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Why You should Press Your Quilt Seams Open

Opinion by Mabry Benson

Pressing seams to one side is a residue of hand piecing.

Yet again I heard a quilt teacher tell others to press their seams to one side, rather than open, as the seam was stronger that way. I managed to restrain myself from breaking in and saying "NO! NO!" - but it was hard.

Edy's Stars by mabry benson

Edy's Stars - Mabry Benson

Let me say first that I am talking about machine piecing. Pressing seams to one side is a residue of hand piecing. A seam pieced by hand with a running stitch is not strong, and so it is pressed to one side, not to strengthen the seam, but to cover the holes which would invariably open along the seam and let out the batting. The seam is not made any stronger by pressing it to one side, just the weakness is covered up.

I have always pressed my seams open in my machine piecing.

Machine sewn seams are many times stronger than hand sewn seams and opening up of the seams is not a problem. If seams-pressed-to-one-side were stronger, then why did our clothing teachers exhort us all those times to press our seams open. Clothing certainly receives much more pull and wear than most quilts do. For most seams in clothing a pressed opened seam is sufficiently strong. When we wanted a stronger seam we pressed to one side AND sewed another stitching line to make a flat-felled seam. (This is why the quilting - even hand quilting - should go along and across the seams and through all the layers of the seam allowance, not avoiding the area of the seam allowance - to strengthen the seams and the overall quilt.)

I have always pressed my seams open in my machine piecing. I know that a lot of people think that this is just another example of me being "obstinate" and "difficult," but I have thought about reasons for doing it one way or the other, tried it both ways, and decided that the benefits of pressing open far outweigh the benefits of pressing to one side.

What are the reasons? 

Fan Wedges Quilt by mabry benson

Fan Wedges - Mabry Benson

My principle reason for pressing open is that the finished piece looks better that way. The piece is flatter. The points are sharper, crisper, and more accurate. It is easier and more accurate to match seams when they are open. I know that teachers and books say that it is easier when the seams are pressed to one side because the seams nest against each other, but then the cross-seams are offset - ever so slightly, but still offset from each other. This does not make as much difference when you are sewing four-patches, but when you sew a Windmill or LeMoyne star with eight seams coming together the difference is magnified. It is easier to accurately match points when the seams are distributed rather than all to one side. In addition when the seams are pressed open you can always see where a point is when you are sewing the next seam and you can sew exactly through its point. When the first seam is pressed to the side it invariably hides the point, so you are sewing blind, and may or may not go exactly through the point.

Mill Wheel quilt by Mabry Benson

Mill Wheel - Mabry Benson

Proponents of pressing to one side say that it is easier to quilt if the seams are to the side. If you are machine quilting, the number of layers is not very important. But even in my hand quilting I rarely know ahead of time just what my quilting pattern will be, so I wouldn't know which way to press. If I chose to press the "wrong way" or when if I am quilting across the seam rather than parallel to it, then I am quilting through even more thicknesses of fabric. When you press to one side the layers progress from one thickness of fabric to three, then back to one. Pressing open you progress from one to two back to one. This means the piece is flatter, and quilting is easier.

... when the seams are pressed open you can always see where a point is ...


Consider what happens in a simple four patch when you sew the second seam and press that seam to one side. Then the layers go from one to three to five to one. When the seams are pressed open there are always four layers of fabric, making the piece flatter and more accurate and the quilting smoother. In a windmill or LeMoyne star even those who press to one side, press the last seam open because there is just too much bulk when ALL those layer go to one side. The same thing is happening when there are fewer layers, but it is not as noticeable.

Plaid Stars quilt by Mabry Benson

Plaid Stars - Mabry Benson

The only disadvantage to pressing open is that you have to press first from the back, then again from the front, so there it twice as much pressing. I have noticed though, that when I do press to one side, that I have to be very careful and take more time in my pressing or I will make my fold not exactly on the seam. When the piece is not pressed accurately, then it won't fit as well in the next stage. It is a bit tricky to get that fold accurately following the seam when pressing to one side, so I really don't save that much time. I can spot my sloppy pressing more easily when the seams are open.

When the seams are pressed open there are always four layers of fabric ...

If you backstitch at the beginning and end of your seams, they don't press open flat as your sewing probably hasn't followed itself exactly. But since I hardly backstitch, this is not a problem for me. Because the machine seam is sufficiently strong, and because it is soon crossed by another seam, you don't have to backstitch. If your seams are pulling apart, then your stitch length is too long, or you are pulling and handling your work too much. The only time I backstitch is when I am putting the last two pieces of border on my quilt. In addition it is a real bother to backstitch when I am chain sewing, which I do all the time. But that is another story.

I will admit to pressing to one side when I am doing Y-seams. I do not want that open hole that I would get if they were all pressed open.

[Thank you, Mabry! So many quilters ask about seams and I have seen your beautiful and accurately pieced quilts in person so I can testify that your method produces wonderful results. Thanks for sharing your expertise. - Susan]

Bio: Mabry Benson has been sewing clothes since 1963, and making quilts since 1973. She has made beautiful quilts for herself (she has a different quilt for her bed for each month of the year), for her children and relatives, for friends, and had made many, many quilts for her guild's charity projects. Her quilts have appeared in a number of books and publications, including Quilter's Newsletter Magazine, Wearable Art for Real People, Scrap Quilts Using Fast Patch, Patterns of Progress - Quilts in the Machine Age, Quilts Quilts! and More Quilts, Scrap Quilts: The Art of Making Do. Mabry is a charter member of East Bay Heritage Quilters in Northern California, and has taken an active part in its operation. While she doesn't teach classes, she is frequently at guild activities giving demonstrations, working out problems, giving opinions, and answering questions on how to do something.

Susan Druding - home page of this Equilters site is http://www.equilters.com

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