Pressing Fabric 101: How, Tools & Tips from a Seamstress

Whenever I’m teaching a friend the basics of sewing, one of the first things I tell them is that “pressing is half of sewing”. Pressing in sewing is the act of applying heat, steam, and pressure to an area of fabric to make it lie flatter and smoother, as well as make it conform to a specific shape. Common areas you’ll need to press include seams, darts, pleats, tucks, hems, finished edges, and bindings.

Why is pressing important?

By pressing your seams you will set the stitches into the fabric, making your seams more durable and smooth, as well as making the seams blend and disappear into the fabric.

Pressing is the key to achieving a professional clean result in any sewing project.

You will have much more success in your sewing projects if you press as you sew. This does not necessarily mean that you have to press each seam right after you sew it, rather, it means that you should press your seams before sewing another seam that intersects with the first one. You can batch-sew different parts of a garment that do not intersect and then batch-press them to save time and trips to the ironing board. Just make sure that you never sew over an area that features a seam, dart, or hem that hasn’t been pressed.

Pressing tools in sewing with names, pics & uses


What is it? An iron is an electrical appliance with a flat, heated, metal base. It’s used to apply heat and steam to fabric.

Uses: Essential for pressing anything.

Different types:

  • Steam irons: Today, most domestic irons are steam irons. These irons have a built-in water reservoir that can shoot out hot steam at a wider area of fabric. They are really useful to have in everyday sewing projects. The three most popular types are normal steam irons (which have a small water reservoir in the handheld iron itself), steam generator irons (which hold a larger volume of water in a separate base reservoir that is connected to the handheld part) and gravity feed irons (which feature a water reservoir that is suspended from the ceiling).
  • Dry irons: These irons do not produce steam, but they can be used in conjunction with tools like a water spray bottle or a dauber to apply steam in a more focused way. Heavy, dry irons are frequently used in traditional tailoring. The added weight and the more controlled application of steam is useful in tailoring.

Ironing board

What is it? An ironing board is a long, narrow board with a metal frame and folding legs. It has a cushioned top that is covered with a soft, heat-resistant material. You should make sure there are no lumps or bumps on the cushioning and under the cover or they could leave marks on the fabric you’re ironing. 

Uses: This is used as a pressing and ironing surface. 

Tip: Many ironing boards come with polyester or nylon coverings which can easily melt under high temperatures. I recommend either sourcing or sewing your own covering out of a heavy-weight cotton or linen canvas with a smooth surface. You can slip the new cover over the old one, which will provide some extra cushioning under your fabric. 

Different types: If you don’t have the space for an ironing board in your sewing space, you can try using an ironing mat / blanket / pad as an alternative. These are meant to be placed on any flat surface to convert it into a pressing surface without damaging the table or other furniture underneath. You can also make your own temporary or permanent pressing mat by covering a couple of layers of batting with a suitable cloth.

Pressing cloth 

What is it? Pressing cloths are used between the fabric you want to press and your iron. Without a pressing cloth, your fabric could be damaged by the direct heat from the iron. Some fabrics (like many wools and darker-coloured linens) become shiny and flat on the surface if they’re touched directly with a hot iron, and some fabrics (like polyester or nylon) cannot take too much heat. Using a pressing cloth will allow you to press these fabrics without changing their appearance, texture, or melting them away.

Uses: Pressing delicate fabrics, avoiding scorch marks on wool and linen, avoiding heat damage on fabrics that can’t take high temperatures.

Different types: My favorite fabric to use as a pressing cloth is silk organza in a light color. It can take a lot of heat and its transparency makes it easier to press seams, darts, hems, or tricky areas with precision. If you can’t get your hands on silk organza, you can try a plain cotton voile or batiste in a light color (to avoid any color transfer to your fabric) or a wool gauze or voile for pressing wool fabrics. 

Tailors ham

What is it? A tailor’s ham is a tightly packed pillow with a domed surface. It’s usually stuffed with sawdust or scraps of fabric. It mimics the shape of a body, allowing curved and three-dimensional areas on garments to be pressed in a way that conforms to the body. 

