Pressing Matters – A Steamy Topic

Posted by & filed under Ironing, Pressing.

It’s a common debate among quilters – to steam or not to steam. Many quilters wax poetic of the wonderous results that a steam iron can have on a slightly mis-sewn block, or how a little added steam can create, or remove, a crease in your fabric. Others swear that you must never use steam in your iron when pressing… use too much steam and your block can stretch and distort beyond hope.

What is the right thing – steam or no steam? The question should really be not if, but when should you use steam in your iron. Here are some tips and tricks for knowing when to get steamy, and when to keep it hot and dry.

  • A little bit of liquid – either steam, water spray, or starch, helps remove the wrinkles when you are ironing your fabric in preparation for cutting.
  • Some quilters never use the steam setting on the iron. Rather, they keep a spray bottle filled with water at the ironing board. The heat from the iron (and dirt from the plate of the iron) will discolour the water, and that can transfer permanently onto your fabric.
  • If you are going to use steam on your fabric after it has been cut – PRESS! DO NOT IRON! Ironing will distort your fabric, especially anything that has been cut on the bias, as the bias is very stretchy.
  • Know your warp and weft (warp = up and down, weft = left and right) and your bias. Iron in an up and down or left and right direction, not along the bias. Ironing on the bias can cause your fabric to stretch, whether you use steam or not.
  • Too much steam along with the heat of your iron can shrink your fabric (you know how cotton fabric shrinks in the laundry), and you may end up with a fabric or block that is no longer the right size!
  • Once your block is sewn, a little bit of steam or misted water can help to set your seams. Press, don’t iron, or the block will distort. On the other hand, if your block is out slightly (less than 1/8”), you can use steam to help shape the block to the size you need. This is called ‘blocking’ – read Show Me How in our Spring 2019 issue on how to block quilt blocks. 
  • Once your quilt is finished – with the quilting and binding complete – you can iron with steam to your heart’s content. At this point, the fabric is stable enough to tolerate it.

I can’t say that we’ve answered the question that age-old question – to steam or not – but at least now you have a better idea of why you should or shouldn’t use steam in your iron, and when it’s best to turn it up, or turn it off. Why not try for yourself? Test your iron on a few scraps of fabric and orphan blocks, with and without steam, and see what happens. The perfect little educational project for a snowy weekend!