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Beautiful Buttonholes: Techniques and How to Sew Them

Beautiful Buttonholes: Techniques and How to Sew Them main article image
Posted on May 13, 2021 by Rita Hiller
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You’ve almost finished your garment and now you need buttons and buttonholes. Even the most experienced sewer can be a bit apprehensive when they look at their sewing and then have to start on the buttonholes. They can be tricky but if you take them slowly and practice a bit before you start on your actual garment you’ll get there. Buttons and buttonholes aren’t only a necessity, they can also be an enhancement or embellishment. There are some beautiful buttons about – they just need beautiful buttonholes. You can sew them on your sewing machine, by hand or on your embroidery machine – I have to admit this has become my favorite way of making perfect buttonholes.

Buttonholes – the finishing touch

3 different buttonhole attachments

Most machines come with a buttonhole attachment. I should say now, that from my experience some are definitely better than others. There’s everything from fully automatic – providing your buttonhole isn’t too big – to very simple ones with a lever on the machine that you pull down so the attachment knows when to change direction. One thing most machines have is a dial, button or touch screen where you have to select ‘buttonhole’ and which buttonhole you’re planning to sew.

Hand sewn

Some refer to ‘hand sewn’ as the old-fashioned way. Not quite true. If you’re sewing a bulky fabric or something like a bouclé tweed or thick wool or high-end garment a hand sewn buttonhole might be more appropriate, easier than trying to do it on a sewing machine and actually match the garment better.

Embroidery machine

Once you’ve got the buttonholes set up in your software or on the machine screen itself, attached your garment or section to the embroidery frame you’re all lined up for perfect buttonholes. Again, this isn’t always suitable for really bulky fabrics – then we get back to hand sewing.

First things first

When you use a commercial sewing pattern you’ll often find the buttonhole and button position is marked on the pattern. Some even have a strip of pattern for buttonhole placement. My advice is, forget them all. The pattern generally says how many buttons you need in the notions section. If you were sewing the exact fabric and the pattern measurements down to the last millimetre, it might work. Generally, sewers tweak or change something, are a little bit more or less generous with a seam allowance, length or whatever or simply realize at the first fitting there’s something that has to be changed. Throw in a different fabric, thinner, thicker or whatever and this will all eventually affect the number of buttons you need and certainly where you want to place them. It can be that when you bought or produced the fabric from your stash you had or found buttons that you wanted to use. If your buttons are slightly bigger or smaller than those suggested by the pattern, this will affect the number and placement. Sometimes the height of the button also has to be taken into account when you calculate the size of the buttonhole.

Big bold domed buttons

The right buttons

First and foremost, you need the right buttons for the fabric. If you haven’t cut it out yet, lay out the fabric and look at a row of buttons on it. It’s no use putting mini buttons on loose weave fabrics and you certainly don’t want big, heavy buttons on thin fabrics. Do you want the buttons merely as fasteners like in a man’s shirt or do you want them to add a bit of color or decoration to the garment?

Once you’ve cut out the front sections of your blouse, shirt, dress, coat, jacket or whatever, lay out a row of buttons and see what looks right from the size point of view and how many give a balanced look. Remember, you always leave a couple of inches or more without a button at the bottom front. You don’t want a buttonhole close to the hem.

Position of buttons and buttonholes

Many women have experienced the problem of ‘gaposa’ in off-the-peg garments. By this I mean where there’s a button above the bust line and one below leaving the middle to gape open. All very annoying and not what any of us want. We sewers don’t need to put up with it. I once bought a shirt from a well-known store and it had the usual badly placed buttonholes with a press stud at the bust line. Seemed like a good idea except every time you bent over or stretched it popped open – so not a good idea. The other problem was that most women – me included tend to leave shirts open to the bust line – so this press stud was – so to speak – the top fastening that I wanted to close and it just wouldn’t stay closed. Women tend to look more elegant if shirts and blouses are not buttoned above the bust line and nothing looks worse than a button a bit above the bust line. Kind of gives you a bit of a buttoned-up look. Below – we don’t need to talk about!

When you’ve finished the garment or – if it’s collarless – the front sections and you want to start thinking about buttonholes, the first thing to do is find the bust line. This is the straight line from the two points of the bust (not a line from the dart ends!). If the garment is only waiting for buttons and buttonholes, try it on, pin the fronts together and mark the bust line. It’s more or less where the center of your bra lies. This is the first buttonhole position and the rest should be worked out from here.

