To Press Or Iron - Tailor's Ham and Clapper Explained

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A blue and white iron sitting on a table

Press as you sew…

I’m sorry to say it but sewing and pressing go hand in hand. There is no getting away from it. I loathe ironing.

As a teenager who knew everything, I was told this many times and I probably rolled my eyes at my Mam… but in sewing terms there is a difference between pressing and ironing.

Personally, I’ve never been a slave to the iron, and I only use it when I am sewing, so here are so hints and tips to make life easier. Honestly, it really will.

You should wash fabric before you use it, this allows for shrinkage (approximately 5%) and ironing it afterwards allows for accurate cutting and a straight grain line. Press when the project is in progress and iron when finished. Test the iron on a small scrap piece of fabric to ensure that it isn’t too hot that it will mark or scold the material. It is always best to start on a lower heat setting and slowly increase it. Your iron should have a marked dial with the settings on unless they’ve rubbed off through overuse…unlikely in my house…

Most of us have a steam iron which will work on the majority fabrics but its always best to check as steam can warp light weight material.

Pressing is done when a fabric project is in progress, whether it is a cushion cover, garment, or a tablecloth etc.

Instead of moving the iron left to right, you hold the iron in one place on the fabric for a few seconds, lift it off and place it down again, press and lift.

An iron moving from side to side next to an iron in press mode moving up and down

What do you press when sewing?

Seams need to be pressed open or to one side, this allows them to lay flush on the fabric and ensures there are no lumps and bumps on your completed masterpiece. You should never sew over an unpressed seam as it will not lay flat. If you iron a seam, i.e. Move the iron from left to right you can drag the fabric which may distort the seams and could affect the drape of the garment.

Hems should be pressed before stitching; this holds them in place better and gives a sharper finish.

Stitches should be pressed. This melds the stitches to the material, stabilising them and flattens any puckers that may have occurred during sewing.

Press on the “wrong side” of the fabric where possible. If you must press anything on the “right side” its best to use a cloth between the iron plate and your fabric. You can buy them, or you can use a piece of linen or a thin tea towel, I have both and they are kept in with my sewing kit.

This is especially useful if you are using black or navy material as it could result in unintentional shiny fabric!

Pressing Accessories

Tailors Ham

A blue checked tailor's ham

This tool is a tightly stuffed, curved pillow that is used to help press seams that are curved. The tailor’s ham is placed under a curved seam for example a hip seam and it helps to replicate the curvature of the body to allow the seam to be pushed flush and create an accurate flat seam. It can also be used to press darts, sleeves, bust and waistlines to replicate the contours off the body.

Tailors Seam Roll

Also known as a “Tailor’s sausage”, (its ok to snigger at this point, I did), it is a cylindrical shaped cushion that is inserted into a sleeve so that it’s easier to press. Tailor's hams and seam rolls are pretty much the same thing and you can find them here in our shop

Tailors Clapper

A wooden tailor's clapper

This is a block of solid hard wood that is used on heavy material or layers of fabric. You steam press the seam and immediately slam the clapper onto it trapping the steam and flattening the material. This is often used in quilting as there are many layers.


Ironing is done when a fabric garment has wrinkles, by moving the iron left to right the heat of the iron removes the wrinkles.

Some fabrics are designed to look wrinkly, back in the Eighties I owned a much loved and worn to death crinkle-shirt from C&A. My Nana had done the ironing and as requested, I took the empty hangers’ downstairs to put my clothes away to find my red-faced, sweating Nana holding out my beloved shirt… minus the crinkles. I was devastated. My Nana said “Don’t wear that one too often Sharon, it’s a sod to iron…”

Like anything, there are several accessories out there but stick to the basics.

Keep your iron clean. No fancy cleaners required!

  • Vinegar and baking soda. Soak a towel in a solution made with vinegar and baking soda, lay the towel flat and with the iron switched off run it over the towel several times. Wipe clean and leave to dry.
  • Washing up liquid and water. Do not turn your iron on! Use a soft cloth and gently rub the plate of the iron with the bubbles.
  • Who knew? Rub the toothpaste onto the cold plate of the iron, wipe clean with a damp cloth and leave to dry.
  • Use a spray bottle for water (its easier than filling an iron and no limescale build up).

Never press over buttons, zips or press studs, it will put a dent in your cloth. Look out for pins, if they have plastic ends, they will melt on the plate of the iron and ruin your fabric… very steep learning curve…!

Pressing your projects as you sew gives your work a professional, sharp finish. It also maintains the shape and increases the longevity of your garment. It really is the difference between made with pride or flung together!

1 comment

  • Yvonne Stainsby.

    Love this, clear helpful and a touch of humour.

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