Back to Basics: Pressing vs. Ironing

It's one of the most debatable topics in the quilting world. Pressing vs. Ironing. What really is the difference and how does it affect you? Let's discuss the topics!

Heat: How hot should you set your iron?
This really depends on the fabrics being used or the technique you're using to quilt. With most quilts you're going to be using 100% cotton which needs to be pressed with a really high heat. However certain applique methods or embellishments that may have been added will reduce your overall heat so you don't melt or destroy the other materials.

If you plan on using anything other than just fabric (including glues, beads, ric-rac, etc.), check the heat tolerance of the added materials before pressing.

One last note on heat, if you press anything that is pinned, also be aware of which pins can tolerate heat and which ones will melt and cause you a lovely hot mess (and it will be). The packaging should state if the pins are heat resistant. If there is nothing stated on the package, they'll probably melt.

Steam: To steam or not to steam?
This is not really a fact vs. fact topic. It's more of a personal preference really. I steam. I love my steam but I don't use so much of it that I receive a facial every time I use my iron.

Too much steam can really be a bad thing. Depending on whether the fabrics being used have been prewashed or not, the fabrics may wrinkle and distort with too much steam.

On the flip side, I find that if no steam is used I don't get the nice sharp edges to my pieces that I like. It might be flat for a few minutes, but as soon as you come back to the pieces they've already started to retaliate and fold back.

Also, if you do decide to steam, rather than using tap water in your iron it's a good idea to use distilled water. It reduces the impurities that may be in water as well as many other minerals and added chemicals designed to enhance tap water. These have a tendency to build up in your iron over time and can actually shorten the life of your iron.

Starches: Starch, alternatives or nothing?
I love and use starch alternatives. My favorite is actually Mary Ellen's Best Press. When I first started quilting I used spray starch in a can. It works well, it's cheap, but it blobs and can leave white spots all over your nice dark fabrics.

The starch alternatives have nice smells (or come unscented for those people with allergies), they do not color or blob, and they work.

You can opt to not use any starch-ish product, but some pieces should require just a tad of stabilization. For instance, anything that you need to cut which will end with an exposed bias edge (remember, bias is a four letter word for a reason) will behave better if it has been starched.

Starches should be used in moderation if you do decide to use them. They have saved my life more than once... I'm notorious for washing fabrics, throwing them in the dryer and forgetting about them. Then I "touch up" the load and forget again. And again. By this time the wrinkles have really set in. A spritz of the starch will erase many of those wrinkles and voila! No wrinkles anymore. Remember a light spritz is all you need.

When I'm machine quilting, I can tell which fabrics that have been starched and which have not. Some of my customers may be a bit "starch happy" and it really dampers the quilting process. If the starch is heavy and uneven it can effect the tension and it makes the machine labor more than it should. If you're trying to go for that military quality stiffness, try that on your clothes, not your quilts.

Pressing vs. Ironing: The Debate!
Essentially pressing is what most quilt patterns call for and ironing is what you do to your laundry.

Pressing means to "press" your fabric. You place your iron in a space for a small span of time and do not move it in any direction. Then you would pick up your iron, position it again in a place, and continue to do this.

Ironing is what we're all used to. You put the iron down, run it over the fabric like a Zamboni and cover the entire area before you lift the iron. In the quilting world this is bad... And I know it's hard to break that habit. I still find myself ironing from time to time because it may be faster, but it is less accurate.

Below I have my guide on how to press and not iron, step by step.
 Depending on how you press (either away from you or towards you), lay your piece on the ironing board.
 Take a hot iron and place it directly over the piece and PRESS for just a second or two to heat up the seam. This will set your seam allowances which makes the fabrics behave a but more.
 I open the fabrics and making sure that I do not distort the straight line of the seam, use my fingers to press the fabrics open. (This is why the iron is only used a second or two, you don't want to burn your fingers here)
 With just a simple finger press, your piece should lay open but not entirely flat.

*Note - do not distort the fabrics or pull them open during the above stage or any listed below. Pull, tug, stretch, and any of their cousins are not allowed in pressing. The heat and steam make the fabrics vulnerable to manipulation and once they cool, they're set in whatever state they've been put in - good or bad. Think of when you curl your hair, the same principles apply here.
 PRESS the iron over the seam again and remember not to move it. This should be a short time, like a few seconds. If it doesn't lay flat initally, press for a few more seconds until it's done.
 Your seam should lay nice and flat like the above. If there are many contrasting seams in a piece or much bulk in the seam allowances, it may not lay this flat (and that's okay). There are ways to avoid bulk in seams, but that's for another day.
 Remember that note about manipulation earlier? One of these blocks has been pressed and one has been ironed. Can you tell which one?
 This one was pressed. It is accurate and square. The edges of the block are straight.
 This block was pressed. The sides are straight, but the bottom has contrasting edges. One side is almost 1/4" longer than the other.
 Look at it again. Can you notice the difference now?

Every step you do in quilting should have accuracy as a common goal. The quilt block that has been ironed may not seem all that bad when you think about it. But try to make a quilt with that many seams 1/4" off here and there. Like a king size quilt. Overall you could have inches of difference in theory from one side to another. It does happen and yes I've seen it before. It's not pretty.

So let's review the things to avoid. If you think of certain topics as road signs, it may help:
 Ironing. Winding Road. Same thing. Don't do it. Okay, well you can iron your fabrics prior to cutting, but after that all you should do is press. I know it may seem tedious, but try it once and I'm sure you'll notice a difference. It makes life so much easier!
 Uneven Pavement. Uneven Seams. You don't want to pull on your seams, but you don't want any pockets created by a fabric hanging over another beyond the stitching line either. These may not be that noticeable to some, but these will be found during the quilting stage... Usually when you run it over and it gets stitched down folding the fabric in a not so lovely manner... Press the seams flat without pulling the fabrics apart.

*Side note, opposite the above tip you should not be able to see the threads used for stitching the pieces together.
And finally, avoid bumps in the road. When ironing, you may accidentally put a wrinkle into your fabrics without knowing it until it's too late. When you press, wrinkles are nearly impossible.

So, is your head spinning with all this information? Sorry for the long post but there's really no easy way to break this topic apart.

Did any of the information help? Do you have a tip that will help others that I didn't mention? Please leave a comment below!

Don't forget to check out the other topics in the Back to Basics series by going to the Tutorial page (at the top of the blog) for more discussions. I'll be adding more to this series and if there's anything you'd like to discuss, please don't hesitate to ask. Look in the future for more topics like Batting Choices, the Machine Quilting Process, Adding Borders, and much much more.

1 comment:

  1. Great information. Thank you for sharing this.


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