Ironing vs. Pressing What's the Difference?

Ironing vs Pressing

We’ve all heard, "it's often the little things that make the most difference." Well, when it comes to quilting, knowing the difference between pressing and ironing is one of those little things.

Pressing, not ironing, is an essential activity in the process of creating beautifully pieced quilts. If you are not correctly pressing the seams in your pieced blocks as you make them, you will notice an immediate improvement in your piecing accuracy when you begin to do so. Fortunately, the techniques involved in correctly pressing the seams of your blocks are easy to understand. Consequently, it is one of the easiest ways to improve the overall look of your sewing projects.

The terms ironing and pressing are often used interchangeably, but they are two very different things.


Ironing typically involves a back-and-forth sliding motion of an iron across a fabric, and the application of steam. Both aspects of ironing can stretch and even distort fabrics and seams. (More on steaming or no steam in a future blog). These unintended effects of improper pressing could cause problems when you fit your blocks together in the later stages of quilt construction. Ironing may be great for getting the wrinkles out of large articles of clothing or fabric, but that back-and-forth motion should NOT be done to pieced blocks. Proper pressing with a dry iron, on the other hand, has the following advantages: it sets your seams, sinks the seam stitches into the fabric, and eliminates wrinkles. This creates crisp and uniform folds that will make sure your seams lie flat, setting you up for success.

Pressing, involves almost no lateral movement of the iron. When properly pressing pieced blocks you simply place the iron on the material to be pressed and, after applying pressure, you lift the iron directly off the surface of the fabric, before placing it back down. The combination of heat and pressure will allow you to flatten and smooth seams, without undue stretching or distortion of the fabric or the seams.

How to Press Pieced Blocks?

Pressing the seams for a pieced block is a two-step process. First, you press the seam just as it was sewn (without flipping the fabric over or “opening up” the seam). See step one. After letting the fabric cool in place, to help prevent the distortion of bias edges, see step two, press the seam edges in the final direction that you wish for them to lie. Your choice for this final disposition of the seam edges will depend on several factors, including how you intend to use the block or the colors of the materials.

The most common approach for pressing seams is to “press to the dark side." To do this, in step one, lay down the block with the seam to be pressed on your pressing surface, just as it was sewn. Before pressing ensure that the darker fabric is on top (with the “wrong side” facing up) and the lighter fabric is on the bottom (with its “wrong side” facing down). After pressing down and setting the seam, lift the top fabric, letting it fall over the top of the seam allowance. Begin the second step by pressing, while moving the iron ever so slightly from the lighter fabric towards the darker fabric. This action will cause the edge of the iron to flatten and smoothen the seam. Be careful, after each pressing, not to slide your iron from one section to another. Instead, lift the iron, before moving it to another location and, only then, should you press it back down.

It is important to note that pressing seams towards the darker fabric avoids creating shadows on the lighter fabric. You should always follow this rule of thumb unless the pattern specifies the direction in which the seams are to be pressed. Also, pressing all your seams in the correct direction is especially critical when you will be later nesting your seams as part of your quilt construction (more on this in a future post!).

Pressing Hints and Tips

  • For small shapes, you can first use the back of your fingernail to “pre-set” the seam. Do this by sliding your nail across the inside of the seam. You should then press the seam with an iron to ensure a smooth and flat seam. Finger pressing has the added advantage of giving you a good idea of which way a seam should be pressed in the second step.
  • If pressing towards the lighter fabric is a must, trim the darker fabric seam allowance by 1/16" after the seam is sewn to prevent any shadows.
  • Sometimes you will inadvertently press a seam in the wrong direction in step two. In that case, manually return the seam to its original state (as it was sewn) then, press the seam flat to remove the crease. Allow the fabric to cool, then repeat step two, now pressing the seam in the correct direction.
  • Do not press over pinheads, they may melt, leaving an imprint on your fabric and, possibly, scratches on your iron. Also, do not press over tape; it, too, may melt, leaving sticky goo on both your iron and your fabric.

Pressing Wins!

One final point of motivation for pressing, not ironing. Since all of our significant others want us to iron their clothing, make sure they understand, that as quilters, we’re expert pressers, not expert ironers!