Basic sewing tools: iron buying guide
For most people who sew irons are the second big expense after a sewing machine. I have put together this iron buying guide to help you navigate the process of choosing (and buying) your next iron. Getting an iron can be as complicated as figuring out which sewing machine would suit you best. So I compiled some information and advice, backed by my big sewing experience.
There is no sewing without pressing (ironing). Every seam you made by hand or by a sewing machine must be pressed. In this article I will use these words “ironing” and “pressing” interchangeably, even if there is a slight difference in their meaning.
Ironing is a part of every step in sewing: from preparing fabric for cutting and applying fusible interfacing to finishing a sewing project. While sewing, I find myself reaching for my iron every couple of minutes. If you do that often enough you will realize that yes, there IS a difference between a good iron and a mediocre one. The iron is really an essential tool for a successful sewing project. I think it’s not less important than a sewing machine.
So, how to choose an iron and what to look for in an iron?
I heard a joke that seems to apply here: choosing an iron is pretty much like choosing a husband since the selection follows the same criteria: it should be hot, always ready, easy to handle, adjust to the woman’s preferences and use only water!
But let’s put the joke aside and discuss the iron features to look out for if you sew.
I will only discuss here steam irons. I found that as a sewing enthusiast I can’t even consider a different kind. If I were to infrequently iron only cotton sheets I would not be picky, but this is an essential tool for me, so only steam irons.
Let’s talk about power now. The higher the wattage, the more powerful the iron, the faster it heats up meaning less time spent waiting. Also this means a better capacity to produce steam in a sustained mode.
Generally, the higher the wattage, the quicker and hotter the iron gets. For example, Sunbeam Classic 1200 Watt iron takes longer to heat up and reach the desired temperature than Philips GC2820 2000-Watt iron which heats up in half the time.
However there are downsides for higher wattage irons: a normal house circuit is wired for 15A in the USA ( sometimes 20A ) and an iron 2600W would exceed that, meaning that a special power circuit might need to be designed for it and even if not, using extra appliances on the same circuit is a no-no.
Naturally, a more powerful iron also tends to be more expensive but it should give a better ironing experience overall with the higher heat output. I have found myself that an iron around 1700W is usually good for my purposes.
I found that it is an absolute must to be able to see the water level in the iron. I had one iron (and it was Rowenta from Costco) with dark red colored water tank and I couldn’t see the water level so I returned it to Costco after using it for only 2 days.
Also the size of the water reservoir is important to me. It must be large enough to accommodate a reasonable amount of work. 8 ounces of water in the iron are finishing very quickly and I really don’t like to refill the iron every 10 minutes of work. And also every iron’s manual says that you need to turn off the iron while you are filling the water reservoir so you will spend a lot of time with your iron turning it off, filling it with water and turning it on again. And if the hole for the water is not big enough the water can bubble up out of the filling hole and will run down on the ironing board or on the floor which will slow down my sewing for sure. For me NONE of the classic irons have enough water capacity and that is one of the reasons I am using the Kalorik ironing station as my main device because it has a separate (and really big) water tank.
What about iron temperature and fabric selection? Here also not all irons are equal and the problem is compounded because not all manufacturers agree regarding the optimal temperature for each fabric type.
There is no absolute guide here, you will just have to make sure that the iron DOES have both low and high temperature settings and then you will have to remember always to test the temperature setting on scrap before ironing a good piece. In a short time you will see what that particular iron does and as long as it can be adjusted for both high and low temperature settings you can be sure you will find a good position for any fabric.
We are most familiar with the temperature controls in the form of a dial. Nowadays there are digital irons where you can change temperature by pressing a button (and a small LED display will show you the type of fabric that goes for this temperature).
I had some irons that seemed to me not hot enough for ironing cotton and linen. One of them was T-Fal iron , and it was quite annoying to press and press and press and the wrinkles was still there.
Remember though that the steam function can’t be used at low temperatures. If you do, you can be certain you will get drops of water on your fabric. You will have to learn what is the minimum temperature for a particular iron for using steam, most of modern irons have it marked.
In the images below you can see what happens if I use steam function on wool setting, and this water leaves unsightly marks after it drys out.
How long should the cord of an iron be? All my irons have a cord of about 8 feet (2.5 m) which is enough for me. Of course you have to place your ironing board within that distance of an outlet but if not, you can always use an extension cord. Beware though, the extension cord can’t be the cheap type you buy for next to no money in discount stores, it must support a high current ( 20A or more ) for extended periods of time. Same applies for the outlet itself, it must be in good condition, not moving and the cord must be connected properly to the outlet. A loose connection is very dangerous. I suggest periodically check the cord and outlet and see if they get warmer than usual, any temperature above body temperature is probably signaling a problem. I am not very worried so much about a fire ( after all, when ironing you are right there and most modern irons have an auto shut-off function ), but I believe it is better to prevent problems than to try to fix them.
One more important feature to consider is a 360-degree flexible swivel cord attachment which keeps the cord tangle-free and out of the way during ironing.
There are also cordless irons like for example Panasonic NI-WL600 Cordless Multi-Directional Iron. On Amazon it has 4.4 star out of 5 and 461 reviews. So must be a good iron but I never tried it out.
