Pressing vs. ironing

We’ll tell you the difference.

Originally posted on February 27, 2018 by Cheryl Sleboda

Donna Lynn Thomas’ article “Impressive Pressing (part 1)” in Issue #22 of Modern Quilts Unlimited covers lots of details on pressing for your quilt blocks.  Even if you have been sewing a long time, you may not know that there’s a difference between pressing and ironing.  In fact, it can make a big difference when following pattern directions, as they can mean very different things.  Let’s go over these basics, and then we will talk about how they apply to quilting.


Pressing means to take the iron, hold it to the fabric or seam you want to heat up, and then lift the iron back up to move to another area of the fabric.  This is a lot of up and down motions, but there is a reason for it.  When pressing fabric or seams, the iron is barely moving while on the fabric, so it doesn’t distort the fabric while the iron surface is touching the fabric.  You can move the iron in short distances when pressing.

Ironing is when the iron surface moves across fabric, in any kind of motion.  You can iron in back and forth or circular motions.    Think of cartoons showing people moving the iron in long strokes over the fabric, and that’s the type of motion we mean.  Typically ironing is done to finished items and fabric before it is cut.

When following garment patterns, typically you press seams, using that up and down motion, so that you do not pull and distort seam allowances. If you iron, instead of press, your seams, then you can distort your piecing blocks and you may find your seams don’t line up properly.  Applique pieces should also be pressed, so their shape is not distorted.

Pressing these seams, especially the curved ones, will help keep the block from distorting. 

Ironing can be used on the front of finished blocks, but only if they are not cut on the bias (the diagonal cut across the grain of the fabric).   The motion of the iron could pull those bias edges into a wavy shape which will become difficult to sew or quilt. Donna covers pressing bias cut seams in her article, so be sure to check that out.  If you iron your finished block from the back, you could accidentally flip over some seams, causing lumpy bumps when you go to quilt the block later.

Does your pressing surface need a makeover?  Check out the web extra for Issue #22 which is all about Board Beautification!

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