Uses: Pressing curved seams, darts, waistlines, collars, necklines, and other three-dimensional areas on a garment.

Sleeve roll

What is it? A sleeve roll is a long and thin tubular pillow that’s usually stuffed with sawdust or scraps of fabric. It fills out areas like sleeves and legs when you need to press them. And it helps press the seams on tight areas. Without a sleeve roll (or something similar) to fill out these tubular areas, you would have to press them flat and create creases/pressing lines on the edges.

Uses: Pressing sleeve and leg inseams, narrow hems, sleeve heads, and other tight areas on garments.

Sleeve board

What is it? A sleeve board basically looks like a miniature ironing board. It has a metal or wooden frame and legs, and a cushioned board resting on top of the frame. Due to its small size, it can slide into tough-to-reach areas like sleeves or trousers’ legs, helping with the pressing of seams in tight spaces.

Uses: Pressing sleeve and leg inseams, narrow hems, sleeve heads, and other tight areas on garments.


What is it? A clapper (also called a tailor’s clapper) is a wooden block with rounded edges, usually made out of hardwood such as maple. It’s used immediately after applying steam and heat to the fabric to cool the area and absorb the excess moisture, setting the seam or crease into place.

Uses: It can be used in all steps of pressing, but it’s especially useful for working with wool. You can use it any time you want an extra flat seam.

Tip: I haven’t been able to source a clapper locally, so I’ve been using a small wooden cutting board as a substitute. It’s been working great for the past couple of years, so feel free to get creative and use other wooden objects lying around your house in a pinch.

Water spray bottle

What is it? A spray bottle that’s filled with water. It’s helpful when you’re trying to get rid of stubborn creases in your fabric. You can also use it to create steam in a more controlled way, by spraying specific areas with water and pressing them with a hot, dry iron.

Uses: Ironing out creases, and shaping fabric with a controlled application of steam.


What is it? A dauber is a tightly rolled cylinder of woolen fabric that’s about 1” (2.5 cm) in diameter and 3-4” (7.5 – 10 cm) in length.You dab it in water and then brush the dauber on the area you wish to steam. When you press the area with a hot, dry iron, the brushed water will create steam. It gives you a lot of control over the steam you produce with an iron. It’s frequently used in traditional tailoring.

You can make your own out of wool scraps: Just roll one long strip of wool (or a few shorter strips) into a tightly packed cylinder, and whip stitch the end to the body to keep it closed or tie it using the selvage strips of your wool.

Uses: Working with wool fabrics, shaping the fabric and the seam with a controlled application of steam.

Seam roller 

What is it? A seam roller is a tool that features a tapered, rolling wheel made from wood, plastic, metal, or silicone. It can be used as an easier alternative to finger pressing, and although it works if you don’t have access to an iron, it is not a complete substitute. 

Uses: Foundation / English paper piecing, quilting, working with stiff cotton fabrics, pressing small areas.

Seam presser / finger presser / seam creaser

What is it? This is a small wooden or plastic tool that’s used as an alternative to ironing. Just like the seam roller, it’s not a complete substitute for pressing your seams with an iron, but it works well in small areas and in quilting. You glide the tool down a seam or fold (with some pressure) to create a crease.

Uses: Foundation / English paper piecing, quilting, working with stiff cotton fabrics, pressing small areas.

How to press seams

Pressing a seam means directing the seam allowances to a specific side and applying heat to set the seams in place and flatten them. You can either press the seam allowances open, or press them closed (to one side). This will depend on the project you’re working on and the seam finishing technique you’re using. By pressing your seams, you will ensure that they lie flat and smooth.

Step-by-step instructions:

  • Step 1: Lay the two pieces of fabric you have just sewn on your pressing surface. Press the newly sewn seam flat to set the stitching into the fabric. If you’re working with a heavy-weight fabric, repeat this on the other side.
  • Step 2a: Next, open the two layers of fabric and place it wrong side up to reveal the seam allowances. a) Separate the two layers of seam allowances, and finger press to keep them open. b) Place your iron on the opened-up seam allowances, wait for a short while, and lift your iron. Repeat along the entire seam.
  • Step 2b: Alternatively, you can press the seam closed (to one side). a) To do so, lay the two layers of seam allowances to the side of your choice, and finger press it to keep them in place. b) Next, place your iron on the seam, wait for a short while, and lift your iron. Repeat along the entire seam.
  • Step 3: Finally, turn the piece so that you’re looking at the right side of the fabric. Give it another press to make sure the seam is completely flat, and that there are no bumps or ridges along the seam. 

