The Free Motion Quilting Project: Pressing Seams

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pressing Seams

Last week during the Stitching in the Ditch Part of the How Do I Quilt This?! Series, I received two comments about my advice to press seams open:
Kristin - I have always heard that pressing to one side is very important when stitching in the ditch. If the seams are pressed open, you are only quilting down the threads that are holding your seams together. The quilts I make are to be used and washed a lot, so they need to handle a lot of stress. Also, I found that it is not that difficult to hide the threads in the seam when it is pressed to one side. It just takes practice.
Judy M - I, like Kristine, do quilt 1/16" inch from the seam and press seams to the side (usually to the darker side). I don't want to risk stitching right on top of the seam and exposing the batting or opening up the seam, especially on quilts that I use and wash regularly. For that reason I still use my walking foot which gives me a guide to keep me straight and precisely 1/16" away from the seam.
Regardless of whether free motioning or walking foot, planning out those stabilizing seams is so crucial. It causes you to really think through your places where you will need to turn and reposition the quilt, as well as try and avoid as many thread breaks as possible.
Then I received another email about this too!

Karen - When you machine quilt in the ditch along pieced seams, you have your seams pressed open -- thus you are quilting right on the existing seaming where those pieces join. Is there any chance your needle might pierce the threads holding those pieces together and thus weaken the quilt? "In the day", we pressed our seams to 1 side and stitched the quilting line on the side that only had the 1 layer of fabric. But today, so many patterns suggest you press seams open and after seeing your video, I thought it was time to ask someone knowledgeable about stitching on top of the existing seam line.
With this many comments and questions about a single issue, I realized this would be a great topic to cover more clearly in an article. So here goes:

To press open, or not to press open, that is the question!
To start, yes, I always press my seams open where possible on my quilt. There are a few situations, like hexagons or diamonds, that the seams must be pressed together to one side, but for the most part, the seams on my quilt are always pressed open.

But according to the comments above, there is apparently some concern about doing this. A pressed open seam might be impacting the overall lifespan of my quilts!

Of course, you have to weigh in the power of opinion when it comes to an issue like this. In this hobby, there is no absolute, correct, end-all-be-all, never-to-be-questioned way of doing something!

We all do things a little differently, try new things out, take what works, and chuck the rest.

But this doesn't stop me from thinking I'M RIGHT! Ha!

So to weigh in with my opinion on the seam pressing issue, I really think pressing the seam open is the preferable way, and no, I don't believe this is endangering the integrity of the quilt.

For one thing, I use a very short stitch length when piecing which means that there are many stitches going into each seam.

This makes the seam line very stable, so that when pressed open there is no chance that the batting will start coming out through the stitches.

Another thing - I FINGER PRESS my seams open first before hitting it with the iron. If you are trying to use the iron tip to open your seams, then yes, you will most definitely get distortion because that iron is not a good tool to do that with.

Get one of those wooden seam pressing tools to help you open the seam gently first, then hit it with an iron carefully to press it open permanently.

As for the question about stitching in the ditch - to stitch right in the ditch or off slightly to one side - most quilt judges will tell you that stitches in the ditch should be IN THE DITCH. Not to one side, not 1/8" away, and this is far easier if the seams are pressed open.

If you think about it, a hand quilter can stitch right into the ditch absolutely perfectly because she is has ultimate control over the placement of each stitch. Since machine quilting has evolved from hand quilting, the rules remain the same.

This will also come into play greatly when we move on to the Section Quilting Part of the video series because in order to section quilt some areas, like sashing, you have to travel along the stitched in the ditch line. By stitching off, you're going to be building up thread noticeably off the ditch and it just won't look pretty.

And what about the concern of stitching in the ditch potentially breaking threads in the seam? My opinion is this is a big load of BS (sorry, no nice way of saying it!)

If you're using a short stitch length while piecing, even if your needle did pierce a stitch dead on perfectly (the chances of which have to be minimal), then that one broken thread is not going to suddenly destroy the integrity of your quilt!

In fact, by stitching right in the ditch, you're adding more threads through this area, so if anything you're going to end up with more stability and a better wearing seam.

This whole issue really reminds me a lot of the questions I get very often about my use of Isacord Polyester thread on all of my quilts.

