Most of us know how to sew on a button – either by hand or by machine. It’s quite easy. But buttonholes are a whole different matter. Many people avoid sewing projects that need buttonholes. When you get to the end of your project, don’t be alarmed or worried because you have to put in the buttonholes. There is no reason to worry about mucking up the whole thing by botching the button holes because we’ve put together a tutorial that shows you step by step what to do, whether you have a manual machine or automatic.
Many machines now come with an automatic buttonhole feature that makes sewing buttonholes easy. It really pays to make friends with your sewing machine and get to know it. Take an afternoon to practise making different size buttonholes on a variety of fabrics – This will give you a heap of confidence when you come to putting the buttonholes in your projects.
There are a few different styles of button holes. The project and your choice of fabric and buttons will determine which is the right sort for you.
What You Need To Sew A Buttonhole
- Sewing machine with a buttonhole foot,
- Practice fabric (I always practice on the same fabric as the final project and the same thickness of project),
- Thread in colour to match fabric (or contrast if that is the design),
- Small sharp scissors or thread ripper,
- Hand sewing needle, and a
- Fabric marker,
Types Of Buttonholes
Square buttonholes are used on medium to heavy weight fabrics. They are the most commonly used type and are actually rectangle rather than square. Most sewing machines can easily make this type of buttonhole.
There are two types of rounded buttonholes to look out for; rounded at one end and rounded at both ends.
When rounded at one end only, this type of buttonhole is used on medium weight fabrics such as blouses or children’s clothes. When rounded at both ends, this buttonhole is used on fine fabrics like silk.
Keyhole buttonholes are used on medium to heavy weight fabrics and for larger or thicker buttons. The keyhole has a thicker opening at one end so that its easier to push the button through.
- Stretch buttonholes can be used on stretchy fabric (or standard fabric for decorative effect).
- Knit buttonholes are used on knit fabrics (or standard fabric for decorative effect).
- A corded buttonhole has a cord embedded in the sides to make it sturdier. Again this buttonhole can be used for decorative effect.
- Bound buttonholes are bound with either matching or contrast fabric, giving a very tailored finish.
Some Button and Buttonhole Tips
- Stick to the size button recommended in your pattern. If you can’t find a button that you like in the right size, only go up or down in size by 1/8″ (3mm). Otherwise the button will look out of proportion or the buttonholes may need to be re-spaced.
- I always test my buttonholes on the same fabric and use the same number of layers as the project will have. Usually it will be at least the fashion (outer) fabric, interfacing and the facing or lining.
- I also test what unpicking a buttonhole might do to the fabric, so I know in advance how it might look if I do make a mistake.
- Make sure your buttonhole markings are accurately placed before you begin.
- Begin stitching horizontal buttonholes at the marking closest to the garment edge. Begin stitching vertical buttonholes at the marking closest to the top or upper edge of the garment.
- If you are big busted, it’s always a great idea to place a buttonhole and button at your fullest bust point. It’s common to see blouses with more than one button at your bust point as it help’s stop gaping and popped buttons; just sew the buttonholes as pre the guide and then add your extra button.
Transfer the Markings
Buttonholes should be marked on to the right side of your fabric. You can do this when you are cutting out, when you are transferring all the marks or when you ready to stitch your buttonholes. Even if you marked the placement lines earlier, it’s a good idea to check the placement when you are ready to put in the buttonholes. Here is how you do it:
- Place the pattern tissue on top of the garment by aligning the seam line with the garment edge.
- Stick pins straight through the tissue and the fabric at both ends of the mark for the buttonhole. You may though want to mark the direction in which the hole goes, so I use two pins.
- Carefully remove the pattern without disturbing the pins.
- Mark between the pins with your fabric marker. (If you don’t want to use fabric marker you can use a piece of sticky tape just below the pins. Mark the position of the pins on the tape (tape can damage some delicate materials, so test the fabric with the tape first). Note if you are using the automatic buttonhole feature on your sewing machine, you only need to mark the end of the buttonhole nearest to the edge (horizontal holes) or the top (vertical holes). I use a small T to mark the position of the “start” position of the button hole – a small line in the direction the buttonholes goes in and a perpendicular short dash which marks the “start” of the buttonhole. If you are manually sewing your buttonholes you will need to mark both ends.