How to avoid leaving pressing marks:

  • Method 1: You can slide a thin piece of cardboard, a folded-up piece of paper, or some scrap fabric between the seam allowance and the rest of the fabric to prevent the seam allowance from leaving an imprint. This method works well for bulkier seam finishes like a French seam, self-bound seam, bound seam, or a Hong Kong Finish.
  • Method 2: You can also try lifting the seam allowance up and pressing under it to remove any imprints. With this method, you will sacrifice a bit of the flatness that you achieved by pressing the seam allowance, so I prefer using the first method over this one.

Temperature settings:

It’s really important to select the right temperature setting for the fabric you’re pressing. Materials made out of linen and cotton can take much higher temperatures than those made out of silk or nylon. Using too low a temperature can render your pressing ineffective, and using too high a temperature can permanently damage your fabric. Here are some recommended temperatures for popular fabric types:

  • Linen: 230°C / 445°F
  • Cotton: 204°C / 400°F
  • Viscose / Rayon: 190°C / 375°F
  • Wool: 148°C / 300°F
  • Polyester: 148°C / 300°F
  • Silk: 148°C / 300°F
  • Nylon / Lycra / Spandex: 135°C / 275°F

Always test the temperature setting on a scrap of the fabric to make sure the color and texture of the fabric are not affected by the heat. 

When to use steam or add water to the fabric:

The application of moisture and heat makes the fibers of the fabric more malleable, and it allows you to shape the two-dimensional fabric into a three-dimensional object. You can shrink the excess volume in a specific area, or stretch the fabric out to curve over your body. This technique pairs especially well with wool and linen because these fibers are easily shaped by steam.

If you apply steam to your fabric to shape it, make sure it’s fully dry before you move it to avoid distortion to the shape you just created.

Steam is also helpful for pressing seams perfectly flat, especially when paired with a clapper. The clapper will soak up the excess moisture and leave you with perfect seams.

Applying water or steam is also the best way to get rid of stubborn wrinkles. You can either spray some water on the fabric, take it out of the dryer early, or apply some strong steam to the fabric before you press it to get smooth results.

How to press curved seams

  • Step 1: Once you have sewn your curved seam, snip into the seam allowance so the seam can lie flat. Be careful not to cut into the actual stitching – the cuts should end just before they reach the seam. 
  • Step 2: Open up the fabric. Place it on a tailor’s ham with the wrong side facing up. Using a tailor’s ham will help support the curve of the seam. Depending on the pattern you’re using, fold the seam allowances to the side or separate the two layers.
  • Step 3: Make sure everything is lying flat and press the seam with your iron. Go slowly so that you don’t create any accidental pleats or wrinkles on the right side of the fabric. Feel free to readjust the piece on the tailor’s ham so that the curve of the seam is fully supported by the curve of the ham.
  • Step 4: Turn the piece over and place it on the tailor’s ham, this time with the right side up. Press the seam again to make sure there are no bumps.

How to press darts

  • Step 1: Lay the fabric wrong side up, so that you’re looking at the stitching of the dart. Press the dart to form a crease along the central line of the dart, and to set the stitching into the fabric.
  • Step 2: Open the fabric, and place it on a tailor’s ham with the wrong side facing up. Using a tailor’s ham will allow you to shape the darted area so that it creates a smooth curve rather than a sharp angle. Decide on which side the dart should be pressed towards and fold the dart to that side. 
  • Step 3: Place some calico between the dart and the rest of the fabric to prevent the bulk of the dart from leaving an impression on the face of the fabric.
  • Step 4: Place your iron on the dart and apply steam. Pay extra attention to the point of the dart, making sure it flows and blends into the rest of the fabric.  