Apparently there is a general opinion that polyester threads are EVIL!

They are out to destroy your quilt because if you quilt polyester on a cotton quilt top, the poly will eventually (maybe 100 years???) shred through the cotton, destroying all your hard work!

Sorry for the sarcasm, but really? Has anyone actually witnessed this happening or is this just a quilter's version of an urban legend designed to keep us all so fearful we don't dare consider quilting with anything other than ugly cotton thread???

The fact is, I can't free motion quilt with cotton threads. The high speeds required for quilting like this require a thread that is very strong. Typical cotton thread is great for piecing, but just not up strong enough when it comes to quilting.

Cotton thread is also thick. Even the thinnest cotton thread I could find looks like a chunky toddler on the surface of my quilts. Travel stitching is a nightmare, the lint build up can potentially destroy a machine, and the numerous thread breaks will send any normal quilter to the mad house.

But again - this is my opinion! How I make my quilts and the materials I use in them is based on my experience, my opinions, and my time and budget constraints.

A quilter with more money to sink into her quilts might swear by silk thread, while I think it's an expensive rip off!

A quilter with more time might hand applique everything in sight because she has infinite time to finish her quilt tops. I have neither the time nor patience despite the fact that I really enjoy hand applique!

So here is the ultimate point of this long, ranting post - do not listen to ANYONE!

We all have personal biases so don't listen to me, don't listen to your neighbor, or your mom, or your quilt guild president when it comes to learning about a new technique or trying a new material.

The only person who can tell you whether one material or technique is good enough or will work properly for your quilts is YOU!

You must try it out, play with it, experiment, break some threads, finish a few quilts, and by the end of it all - you will have a very clear, personal opinion of what works and what doesn't.

Whew! Can we go quilt now?

Leah Day


  1. All hail Leah - oh how right you are - I get by with what I do be it quilting, patchwork, spinning, crochet, knitting and now weaving and I go by what 'feels' right to me, with what I have to hand or can easily obtain - I don't believe in paying a fortune for something because it has the 'hip' makers name or because I've got to make a 160mile round trip to get it. For example I didn't know if I'd be able to use gloves whilst quilting so to avoid expense (in case it didn't work out for me) I bought a budget pair of ladies gardening gloves - the knitted type with a rubberised palm - OK the smell a bit but yes I can work with them and I can see a big improvement on my quilting skills and I've now got the option to look for proper gloves next time I'm in a quilt shop or stick with my slightly smelly budget format and get more fabric to play with.
    We each have options - succumb to the quilt police and maybe make our hobby more taxing and less enjoyable or go with what we are happy and comfortable with which gives us results in a timely fashion - eg: instead of just working on sample squares for FMQ I've started a leaf doodle in thread which I can make into a cushion panel or a QSYG lap quilt of leaf doodles on hand dyed fabrics (blogged about)

  2. I actually have witnessed the damage polyester thread can do to a piece made with cotton fabric. A friend of mine brought me pillows made by her grandmother in the 70s and the strength of the poly thread had caused the fabric around the seams to pull and break down. Although I have to say i don't think the fabric was the highest quality but it certainly did show that it doesn't take 100 years to have an affect. I use poly, rayon etc. thread but I do keep in mind how much wear the piece is going to have etc. Same thing with pressing the seams to one side vs open. I think there is a place for everything - you have to put some thought into what it will be used for etc. and make those decisions on a case by case basis.

  3. I just love an open forum of discussion. And I am thrilled to be quilting in the time of freedom what you want and what works for you.

  4. Great blog. Seems like there are too many "rules" in something that is supposed to be fun. I agree with you that we should do it how we want to do it and the heck with the quilt police.

  5. Thankyou for this post Leah! I love it when people encourage others to "break the rules".

    I don't use cotton thread simply because the poly stuff is cheaper where I am, and I have stacks of it from my garment sewing - I just wouldn't have the space to store so many different kinds at this point. I always get frowned on in quilt stores when I say I don't use cotton thread. Why would poly be any worse than cotton anyway? It's what's recommended for garment sewing, so why wouldn't a quilt you want to be used be made with the same thread.

  6. Excellent post and I quite agree. :)

  7. If--and that's a big IF--one DOES want to use cotton thread for free motion quilting (and I have a project where I do choose to use cotton thread) then let me make a case for Aurifil.

