Auxiliary Reference Information | Sewing | Using an Iron

Why do we need a Unit on how to use an iron I hear you ask as most of us know how to use one!

Well as with all things using the iron in a thoughtful way will get you the best results. In fact what you do or don’t do with your iron can have a huge impact on the finished result. So learn to love your iron.

The best type of iron is a common steam one similar to one used in the sample photos below, where you can control your steam if you want to and where you can control the temperature of the iron. Most irons these days give you an indication gauge showing what temperatures are best for each fabric or fibre type.

Investing in a good ironing board is also a must. I actually have 2 ironing boards and irons in my house and I keep one set all to myself for my sewing, I reckon that when you decide to do this then you are a very serious sewer!

There are many other accessories for irons that you can get on the market for sewing such as sewing hams or pressing cloths. I make my own made to fit my own size requirements. I think having a rounded ham with different angles around it is useful for pressing Darts, Shoulder areas and small Bodice Seams, A long sausage like ham is useful to press long Seams and to slip into Sleeves and I have made mine thinner at one end than the other. I made my hams using offcuts of flannel on one side on cotton on the other although you could use a wool fabric instead of flannel and I stuffed them with sawdust waste I begged from a neighbour. They cost me nothing to make. I make pressing cloths out of unwashed silk organza which is an expensive fabric to buy but it is worth its weight in gold and you only need two one for pressing and I also use a separate one when using iron on interfacing to keep my other one clean of glue.

I also use a piece of wood to press onto which is basically like a piece of banister with a tight curved top. You can pick up a piece of this shaped wood from a local hardware store and you can use as it or cover it with some fabric if you want to. Pressing on this will help the seams fall to one side and help with precise control of the iron if you want to ensure that all you are pressing is the crease of the seam and not pressing the seam allowances into the fabric which can show through on the other side.

So there are really 4 things you can do with your iron;

  • Ironing

  • Pressing

  • Steaming

  • Nothing

In my opinion all of those things are just as important as each other.

Ironing is used generally to take out creases from fabric, the fabric must be laid flat on an ironing surface that is heat proof usually an ironing board and then the iron runs along the fabric surface to take out the creases with or without steam. It is always good to test the iron on any fabric prior to ironing because adding heat can create a shine or even holes to a fabric and you should always check this first. You would iron fabric before you cut it, after you cut it to ensure the grain is still in place, after fabric preparations such as Stay Stitching or overlocking. You would also give your garment an iron prior to fitting or hanging for a hem to fall or when you have finished the whole thing.

Pressing is where you vertically place the iron on the fabric and hold down for a couple of seconds to ‘set’ the fabric in position. You will do this after every time you sew something as part of construction usually, such as a Seam or a Dart. The reason why you don’t do ‘ironing’ (movement) is because ironing can shift the fabric around under the iron and what you are doing with pressing is something far more meticulous. Usually when pressing you are only using the tip or part of the iron to control where and what you are pressing to ensure that you control each movement and to not press past the area that you are pressing. You can press with or without steam.

Steaming is used on most fabrics but not all of them, it can cause a problem with some fabrics to always test your fabric. Steaming adds moisture into the fibres of our stitching and the fabric and allows them to relax and settle better into place, along with a press you can get a very crisp result using steam. Using both together helps to add the new position of the fabric into memory and even when washed things settle back into place much better. Sometimes you will use steam only and not press, couture sewing on some fabrics only need a light steam and then pressing down with the fingers or hands on the area will be enough to set a gentle and elegant looking edge such as a soft hem.

Your hands can be used during pressing or steaming to hold in the heat for a little bit longer to ensure it gets into every fibre.

Doing Nothing, some fabrics you just cannot iron as you will ruin them so a light press down with your fingers is all that you will need. Some fabrications such as leather you will not iron you use other tools for that. Another point here is that after a press or steaming, leaving the fabric in position until it cools down on its own can help to set the area as well, so having patience and walking away and doing nothing can get you a better result.

Pressing Seams

Every time you sew a seam you should press it, it is going to set the seam and make sewing the next adjacent part so much easier.

When you press a straight or curved sewn Seam there are three things you should do to get the best results.

