Let’s talk: Pressing seams open vs. to the side

Introducing “Let’s Talk…” an open forum for discussing just about anything – especially if it’s quilt-related!

Let's Talk Button framedI’m so excited to start my first “Let’s Talk” series with a discussion about pressing seams!  I’ll give you my thoughts and then please feel free to participate by adding your own comments.  I’d love to hear what you think!

Pressing Seams TitleI have always pressed my seams to the side.  I don’t want to sound like a “know it all” (because I’m definitely not) or that I’m right and everyone else is wrong (only when I say so 😉 ).   I just want to give you a few reasons for what I do and open up a discussion about it.  Here we go…

  • It’s faster.  This is my number one reason for pressing seams to the side, because I love efficiency when it comes to my time spent on quilting.  And it’s not just faster to press to the side, but it’s faster matching your seam intersections.
9 patch intersection wrong side
Intersections of 9-patch with seams pressed to the side
pinwheel side match wrong side
Pinwheel block, seams pressed to the side.

 

  • It allows you to create opposing seam allowances that “lock” together or “nest”.  This gives you more accurate seam intersections (and it’s faster).  It takes me much longer to match my seams when they’re pressed open as shown below in the top piece.  I love having my intersections nest and then pinning that in place.  Sometimes I pin on both sides of the seam and sometimes I pin diagonally with one pin (and anchoring both sides).  You can see that in the bottom piece, right side.
both pinned 9patch
Pinning intersections with seams pressed open vs. to the side.
hst's pinned
Example of matching seams of HST’s pressed open and to the side
  • Pressing seams to the side establishes a stronger quilt because it’s both the fabric and thread that are holding those seams together rather than just the thread.  When you think about it, if your seam has been pressed open and you look at the seam from the right side, you can actually see the stitches of thread that are holding your seams together.  If you look at a seam that is pressed to the side, you see a crease in the fabric, no stitches.  Those stitches are covered (and therefore protected) by fabric.  Does that make sense?

 

9 Patch with seams pressed open

  • If your seams are pressed open, I wouldn’t suggest that you stitch in the ditch when quilting your project.  This will further weaken your seams by possibly severing some of those stitches as you quilt and separating your fabric at the seams.
Stitching in Ditch
Stitching in the ditch – o.k. when seams are pressed to the side.

So, it comes down to these three things:  EFFICIENCY, ACCURACY AND INTEGRITY!

O.K. every “rule” has its exceptions.  I know the number one reason that people press their seams open is because it lays flatter.  That is a fact.  SO, sometimes I will press a seam open because it just finishes flatter that way.  This usually occurs when I’m piecing a complicated block; the last rows that are stitched will get pressed open and my block will look better and lay flatter.

final seams pressed open
Final two seams pressed open

Here’s a block that I found from last year where I pressed open the half square triangle units AND the final two seams.  I’m not sure why I did it that way, but I can be “open” to try new things!

seams open front and back

Most importantly, do what feels comfortable to you!  I know there’s more than one way to peel an orange and you are the final judge of what works for you.  We can still be friends, right?

Now it’s your turn.  What are your thoughts about pressing seams?  Leave a comment and let us know what works for you!

Julie

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About Julie Cefalu

Hello! I'm Julie and I love to quilt, craft, read, garden, hike and spend time with my family.

65 thoughts on “Let’s talk: Pressing seams open vs. to the side

  1. I am piecing a “piano keyboard” in black and ivory and have found that the really narrow strips are best pressed open to reduce bulk and the wider ones (the bottom part of the key) pressed to the side. My question is thread color for the alternating black and ivory keys. Would a neutral, such as gray, be better than black or ivory?

  2. Hi Julie

    Happy New Year and thanks for a great post! I am a fan of pressing seams to one side and I found a tip which I always follow and works every time. I used to find that even when nesting, sometimes my “crossroads” were a bit uneven. The tip I found was to pin the side of the seam which is reached last by the needle when sewing. I find this stops the seam allowances moving. Keep the tutorials coming!

  3. I’m so glad U brought up this issue.
    I always press to the dark side, seams nest better, but, but, but,
    when seams are bulkier I press open, so I use both methods, when
    I think is necessary. ( some of my friends disagree, they do not like
    open seams )

  4. I am an open presser. I see all my friends spending time trying to decide which side to press to, instead of actually pressing. I never have to think about it. I also think that the more practice you have at whichever way you do it, the faster and easier it will get.
    As to strength of seam, I think there are so many other factors which influence this: qulity of thread, tension, quilting design… that it’s unfair to put all the blame on the pressing technique.
    I do agree that stitching in the ditch may not be the best or easiest thing to do next to an open seam, but my feeling has always been that I do not want to spend my time doing stitching which essentially won’t be seen. I almost never quilt in the ditch.
    The thing I really don’t like about side pressing is how lumpy it is, especially where multiple seams meet. I work a great deal in miniature, and that seems to magnify the lumpiness.
    Anyway, as many have already said – there is no right answer. Whatever works for you!