    Aurifil has a 50 weight thread which is a dream to sew with. It's thin, smooth, strong and comes in a beautiful range of colors.

    I agree completely that there shouldn't be any rules about thread choice and that it should depend on the aesthetics of the quilt and the characteristics you want to emphasize.

  8. another article for consideration

    everyone has an opinion on this, and usually its a strong one. Everyone has there own personal tastes etc so everyone must feel free to do as they feel is right.

    for myself when i press to one side i get more mismatched and lumpy intersections than when i press open. when i press open my blocks lay flat, the intersections match up mroe often and theres no lumpy bits at the intersections, and the darker fabrics dont show through as they are pressed towards themselves.

    to anyone not sure of this method, i say try it on something small and see.

    too often i see people doing things beacuse its always been that way, sometimes you just have to break out of the box and see what you find.

  9. I think it all depends on what you're trying to create. If you're making a quilt to be high use, loved on and worn out in 15 years, you can use anything. And that's most of the quilts we make-- we want them to be used and loved.

    If you want to make a quilt that lasts, though, you use natural fibers. The silk/cotton thread is archival (meaning it'll be here in a hundred or five hundred years, if the quilt is kept dry and stored safely.) Polyesters have acids that will eventually degrade and damage the fabrics around them. If you go into a thrift store and take a look at the clothes from the '70's and '80's you can see this pretty clearly-- they have a feel and a smell that's unmistakable. So the higher price for silk or the annoyance of pulling lint out of your machine once every three bobbins for cotton may seem to be a small price to pay for a shot at artistic immortality.

  10. he he he LOVE the rant, lol.

    But, of course, we cannot follow your advice of not listening to anyone. If we don't listen to anyone, how will we learn new things to try to see if we like them better. ;-)

    I LOVE your blog because not only is it informative, you are SOOOO generous with your time, effort, and advice.

    I've already learned SO much from you, and I'm going to try Isacord thread. I have about six or seven quilts that are basted and ready and I'm going to try the polyester thread and see how I like it.

    Have a GREAT day, Leah! You're the best!

  11. Leah, your work here is helpful & important. Older quilters are going to come at you with their rules & traditions, but you just have to let it go. Just tell them how you do things and leave it at that. This post was harsh & unnecessary. It pigeon holes people the same way others pigeon hole you. & none of that is right. Rise above those who try to belittle you.

  12. Hey, great post with some very valid questions from your followers...I agree with you, there are no hard set rules...and there shouldn't be!Try what you think 'feels' right...if that fails, then try something else. It's like I tell my kids, Life is school, you think you've finished 'school' think again! You just keep getting lessons thrown at you...isn't that what makes life interesting?

  13. yay, finally someone with opinions the same as mine. I teach quilting and my students are finally coming around to my way of thinking about pressing seams open, but boy it's taken a while. Of course they can do whatever they want but when they try it and see the benefits they are converts. I couldn't agree more with the threads too. The old "everything must be 100% cotton" stuff drives me made. I mean really? You are making the quilt, make it how and with whatever you want, there are no rules.
    Thanks for all the inspiration, I don't often comment, but I am here all of the time.

  14. I would definitely NOT ever stitch in the ditch of a seam that has been pressed open, no matter what thread I used. The seam is too fragile.

    That said, I rarely ever press seams open unless it helps to reduce bulk to do so.

    I am currently repairing an antique quilt that had all of its seams pressed open. What a mess. Not to say that it wouldn't have had problems had the seams been pressed to one side. It probably would have problems still, but I am so dismayed at how many of the seams have come apart by pressing open completely.

    Stitching in the ditch will not add any stability and will actually make the likelihood of pierced and broken stitches far more likely.

  15. Yes! Finally someone who is strong enough to tell it like it is.
    As you said, there are no hard and fast rules. How can there be? When new products are coming out so fast, one has to try them or be left in the dust.
    Amen Leah!

  16. Thts correct when I starting quilting the ladies that I knew would say REMEMBER there are NO QUILT POLICE. This I have always remembered.

  17. Totally agree! Do what works for you, ignore the rest... same goes for child rearing I believe LOL!!! I love Mark Lipinski's take on it..."It's a BLANKET!" And loved the answer my only quilt teacher gave me when I asked her what type of thread I should use... She said "Use what you have".