Sandwich Press

The first thing to do is to Sandwich Press which basically means taking the sewn seam to the iron as it was sewn one piece on top of the other and using the iron to press down on it, the pressing is done all the way along the seam with a pressing and lifting motion to get the iron along the sewn seam. Only press the seam that was sewn and not beyond it.

Press the Seam Open

The two sides of fabric are opened out and laid on a pressing ham or you could use your ironing board and use your fingers to open up the Seam Allowances. If you run your fingers down the middle first you can get the seam to start behaving before you even get your iron to it, on some fabrics this is worth doing and especially on seams with very small Seam Allowances.

Can you see in this photo how only the tip of the iron is used to press down onto the seam in the middle in the crease? There is no iron touching the edges of the Seam Allowance you don’t want to press down on the Seam Allowances onto the fabric underneath or an indentation will appear on the other side. Take your time and enjoy creating a perfect finish.

On long seams you will need to adjust the fabric on the ham as you move all the way up the seam as you press.

Sometimes you may wish to press both seams in one direction such as at the waist on a bodice and in that case you will turn over both seams to one side and press them down in the same way.

Pressing the front of the Seam

Now I don’t always do this, it depends on the fabric and how I feel when I turn it over. The sample below is a Tests Garment so it is always worthwhile doing this here to ensure that the garment has been sewn perfectly. Pressing on this side will open the seam out further and you can see thread tracing on a Test Garment. Time to unpick if you were not close enough.

Pressing on this side is done in the same ways as before, using a ham to help the fabric fall away from the iron pressing only a few inches at a time following any curves and using the tip of the iron and again ensuring that you are not pressing a Seam Allowance indentation into the fabric. You may need to stop and adjust the fabric on the pressing ham as you move along the seam.

This is the time where you can place your fingers or hand onto the seam to hold the heat in a little longer.

The other option is just to use steam at this point and not press and use your hands especially on more delicate fabrics.

Or both steam and pressing can be done together.

It’s a very organic process pressing and if you do it mindfully you can get the best results.

On this side of the fabric when using your fashion fabric it is advisable to use your pressing cloth to minimise any heat damage. The sewn seam goes on the ham and the pressing cloth goes on top. The advantage of using a silk organza pressing cloth is that you can see through it and know exactly where you are positioning the iron.

Pressing Darts

Each time you sew a Dart it should be pressed.

You should ensure that all ends are tied off first and snipped and check on your Master Draft if you are unsure which direction you decided that the Dart should go to.

Again there are three things you will need to do.

The Dart is Sandwich pressed

The fabric is taken to the iron and lies flat as sewn. Using the point of the iron the iron presses in a lift and press motion down the Dart and to the Dart Point exactly and no further. This settles the stitches into the fabric, relaxes the fabric and sets the Centre Dart crease in place.

Here the iron is getting close to the end of the Dart on this Test Garment the Dart is on a Seam but you may have a situation on a Bust Dart where the Bust Point is over the nipple and you do not want extra creases in the fabric past this point.

Pressing Directionally on Posterior Side

The fabric is then opened out and the Dart is positioned on one side. Usually the position is down with gravity or towards the Centre Back. If you press your fingers down the stitching line you can open the fabric further on the anterior side and get a good position for the Dart to be pressed.

It is a very good idea on a curved, Bust, Shoulder or Skirt Dart to press onto a curved ham with the point of the Dart facing down around a curved part of the ham and start at the wide end. Press slowly along the Dart edge and the stitching line with only the point of the iron inching along to the point of the Dart exactly and no further.

Pressing the Anterior Side

The fabric is flipped over and positioned back onto the ham and the stitching line is pressed using only the tip of the iron on the stitching line being careful not to press the folded edge into the fabric to create an impression. The stitching line is pressed inching all the way along to the end of the stitching. Now on a Bust Dart I will ensure that the Dart point is on a curve of the ham and I will take the iron to the end of the Dart Point into the unsewn fabric and I will give it a little steam or iron in a circling motion and then hand press to ensure that there is a smooth transition across the fabric which helps eliminate a 'pointy boob' look.

There are other types of Darts that can be pressed but the process is the same.

In conclusion don’t be in a rush to sew up your garment and miss out the pressing if you do it slowly and methodically you will get a better result that you can be proud of.

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