  5. I’m sew glad you posted this. I always pressed seams open when sewing garments and then when I was learning to quilt they told me to press them toward the darker fabric. Sooo I end up doing it both ways depending on the thickness. I was glad to read your reasoning. I thought I was just a sloppy/do it my own way kind of quilter. LOL

  6. I sewed garments (press seams open) for many years before I started quilting and I am mostly a self-taught quilter. It was hard to press seams to one side so I do both but most of the time I press to one side. The pieces just seem to fit better that way.

  7. Oh you have taken on the one thing that can start wars! hehe I do both, depends on the project…. Mostly though, I press my seams open. I like the way the blocks lay better. I piece with a very small stitch and I have stitched in the ditch with seams pressed open…. will they stand the test of time? I’ll let you know 🙂 I do admit however that pressing to the side makes matching those seams WAY easier…. LOVE your blog! Adding you to my blog roll for sure!!

  8. I loved reading all of your thoughts about this issue. I am one of those that likes the way seams line up so well when I press to the side, but I find myself doing a bit of this and a bit of that in many of my squares.

  9. I’m relatively new to piecing blocks, but I sometimes find that the block will tell me which way to press. The fabric just seems to be more comfortable pressed to one side rather than open, and vice versa.

  10. You have some very good points… Er, um… on your blocks and in your post! I used to always press my seams to the side, but then broke free of that ‘rule’ to see what it would be like to press open. And now I can’t stop! I love how flat the quilt top is. When writing a pattern I call for the seams to be pressed open. I match my points well without nesting. And If you quilt across a seam in any fashion you risk hitting a thread. But we do run that needle through the fabric all the time. I don’t see any threads in the fabric breaking. Hmmm…. We are still friends! Even if we don’t press the same way! Great discussion topic.

  11. I press my seams to the side for the same reasons you do because it makes stronger.
    I enjoy you blog and have learn my new thimgs from the blogs.

  12. I have learned to press the seam to the dark side of the material. Well this does not always match when piecing to another block. Am I doing something wrong? That is why I think about pressing the seam open. I can see what happens to the right side of the block when this is done. I am on the face on this one.

  13. I disagree. I think pressing seams open, while I pain in the butkus, can get you greater accuracy. I see your point about weakness, especially when you stitch in the ditch afterwards. I reserve pressing seams open for special circumstance. I recently pieced a quilt that showed every thread I was off in my intersections. After much ripping and resewing, I discovered that pressing my seams open helped with accuracy. (Using cream and black fabrics was half my problem!) Thank you for you thoughts.

  14. I try to press my seams open first then both to one side, especially if there is a difference in thickness of the cotons It gets the seams realy flat.

  15. I do both ways, sometimes in the same block. I just finished the Farmers Wife Quilt Sampler and the small blocks definitely finished nicer with the seams open.

  16. I’m a side presser. I only open seams for the bulkiest of blocks!

    As a longarmer, I have customers that go both ways… but I do notice that the open seam quilts do seem to pull apart more. I’m mostly an all over quilter so SID has not been a problem for me yet. But I will keep that in mind if my open seam customers ask for SID!.

    thanks for the info.

  17. My biggest problem with pressing to the side is deciding which direction to press. And when I get to joining blocks together, I find that I guessed wrong. Ugh! So on my last quilt top, I tried pressing open. All went well until I joined all the blocks together. When I got to the outer edges of the quilt blocks I discovered that the stitching was coming out where I had pressed the seams open. Definitely a problem when trying to match up with a measured sashing! I like Julie’s suggestion of flexibility.

  18. Thanks for this article. I have been quilting for quite some time and have always pressed my seams to the side. Lately I have heard that pressing them open is best so I tried it. It took so much time and I wasn’t really happy with the outcome so I am going back to pressing to the side.

  19. Thank you for going over this, I am far from being an “experienced” quilter and am in a “big” learning curve. I have been taught and have watched many videos showing the press to the side method – but there has been that 1 that has said to press open. I have pressed open but only where too many seams are coming together and for the pin wheel comes together. I know there is that twist method for those intersections but I have yet to really grasp that idea.

  20. Mostly I will press to the side, but, like most, there are the exceptions that I feel call for open seams – usually due to bulk. There is something I’ve discovered that helps with bulk and is probably another ‘many sided’ topic, I use thin bobbin thread. I discovered using the bobbin thread that I use with machine embroidery help reduce the bulk. You need to figure that some of the more common cotton threads add thickness… just my thoughts.

