Oh my. You would not believe the number of emails I’ve gotten over the years about our instructions to press seams open. I’ve been surprised at how unsettling those three words are to some. So when a Craft Nectar reader emailed me this week asking me to write a post about it I immediately realized that it was long overdue.
So let’s break this down.
First of all, we realize that we’re probably the only people in the quilting world who press seams open. In the garment construction industry, pressing seams open is a standard practice. It makes sense. It prevents seams from becoming bulky and uncomfortable by pressing them to the side as most quilters do. We also find it easier to align seams when the seam allowances are pressed open.
Our theory is that this practice originated with hand piecing, hand quilting and older methods of manufacturing batting that had less structural integrity — meaning that it didn’t stay put once is was in a quilt. So if you think about it hand piecing generally has 8-12 stitches per inch at best. Usually the stitches are larger so it’s easier for batting to sneak out between the gaps between stitches. Similarly, hand quilting is usually less dense than machine quilting so there’s a higher probability that fibers might migrate from the batting layer to the quilt top.
In our minds, if you’re going to hand piece or hand quilt, it makes sense to press your seams to the side. Among the quilters that we teach and meet at shows, there’s probably 1 in 100 who hand pieces and maybe 2 in a 100 who hand quilt. As a result we write our patterns for the majority of quilters who machine piece and machine quilt their quilts.
Sewing machines typically sew with stitches that 15-20 stitches to the inch so the likelihood that batting would migrate is much smaller. New batting holds together better and dense quilting stabilizes the batting further. We have quilts that we regularly have washed in a washing machine for the past 20 years with seams pressed open and we have seen no fiber migration. However, if you would prefer to press your seam open, go right ahead.
“So how exactly do you do it? Do you finger press first or do you try to slide the iron to open the seam allowances?” These are always the next questions. I’ll explain how we do it, but your situation will depend on how much hand and arm strength you have, how easy it is for you to maneuver your iron and your general coordination. As always, our method may not work for you. We’re just sharing what works for us.
Although I am left-handed and Bill is right-handed, we both are comfortable using both hands for pressing seams. Bill, who’s a bit of a show-off on this subject, uses the tip of the iron to open up the seams and quickly slides the iron across the seam allowances. There are very few people who can master this technique so I wouldn’t advise trying.
On the other hand, I hold the iron in my right hand and spread the seam allowances apart with my left hand. Be sure to keep your hand far enough away from the iron that you won’t get burned if there’s a steam burst. It might seam awkward at first but like most things you don’t even think about it after you’ve done it for awhile.
If that technique makes you nervous, you can do a quick slide of your fingers to spread the seam allowances open, really a quick finger press, and then slide the iron down the center to make the creases flat.
As we mentioned in Modern Quilts Illustrated, Mary Ellen’s Best Pressed is fantastic for pressing so if you’re iron doesn’t have a good steam burst, a spritz of Mary Ellen’s might be helpful.
[Note: We don't know Mary Ellen, don't receive any money from her and buy her products the same way you do -- with hard-earned cash. We just promote her spray because it's a really good product.]