, napkin, or fine linen handkerchief; some people swear by a plain cotton diaper. If you make your own, don’t use color-dyed or patterned fabric. You can also buy pressing cloths at most fabric stores. Whatever your choice, be sure to wash your cloth first to remove any sizing. Some people like to overcast the edges of their handmade pressing cloths, but we recommend leaving them as-is to prevent unintentionally ironing in a stitch pattern.

You can either lightly dampen your pressing cloth or use it dry. When using a damp cloth, it’s better not to use the steam setting on your iron. It’s always a good idea to test your fabric before going too far to be sure the heat on your iron is set appropriately.

Ironing uncut fabric

This step is optional, but we strongly encourage you to iron your uncut fabric to remove wrinkles and fold lines. Even after pre-washing/pre-shrinking, fold lines can remain. Cutting wrinkled fabric can cause distorted pieces that don’t match up properly, making your finished project less professional looking.

It’s also helpful to press your pattern pieces with a warm iron. This is especially helpful with the tissue type patterns where wrinkles can cause you to cut wildly distorted pieces.

Pressing 1 – 2 – 3

Think about standard pressing as a three-step process. Do you have to do this every time? Not necessarily, but knowing the best practices and using them whenever possible is always smart. As you gain more experience, you can change things up… but as mentioned above, never skip the pressing part altogether.

Step 1: With right sides together, press along the seam line. This is called, “setting the seam.” Your iron should be parallel to the straight grain of the fabric.

Step 2: Flip and press from the other side.

Step 3: Press open and flat or as instructed by your project, such as pressing the seam allowance together and to one side as is often done in quilting.

Specialty tools

We really love the Oliso Mini Iron for maneuvering more easily in tight spaces. It’s smaller and lighter, and it has a precision tip that acts as the perfect detailer, allowing you to get into intricate seams and corners. And yes, the heat goes all the way into the point! Check out our full review on the Oliso Mini Irons.

Not everything is perfectly flat. When you’re making something with a curved seam, using a pressing ham as your pressing surface will help prevent puckered seams because you can maintain the shape of the curve while you press. Hams come in a variety of shapes to best fit your project.

Finger pressing temporarily presses a seam in one direction or another. It’s also a good solution when working with substrates that don’t like much or any heat from an iron, such as vinyls and some fleece options. Simply use your fingers to flatten the seam allowance as best you can. 

As a step up from finger pressing, there are a number of clever seam rollers and wands that increase the ability to flatten a seam without heat, such as the Quick Press Seam Roller by Lori Holt of Bee in my Bonnet.

Good to know

  1. If you’re pressing a seam on the bias, your iron should be at a 45° angle to the seam and along the straight grain to avoid distorting/stretching the fabric.
  2. It’s better to not press over pins. The heads of pins can leave difficult-to-remove indents in your fabric. And, some of those little pin heads can melt. Glass head pins are best if you simply must get pins close to your iron.
  3. We always choose to work with a steam iron as pressing with steam is sometimes critical to getting a truly sharp crease or edge. When steam isn’t necessary or could damage the fabric with which you’re working, it can simply be turned off. All that said, you can certainly iron and press with a dry iron. I’m sure there are many of us who grew up with mothers and grandmothers who dampened their items by hand prior to ironing or pressing – sometimes even wrapping those sprayed and/or sprinkled items and placing them in the fridge to “set just right.” 
  4. Fabrics with a nap, like corduroy should only be pressed from the wrong side using a light touch. It may help to lay a clean fluffy bath towel on your ironing board, place your napped fabric face down on the towel, then press. This is also a good option for pressing appliquéd items.
  5. In most instances, if not pressing a seam allowance open and flat, you want to press seams toward the darker fabric to avoid creating a shadow on the lighter fabric. This can be especially critical in quilting projects.
  6. Avoid the Teflon® coated, heat-reflective ironing board covers. This type of coating reflects heat and steam, preventing them from passing through your fabric, which kind of defeats the act of pressing!
  7. Don’t forget to unplug your iron when you’re done.
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Mary Zimmerman
Mary Zimmerman
1 year ago

I seem to cause puckers when pressing embroidery, always looks so messy. What is the best pressing technique for machine embroidery?

1 year ago
Reply to  Mary Zimmerman

The OESD perfect press cloth really helps get rid of puckers. You lay your embroidery upside down on it and press.

Rochelle @ eSheep Designs
Rochelle @ eSheep Designs
1 year ago

Great tips… ironically, most importantly the last one. I have left my iron plugged in on several occasions and it scares the crap out of me!
Seeing the clothing pattern sheets being ironed sure took me back. That was a must do task after taking them out of the envelope.

13 days ago

I use a professional iron that doesn’t have auto-shutoff. To make sure I don’t leave my iron on by accident I plugged it into a power strip with an on/off switch and plugged a light into the same power switch then hung it over my ironing board. If that light is on so is my iron. And with the overhead light I can also see ironing darker fabric better.

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