How to press quilt seams

How to press quilt seamsYou’ve rotary cut with precision, you’ve stitched perfect ¼" seams. So when you go to sew your units together, why aren’t things matching up? If you’ve cut and sewn to the best of your ability, the culprit corrupting your quilt blocks just might be…a tumultuous relationship between you and your iron.

There’s always been debate about how to iron quilt seams best. What’s your approach? Are you prone to using a push-and-pull, seesaw motion when ironing quilt seams? Or do you lift and lower? The movements you make when you’re pressing quilt seams can make a masterpiece of—or a mess of—a precisely pieced quilt.

Think of it this way: you iron your clothes; you press your quilt blocks. What’s the difference? Below you’ll find smart pressing tips from a popular book that’s newly available in eBook form: The Quilter’s Quick Reference Guide. Learn foolproof methods for how to press quilt seams, how to quickly finger-press seams, and best of all, how to plan for pressing quilt seams in advance, so they behave from first block to final row.

How to Press Quilt Seams
Excerpted from The Quilter’s Quick Reference Guide by Candace Eisner Strick

Candace Eisner StrickNever underestimate the value of good pressing in your quiltmaking. If you cut and sew accurately but don’t take time to press correctly, your patchwork can end up just as off-kilter as it would if you had gone awry in the cutting or stitching.

First of all, pressing quilt seams is not ironing. Pressing entails gently lowering and lifting the iron. Ironing is a more aggressive back-and-forth motion of the iron along the fabric that can pull and distort shapes. Pressing, on the other hand, lets you turn seam allowances to one side without distorting your patchwork or appliqué shapes.

For years, quilters have bandied about certain rules of pressing. It often makes sense to apply these rules, such as “press toward the darker fabric.” But there are times when a particular rule is just not the best option for the project you’re sewing. Instead, here are some guidelines to help you press for success—in any situation.

    • Press each seam before you sew that unit to another piece. This will help you avoid mismatched seams or stitched-in pleats.
    • Always set the seam by pressing the joined pieces with right sides together, just as you sewed them. Your finished patchwork will appear much smoother and neater if you do.
      How to press quilt seams 1

Press, lift, move, and lower the iron along the seam.

    • After setting the seam, open the piece on top and press gently along the seam line. This will ensure that your seam allowance is pressed to one side. Press toward the darker color—if it makes sense. To do so, start with the darker fabric on top, open up the dark patch or strip, and press.
      How to press quilt seams 2
      Flip top fabric over and press.
    • Sometimes pressing toward the dark fabric isn’t feasible because you’ll be creating too much bulk once the seam is joined with another one that has the seam allowance pressed in the same direction. If you need to press toward the light fabric, check the finished work from the right side. If you can see the darker fabric showing through the lighter one, trim the darker seam allowance to slightly less than ¼" to make it less noticeable.
    • Some seams tend to gravitate toward a certain side. Listen to what they are saying.
    • pressing triangle unitsPressing a seam toward one side or the other can often make a big difference in the appearance of your patchwork. When sewing triangle squares together, for instance, open up the pieces and take a look at them from the right side. Notice that if you fold the seam allowance to one side, it looks as if you haven’t quite met the mark where the points are to join. Fold the seam allowance in the opposite direction, and the points may match perfectly. Once you determine the best direction, press the seam accordingly.
    • Some quilters love using steam; others would never dream of using it. If your iron has a steam button, you can use a shot of intentionally placed steam to coax a stubborn seam into submission, but let the pieces cool on the ironing board. If you pick them up and move them while damp, you might stretch them out of shape.
    • If you press a seam and then decide that you want it to go in the opposite direction, “unpress” it by pressing it in the closed position to reset the seam. Then press it in the desired direction.

QUICK TIP: Spray Sizing to the Rescue

I love to use Magic Sizing when I press. It adds a certain element of crispness to the pieces, and I think it helps make things nice and square. (I also like the smell!) Just take care when using spray sizing. It dampens your fabric, so press carefully; you don’t want to stretch the pieces out of shape. Another popular spray-sizing product is Mary Ellen’s Best Press, which several Martingale staffers use. –Ed.

Finger Pressing

In a pinch, you can substitute finger-pressing for pressing with an iron. If you don’t feel like constantly hopping up to get to the iron while creating a block, place the piece on a hard surface, right side up. Using the underside of your thumbnail, firmly draw it along the seam but hold the fabric steady with your other hand so that you don’t stretch the fabric. If you do a lot of finger-pressing, you can purchase a handy little tool for this purpose at most quilt shops.

Planning for Pressing

Having a pressing plan before you begin sewing will be helpful in making sure your seams butt neatly at intersections, thus allowing the finished quilt top to lie flat and smooth. The goal is to have the bulk of seams spread out; one should lie to the right and the other to the left. Let’s take a look at a Nine Patch block as an example.

One option is to press all the seams in the first row to the left, all the seams in the second row to the right, and all the seams in the third row to the left. Notice that this does not follow the rule of pressing toward the dark, which we said isn’t always possible. However, in this situation, it is possible to press all seams toward the darker fabric, and it’s a good second option. In fact, this would be my choice for a Nine Patch block.

How to press quilt seams 3
Left: pressing alternate rows in opposite directions. Right: pressing toward the dark fabric.

Admittedly, this is an easy example. Some quilts that have a variety of blocks are not always easy to figure out. Make a sketch of your finished quilt and try planning your pressing scheme in advance. Pick the most logical approach, remembering that sometimes you might have to press seam allowances toward the light fabric.