    I used to do "false bindings" on all my quilts, where I wrapped the back around to the front, and after proudly showing my first big quilt to a quilt store owner, she made a bad face, and told me I "Did it wrong". Never shopped there again. What a slap in the face! It should above all be a fun hobby!!!

  18. about polyester thread tearing cotton fabric: this is a myth. Check out the vidoes done by Bob at Superior Threads.

  19. Yes, yes, yes to pressing seams open (properly). Results in much flatter quilts. Let the quilters who just want it quilted and done quilt in the ditch as they wish. Those who want to take the time to add a third dimension to their quilts will want to add more quilting, such as fillers you have shown to add stability to their quilts.

  20. One more comment just for the record. Your quilt will not be accepted by most museums unless is was made with all natural fibers.

    Your family and friends, however, will be thrilled with quilts made from anything.

  21. Oh, thank you, Leah! I've always used poly thread in my piecing, but cotton in my quilting because that's what I was told to do by an expert. Every time I go to pick up quilting thread, I gaze longingly at the color selection available in poly, sigh, and get as close as I can with the limited cotton spools. No more! I WILL use poly if I feel like it, darn it.

  22. I agree with Leah - do what works for you :-)
    I generally use cotton to piece and quilt- but I'm not yet doing free motion quilting - thanks to Leah I will be learning how to do that soon!
    I only recently started pressing some seams open - my blocks are miraculously more exact now.
    I used invisible thread - the good kind to quilt in the beginning but that thread DID shred my quilt :-(
    I won't EVER be using invisible thread to quilt with again!

  23. From what I have learnt, mostly from experience.

    Pressing seams open is fine. They were originally pressed to one side when they were completely hand sewn because pressing to one side made the seams stronger as seams sometimes pulled apart. Modern machines do not have this issue.

    That said, there is some piecing where pressing to one side makes it easier to accurately join and match seams.

    If you are going to press with a hot iron use cotton thread. Poly thread melts at high temperatures. This happened to me with some applique last week and I had to resew my work with new thread!!

    If you are not going to use a hot iron, poly thread should be fine.

  24. I did not intend to sound like the "quilt police." I still hold that quilting in the ditch will be stronger over seams pressed to the side. But most people may not notice much difference. My son's quilt has been washed at least 50 times over the past year (don't ask - lol), and has held up well so far. I hope it will last a long time yet. If I had quilted it with another technique, I would not have cared how it was pressed.

    As for using polyester thread vs cotton - I think it is personal preference. My garments class teacher said to use thread weaker than your cloth. It's always easier to repair a seam than fabric. But to be honest, I'm not sure what the strength of the polyester is compared to cotton. For using polyester fabric, it's more of realizing that it won't shrink when washed like cottons will.

    Why do I bother writing all this? I think someone that is informed of the issues can decide what they want to do. There is not just one way to do this. I am excited to learn some "new ways" of doing things and trying it out. I hope others here are not afraid to experiment and try the "traditional" way of quilting as well as the "modern." There is value in both!

  25. Kristine - You weren't being the "quilt police" at all, but asking a great question that sparked many new questions and opinion!

    I'm so glad that you commented and started the ball rolling because the real point of posting this whole extra article is to prove that, just like you said, there is no 1 single way of doing something.



  26. lol wow! after all these comments iii have no opinion to add that hasnt been well argued already except one. i disagree that stitching slightly away from the ditch "just isnt pretty". in fact that comment kinda infuriated me. both of my grandmothers as well as myself have won ribbons with quilts that were stitched slightly off of the ditch and yes, the quilts ARE very pretty thankyou.

  27. i'm just glad you finally posted on this subject! i have been curious about your reasoning for pressing this way for quite sometime, and e-mailed you about it once before myself... i'm totally new to quilting... when i first started playing with piecing some blocks my first instinct was to press my seams open going back to what my teacher had taught during some home ec. type class in high school. however when i started learning about quilting specifically, everything i heard/read had contradicted that instinct and taught "press to the dark" until i bought your e-book on perfect piecing... the rationale makes sense on both sides of the argument... i will have to play with this some and decide which i prefer... at any rate, thank you for your insight!


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