Determining Buttonhole Size
The markings on the pattern indicate where the button should be placed, not the size of the buttonhole. Button are sized by their diameter, however button holes are sized by the diameter plus the height of the button (known as the circumference). For buttons that are “thin” this is not an issue however a domed or round button will need a bigger hole than a flat one.
To work out the circumference wrap a small strip of paper around the widest part of the button and pin the ends together. This gives you the circumference. The length of the buttonhole should be half the length of the circumference plus 1/8″ (3mm). If you have a very thick button you may even want to add more. Always test the size out before you sew any buttonholes on your project.
I’m going to be using my Janome Memory Craft 4000 sewing machine. Each sewing machine will be slightly different so it’s best to have a look at the manual as well as this tutorial when you first use the automatic buttonhole feature.
Before you start I recommend that you check your bobbin and thread have sufficient thread to do the buttonholes. If you run out mid buttonhole you will have to unpick and start again. Far easier to check first!
Step 1: Adjust The Buttonhole Foot Measurement
Place your button into the buttonhole foot, usually at the back and push the button-holder together, snug but not too tightly around the button. This allows the machine to measure the size of the button and determine the correct size of the buttonhole.
NOTE: If your button is particularly thick you may need to use a different type of buttonhole (a keyhole for instance) or increase the length of the hole. Your machine won’t be able to determine this extra length you need so all you do is open the button-holder up a little, or use the measurement if you manually measured the length as I described above. Alternatively you could do a manual buttonhole.
Step 2: Attach Buttonhole Foot
Remove your regular sewing foot (I have a small button on the shaft directly behind the presser foot). Place the buttonhole foot below the shaft and lower so that the foot “clicks” into place on the metal bar. Lift up the foot so you can place your marked project under the foot.
Step 3: Set Up Your Machine
Set up your machine, I’m going to use the square buttonhole so I adjust the machine settings appropriately.
Step 4: Line Up Your Fabric
Slide your project under the presser foot so that the top of the “T” faces you. Lower the presser foot.
Lower the buttonhole guide (which on my machine is to the left), gently pulling it all the way down so that it sits behind the appropriate bar or bump on the foot. On most machines this buttonhole guide will stay lowered until you choose to push it back up.
Use the hand wheel to lower your needle to make sure that the needle will go through the intersecting lines of the “T”.
Now simply start sewing, the machine should do all the rest. My machine will start with the left row, then sew the back bar tack. The right row is next and it finishes with the front bar tack.
If you run into any snags: the thread breaks, you run out of thread, the thread breaks….. stop sewing, take the fabric out, unpick and start the buttonhole again. It can be helpful to sew slowly; this reduces the risk of a snapping thread.
To neatly finish the buttonhole, you can trim away all the hanging threads or pull the last stitch (and loose threads) through to the back and tie a knot.
Viola! You’ve sewn the buttonhole.
You can sew a basic 4 step buttonhole on most machines – you need a machine that can do zigzag stitch and can reverse stitch. It just requires you to do some extra measurements and to manually stop at the right places to change settings.
Step 1: Attach Buttonhole Foot
Make sure you have accurately marked your buttonhole on your project. Attach the buttonhole foot to your machine.
Step 2: Line Up Your Fabric
Slide your project under the presser foot so that the top of the “T” faces you. Lower the presser foot.
Use the hand wheel to lower the needle into the fabric, ensuring that your fabric is properly aligned.
Step 3: Set Up Your Machine
Select a zigzag stitch then change the stitch length. For this tutorial we will use two different zigzag stitch lengths: one to start and stop each side of the buttonhole, and one for the length of the buttonhole. For the longer stitch I usually use a 2 to 3mm length. However for the start of a buttonhole I want a zigzag stitch that is tight but not quite on itself. So I turn my stitch size all the way down to zero (which means the stitch will not move forward at all), and then up one or two stitch length options. If you have a digital decimal system for stitch length (as I do), use a 0.25 length.
