The Dark Side – What is this mystical Dark Side and why do we want to go there?

I’m sure you have heard of the particular space film legacy where the “Dark Side” is of such importance. At Strictly Quilting headquarters it is a well loved favourite and in patchwork and quilting we have the same level of respect for the “Dark Side”. You will hear “press your seams to the Dark Side” regularly but why?

In this blog I’m going to answer that exact question – the reasons behind the Dark Side. This then gives you the information to understand when you can break that rule, because you will find times when you’ll do that. But first, perhaps I should explain what the Dark Side actually is.

When you sew two patches together, you will normally have a lighter fabric and a darker fabric. Obviously, this is not always the case but when you come to press the seam allowance over, working from the back of the fabric, you press it towards the darker of the fabrics. It is as simple as that. Let us now look at the reasons why…

Natural fleece

Historically, especially in Britain, we used natural wool fleece for our wadding or batting. This sometimes was washed and carded to clean it and make the fibres lie flat but sometimes it was picked off the hedgerows and utilised, especially by the crofter at the poorer end of society. Nothing was wasted but this did mean that those fibres were loose within the quilt sandwich, even those carded ones weren’t meshed together and could migrate when the quilt was used. To stop this, quilting tended to be denser. You’ll see examples of that in historic quilts. These days we have the advantage of modern production methods which bind the fibres in place to avoid this occurring. As a note, your wadding or batting will have a minimum quilting distance. This can be up to 10″ apart but even then, I prefer to quilt closer together.

To help stop these wadding fibres from migrating out through those hand stitched seams, the seam allowance was pressed to the dark side. This locked the seam, stopping the wadding fibres from wiggling their way out between the stitching of the quilt top.

Modern waddings/battings

Another reason for pressing to the dark side is to avoid seeing the seam allowance from the front of the quilt. When you press a seam you will be able to see it through a lighter fabric. By pressing to the dark you can’t actually see it through the quilt. There are times of course, when this is not possible or perhaps you don’t have a dark side to press to. On these occasions you can think about how the quilt looks from the right side and make a decision based on that.

To the Dark Side means you don’t see the seam allowance through the lighter fabric

The last reason I’d like to mention is that of “In the Ditch” quilting. Another phrase you will hear regarding the actual quilting of the pieced top. When you press to the dark side one side of the seam will sit higher than the other. You can then quilt, usually on a machine, in the ditch that is created on the front. When the fabric of the top relaxes after stitching this line it should be virtually hidden in the seam line. If you press your seams open, your needle will just be stitching over the thread used to join the fabric patches and not catch any of the actual fabric. By doing this you loose integrity and the quilting will not be strong enough and may break and wear out faster. If you plan on doing In the Ditch quilting, press to the dark side…. Do not press open.

Le Moyne Star Block
Mariner’s Compass

But when can you press your seams open? This is a big debate with quilters, I have known many experienced quilters say “NEVER!” (With a strong Winston Churchill impression!) But I don’t fall into this camp. There are occasions when I have, and do, press my seams open. If I’ve had a quilt where the majority of the piecing is in the same fabric, such as a background made in white or light cream, I may consider piecing open to give the same look to each block from the right side of the top. Sometimes, pressing open helps spread bulk, such as in a Le Moyne quilt block or a Mariner’s Compass. I have found occasions where I ended with a crisper finish by pressing these open. BUT, remember what I said about the way these are then quilted. No In the Ditch for these quilts.

In the next Sew a Fine Seam blog I’ll look at the actual pressing of those seams.

Until next time, stay safe and keep quilting!

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