And Now, a Word from the Pressinatrix

Kids, listen up. It’s time for a little tough love. A few years back, I wrote an article for Threads titled, “Pressing Matters” and I think it’s time to revisit that. I’m so thrilled to see what seems to be a resurgence in sewing. It’s delightful to see new sewing enthusiasts creating and presenting their finished works. The problem? I wouldn’t call them well finished in some cases. What I’m about to tell you is said with love, and with the desire to see you end up with a garment that you are going to wear proudly.

Let’s face it. We all love sewing, and the best part of the sewing process is sitting at the machine, feeling the fabric zip under our fingers, watching two-dimensional fabric turn into a three-dimensional garment. That’s the most fun! But that’s not the most important part of the process. Getting up from the sewing machine after stitching a seam, going to the ironing board, and pressing that seam into shape is the most important part.

Got that? Let me put it to you again.

Pressing is the most important part of your sewing process.

And notice that I say it’s part of the sewing process. Here’s how I sew a garment:

  • Stitch seam
  • Press one side of the seam flat
  • Press the other side of the seam flat
  • Press seam open (or to one side, if indicated) on the wrong side
  • Press seam on the right side.
  • Repeat

An interesting thing to note is that, for each single seam I stitch, there are 4 pressing steps. And you know what? If you ever go into a clothing factory, you’ll see that the presser spends much more time with the garment than the stitcher does. Pressers get paid more, for that reason. A well-pressed garment is a hallmark (along with a perfectly straight seam) of a fine sewing job. Here’s a picture from the article I wrote for Threads.

Which would you rather wear?

Jennifer, my editor for “Pressing Matters”, and I call the garment on the left the “Sad Top” and the one on the right the “Happy Top”. Clearly the Happy Top was pressed at every step. The Sad Top is, admittedly, an egregious example of lack of pressing. But if you press your garment only at the end of its construction, you’re going to get less than stellar results.

Let me show you the difference, using silk charmeuse. I chose charmeuse because it’s notorious for showing every little lump bump and pucker. But it also responds beautifully to proper pressing. I’ve stitched the seam using contrasting thread in the needle and bobbin, so you can see what I’m doing.

Stitched seam before pressing
Press one side of the seam flat
After pressing one side, you can see there are still some ripples
After pressing the other side, all the ripples are gone
Press seam open

Once you’ve done this, turn the fabric and press the seam on the right side. This whole process takes far less time to do than it does to read about it. And it’s worth every second you put in. Here are two samples of finished seams. The one on the bottom is the piece you see above. The one on the top is another piece of the same charmeuse, but I didn’t press the seam flat on each side, I only pressed it open.

Subtle, but telling, difference

You can see that it’s not as clean as the one where I took the extra time. It may be subtle, but it’s those subtleties that differentiate between a garment that looks like it came from Neiman Marcus and a garment that looks like Happy Hands at Home.

So next time you sit down at your machine, remember the sage words of the late, great Bobbie Carr: “Pressing is sewing.”

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Gorgeous Fabrics

I own an online fabric store, www.GorgeousFabrics.com. The name says it all!

88 thoughts on “And Now, a Word from the Pressinatrix”

  1. Amen to that. The iron gets turned on and filled before I even sit down to sew, that way it’s ready when I’m done with that first seam.

  2. I second Summerset’s Amen! I’m an ironing/pressing fiend . . . I just can’t understand how so many of my coworkers come to work in “sad shirts”. It appears the fine art of ironing is becoming a lost art!

  3. I could not agree more! I enjoyed reading your article in Threads and Roberta Carr’s chapter on Pressing in her great book on couture sewing. I have ruined many projects myself by ignoring pressing, and only since recently have discovered what a great difference proper pressing makes. Thank you for making the point again – I will link to your post on my blog.

  4. Interesting! I always press my seams open (or to the side) but rarely press both sides of the seam (only if they look really wrinkly), or the front of the opened seam.

    I’ll have to give it a try and see if I get better results.

    (Ironing clothes- that doesn’t happen at all!)

  5. It can’t be said often enough, IMO! Love the blue nails – I’m wearing the same color on my toes right now. We’re becoming subversive in our old age!

  6. I remember this article and actually have the Sew Stylish issue that it’s from! I loved the article and could not agree more. Every word you’ve said is completely true. This is truly the difference between a professional and homemade look. I can even overlook a small unmatched seam if the garment is truly pressed well. In fact, quite a few things can be overlooked if the garment is pressed well. And if pressed well while stitching, the pressing will last even after a wash. Great great post! Right into my favorites!

  7. Great article! I still have the issue that it was published in! I was looking at a coat someone had made. They had done all of the tailoring, all of the hand sewing. And the “finished” coat wasn’t even pressed! It made me feel really sad at the thought of how fabulous the coat could have been.

  8. Can I add that a quality iron also makes a difference? I never got the nicest results of pucker-free seams until I had a quality iron. I love my gravity feed Con-Sew (same one Ann showed in her picture), and it makes pressing a lot less frustrating.

  9. Thanks for republishing. I do press, but of course, love the refresher. Now I will try harder :). I am facebooking this for any of those I know that sew but maybe don’t read your blog.

