That is the question…whether it is better to open those seams or press them to one side.
Here we go again – the latest in the quilt world discussion arena – which is a nice way of saying “percolating controversy”. For time immemorial, quiltmakers have been pressing their seams to one side – usually toward the darker of the two fabrics – while seamstresses and tailors press open. Why the difference? Well, that is the rule, don’t ya know?! and if you forget, mind you, the “quilt police” will quickly and gleefully write you a ticket for any infraction!
As I have asked again and again, who wrote the rule; when did they write it; and why did they write it?!! Like many long-time quiltmakers, I came into quiltmaking from garment sewing with a degree in Clothing & Textiles. I long puzzled over the practice but followed along to avoid those tickets from the QP. When I started my graduate program at the University of Akron under the guidance of Virginia Gunn, PhD, I was delighted to have her historic perspective as well as sewing expertise to answer so many of these questions. When I broached this particular subject, she reported that the quiltmaking practice of pressing to one side of the seam was primarily intended to close the seemingly microscopic holes that exist in a seam, between the spots where the thread actually pierces both layers of fabric. While they are very, very tiny, the cotton fibers of the old-time batts would surely find them and migrate their way out to the top of the quilt. The result is a very unattractive “beard” on a quilt. So, it makes good sense to use one layer of the seam to seal those holes shut.
Hhhmmmmm (here’s me thinking)……so we knew the “who” and the “when” (forever) and now we know the “why”. But, wait! Our batting is not the same batting as it was even 20 years ago, let alone what it was in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Many of us use 80% cotton/20% polyester that is needled or felted to encourage all the fibers to stay put and not shift or migrate. Is the “rule” still appropriate with the current crop of batts?
At the shop, Polka Dot Pincushion, we do a lot of BOM (Block of the Month) programs and kits. Recently, a BOM quilt was comprised of big blocks and little blocks with lots & lots of pieces, especially triangles – which means, of course, the dreaded bias (which to quilters, this means stretch, not prejudice – but many quiltmakers are indeed prejudiced against triangles for this reason!). The pattern developers suggested that all seams be pressed open to reduce the bulk of the many seams intersecting in many different directions. Well, Ronnie, the shop owner, is now a convert! She is now pressing open every single seam on every single block on every single quilt – she loves it!
For my university class, I assign internet videos as preambles to my upcoming lectures. Do you know that you can find a video on just about ANYTHING under the sun, including quiltmaking? Jenny Doan of Missouri Star Quilts is an international quiltmaking star because her son suggested that she produce a video to reach her distant students! This is the second year for these assignments and what a huge help it has been! My students come in ready to see what they are going to see! For this week’s Log Cabin lecture, they are assigned this Leah Day video on piecing Log Cabin blocks: Leah’s Logs.
In this video, Leah presents a very strong case for pressing seams open – bulk reduction. Next to bias, bulk is the public enemy #2 of the quiltmaker. Leah is an outstanding and prolific machine quilter and she knows what the consequences of bulk can be!
Below are two of my Log Cabin samples from previous UA classes – all quilted! Can you believe it? Anyway, the “scrappy” pattern that I developed uses fat quarters and will produce a large wall hanging and a small one. Like any good quiltmaker, I press the seams in one direction. On the large quilt, I quilted a swirly motif over the blocks, hence over all the seams. Check the detail photo. What you can’t see in the photo is the fabric damage that resulted by my heavy quilting with a large-ish needle at some of those seam intersections. I confess — I dabbed a few holes with fray glue. This quilt would win no, zero, zip ribbons. Who cares? The new owner, my non-quilting friend, Mo, does not put her nose on this quilt – she just thinks it is grand!
In her video, Leah qualifies that her open-pressing practice is combined with a very, very small stitch length – 1.5 – which she believes adequately closes those seam holes so bearding will not occur. Frankly, this seam length is a bit small for my taste! I shudder to imagine the un-sewing of that tight seam!
My lesson was learned so on the small companion Log Cabin below, I ditch quilted the log blocks and kept my swirly stuff for the smooth, flat borders. And Mo loves this one, too!
So, do we throw this “rule” out completely? Absolutely not!! In fact, not only do you press one direction in my knots, I direct you as to the direction! More on that later…
We need to regularly “review” the rules to understand the who, the when and the why. Then decide for each specific situation, each quilt, each quilter – do we obey or bend or ignore? That is the real question!