Placement

You either measure carefully or use a gauge. The expanding one is wonderful and the others a bit fiddlier  but they also do the job. Make sure once you’ve got the position you mark clearly. Markings should be long enough for you to see them when the fabric is under the buttonhole attachment on the machine. If you’re sewing a wool or other fabric that doesn’t mark easily it’s a good idea to tack/baste lines where the beginning and end of the buttonhole is as you need to be able to see them at the machine or you’ll have real problems placing the buttonholes accurately. You can use long pins but if they slip out you’ll be sewing blind.

Remember

Women’s clothes – buttonholes on the right (if the garment is lying on a table facing you – on the left), buttons on the left.

Men’s clothes – buttonholes on the left, buttons on the right.

Don’t ever sew buttons on before you’ve made the buttonholes. You’ll be redoing them.

Buttons

You can’t even think buttonholes until you’ve decided what kind of buttons you’re planning to use. Like I said, they come in all shapes, sizes and colors – thick, thin, flat, raised, 2-hole, 4-hole, shank (those with a loop at the back, often metal) to name the basics.

Buttonholes

Today, most machines have a variety of buttonholes but there are 4 that are the base of most of them.

The basic one (No.1) is the straight, square buttonhole, probably the most commonly used buttonhole, also the easiest for beginners.

When should I use it? Medium to heavy-weight fabrics. The type often found on men’s shirts.

The next standard buttonhole (No.2) is similar, it just has rounded ends. Use: Tends to be used for lighter weight fabrics. Often seen on blouses as it looks a bit more delicate than the square one.

The keyhole buttonhole (No.3) is also a standard buttonhole. Use: This is used on heavier weight fabrics and for shank buttons. Often found on coats and jackets.

The so-called ‘stretch’ or knit buttonhole (No.4). Hopefully, the buttonhole won’t stretch when you’ve finished. Use: It’s the go-to buttonhole for machine stitched buttonholes on stretch or knit fabrics. It looks different from those mentioned above because it looks like zigzag lines spaced further apart than the above buttonholes.

Sewing buttonholes

Buttonhole direction

Generally – there are exceptions to everything – shirts have vertical buttonholes down the front but a horizontal buttonhole on the collar stand.

Jackets and coats – it very much depends on the style, sometimes even the pattern on the fabric – you have to decide what looks right.

Jeans, trousers etc. – usually a horizontal button

Button through dresses often have vertical buttons except at the waist – if there’s a button at all. If there is a waist button, this buttonhole is often worked into the waist seam – again, if there is one. If the dress is to be worn with a belt, there isn’t usually a button at the waist – more comfortable that way, too – it simply has a firm press stud or hook and eye instead.

Equipment

Sewing buttonholes

Equipment:

  • Thread – either matching or tone-in-tone. Depending on the garment standard polyester, polyester core, cotton or embroidery thread
  • Interfacing
  • Garment or fabric clearly marked
  • A button (many attachments need a button to determine the size of the button)
  • A cutter, stitch ripper with 2 pins, special buttonhole scissors or a buttonhole blade
  • Fray stop
  • Patience!

Let’s sew a buttonhole

Check your machine manual and follow the instructions exactly.

Generally, whether you sew a buttonhole manually or your machine does it automatically, it’s a 4-step process. Don’t be surprised if your machine sews down one side and then returns to the top then sews down the other side – many do this – others simply sew a straight line back through the stitches.

Important

If your machine doesn’t calculate the button size automatically or if you’re sewing a thicker button, you need to check the size of your button and may have to sew the buttonholes manually. Usually, it’s button width + 1/8th” to allow for button depth and getting it through the hole. Thick buttons will need a wider or longer hole, otherwise they won’t go through!

Guide:

  • standard (not thicker than average) 1/2” buttons need a 5/8” buttonhole
  • standard 5/8” buttons need about a 3/4” buttonhole
  • standard 3/4” buttons need about a 7/8” buttonhole

I say ‘about’ because sometimes the fabric can also influence the buttonhole width. It doesn’t matter whether you sew vertical or horizontal buttonholes and whatever the fabric, it’s always a good idea to interface the buttonholes and the button area. The simplest is to iron a strip of interfacing down both sides on the wrong side where the buttonholes and buttons will be placed. It’s easier than cutting bits – like you often find in bought clothes – and then putting them between each individual button and buttonhole.