  10. Very well said. We all want professional looking garments and this is one step that cannot be skipped or cut short.

    Thank You

  11. It is comendable of you to bring this topic up. Also agree. I think proably there is more “pressing” involved in gament making than sewing! I can be a hack sometimes in construction; lol! But I am fanatical about pressing, and it can save the project! ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Good tutorial. The only things I’d add are that it’s important to test the heat of the iron on a scrap and you may need to use a press cloth, especially when pressing the right side of the garment. Silk organza (because you can see through it), muslin, and a scrap of the fashion fabric can be used as press cloths, among other things.

    With certain delicate fabrics, you may want to slip a piece of brown kraft paper under the seam allowances to keep from forming a crease on the right side.

    If the iron is too hot, you can wet a piece of paper with cold water — the cheap brown paper dispensed in bathroom machines is good — and iron over the paper. That will bring down the temperature.

    Below is a link to a basic tailoring book. I like it because it provides illustrations of a patch pocket. There’s an example of an under-pressed pocket, and over-pressed effort, and just like in Goldilocks, one that’s pressed just right.

    http://www.amazon.com/Tailoring-Classic-Sewing-Perfect-Jacket/dp/1589232305

    If you’re sewing something important or with expensive material, get someone with experience to watch you. The pressing technique for silk charmeuse is different from that of worsted. On its face, that’s obvious, but for example, I would never have known to use a well-rinsed, drenched piece of muslin and two hands on the iron on the right side of the a wool jacket if someone hadn’t shown me.

    I have no idea if this makes a difference, but books usually say to press the seam from the side it was sewn first, then to press the either side.

    I was taught, after pressing either side of the seam, to run my fingernail (sometimes I use the round edge of a collar point) down the seam to open it up and then to press. I was taught to go only an inch or two at a time. At times, I hold the seam open and let it cool down and “rest” before preceding.

    I don’t call it “sewing.” I call it “garment construction.” Sewing at the machine is maybe 20% of the process.

  13. Yeah! I’m always amazed when my beginner sewing students admit to not having an iron at home. They think that if they’ve spent money on a sewing machine, that’s all the investment they need.

  14. so true, so true, so true!!

    I can remember the days when I thought, “I’ll save time and iron the whole thing when I am finished”.

    Then I found the online sewing community and my results have improved by leaps and bounds.

  15. Thank you for posting this tip. This is so important for creating a good-looking garment.

    So, remember folks, every time you press a seam, an angel gets his wings!

  16. This really is one of those cases when “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I never fully appreciated the difference it makes to press both sides flat first until I saw the last photo in your post. Granted, I don’t often sew with charmeuse, but I’m a believer now!!!

  17. I always knew you should press the seam flat before pressing it open, but never knew that you should do it on both sides. Thanks for this information – hopefully it will help my seams look even better.

  18. Thank you so much for this! I believe that, especially linen, which wrinkles from expelling a heavy breath, should NEVER be displayed as a finished garment without having experienced the grand investment of LOTS of ironing all throughout the construction process, and afterward, as well.

    There is just NO excuse for sad clothing.

  19. Ann, I remember when your article was published. Ever since then, I’ve been unable to finish sewing a seam without applying my iron (I admit that I need to work on my technique, because my current technique is very close to ironing instead of pressing). I seem to recall there was an accompanying video that where you use a silicon oven mitt with great effect. That’s when I *KNEW* that this woman takes pressing seams seriously ๐Ÿ™‚

    Rose in SV

  20. Great reminder about pressing! I have to honestly say that next to actually sewing, I enjoy pressing quite a bit! My philosophy is that one can never press a garment during construction enough. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Taking the time to properly set the stitches in the seam and shape them is vital. Now I just need to eventually get a better iron (the sort you have is my dream iron! ;)…

    โ™ฅ Casey | blog

  21. Ann,

    It looks like you have a shield of some kind over the bottom of your iron. Is this to prevent shine on fabrics?

    Great post. Thank you.

    Kathy

    1. It’s a teflon shoe for the iron, Kathy. It keeps the iron from sticking to any fabric. It also effectively lowers the temperature several degrees, so you’re less likely to scorch or shine.

  22. Guilty! I usually remember to press seams open, but haven’t been doing the press each side first part. I need to print this out and hang right above the machine. As little as I’ve been sewing lately, I forget that part and how much it affects the results.

  23. I honestly don’t know how anyone can sew any fabric without pressing. How can you properly SEE the work in progress? This is as basic as breathing. Sewing first involves warming up the iron THEN turning on the sewing machine, IMHO.

    Thanks for reminding, and more importantly, breaking the topic down into its elements. That is, I think, your real strength….

  24. I remember that article. I didn’t know it was written by you. It made a real impression on me. (pardon the pun) It’s also important to let the seam cool before you move it or all the pressing is for naught.