A NOTE ABOUT PRESSING SEAMS OPEN: Learning to sew my own clothes from an early age, I was always taught to press seams open. When I became a quilter I noticed that almost all books told you to press your seams to one side, which I dutifully did. But I am a free thinker, and if I wish to break a rule, I will do it. It just seems easier in most cases to press the seams to one side. However, in some quilt designs where many seams converge at a central point, pressing seams open will reduce bulk.

Thanks for sharing your pressing tips, Candace!

Find more of Candace’s helpful answers for all kinds of quilting questions in The Quilter’s Quick Reference Guide, which includes chapters on:

color and fabric • tools of the trade • rotary-cutting techniques • sewing pieces • hand appliqué • machine appliqué • quilt settings • borders • backing and batting • hand and machine quilting • binding and finishing touches • handy charts and math cheat sheets

Which of Candace’s pressing tips do you use—or do you have your own pressing tips? Share your advice in the comments!

15 Comments (leave a comment)

  • I appreciated to reminder to look at the right side of a block section to see how the intersecting points appear before pressing them. It is something I forget to do and wish I had done after the fact!

    Karen on March 28, 2013
  • Wow! Some of these tips I had heard before, but some were new to me….thanks so much for such a great post!

    Jacque (aka Snoodles) on March 28, 2013
  • Yes, I do use her tips. And let your seams be your guide. BUT, however you do it, make sure it is flat when you are done. No stomping on a twisted seam and think it won’t show. Naughty, naughty, naughty.

    —Claudia on March 28, 2013
  • Excellent instructions. Thank you for sharing!

    —Jo Stovall on March 29, 2013
  • Candace’s handy reference book was recommended to my Fibre Arts group at its recent meeting. It really puts together many of the things we knew but get hurried and forget to do. Great info and reminders!

    —Elizabeth King on March 29, 2013
  • These are fantastic tips and I use them all when I teach beginning quilt students. I really like to press my fabric with Mary Ellen’s Best Press before I start cutting into it and I use it again after my block is finished. Great tips – thank you for sharing in so much detail.

    Julie @ The Crafty Quilter on March 29, 2013
  • Some good information and reminders. Sometimes in parts of blocks, I will even press seams open instead of to one side to eliminate bulk and I didn’t read that in the article.

    —Kim on March 30, 2013
  • I didn’t know about the direction of pressing making a difference to how the points look where they join, I will look out for that when I next make a star or embark on flying geese, my next challenge! Thank You.

    —Juliet Wood on April 4, 2013
  • For a beginner quilter pressing the seams was what I needed the the other quilter how to advice and suggestion were very helpful. Thanks so much can wait to get going on all the projects I have lined up. Great website for all needs.thanks everyone.

    phyllis stokes on May 11, 2013
  • I am a beginner quilter I am making a t-shirt quilt and was told to press seams was not sure how so your tips are helpful I believe I am going to go top row left next row right see how that works lining up my seams thanks

    —Donna on April 4, 2014
  • Very good information. I like the Best Press for crisping up the material when making blocks. Thank you for the info.

    Cindy Holthaus on April 24, 2014
  • Is best press the same as spray starch?

    Hi Ann, Best Press is a spray-starch alternative. It comes in a pump spray instead of aerosol, and it’s available in several fragrances. I know that many of our authors swear by it. 🙂 Thanks for your question! –Jenny

    —Ann Grimes on August 12, 2014
  • One of the most pressing issues of frustration for quilters, especially new ones is pressing issues! 😛 We loved your post from The Quilter’s Quick Reference Guide. Quilting Focus did a post on Pressing Quilt seams where we also look at which option is best; to press the seams, open or to one side. Thanks for sharing your quilting tips, hopefully we will hear from you. Happy Quilting!

    Thanks for the link to your post–when it comes to sharing how-to techniques and ideas, the more the merrier! –Jenny

    Quilting Focus on October 3, 2015
  • I learned hand quilting from my grandmother and great aunt and still have the pieced and appliqued quilt I made by hand the summer after 5th grade. Everything I was taught is so different from how things are done today quilting by machine and I am trying to rehabilitate myself. With regards to pressing I was taught to prepare fabrics by washing, drying, ironing and starching before cutting, to sew carefully with minimum handling to avoid stretching out of grain and to press all seams open with a dry iron.
    I still press all seams open even though it makes matching seams and points more challenging – you have to pin or baste if you cannot abut seams – but the finished blocks look better to me they lie flatter and the quilt feels softer. I also do use a clapper and sometimes a bit of steam to flatten seams and junctions in the final pressing of the pieced top.
    The quilt I am working on now is made with precuts so I am not washing the fabric but I did starch and iron before cutting and sewing. I am planning to do another shortcut quilt for Christmas and will try pressing to the dark side on that one so I can stitch in the ditch. Will see how it goes.

    Love your story, Susan – there is always something new for everyone to try! –Jenny

    —Susan Davis on July 13, 2017
  • When I learned to quilt by taking classes at a reputable quilt shop no one ever taught me to set seams.. even in all the years I have quilted no one mentioned it. Then my Amish friend told me to set my seams and what an amazing difference it made in the finished quilt. Not only neat seams but easier to press to one side. It all starts with setting the seams!

    —Rosemary Spitzer on September 3, 2018

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