Ironing vs Pressing

This post is quite a bit late. I’ve been on a never-ending journey of getting perfect points. Several weeks (okay, half a year) ago I talked about the importance of pressing your seams. But something that eluded me for the longest time was that pressing is not the same thing as ironing. It’s confusing–both use an ironing and an ironing board. Yet, somehow they’re different. And somehow ironing can cause problems with piecing. So, let’s break it down. Ironing vs pressing: how are they different and why pressing is better for your quilting.


What is ironing?

Ironing is most often used for getting the wrinkles out of clothes. You’ve probably have done it.  It’s a simple motion of pressing an iron on to fabric and slowly moving it back and forth, often with a bit of steam. It helps keep the fabric from burning and let’s you watch the fabric to see when the wrinkles have lifted.


Ironing vs Pressing: Ironing


What is pressing?

Like ironing, pressing can be used to get rid of wrinkles, but it’s also used to set your quilt’s seams. Unlike ironing, it uses a completely different motion. Well, it uses no motion. To press either fabric or seams, you set your iron over one area. I like to hold for ~5 seconds without moving it, and then lift the iron off the fabric, and moving it to another area before pressing again. The ironing isn’t sliding over the fabric at all.


Ironing vs pressing: pressing


Why ironing is bad?

When I first starting quilting, I had to figure a lot of things out on my own. ‘Ironing’ fabric seemed simple enough, and I didn’t have enough experience with fabric to foresee the impact ironing would have on fabric. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that a lot of the problems I’ve had with fabric (especially that cheap-o nearly see-through fabric) was from ironing.



The act of ironing gently warps the fabric. This is fine for many fabrics, especially ones with finished edges (like almost all clothes). But I have found that it had permanently warped my quilting fabric. This can change the shape of your pieces (if you iron after cutting). Or it can change the grain of your fabric. When the grain changes, when the pieces you cut can look normal, the fabric can act different. The fabric will act different because the diagonal of quilting cotton had more stretch than side-to-side or top-to-bottom (this is why we use bias binding is great for curved surfaces like the quilted vest).



Fabric warping with an iron
Top and bottom edges of the fabric are warped from ironing



Also, for pressing the seams, I feel that holding the iron still with pressing has led to seams that are more likely to stay in place rather than raise their wings like a bat gone to flight. What’s the point of spending all that time pressing or ironing if all that work is going to revert?

Pressed seams
Pressed Seams
Not well pressed seams
Bats raising their wings for flight!

Tips for pressing

Test iron temperature:


Because you aren’t moving the ironing when you’re pressing, it’s easy to burn the fabric. Make sure you have your iron on a proper setting for cotton, which is actually one of the highest settings, and test it before you start on your pieced quilt.

Set up a pressing station


I know how annoying it can be to have to press every. single. seam. when you just want to finish the darn quilt. But having a small pressing mat next to your machine can make it so easy to swivel and press without moving your work constantly. A wool pressing mat has been a great addition to my sewing space to make a quick pressing station.

Use a little water


For stubborn creases in your fabric or for seams that won’t stay down, a little squirt of water from a spray bottom can help make the fabric yield. Watch out though, because water can make it easier for your fabric to distort. Make sure you’re pressing and not ironing. (If you don’t want to use water, I’ve heard a clapper can help, but I haven’t tried it yet!)

Don’t fill the iron with water


As I mentioned in the last tip, a little water can help your pressing. But I do not recommend filling your iron with water. I don’t think it would inherently do anything bad. But it can be tempting to use more water than you need and can be disastrous in storage.

Use a mini iron


I have found using a mini iron to be super helpful in pressing seams. It has the added bonus of not taking up too much space in the small pressing station next to my sewing machine. Read more about my review here.

Keep work flat


This might be super obvious, but you need to be careful with your pieces after you press. I know it’s hard to keep pieces pristine. You’ll most likely have to drag them through the throat of the sewing machine again. Just try to be thoughtful to how you’re placing your pieces other wise they’ll wrinkle or lose their pressed seams.

Getting used to pressing

It can be so hard to not iron while you’re pressing. It’s so tempting to shift the iron while your pressing or to drag the iron to the next pressing spot. But keep at it. You’ll be rewarded with easier piecing and smooth quilt tops that are nice and flat to quilt.

Sew on!

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