How to press sleeves

How to press the sleeve head:

Step 1: Drape the sleeve head over a tailor’s ham, a sleeve roll, or a sleeve board. What matters is that the head of the sleeve is as supported as possible. Feel free to get creative here, you can combine your pressing tools in whatever combination to make them suit the shape of your sleeve head. This is so that the sleeve head doesn’t lose its volume and become deflated.

Step 2: Hovering over the sleeve head with your iron, liberally apply steam. Leave it to completely cool down before removing it from its place.

How to press the sleeve hem:

Step 1: Slide the hem of the sleeve over a sleeve board or a sleeve roll.

Step 2: Press the hem with your iron. Rotate the sleeve on the board or the roll to access the rest of the hem. Repeat until the entire hem is pressed.

How to press the sleeve inseam(s):

Step 1: Turn the sleeve inside out, and slide the sleeve over a sleeve board or a sleeve roll.

Step 2: Centre the sleeve’s inseam on the board or the roll, and press the seam open or to the side. Depending on the length of your sleeve and your sleeve board/roll, you may need to reposition the sleeve to access the remainder of the seam. If there are multiple seams forming the sleeve, repeat this on the other seam(s).

Pressing tips

Using pressing templates

Using pressing templates is one of my favorite tricks for achieving consistent results on pieces like patch pockets. You can make your own by folding the seam allowances in on your pattern piece. To use it, place your fabric on top of the template with the seam allowances unfolded. You can stabilize it by pinning the fabric and the template down to the ironing board. Next, fold the paper template along the fold lines you created. This will also fold the fabric along the fold lines. Press into place, and repeat on all the edges. 

This is an especially useful trick for achieving symmetrical pockets and pressing the edges that are on the bias in by an even amount without stretching them out. 

Using a hem gauge

A hem gauge is a metal tool that has common hem allowances marked on it. To use it, you fold your hem allowance up to the desired mark and press it into place using your iron. It allows you to quickly mark and press an accurate hem line, which can also be useful for turning in and pressing the seam allowances on patch pockets, collar stands, cuffs, waistbands, and so on.

Using loop pressing bars

Loop pressing bars are thin and long strips that you can place inside a small tube of fabric that you’ve sewn before pressing them to lie flat. They help you center the seam on the tube and get a perfectly even width across the tube / loop / strap. If you don’t have one, you can substitute it by cutting some thin cardboard into thin, long strips.

Quick Q&A’s

What is pressing in sewing?

Pressing in sewing is the act of applying heat, steam, and pressure to an area of fabric to make it lie flatter and smoother, as well as make it conform to a specific shape. Common areas you’ll need to press include seams, darts, pleats, tucks, hems, finished edges, and bindings.

Pressing vs ironing?

Pressing is done by lifting your iron, placing it on the area you want pressed, and giving it a press, while ironing is done by gliding the iron over a larger area of fabric. The reason we press our seams rather than iron them is so we don’t distort the grainline or stretch the seams by dragging the iron over them. 

Should you press fabric before sewing?

Pressing your fabric after you prewash / pretreat it and before you cut into it is a good idea. It will give you a smooth, wrinkle-free surface to place your pattern pieces on. It will help you identify the grainline of the fabric better, and your cutting will be much more accurate. 

What’s the advantage of pressing each seam as you sew rather than waiting until the garment is finished?

On many sewing projects, you will encounter intersecting seams, hems, and edges. If you wait until the end to press all your seams together, you will have lost access to some of those seams, resulting in a poorly constructed garment with puckered seams. Pressing the seams as you go will give you a flat surface to work on before sewing a new seam.

What to read next:

This article was written by Nisan Aktürk and edited by Sara Maker.

Nisan Aktürk (author)
Nisan started her sewing journey in December 2019 and already has a fully handmade wardrobe. She’s made 50+ trousers, 20+ buttoned shirts, and a wide array of coats, jackets, t-shirts, and jeans. She’s currently studying for her Sociology Master’s degree and is writing a thesis about sewing. So she spends a lot of her time either sewing or thinking/writing about sewing! Read more…