Top Tips for Pressing Fabric Like a Pro
Good pressing is essential for accurate piecing. In general, every seam needs to be pressed before another unit is added, and most seam allowances are pressed to one side. Press with an iron set on a temperature appropriate to the fabric on a flat, firm surface. (An ironing board or pad with a heat-resistant cushion and cotton cover is fine. Avoid a Teflon-coated, heat-reflective ironing board cover. This coating reflects heat and steam, not allowing them to pass through the fabrics.)
Top 10 Pressing Tips
1. PRESS, DON'T IRON
Are you confused about the difference? Ironing involves moving the iron while it is in contact with the fabric, which can stretch and distort fabrics and seams. Pressing means picking the iron up off the surface of the fabric and putting it back down in another location.
2. SET YOUR SEAMS
Before pressing a seam open or to one side, first just press the seam as it was sewn, without opening up the fabric pieces. Doing so helps meld or sink the stitches into the fabric, leaving you with a less bulky seam allowance after you press it open or to one side.
3. LET THEM COOL
Once fabric pieces have been pressed, let them cool in place. This prevents distortion of bias edges.
4. FINGER-PRESS FIRST
Finger pressing isn't a substitute for using an iron, but it does temporarily press a seam in one direction or another. It's a good method to use if you're unsure which way a seam eventually will need to be pressed.
5. AVOID SEEING SEAM SHADOWS
Generally speaking, press seams toward the darker fabric to avoid creating a shadow on the lighter fabric. If pressing toward the lighter fabric is a must, trim the darker fabric seam allowance by 1/16" after the seam is sewn to prevent any shadows.
6. BEGIN AGAIN
If a seam allowance has been pressed the wrong way, return it to its original unpressed state and press the unit flat to remove the crease. Allow the fabric to cool, then press the seam in the desired direction.
7. KEEP YOUR OPTIONS OPEN
When multiple seams come together in one area, press them open. This helps distribute the fabric bulk evenly, eliminating lumps and making the seams easier to quilt through.
8. AVOID CRUSHING RESULTS
To prevent flattening your appliqués, turn an appliquéd block facedown on a terry-cloth towel for pressing.
9. KEEP IT STRAIGHT
Straight seams should be pressed from the right side of the fabric with the iron parallel to the straight of grain. This helps avoid pressing tucks and pleats into the seam.
10. FOLLOW THE GRAIN
A bias seam should be pressed with the iron at a 45-degree angle to the seam and along the straight of grain to prevent distortion.
Five Ways to Press Your Seams
1. PRESSING STRAIGHT SEAMS
Straight seams should be pressed with the iron parallel to the straight grain of the fabric. First press the stitching flat with right sides together and the darker fabric on top. "Setting the seam" is the term for this critical first step that locks the threads together, smooths out any puckers, and evens out minor thread tension differences. Beginning at one end of the seam, lift up the top piece and position the tip of the iron on the lighter color fabric. Press the iron along the seam edge moving just the tip of iron from the lighter color piece to the darker color piece. This method will both open up the unit and press the seam to one side in a single step. Pressing the unit from the right side helps avoid pressing tucks and pleats into the seams.
2. PRESSING BIAS SEAMS
A bias seam should be pressed with the iron at a 45° angle to the seam and along the straight grain to avoid distortion.
As a temporary measure, you can press short seam allowances with your finger. Place a pieced unit on a hard surface. From the wrong side, spread the unit apart with the seam allowance folded toward the darker fabric. Press with your fingers along the length of the seam allowance. Turning the unit right side up with the seam allowance still facing the darker side, finger-press again. Finger-pressing isn't a substitute for using an iron, but it does temporarily press seam allowances in one direction or another. It's a good method to use if you're unsure which way seams will eventually need to be pressed.
4. PRESSING OPPOSING SEAMS
When two seams will be joined together, press the seam allowances in opposite directions. This helps distribute the bulk of the seam allowances evenly and ensures that the seam allowances can abut one another.
5. PRESSING SEAMS OPEN
Seam allowances are pressed open when multiple seams come together in one area. This helps distribute the fabric bulk evenly in a small area, eliminating lumps and making the seam easier to quilt through. Some quilters prefer to press all seams open for a smoother, flatter finished quilt top and to prevent fabrics from showing through in the seam allowances. When pressing seams open, press first from the wrong side of the fabric. Use your finger or ironing tool to open up the seam ahead of the iron.
Planning to Press
Eliminate ironing board guesswork by developing a plan for pressing. Look at a practice block that represents the block or blocks in your project. Divide the block into rows or units. Observe which seams will abut and know that the seam allowances in adjoining rows will be pressed in opposing directions in one of the following two ways. Choose a method based on how the blocks are set together. If pieced blocks are to be alternated with plain blocks, the direction of the seam allowances on outer edges will be of little consequence. If pieced blocks are to be positioned next to other pieced blocks, the direction to press the seams on alternating blocks may need to change from the original plan.
Press seam allowances in odd-numbered rows in one direction and those in even-numbered rows in the opposite direction.
Press seam allowances in odd-numbered rows to the outside of block and those in even-numbered rows to the inside of the block.
Pressing to Prevent Bulk:
To reduce bulk where multiple seams meet, such as the center of an intricately pieced block, clip through the seam allowances up to the seam line 1⁄4" on each side of the seam intersection. Press the left-hand seam allowance toward the top of the unit and the right-hand seam allowance toward the bottom. Open the clipped sections of the seam allowances and press flat, forming a tiny Four-Patch. Looking at the unit from the wrong side, the seams will be pressed in a clockwise direction. See a video of this method here.