Press Gang

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Do you enjoy ironing? How about pressing? (What’s the difference, I hear you ask?!)

In sewing, pressing means applying heat and/or steam to your fabric during construction.

If you’re working with a natural fibre, especially a fabric like wool that responds really well to pressing, you can use your iron to shape and mould the garment to your satisfaction.

I’m not a natural with an iron, so I’ve gathered up some of my favourite pressing tips and tutorials to help anyone else who struggles to get to grips with this part of the process.

Before you cut out

So you’ve pre-washed your fabric  and line dried it and now it’s all creased, possibly stretched off grain, and you’re starting to wish you hadn’t bothered.

Try: Pressing the unfolded fabric on your cutting surface (using an old towel underneath it). Start near the selvedges and get them straight and crease-free first, then carefully iron the middle part without dragging the fabric if you can. Next, fold it in half where you think the centre is and press all the way up to the fold but not on top of it.

Try: Pressing paper patterns using a cool, dry iron (empty the reservoir and turn the steam function off) so they’re exactly the shape they were intended to be when you come to cut out.

If you really love pressing enormous pieces of yardage, you might also enjoy this in-depth piece by David Page Coffin for Seamwork.

Applying fusible interfacing

Straight after cutting out, you’ll want to interface any pieces that are going to be under strain, or that need stiffening: typically facings, plackets, waistbands, collars and cuffs.

Try: Trim the interfacing so it’s slightly smaller than the corresponding pattern piece (usually you effectively trim off the seam allowances). Place the sticky side on top of the wrong side of your pattern piece and press it without your iron (without moving the iron around) for 8 seconds. And did you know you can add more than one layer of interfacing if you want to?

If you’re slovenly like me, and can’t always be bothered to cut out interfacing pieces exactly or trim off the seam allowances, you may want to invest in a sheet of oven liner or Teflon of some kind to prevent you glueing everything to your ironing board cover.

If you find this part of the process boring (hello coat-making!), you could always brighten up your ironing board with a new, homemade cover using this tutorial from Tilly and the Buttons.

After sewing a seam

Try: This is a three-step process, believe it or not. First, press the seam as sewn – lay it on your ironing board just as it was under the machine and press down on the stitches with your iron. Apparently this helps the stitches meld into your fabric.

(If you’re pressing a curved seam, grab your tailor’s ham now.) If the pattern says to press the seams open/to one side, do that from the wrong side. Then turn your fabric over and repeat from the right side.

This helpful piece from So Sew Easy includes advice on tailor’s hams, seam rolls and a press cloths.

Other ways to improve your pressing:

Buy a properly hot and steamy iron. My upgrade to a more powerful £50 model with a Teflon soleplate and much more steam has made pressing almost pleasurable. Almost, I said.

Turn the temperature and the steam up as high as you can without singeing. Test on a scrap first, obvs, and you may be able to go even hotter if you use a press cloth.

Upgrade your ironing board cover to something cotton, linen or canvas with a bit of grip to it to stop everything sliding around (rather than the shiny metallic ones they often come with).

Buy or make a tailor’s ham. If you don’t want to spend on a seam roll as well, you can always use a tightly rolled up towel.

If you want to do lots of tailoring, you could consider investing in a seam clapper. I don’t have one, but lots of people swear by them. Karen from Did You Make That? has created a short video so you can see her seam clapper in action.

If you’re making something that needs pressing into shape (lots of curved pieces and darts), don’t choose polyester fabric. It doesn’t respond well to pressing.

Can anyone tell me:

How do you press open tiny seam allowances without burning your fingers? I’m currently make a Fifi set by Tilly and the Buttons, which uses french seams. The instructions say: sew a 1/4″ seam with WST, trim the seam allowances by half (to 1/8″) and then press them open. How is this possible with real human fingers? Do I need a mini iron?

What’s your top pressing tip? And have you ever burnt a hole in a home-made garment?

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4 thoughts on “Press Gang

  1. I obviously press a lot while sewing, but ironing is another matter entirely… 🙂
    On pressing open the small seam allowance for french seams, I do this quite a lot – starting out can be a bit tricky, but then I glide the tip of the iron along the seam to open out the rest. If that is still tricky, holding the seam slightly taught can help.

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      1. Excellent. Also I meant to ask, if you’d recommend it, what make/model is your new iron? I’ve been thinking of upgrading mine so would be good to get a recommendation from a fellow sewer since that’s what it will mainly be used for.

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      2. Yes, sure. It’s a Tefal one, called the Ultimate 300 Anti-Calc, I think. It gets really hot and generates loads of steam, which is brilliant. It’s a bit bigger and heavier than average so it’s great for pressing large areas quickly and it can cope with thicker fabrics. Bit trickier to press very small areas or very narrow seams, although I haven’t burnt myself yet.

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