    1. Thread is definitely a contributing factor to seams lying flat. I haven’t tried using the thin embroidery bobbin thread for piecing, but it might be worth a try! My current favorite thread for piecing is Aurafil cotton.

  21. It looks like the comments are running pretty much in favor of pressing to the side! I’ll throw my hat in that ring – but occasionally (like with a seam that runs the length of the backing, or a block requiring a lot of seams), I’ll open them and press. I found a neat new “gadget” which I can lay on my ironing board, place the seam right over the gadget (basically, a long stick with a humped top and ironing board fabric covering it) that somehow (magic?) makes that seam “fall” open when I go over it with the iron, so it’s not as cumbersome and time consuming to press a seam open. Also, I can avoid the “burned fingers” syndrome!

  22. I’ve been piecing quilts for over thirty years and have always pressed to the side. Seldom do I press a seam open, and only if’s it’s exceptionally bulky.

  23. Sometimes I’ll press seams open if bulky. But most of the time it’s to the side. I was told by a quilt judge that it’s the “Proper” way. She said if they can see your stitches they take off points for that. I’ve never enter a quilt to be judged but you never know!

  24. Hi Julie,

    Thank you for a great article.

    As a novice quilter, I pressed them open for my first ever project and it was a disaster. The patchwork from the charm packs did not line up and every 4-5 squares were off. Thankfully the quilt was a gift for my mum who was delighted with it regardless.

    I have since been pressing seams to one side with great success. As you point out, the nest together and you get a perfect finish every time if you have stuck to the seam allowance.

    I now even press them to one side for non- quilting projects, such as tote bags.

    Eva

  25. I think in many cases, it’s a matter of how we learned. I was first taught to press my seams open. Of course, I leaned hand piecing – with scissors, plastic templates, and hand quilting. I imagine most of the thought was for the blocks to lie flat. Then when I went back to classes years later, I heard of pressing to the darker side of a seam. By then, I was using a mat and rotary cutter as well as a sewing machine. I thought the times had changed and that was the tried and true method now or even perhaps for machine piecing. I just used what I was taught. I recently took a class with a meticulous quilter. She said that she almost always presses her seams open. I mean she is so meticulous that I think she always uses the pre-printed paper for making ALL her half square triangles. She is a total perfectionist. Of course, she wins awards on her quilts, too! Again, I think it’s a lot how we were taught and personal preference. I guess my biggest pet peeve about it is when watching a tv program or a YouTube and the person says, “Press your seam open,” and then proceeds to press it to the side and this happens continually. I imagine the person knows the difference and just is not cautious in the wording.
    Thanks for the “Let’s Talk” chat. Good information. I really do like the locking feature of pressing to the side.

    1. Hi Susan, I also took a class from a “famous” quilter who pressed all of her seams open with great success! Her quilts are beautiful and you can’t argue with that. If it works, it works! I think I tried pressing my seams open after taking her class, but I went back to pressing to the side because I didn’t have the patience. If you learn to press seams open, then it’s probably not something you even think about! Thanks for the wise words.

  26. Thanks for sharing Julie – I was a quilter who always always pressed seams poem mainly to reduce bulk but over the past two years have been pressing to the side except when making binding or bias strips. Love that it helps strengthen seams and that it helps with more accurate piecing from nesting seams. Really looking forward to more lets talk posts!
    Keera @ live.love.sew

  27. I do the same thing. Mostly to the side, but open when it gets too bulky. Sometimes when they are open I feel like some batting pokes through?? or maybe its my batting choice. Love the idea of this series. Fun to hear what everyone is thinking:)

  28. My thoughts exactly. I always press to the side & press open in unique circumstances as you’ve stated.
    Incidently, I love this “Let’s Talk” forum. Great idea! I know it’s new, but I love it already!
    Thanks

  29. Hey, Julie!

    Thanks, hugely, for taking the time to write this great article and images — am about to start a quilt and will use your press-seams-to-the-side habit with great delight…. the last quilt I made did, in fact, have some weak spots caused by pressing seams flat, and I hadn’t made the connection re how much stronger pressed-to-the-side seams are. THANKS again.

    Also – just hearing from you is a such a new-year pleasure — makes me want to get active & engaged in quilting again. Thanks, also, for all your warmth & inspiration!

    Breezylass
    (Kay Talley, San Diego)

  30. I press my seams to the side because I don’t usually know ahead of time when I may stitch in the ditch. On bulky seams, I use a small rubber hammer and give it a wack (not hard,just hard enough to relieve some bulk) works for me. Hope you will try it! Be gentle

  31. I like pressing to the side as I like stitching in the ditch. However, I am always in a quandary when the blocks do not mesh and I have already sewn seams to the side. Any hints?