  25. Thank you Ann for showing this. I already knew to press the seam as sewn, then press open, but having been shown with pictures what a difference pressing the other side has changed my ways.
    I think I need to get a better iron!
    Helen

  26. I was taught this first-hand by my dressmaker grandma: she did exactly as you did, using a piece of fabric which showed every wrinkle if not pressed correctly.
    A suggestion (unless you need the activity of getting up and down): position your ironing board so that you can swivel right (or left) from your sewing machine to press, lowering the board to a comfortable height for in-chair pressing. I find it saves time, especially for small quick pieces; then I adjust the board as needed for pressing standing up as the garment gets larger

  27. In my opinion, pressing is as essential as thread in the construction process. I remember reading your original Threads article and was pleased that it was so comprehensive. I recently read a blog post telling other sewers that at the end of the construction process one can just use one of the “wrinkle-sprays” to smooth out the project instead of pressing as one sews to save time! I fell to the floor, grabbed my chest and had a full swoon! Sometime later I plugged in my iron just to enjoy its warmth and steam:)

  28. Thanks for reminding us about the importance of pressing. I’m guilty of (sometimes) speedy through the process of making a garment, not pressing after each seam sewn. It’s ironic, though, this is one of the points I stress during every class session that I teach. Go figure. It’s a new year and another chance to strive for perfection. Happy sewing.

  29. This is the one step my mother taught me 38 years ago when I first started sewing. She always emphasized a garment is only as good as the pressing that goes into it and she was right! I’ve seen many garments online that would have been truly wonderful if they had followed this process. Either by lack of knowledge or a choice to be “speedy” in their sewing it leaves them with a garment that “looks” homemade because they haven’t taken the extra step or time to follow through completely. If you want professional results you need to do what the professionals do…and that means pressing correctly.

  30. This was such a good reminder! I just got a new iron, after having a Black and Decker for 20 years, for Christmas, it is making a huge difference, but I see I am not pressing enough according to your instructions. I promise to do better! Thanks for posting this!

  31. Dear Ann,

    Thank you for this timely post! I learning to sew, and have only just really begun to enjoy pressing. I have to admit that I’m a little impatient and have difficulty waiting for things to cool down before whisking them off for more work or a try-on

    Seriously though, I just did my first muslin for the Ceil Chapman Skylark dress (the one from the Vintage Fashion Library) earlier this week, and the pressing made a world of difference. If it makes this much of a difference in cheap cotton, I can’t wait to see what happens with quality fabric!

  32. Dear Ann –

    I can only access a summary of the Threads “Pressing Matters” article. Could you post the full article on your blog?

  33. And this is why I would’t let my daughter do Home Ec – she once walked into the class to drop something off, only to hear the teacher tell the students NOT to press until the garment was finished.

    She was shocked and appalled (and couldn’t wait to tell me) – and I was amazed that she’d paid attention!

    Goodness knows what other rubbish the teacher told them.

  34. I’ve been sewing all my life and never knew to press both sides of the seam open and closed. I can see the results; I’m just surprised that I’ve never heard nor read that!

    Thanks for sharing!

  35. Thanks so much, Im a semi newbie to sewing and no one so far has shown or advised the sheer importance of pressing!!! I will definitely keep this with me going forward now!!

    Thank you so much!!

  36. Thanks for this post! As I’m not a native speaker I really needed the pictures to understand it fully. I only enjoy pressing (or ironing, I’m sorry that I really do not get the difference, dictionaries only go so far) as part of the sewing process but there I actually enjoy it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  37. I am someone who always presses as I construct garments (The importance of cutting and pressing makes me reluctant to use the limited term “sewing.”). Sometimes I’m surprised by the poor quality of the pressing or the final ironing that I see on even professional blogs.

    I’ve taken many sewing and tailoring classes and I’ve often wished for a mini-course devoted to pressing — it’s that important.

  38. Mary,

    Some people press both sides of a seam, some don’t. Since I read about it, I usually do, but some experienced sewers look at me as if I were nuts or compulsive.

    You have to experiment and figure out what works for you. My problem is that I’m timid about trying things because I can’t stand to mess something up, not that mistakes don’t happen anyway.

  39. Thanks for the wonderful post! I am so embarrassed to say that I have been IRONING and not PRESSING. Egad! I’ve admitted my pressing shortcomings and made reference to this post on my blog.

  40. This is very hopeful info, Gorgeous – thank you for showing it on puckery silk charmeuse (the fabric I’m trying to fix right now!) Going to try this tomorrow…

  41. Oh my word, this post has been a real revelation!! I was about to start a slinky silk dress for myself and was terrified at the thought of making a proper mess of it. After years of sewing I have never heard of so much pressing being required. After reading this I went and tried it out and what do ya know, the silk responded tremendously. Thanks so much!!! I am now dedicated presser ๐Ÿ™‚

  42. Thanks for reminding me – this is a good lesson – I always press – BUT unfortunately, I don’t do the four step method – I am now changing my ways!!

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  44. I was taught to press when I learned to sew, but a young woman I was trying to help had never been taught to use an iron! We saw a lady at church that was wearing a new suit that she had made, but even though it was a fabric that I recognized as being quite expensive, it was awful! My friend exclaimed about the woman’s inability to sew, I told her that it had nothing to do with her sewing skills but everything to do with her refusal or inability to use an iron!!

  45. Thank you so much for this post! I had never heard of the 4-step method but will now incorporate it in all my sewing.

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