My mother is the queen of ironing. She will iron anything—from sheets to jeans, everything must go through the hot surface of her appliance. As much as I like wrinkle-free bed linens, I like free time better. I’m the type who will be ironing only the clothes that I need and only at the very last minute when I need them. This is the number one reason why I am almost late most mornings.
When I started sewing, I learned about pressing. I don’t even remember if I had an iron at the time (I know, I’m a savage!). What I quickly realized is that sewing goes hand in hand with pressing, and that pressing is not ironing. These are lessons that have helped me become a better sewist. My iron is next to my sewing machine both on the table and in my heart.
What’s the story with pressing?
Pressing is a method of using your iron to give shape to your garment. Seams are pressed flat, open or closed depending on the pattern instructions, while darts are pressed to add curves to the clothing.
When you press a seam or dart, you are applying gentle pressure on the seam with your iron. The movement is up-down, moving along the length of the seam or dart. It is really important that you use the correct setting on your iron so you don’t damage your fabric.
Press your seams as you sew them. This guarantees that any seams that intersect will be less bulky. Press the seam as it was sewn; then, press it to one side or flat.
This is the heart of the question, right? Why spend so much time on something no one will see? Pressing is the difference between homemade and handmade clothing, someone once said. I don’t know who said it, but it has become my sewing mantra ever since.
Pressing your seams will make your garment “fall” much better. When you press your seams and darts, you are shaping the garment to your body. You are also reducing bulk where seams match.
Pressing vs. Ironing
Pressing is an up-down movement in which you spend some time with the iron in contact with the fabric. Ironing is a gliding motion, back and forth to side to side, in which you move the right quickly. Leave the ironing for when your garment is ready.
Basic Pressing Tools
It goes without saying that in order to press, you need an iron. I am not an iron expert. Mine gets hot quickly, makes lots of steam, and has an auto shut off. Some sewists don’t like the auto shut off because, well, it shuts off, so they have to waste time waiting for it to get hot. Fair point. My child is a cat, and the fear that she would knock down the iron and burn the house down is stronger than my desire to be efficient, You do you, though.
Do yourself a favor: Don’t use your dinner table as your ironing board. If you (like me) don’t have the room for a full-sized board, get a small one that you can place on your table. Your back and your table finish will thank you.
Another option is an ironing mat. It is made of some space age stuff, so you can put it on any hard surface without damaging it. They are inexpensive, and you can even take yours on a trip (in case, you know, the ironing mat needs one).
My hands get cranky after too much sewing, and my thumb is done with pressing the steam button on my iron. To save my joints from more pain, I now use a water bottle when I need some steam. Disclaimer: I always test the water on a scrap of fabric before I spray the fabric to avoid water stains.
Tailor’s Ham and Tailor’s Sausage
These are ironing tools that help you shape your garments. The ham is great to shape darts.The sausage is quite helpful when pressing sleeve seams. And they have funny names, so how can you not get them?
This is a piece of wood used to absorb moisture and give you a super crisp seam. My very fancy clapper is either a broken wood hanger or a small wood block I found at work. They both work great, but if you are not into this kind of resourcefulness, you can buy one at any sewing store.
I bought an organza pressing cloth from my local sewing store. It is transparent, so I can see what’s happening to the seam under it. I use larger scraps of cotton fabric under and on top of any pattern piece that I am interfacing.
This is an amazing pressing tool that will help you mark your hems very efficiently. It can take the heat of an iron, so you can mark and sew your hem at the same time.
- Always test your iron on a scrap of the fabric you are sewing with. You don’t want any surprises as you are pressing your garment.
- Allow your pressed seams to cool. This will avoid fabric distortions.
- Press your seams as you go. You will get a better idea of how your seams will look, and it will prevent bulk as seams intersect.
- Before pressing your seams as per pattern instructions, press them as you sewed them. This will allow the stitches to get comfortable and sink into the fabric, making the seam less visible.
- You can use a piece of cardboard or even an envelope to avoid leaving an imprint of the seam on the fabric. Just make sure that your iron is not too hot, or you will scorch the paper.
Pressing your seams may seem like an optional step (and it is—no one is forcing you to do it), but it really makes a difference. Your clothes will look nicer and will fit your body better. It’s a few minutes on the table that will pay off tenfold as you build your marvelous handmade wardrobe.