Step 4: Sew The Buttonhole
Start with needle in left position at top of buttonhole, do a wide (satin stitch) zigzag on the ‘T” five times (complete zigzags).
Leave the needle in the right position of that zigzag, change the width of the zigzag to the longer length (I use the 2-3mm) go straight down the length of the buttonhole to the end “T”.
Make sure the needle in is the right position, then sew 5 wide zigzags at the same width as the start (step 3).
Leave needle in left position, down in fabric (so it doesn’t move position). Lift the presser foot and turn fabric 180 degrees so the top of button hole is now on the bottom nearest you.
Narrow zigzag (same width as in step 4) to beginning, close to and parallel with the stitches made in step 4. The stitch lines should not over lap each other! At the beginning make sure the needle is on the right before doing 3 wide zigzag stitches (same width as in Step 3) to meet the beginning zigzag in step 3. Backstitch with a straight stitch for a few small stitches to tie off. Remove your project from the machine and snip off the long thread tails.
The hardest part of this technique is getting even zigzag stitches as sometimes you pull (or even tug!) the fabric too hard, or the presser foot gets a bit hung up on the top of the buttonhole if you sew too many stitches. It’s easy to fix, I just re-stitch the zigzag over the uneven spots.
Semi-Automatic Buttonhole (4 step)
Some machines have a 4 step process to sew a buttonhole. These machine often have a selector type switch or knob that you manually have to move or slide to get to the next step. Sometimes you also have to manually stop at the end points of the buttonholes.
The basic steps are:
- Make sure you have accurately marked your buttonhole on your project. Attach the buttonhole foot to your machine. Slide your project under the presser foot so that the top of the “T” faces you. Lower the presser foot.
- Move your stitch selector to step 1. Make sure that the needle will go through the intersecting lines of the “T”. Depending on your machine you will either be sewing the stop/end stitches or the side of the opening. The machines I have used before do a side, so you start sewing, stopping when you get to the end.
- Select step 2 on your stitch selector and sew about 5 stitches at the bottom end.
- Select step 3 and start sewing – it will sew back to the beginning. stop at the end point.
- Select step 4 and sew about 5 stitches at the beginning. I usually do a few tiny straight stitches just to lock off.
- Remove your project from the machine and snip off the long thread tails.
Opening A Buttonhole
There are two ways to open up a buttonhole. Which ever method you use, put two straight pins just inside the ends of your buttonhole. The pins stop you accidentally cutting through the bar tacks on the ends of each hole.
Using a good seam ripper, start at one end insert the ripper between the tow rows of stitching and gently rip towards the centre of the hole. Stay in the middle of the two rows of stitching so you cut only the fabric and not the stitching. Do the same from the other end of the hole.
Use a buttonhole chisel and a small wooden block (they usually come as a set). Put the buttonhole to be cut over the wooden block. Starting at one end place the chisel where you want to cut and push down, gently rocking until the chisel cuts through the fabric (some people prefer to use a hammer to quickly punch the chisel through the fabric). Move the chisel further along the hole and repeat.
Make sure your button fits through the hole. When you cut, always make the hole a bit smaller than the actual stitching. You can always open up the hole but its harder to repair a too big hole. You also want you button to feel snug as it goes through at first as the hole will stretch out after a few passes through. You would usually hand stitch one end to close it up if the hole is too big. But the end results just never looks as good, so take your time.
You can use super sharp embroidery or small scissors, though I find it is easy to over cut the hole so I avoid the scissors. Other people like using them as it is quicker.
Some people also finish off the button holes with a fray check, which stops any frays running. You could also use the fray check if, despite being careful, you cut through any of the stitches. Just place a dab of the fray check on the the cut stitches or run a thin bead of it along each edge of the hole.