    1. Hi Robbie,

      It can be a few reasons, mainly 3 in my opinion. 1) Either your seam allowance not being adhered to, or 2) that your fabrics are of a different weight. The tiniest amount of extra thickness in the fabric makes those 2 squares minutely smaller. 3) Finally, ironing the thin fabric with lots of steam and rolling the iron can stretch it. Make sure you use the iron like a stamp, do not slide back and forth.
      Accuracy is paramount in complex blocks, as each seam increases the chance of error. Cut well and go slow.- I am too impatient for that type of work myself, but adore the results.

      Eva

  32. Hi Julie, I agree with all the reasons you stated for pressing your seams to the side. The only time I press seams open is if instructed in a pattern and it is to reduce bulk. I started using this method after taking a class with Eleanor Burns where her famous saying is ‘Press to the Dark Side’ Ha! Ha!

  33. I’m with you Julie on pressing to the side with the exception of the last seams for a complicated bulky block as you mentioned.
    Besides, I burn my fingers less often!

  34. I agree with you about pressing to the side. I find that when piecing I seldom even need to use pins. I ‘finger pin’ intersections holding them until they are near the presser foot. I also press the last seam in a block with many seams at the center, like an eight pointed star, open just near the center of the block and then let the seams go back to the side before the outer seam intersections, like where the triangles enter the seam. It lays nice and flat then.

  35. Hi Julie,

    I do exactly as you do. I mostly press to the side, however on some last seams I will press open. Being a longarm quilter, I try to think of how I[m going to quilt the quilt. If I’m going to SID, then the seams need to be pressed to the side OR

    Sometimes I will clip the heavy intersection, a la Jo Morton, and press the intersection open, but the rest of the seam to the side.

  36. Wow – you must have read my mind because I have started quilting more lately and was wondering how you decide which way to press! Thanks for the tips!

  37. I agree with pressing to the side and on occasion pressing open when I feel the block will lay flatter if I do. So I’m in total agreement. Besides, the only quilt police I have to answer to is a furry four legged one and I think I can over rule her most of the time.

  38. I have been trying to become a better piecer (accurate) for just over a year now and I have experimented a lot with pressing. I finally found a way that worked for me by mainly pressing to one side. Then I wanted to be able to FMQ and stop just stitching in the ditch and found that by pressing to one side I have FMQ problems – my foot hits an intersection and my nicely formed circle or feather suddenly has a dent and my almost even stitches are not so even any more. So now I avoid built up of seams and press more open than to the side. I do not SID down the seams and weaken them and coming from a dressmaking background I am not at all worried about pressing seams open. Rarely does your garments split unless you make them too tight despite most seams in home made garments being pressed open and by quilting you minimise the ability of each piece of fabric to move so the pull is minimal.
    So for me it is very much a question of minimising thickness when it comes to pressing in order for me to avoid frustration when I quilt. I prefer to unpick badly matched up points to unpicking FMQ 😀

    1. Those are great points, Maga! I, too, can run into problems when FMQ’ing bulky seams. I try to keep that in mind if I’m thinking ahead and know that I will be doing some fancy FMQ near those seams. Thanks for chiming in!

  39. Julie, I agree with you totally. I recently heard a popular quilting instructor say that the only reason for pressing your seams to the side is for stitching in the ditch. I disagree with her for all the reasons you shared. To each their own…

  40. I always press to the side for the same reasons you mentioned. I think I’ll try, though, to press open when the seam will be too bulky pressed to the side. Thanks for the info.

  41. Could not have said it better!! I agree for all the same reasons and make exceptions on rare occasions for the same reasons. Thanks for all your great ideas and tutorials. Since I’m new to your blog, I’m still trying out things from you’re Christmas Once A Month last year!

  42. I was “taught” to press open when I first began quilting, then the trend changed to “the side”. I almost always press to the side now, unless I have a verty small block with a lot of pieces. I find that pressing open on a small block somehow makes it easier to be accurate. Pressing some seams open, some closed looks like a perfect marriage!

  43. Julie, I agree 100% with all you have written above, so it is easy to stay friends :). I’m a Finnish quilt teacher and hope you don’t mind my using your arguments for a lesson to my patchwork/quilting students!

  44. I press the way that the fabric falls. I do agree with your reasons for pressing to the side and do actually do that most of the time. I am like you in that open just sometimes makes the block lie better and flatter. Nesting makes them lie that way also. I’m glad “rules are made to be broken.” haha! thanks for the great question! Love your website. Would love more of your tutorials!

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