Last time, we discussed a few tools that can help you with your accuracy and consistency when sewing quilts. We mentioned that one of the most important tools in your sewing room is your iron. We’ll leave the laundry out of this for now, and just focus on using the iron in quilting.
PREPARE YOUR YARDAGE
If you wash your fabrics before using them, you should definitely iron them – but not if you’re just stuffing them in the cupboard for now. For storage, simply use the warmth from the dryer (since half the point of pre-washing is taking care of any potential shrinkage) to smooth the yardage out and fold it neatly.
When you’re ready to use your fabric, it’s best to give it a once-over with your iron, even if you didn’t wash it first. There can be some pretty serious wrinkles from being on the bolt, and when flattened with your quilting ruler, these wrinkles can quickly become jagged edges. So, ironing is important. However, this can’t be done willy-nilly! Lay your yardage out and work methodically, moving the iron with the grain of the fabric, width-wise or length-wise. Even when you’re moving your iron over the fabric, take care not to create a wobble in the weave, because this will affect the results of the cutting and ultimately, how each piece sits in your finished quilt.
PRESSING ISN’T IRONING
It’s true. Ironing is what you do with shirts and laundry. Pressing is flattening with pressure and heat. Yes, pressing takes longer! But it saves time, effort and energy when done correctly, so keep calm and press on.
Lift and place your iron onto your fabric, hold it still for a moment, and lift and place the iron somewhere else. This is pressing.
TO STEAM OR NOT TO STEAM
That is the question, and only you have the answer. Steam can soften uncooperative fabrics, making it easier to bend them to your will. Additionally, steam can take all the life out of softer fabrics, leaving them rather like woven wet noodles, and your neatly cut shapes may be completely lost and distorted.
Leaving water in your iron can also cause leakage. This is mostly due to ironing at lower temperatures, where there’s not enough heat to create steam, but the water comes out anyway (don’t ask me why it chooses to exit via the base of the iron!). The trick here is to keep the temp set at cotton, and to empty the iron of any water before storing it.
A handy alternative is to keep a spray bottle nearby, and just give a little squirt to the parts that need the extra help.
SET THE SEAMS
At first this may seem like a ridiculous thing to do, but once you embrace it, you’ll never skip this step.
Take the two pieces you’ve just sewn together, and bring them to your ironing board. Keep those right sides together, and press (by lifting and placing the iron) over top of the stitching – that’s right, everything is flat. This is called “setting the seam”. What it does is offer support to the seam you just stitched, and kind of blend the thread into the fabric.
Let the fabric cool a moment or two before moving it, otherwise you could accidentally distort the pieces while they’re soft and warm.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE RULES
Most quilting instructions will tell you to “press the seam towards the darker fabric.” This is a decent rule to follow. The darker fabric will show the shadow and the bulk of the seam far less than a lighter fabrics.
Take your “set” seam, and lay it light fabric down on the ironing board. Gently lift the darker fabric upwards, while maintaining full contact between the light fabric and the board. Use the pointy tip of the iron to nudge the darker fabric flat, and press the seam. Try not to pull the pieces or wiggle the iron (this is supposed to be “pressed” remember?), as this can create wobbles in the grain and distort the shape of your fabric pieces.
image from martingale.com
FLAUNT THE RULES
Pressing towards the darker fabric isn’t always the best thing to do. Sometimes, it’s damn hard to organize all of that, and sometimes doing it that way creates too much bulk.
If you are working with a very dark and a very light fabric and there’s no way you can press towards the dark, press the seam towards the lighter fabric. If you see a little shadowy line of the darker fabric, trim it off, just a little shorter than the lighter fabric’s seam allowance, and this will hide it from view.
You can even press your seams open, when required. Goodness knows that no one is going to be able to see the backside of your piecing when your quilt is all done!
image from quiltuniversity.com
The most important thing to keep in mind is ease of sewing. It’s nicest when your seams “lock” together, and this is done by alternating the side to which the seams are pressed. Take some time and plan this out in advance, if you can, and it will make the next sewing step much faster.
Plus, sometimes it depends on the pieces themselves as to which way they want to be pressed. The large triangles in Flying Geese blocks are most often best when left flat. This shows off your lovely, accurate points in the best way. If you press the little triangles flat, with the seams behind the large triangle, this can mush the centre point, and create a bunch of bulk at that same spot. Icky for continued piecing.
image from quiltuniversity.com
CHANGE DIRECTIONS SLOWLY
If you need to press a seam in the other direction, go back to the middle before switching sides. Press the seam flat – like when you set the seam – and let it cool a bit, then press the seam to the other side. If you skip this step, you may wind up creating a pleat in the seam, making your block smaller than it’s supposed to be.
STAY ON THE GOOD SIDE
Generally, your pressing will not fail if you work on the right or good side of the fabric. Nudge, lift, press and repeat until your seam is neatly and evenly folded back. Use a shot of steam if desired, or even some spray starch to add some extra staying power. Let the fabric cool a moment, then flip it over to the back side and do a quick check to make sure all the seam allowances are tidy and flat. Press the errant spots carefully, so as not to disturb all the other good work you’ve done.
If you try to iron – or even press! – from the wrong side, you’re more likely to squish the seam incorrectly and create a little pleat along the seam. It’s only because you can’t see it, and the fabric tends to stick in place on the ironing board cover. Stay on the right side and your efforts won’t be wasted.
EMPLOY A BUFFER ZONE
If you are pressing a dark fabric – or even a light one – that tends to get shiny, try using a pressing cloth in between your iron and the fabric. This will help to reduce the friction and wear on the fabric surface and eliminate the unwanted shine (which is difficult to get rid of!).
If you are pressing appliqués, you may want to employ a pressing cloth, too, so as not to flatten the life out of your hard work.
What’s a pressing cloth? Anything you have on hand will probably work. Thin, old bed sheets or pillowcases work beautifully, since you can see your work through the cloth. There are also teflon pressing sheets, which are ideal when using fusibles, as they can withstand any heat, and will keep the sticky stuff from sticking to your iron (cue the angels singing).
image from sew4home.com
Extra bonus: you can dampen the pressing cloth, too, if your iron doesn’t do steam. We wouldn’t recommend a damp cloth and steam at the same time, but feel free to experiment.
KEEP CALM AND PRESS ON
With these few tips, you should be able to boldly go and conquer any seam, and wind up with all your quilt blocks the same size as the pattern said they should be. Wouldn’t that be novel?