Difference between “Pressing” and “Ironing”

By Maeve Maddox

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Sridhar Nyapathi asks

What is the difference between pressing clothes and ironing clothes?

To me, in a domestic context, “ironing” clothes requires more preparation than “pressing” them.

If I’m getting ready to go out and discover that my clean clothing is slightly wrinkled, I’ll heat the iron and make a quick pass to smooth the fabric. I call that pressing.

If, on the other hand, I’ve failed to remove my clothes from the dryer quickly enough to prevent wrinkling, I’ll sprinkle and roll them and fill the steam iron in order to smooth out the deepset wrinkles. I call that ironing. (Actually, I’d probably just wash them again and make sure to stop the dryer in time.)

In a commercial context, the word pressing is the word used to describe the process of getting out wrinkles.

Here are some quotations from the web:

… ‘Mum suggested brother make bed up on floor under ironing board. Brother is staying at friend’s house’ (www.theguardian.com)

… attention to details. (One has to master the art of not making polyester shine, or double creasing.) As I was ironing a pair of pants the other day — something I hardly ever do anymore — it reminded me of my grandmother and my … (www.chicagotribune.com)

Apparatus for hot-pressing clothes, linen, or other textile articles, i.e. … being applied to the article; Similar machines for cold-pressing clothes, linen, …

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22 Responses to “Difference between “Pressing” and “Ironing””

  • Cecily

    You’d do a whole extra wash and tumble dry just to get deep creases out? What a waste of time, water and electricity.

    As for the difference, a quick Google and looking at sewing-related sites gives a rather different answer, with the consensus being (roughly):

    Pressing is when you put the iron down and press hard to create or reinforce the folds of hems, pleats etc (i.e. to create creases) and is an essential part of the making clothes.

    Ironing involves sliding an iron back and forth to remove wrinkles and is normally only done to finished garments.

  • Paul Russell

    Yes, I’d agree with Cecily on this one.

    In a sense, pressing and ironing are opposites, in that you press clothes to create or reinforce a crease, whereas you iron to remove them.


  • allena

    I had to come here because I know my grandmother used the terms interchangeably, so I had to see what you thought. But I have to say your explanation is just a personal colloquialism as far as I can tell. Pauls explanation sounds viable- not to mention intersting- but I know when I iron, which is all I say “iron”- I press the seams, too. Ah well, another interesting case of words changing. One to watch I’m sure.

  • Cheri

    Quilters think of ironing as a big no-no — running the iron over the clothes in any direction and wiggling back and forth to get all the corners. This can stretch fabric. Quilters press, which is to say they put the iron down where it needs to be to remove wrinkles and set seams, then lift and put it down again somewhere else.

  • Deborah H

    I am a fanatic when it comes to clothing care, and in general I agree with Maeve. If I “press” a shirt (for example), it is a just a quick lick with the iron, which may or may not use steam; that depends on the fabric and how much effort is involved. My husband’s no-iron (so called!) shirts need to be pressed occasionally, to refresh the fabric.

    If I “iron” a shirt, then I cover every square inch of the garment. I iron both sides of the collar, both sides of the cuffs. I meticulously line up the sleeves so that the crease fits into the pleats at the cuff. I iron both sides of the flat-felled seams on the sides of the shirt body, both sides of the button placket—-and on and on—in boring detail.

    I frequently have a basket of clothes that need ironing. The ones that need pressing are on hangers in the closet.

  • Deborah H

    Moments after I posted my first comment, I realized that I had used the “need (to be, or not to be) ironing” that we discussed last week!

  • Maeve

    To all environmentalists whom I have offended:
    I thought I was being funny. In real life I dry my laundry on a line and a rack in my garage. My usual costume is jeans and t-shirt. Neither ironing nor pressing plays a significant role in my life.

  • Cecily

    @Maeve: Phew and LOL. Life’s too short for housework, especially ironing!

  • CharlieMC

    I’m a woman in my 50’s, just an F.Y.I. I understand this may have changed over the years, but for my grandmother, mother and me (and a lot of women of those generations), PRESSING was a far more serious and taxing job than mere ironing. And as someone who learned to iron standing on a chair as a child, we ironed EVERYTHING back then, including my dad’s hankies and shorts (!!!) and the sheets for the bed! You ironed at least once or twice a week (ugh), and then pressing was for the ‘special’ items or the heavy-duty things. I am so glad we rarely have to get out the board now, with the fabrics we have. And my sister and I love the product in the spray bottle that will take out deep-set wrinkles (just used it recently on a big flag). I think these are words that have changed over time, perhaps. My mother would have fainted to hear pressing described the way I see it here… (smile)

  • Kathryn

    Deborah–sure, but you used the standard English format (need ironing), not the regionalism “need ironed” which was the actual topic of that discussion.

