The Difference Between Pressing and Ironing

We all know that careful measuring and precise stitching can help a sewing project turn out looking good, but there’s a (not so) secret key to getting that really crisp, professional look on all your projects.

And that key is? Pressing.

Pressing your projects as you go is different from ironing in several key ways, so even if you can iron a shirt or a pair of slacks to perfection, you may need to adapt your skills slightly. Check out the how-to guides below to become a project-pressing master!

When do I iron? When do I press?

Ironing is the process of smoothing out wrinkles in a finished garment, or in fabric before it is marked and cut. This is done using a hot iron, sometimes steam, and a smoothing motion designed to settle the wrinkles out of the fabric.

Pressing, on the other hand, is designed to help a garment (or other project) take its proper shape. It typically uses as much steam as the fabric can handle without damage, as well as a slow, bit-by-bit motion that uses downward pressure to set each area before moving on to the next. Often, a sewist will slide the iron forward to the next area to press, but this traveling motion is very different from the sweeping, repeated passes used during ironing.

The best time to press your project is as you go. Press seams first in the direction they were sewn to set the seam, then press them open to reduce bulk where seams join. Pressing is also the motion you’ll use when applying fusible interfacing or webbing to your fabric, since it gives the best contact for the heat-activated adhesives.

What tools do I need?

While the basics are all you’ll really need to get started, as you start to become a more advanced sewist, you may want to check out some of these other handy items!

Iron and Ironing Board: These are the very basic tools of pressing. You’ll want an adjustable iron so you can adapt to different types of fabric from project to project. It’s also very helpful to have dry and steam settings so you can adjust accordingly. While you can press projects on something as simple as a folded towel, ironing boards are properly vented so that extra heat and moisture escape quickly, lessening the likelihood of an accidental burn.

Fabric Steamer:
While not strictly necessary for basic pressing, it can be helpful when working with large projects that are difficult to set using just the steam from your iron. This is particularly true with dense or multilayered projects like outerwear, or voluminous garments like bridal gowns.

Tailor’s ham and sleeve roll:
Ironing boards are great for pressing flat seams, but what about curves? That’s where these two tools come in handy. A tailor’s ham is a firm, ham-shaped pillow that can be used to press larger curves, like princess seams or shaping over the hips of a skirt. A sleeve roll is similar, only shaped a bit like a baguette. It’s designed to be used inside sleeves or other narrow areas where you want to be able to press a portion of the fabric without also pressing a crease into a nearby fold.

Press Cloths:
Press cloths are the perfect way to protect your work from the shine, spotting, and potential staining of your iron. While you may want to have several on hand made from different materials like muslin or flannel, the most traditional press cloths are made from silk organza. The heat-resistance means it won’t melt or scorch your project, but it’s so sheer as to be quite translucent. Check out this comprehensive guide to using the right press cloth for the right situation.

Iron Shoe:
An iron shoe is almost exactly what it sounds like— a metal plate, or shoe, that you slip over the face of your iron to provide added protection for both your iron and your project. Some shoes are designed to diffuse heat and steam more evenly, making it easier to press without overheating your fabric. Some sewists prefer to use a shoe when pressing on interfacing or webbing, as it’s always possible to transfer some of the adhesive to your iron when working with these materials. If you opt to use a shoe, you can lessen the likelihood of accidentally transferring that adhesive to your next project.

Tips and Techniques

Pressing is often largely intuitive—Does that curve look quite right? No? Better keep pressing!—but there are certainly plenty of tips and tricks that can help you get the polished look you want with little trial and error.

Always test your fabrics: This one is absolutely crucial. Nothing is worse than scorching a nearly-finished project because you didn’t realize your iron was set too high. Always make sure to test your iron settings, including steam, to make sure that you achieve the desired results without water-spotting or discolouring your fabric.

Don’t press over embellishments: Embellishments, whether they’re part of your fabric or added after the fact, can be a bit of a hassle when it comes to pressing. They’re often made of different material than the base fabric, which means they may not be quite as heat tolerant. Whenever possible, press from the reverse side of the project and use a press cloth to diffuse some of the heat.

Work slowly: Pressing isn’t a task that can be hurried. Some fibres take more time and patience to set than others. Simply moving your iron along faster won’t solve the issue, so be careful and thorough as you work, making sure to get it right the first time.

Press as you go: It’s advice that bears repeating. Once you’ve stitched over a seam that wasn’t pressed, it’s too late to go back. You can always batch-press several seams at once as you work through your projects, but make sure that when you start to assemble more than two pieces that all your seams have been carefully pressed before you start sewing again. You’ll be shocked by what a difference a careful pressing can make to the finished look of your project.

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