Pressing Principles | Madam Sew

Pressing Principles For Quilting

Proper pressing of your quilting projects will enhance your accuracy and make quilting more of a pleasure. Your projects will lay flat as they should and result in neat, crisp intersections of seams. Improper pressing can distort blocks leading to inaccurate sewing and difficulty in lining up seams.

In this article, we’ll go over the right way to press seams and give you a few tips on dealing with multiple seam intersections.

pressing principles for quilting with a clapper, a wool pressing mat, starch, an ironing cloth

Why Pressing Instead of Ironing when Quilting?

Pressing means to lower and lift the iron from the fabric. Ironing means to use a back-and-forth motion of the iron on the fabric. After sewing the seams, begin by pressing the seam with the right sides together to set the stitches into the fabric. Don’t move the iron, just lower and lift. This will set the stitches and make it easier to press the seam to the side or open. Let the fabric cool before proceeding. This is the step many quilters skip, but letting the piece cool prevents distortion when moving a warm fabric. It takes a little bit of patience but is worth it.

Press means to lower and lift the iron

Pressing is the way to achieve more accuracy as the fabric does not get distorted from the motion of the iron. This is really important with bias seams, which most half square triangles and flying geese have.

pressing is the way to achieve more accuracy

How to Press Seams When Quilting?

Should you press open or to the side? Personally, I do both depending on the situation. Most of the time I press to one side, but there are times that pressing a seam open will reduce bulk, particularly with intersections of many seams.

pressing a seam open will reduce bulk

Pressing to one side creates a little bump, so when you are trying to line up a seam, you can ‘nest’ the bumps and create sharp seam joinings. Press towards the darker side when you can to prevent shadowing of the darker fabric through the lighter on the right side.

press towards the darker side

Nesting Seams

Nesting seams means to line up the fabric so the folds from the stitching touch for sewing the seam joining the pieces.

nesting seams means to line up the fabric

This creates sharp points and accurate piecing.

accurate piercing

Changing Pressing Directions on Different Projects

But there will be times that a pressing direction doesn’t make sense in terms of nesting the seams later, so this isn’t a hard rule. For example, on flying geese, even with a dark background, the geese will lay flatter when the point is pressed up.

nesting the seam

For curved seams like those of a double wedding ring quilt, it is often easier to press to the outer side of the curve, as this distributes the fullness better.

curve seams

One time I always press a seam open is when sewing a deep allowance seam on a backing. It is also useful when a joining point has multiple seams converging.

seam open when sewing deep allwoance

If you decide that a seam needs to be pressed differently than you originally pressed it, repress it with right sides together just as it was sewn. Let it cool, then it should be ready to take the new pressing direction.

pressing direction

Finger Pressing

For small shapes, or temporary pressing, you can finger-press on the inside of the seam. Finger pressing is OK for quick planning, but isn’t a substitute for the iron.

finger pressing

Join our Sewing Club!

Save 10% on your first order

Be the first to know about our tutorials, weekly deals and so much more!

Value is required
Thank you!

Using Steam When Pressing?

One question that often arises is whether or not to use steam when pressing. This is really a personal choice. Sometimes it is good to set a strong crease in a seam which is helpful when nesting, but be sure to let the pressed piece cool completely before moving to prevent distortion. Many quilters do not use steam at all.

not to use seam when pressing

Spinning the Seam

To reduce bulk when pressing multiple seams in one point, use a technique called ‘spinning’ the seam. To do this, pick out the stitches from the raw edge down to the seam lines at the center point where the seams converge.

bulk pressing
multiple seams

Then press the seams in a wheel pattern with each one going in a different direction. The center will form a tiny square distributing the fullness over a wider area. This works well for pinwheel blocks where four half square triangles come together in the middle.

wheel pattern on a quilt

Pressing Aids

Using spray starch, sizing or a pressing aid such as Best Press will help set the seams and make your creases sharp. But be careful not to soak the fabric, just a light spritz will do. Always let the piece dry and cool completely before moving the pressed piece.

spray starch to set your seams

Other pressing aids that are helpful from time to time are a pressing ham, a clapper, teflon pressing sheet, a teflon soleplate and a wool press mat. Use the ham for curved elements such as in applique. The ham is more helpful in clothing construction than quilting, but there may be a time when one is useful. The clapper is used to add pressure to still-warm pressed seams to set the seam. Teflon products keep irons clean when using fusibles for applique. Use the soleplate over your iron’s existing soleplate. To use the teflon pressing sheet, place it over the piece to be pressed and use the iron on top of it. The heat will go through the sheet and any excess fusible glue will peel off the sheet keeping your iron clean. Wool press mats will hold heat and set seams beautifully without distorting the fabric, so achieving accuracy is easier.

pressing aids

Iron Maintenance

Cleaning your iron is important, as scorched spots can leave stains on fabric. Using an iron cleaner is an easy way to clean scorched fabric or fusible interfacing residue from the plate. These cleaners are applied to hot irons and allowed to sit for a moment, then the iron is wiped with a rough towel. Or you can iron the towel removing the cleaner and the residue at the same time.

cleaning your iron with a cloth and a product

How often should you replace your iron? This one is actually a difficult question. Certainly you want to replace it before it begins to spit rusty water on your white toned fabric. The only way to know this is by thorough cleaning and inspection regularly. Irons that leak cannot be repaired, so certainly those should be replaced. Iron sizes range from tiny little point pressers to large plate sizes. Features to consider when choosing a new iron are time to auto-shut off, plate size, variable steam settings, and water tank size.

when should you replace your iron , 3 types of hot irons

Now that you know how important proper pressing is, how to set seams, and what aids you can use and maintain your hot iron, your projects will be more accurate and quilting will be more fun!

Happy Quilting!

Stop by my blog for more easy projects at

carole carter
Back to blog


Thank you for all the GREAT information. It was VERY helpful.

Joann Less

Thak you. Good information.

Linda Hull

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.