The weight. There are irons on the market with a weight anywhere from 1.5 pounds to 5 pounds ( 0.7 kg to 2.3kg ). All other things equal, what to choose? This is a very tricky point. A heavy iron has very obvious advantages: it stores more heat, giving a more stable temperature and a bigger burst of steam. It will cool slower if the auto shut-off kicks in. It also needs less force when pressing difficult or very wrinkled items.
Disadvantages? Plenty also. It is usually bigger and for narrow spaces and small items will behave like an elephant in a room. If you lift it 100 times per day you will find that you no longer need to go to the gym, you ache all over anyway from the effort.
What is the best soleplate for an iron? Stainless steel, ceramic, non-stick, titanium and I am sure there are others out there also? I had many of them, and I managed to make things stick to all of them. Teflon? I was happy with this soleplate, until it was scratched when I went with the iron over zippers and buttons. Also, fusible interfacing sometimes sticks happily to Teflon, or at least I managed to do it. Ceramic? Sure, until you manage to fuse something to it. Steel? Most common, and works equally well or badly, depending. I would venture to say that the surface material should not be a very important factor in choosing an iron.
The shape of the soleplate can also differ from one model to another. I like that my Rowenta has a precision tip for ironing in small places, and I even saw irons that have an elliptical shape with double tips like Panasonic NI-W810CS Multi-Directional Iron.
What about the position and the number of steam holes in the soleplate? I am not sure if the amount of steam holes contributes to better results. Maybe if an iron has as many of them as possible more areas will be covered at a faster rate? In my opinion, it is important to have steam holes evenly distributed and not only in the top so the steam is more evenly spread out. My Rowenta has 400 micro steam holes and Kalorik has only 25 steam holes in its soleplate but it produces more steam.
Beware that not all holes will give the same amount of steam for all irons, and if you notice the steam distribution is more uneven than usual, then probably your iron has internal mineral deposits that need to be cleaned.
An anti-drip function is also a must for a steam iron because it will prevent water droplets to fall on the fabric at lower temperatures when there is no steam. This is of course not an absolute guarantee and you should be always careful when using steam but without the anti-drip function the iron would leak like a sieve whenever its surface is horizontal and it is not hot enough. The anti- drip function simply stops water from reaching the sole plate when the iron is not hot.
Modern irons come usually with the auto shut-off feature for safety so if you somehow forgot to turn the iron off, it will shut-off automatically after a few minutes. But if your iron powers down after 5 minutes of being left idle when you walked away to your sewing machine it can be really annoying and can slow down your sewing considerably. So this is another point to consider – the amount of time it takes before the iron turns itself off. Having a longer interval is a good feature for me.
Some other features to consider
Steam irons have now many features that we could not have dreamed about in the past.
Note: this article contains affiliate links for your convenience in finding products you may need to complete your sewing projects.
LCD displays? Check. Do you need it? Frankly, I am not sure, unless it shows me some really useful info like actual soleplate temperature ( none of the irons I have seen does that ).
Vertical steam? Check. Do you need it? Not so much, better get a specialized device for this like PurSteam Full Size Steamer or a portable one like this one Handheld Garment Steamer. They are cheap and better at the job and I am sure you already own one.
Sprinkler function? Check. Probably most irons have it. Do you need it? Rarely to never, I certainly do not need it that much and if I ever will, I am sure I can find a sprinkler bottle for this. None of these add-ons should count for much in your selection process.
I think we can discuss here also what kind of water to use in a steam iron. Some manufacturers even mention that distilled water is NOT to be used, and they might have their reasons, since distilled water is much more corrosive than regular water and may attach your iron internally. On the other hand, distilled water does not leave mineral deposits meaning the iron will not need de-scaling and if it leaks it is less likely to stain the fabric; it is all a give and take. I personally use now distilled water for my Kalorik iron and I do not see yet adverse effects – it works for me.
There are many brands of irons. The most popular are Rowenta, Panasonic, Oliso, Reliable, Sunbeam, T-fal, Shark, Maytag, Black & Decker, DeLonghi, Hamilton Beach. I made some survey and I see that most sewing enthusiasts prefer Rowenta irons. And the top rated one on Amazon is Rowenta DW5080 Focus 1700-Watt Micro Steam Iron. It has 4.4 out of 5 stars and more than 4100 reviews. I have this iron and I used it for more than a year. After that it started to leak. Not too much but enough to spoil my silk fabric. But I am a heavy user of irons so maybe a year of excellent work is good enough for an iron.
I had during the last 15 years many irons ( many I still have) and some of them were good, some not so much. I reviewed them based on my own sewing experience in my article “Pressing tools I use for sewing”.
One universal item directly related to irons is the ironing board. If you sew you need a large surface for pressing seams and I have considered at some point using my sewing table for ironing ( with a suitable padding, like a wool blanket ) since it allows me to iron large pieces in one step.
This didn’t work of course, that table is busy all the time so I am using a heavy-duty ironing board 18” wide. The board is larger and heavier than the standard one. It’s very sturdy. The extra width is wonderful since I sew and it saves me a lot of time with big sewing projects. I am very satisfied with it. The covers are getting dirty quite fast so I make my own board covers every 6 months or so.
I use also smaller ironing boards, I discuss them in my article "Pressing tools I use for sewing".
So in my opinion, the best iron features for people who like to sew are
higher wattage (at least 1700 W),
high continuous amount of steam,
large water tank
hotter temperature settings
longer auto shut-off
Other features such as weight, type of soleplate and cord length are also important but not that much.
With a good iron in your hands, you will make better sewing projects in less time.
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