    And, Maeve, like Cecily I am relieved–I was taken aback to read that you actually ironed clothes. I stand in awe of Deborah. . .I own an iron and ironing board, and have even been known to use them, but it’s a rare and ceremonial occasion!

  • Sally

    Pressing seems to be an older synonym that implies crisping up and removing wrinkles by applying pressure and usually heat. The connotation of ironing implies that the small household appliance known as an iron is to be used on an item. In my region we use the terms interchangeably for the everyday chore of removing wrinkles from clothing, or adding strategic creases.
    (I live in upstate SC.)

    BTW, whatever happened to Downy Wrinkle Releaser? I can’t find it in any store in my area.

  • AmaT

    I wear cotton, so I am one who uses an iron. I guess I still call it ”ironing.’

    I actually don’t mind it, either. I turn it into a time for plotting a story or expanding on an article idea…

  • Kathleen Nye

    Ironing involves an iron. Years ago they heated the iron in a fire to get it warm for ironing out wrinkles in clothing, bed sheets and pillow cases.

    Pressing in involves a press. Commercial cleaning establishment has presses. Usually big enough to put the entire piece of clothing in between the two padded presses. The operator pulls down the top press and sandwich the item between the two padded surfaces and “presses” out the wrinkles. Presses are great for getting wrinkles out of big items like sheets and it cuts the time from a hand held iron.

  • Mara

    I am a quilter, a seamstress who uses an iron a lot. There is a significant difference between pressing and ironing that you did NOT mention. Note the differences:

    Pressing: heat up the iron, set it down on the fabric, hold for a couple of seconds, lift, move to the next place, hold, pick up, move, etc. You do not push the iron up and down the fabric. Usually this is done without steam.

    Ironing: heat up the iron, set it down on the fabric, and move the iron along the fabric back and forth. This is often done with steam.

    This distinction is important. Pressing does not stretch the fabric. Ironing, especially with steam, CAN stretch the fabric. Seamstresses and quilters often have to press their work before the edges are finished, after each seam that they sew, and often the edges are cut on the bias, where stretching could easily occur, making the quilt or garment misshapen and uneven.

    Mara, Miami FL

  • Peter

    You can press clothes without ironing…you can buy clothes presses (a pair of large heated, padded boards, hinged at the bottom, which fold closed over the clothes), but I’ve only ever seen them in hotels, not private homes; I just use an (unheated) flat board and surface, and a pile of books for weight, after ironing, when I want to press a pair of trousers.

  • Moo Kahn

    Not synonymous, although they are used that way now.
    Technically it depends on whether you use a press (pressing) or an iron (ironing)

    Most commercial cleaners have something called a clothes press – a large stationary tool that applies heat to one, or both sides of garment at the same time. Using this contraption is “pressing” the clothing.

    Ironing involves the use of a hand iron. In days past it was a cast iron flat iron heated in a separate fire..wood…coal/oil .. or most recently, gas. Today it’s an electric iron – but the key is that it is hand-held – not stationary.

  • Elizabeth

    I agree with the people who say that pressing involves no back and forth movements or wiggling of the iron while it is in contact with the fabric. I used to be a member of an altar guild, where I was responsible for the pressing of various cloths for use in a liturgical service. All of these were made of 100% linen, which would get “out of square” if ironed. The pressing was done as the cloths were folded into their final shapes. If you have ever done origami, you know how important it is that the paper is “true.” So it is with altar linens. The head of the guild was adamant: Press! Do not iron!

  • scriveyn

    Very well put, Moo Kahn.

    Just a remark: A clothes press, in past centuries, was a piece of furniture for storing clothes, linen, etc. and I have always wondered about the etymology of that one.

  • Mister Steamy

    Interesting clarification about ironing and pressing. Both sound like they could entail a lot of work.

  • Bianca Knauf

    There’s definitely some confusion here. On the one hand, Pressing and Ironing could refer to the ironing technique and on the other hand, it could be referring to the type of appliance used. (Steam Iron vs Ironing Press)

    I think, in most cases, people are trying to assess whether they should be using an iron or an ironing press and what the related pros and cons are of each.

  • Danny Paul

    The best steam irons can give you the crispness and sharpness that a steamer can’t. Apart from getting rid of wrinkles, it can set creases and make your clothes look like they are professionally done by the dry cleaners.

  • Maeve

    Bianca Knauf,
    Of the many articles I have written for DWT, there are a few I could wish had never been posted. This is one of them.

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