What is the Difference Between Pressing and Ironing?

When you look at the work space of any experienced sewer, you’ll probably notice an ironing board set up not too far from the sewing machine. This is something a beginner probably won’t know to include as they gather materials for their next sewing project, but the iron is really a vital tool in a successful sewing project.

Ironing Fabric

A beginner might also be surprised to hear you do very little ironing at the ironing board when sewing. Yes, pressing, not ironing, is the key to sewing success and there’s a big difference in those two techniques.

Pressing vs ironing: Let’s explore the differences!

So what is pressing?

Well for the most part it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s the process of pressing the iron into the fabric, then lifting it back up to move across the fabric, then pressing it down again. By doing this you’re avoiding the continuous pressure and drag across the fabric which can stretch things out of shape and even distort the grain.

Both of those situations can be bad news for your sewing projects. Because of this, it’s better to press the wrinkles out of your fabric before cutting your pattern pieces instead of ironing. Pressing might also refer to using a high steam setting and holding your iron so it hovers above your fabric in order to smooth out the surface. You will most likely be pressing on the wrong side of your fabric as you press open seams or finish darts.

Pressing Fabric With Steam

Your pattern instructions may only tell you to press at certain special steps, but as a general rule, you should be pressing every single seam you sew. You don’t necessarily have to press each seam immediately after each step, but certainly before joining two seams together.

Pressing not only helps settle or “set” your stitches, but it also smooths out any puckering (especially on curves) and gives the garment a more professional, well-made look over all. It’s also important to press features like darts and pleats and to pay attention to which direction the folded fabric is pressed as instructed by your pattern.

Make sure you use the right kind of iron setting for your fabric, especially with delicate fabrics or those with a nap or pile. An iron that’s too hot could burn or melt your sewing project!

So when DO you use ironing in sewing?

You can use ironing techniques on finished garments after you’ve finished sewing them, or on your pattern tissue if it needs to be smoothed out to ensure you’re cutting your pieces accurately.


More helpful pressing tips:

  • Make sure your ironing board has adequate padding under your project or you could press marks and indentations into your work.
  • Always consult the manufacturers’ directions first before pressing fabric or interfacing. Not all types are created equal!
  • Use a thick piece of paper under your seam allowances before pressing them open to prevent a ridge from forming on the outside of your garment.
  • Don’t press over pin heads or they could melt, or leave an indent in your fabric.
  • When in doubt, press on a scrap piece of the fabric first to see how it reacts to heat before pressing your final garment.
  • There are some tools available to help press your projects like the pros – sleeve boards, clappers, iron shoes, tailors hams, and press cloth are all terms that a press savvy sewer will probably be familiar with.

One of the easiest ways to improve the overall look of your sewing projects is to press them correctly. It not only increases the professional impact of your finished sewing projects, but it also plays a roll in how your seams line up throughout construction. It’s often the little things that make the most difference in sewing, and knowing the difference between pressing and ironing is one of those little things.

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