Generally – the center front button line position is 5/8”  from the finished front edge of a garment, for standard buttons (up to about an inch). If the button is larger, you will need to extend the distance from the button line to the finished edge of your garment. Place the buttons down the front and make sure they look balanced before you start.

To determine if the buttonhole is the right size, take a folded fabric scrap of the same fabric with interfacing between and sew a buttonhole.

Cut it open – either a pin at each end so you can’t cut through the end stitches – if you use a stitch ripper. A blade like I tend to use or special buttonhole scissors can be less dangerous. If the buttonhole is too small for your button to go through, increase the size – either on the screen or slightly release the slider holding the button on your attachment. Sew another sample. If it should be too big – can happen with stretch fabrics – remove the button and slightly reduce the length. It can be trial and error but well worth the effort to get perfect buttonholes.

Tip

If you’re using fabric that tends to fray/unravel – put fray stop on the stitching before you cut open the buttonhole. Give it a minute to dry, and don’t use too much or it can be very sticky.

An example of a buttonhole that would definitely have been better with Fray stop

Tip

If, when you’ve sewn your buttonhole, the stitching seems to have disappeared into the fabric or the stitching lines look a bit thin – simply start the buttonhole again and sew it double. It can really improve the look of a buttonhole.

Sewing buttonholes without a buttonhole attachment

There can be a number of reasons why you need to make a manual buttonhole.  Maybe you prefer to do it this way, your buttonhole foot is too small for the button you’re using or – with practice, you make better buttonholes this way.

You need your standard zigzag foot, interfacing in the buttonhole area and the machine threaded with the thread you want to use.

I used variegated thread on this blouse to make it a bit more interesting

When sewing manual buttonholes clear marking is essential – probably even more so!

It’s a 4-step process – again check your machine manual as most guide you through this very well and there are machines that make semi-manual buttonholes in 2 or even 5-steps.

Select the manual buttonhole you plan to sew and a zigzag stitch.

Step 1

Sew the left-hand side with a stitch width between 1 and 2 (thicker fabrics generally need slightly more) and stitch length about 1 to 2. You’re sewing a satin stitch but it shouldn’t be so dense that it builds up and your machine stops sewing forwards.

Step 2

Make the bottom bar tack – for this increase the stitch width to double the width of your side stitches + 1-2 for cut in the middle) and reduce the stitch length to 1 because you don’t want it to travel – sew about 6 stitches – make sure your needle finishes in the fabric on the outside right edge of the bar tack, raise the presser foot and turn your buttonhole. Set machine back to the settings you used for the left-hand side of the buttonhole.

Step 3

Sew down the right-hand side to the top marking of your buttonhole

Step 4

With machine set as for bottom bar tack sew top bar tack in the same way

You should now have a neatly sewn buttonhole. Cut it open using one of the methods described above. If you want or have to sew buttonholes manually, do practice a couple of times before you sew them on your garment!

Now to the buttons

Whether you sew them manually or on your machine the critical thing is to place them correctly. Lie the garment on a flat surface, put the buttonhole placket or row in position over where the buttons go, take a marker and mark the center of each buttonhole. When you move the buttonhole side of the garment, they should be in a straight row.

Sewing on the machine – follow the instructions in your machine manual. If they’re sewn automatically, I usually sew twice as sometimes once isn’t really enough.

Tip

However you sew them, if you want to make them that bit more secure – often very important for metal shank buttons – put a spot of fray stop on the stitching, or if it’s a standard buttonhole, on the visible stitching at the top of the button because this adds a bit more security to the stitching.

We’ve all been there, just about to go out and your button looks a bit dodgy and you haven’t got time to start sewing. You pull up a thread and tie it off and hope. A dab of fray spot on the button thread should see you home safely or until you’ve got time to sew it on properly.

I hope this helps you with your buttonholes. The clue to sewing beautiful buttonholes is – like so many things – practice. Always try a buttonhole on scrap fabric before starting on the garment because different fabrics sometimes behave differently or mean you need to adjust the buttonhole.

If you have any questions put them in the comments section and I’ll do my best to answer them!

Hope you’ll all soon be sewing ‘beautiful’ buttonholes!


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