We’re in the home stretch of the Fall for Cotton sew-along (can you believe it?), and you might be thinking about little final touches. So let’s talk about making buttonholes by hand, shall we?
When you use older vintage sewing patterns, you may find that you just skip over the part about how to make buttonholes, since nowadays we’re all so used to doing them on our sewing machines most of the time.
Many of the patterns I sew are from the 1940s, and often have a little diagram and pithy explanation on how to make buttonholes by hand (as well as how to make bound buttonholes). This is from my blouse pattern:
The first time I hand worked buttonholes was for my Sew for Victory jacket. Since I was doing it on a jacket I spent a whooole lot of time researching the topic. I read Sunni’s tutorial on hand working buttonholes, the tutorial on the art of hand-tailored buttonholes from Williams Clothiers, looked through all my vintage resources, and scoured the web for any tips I could pick up.
Why would you want to make buttonholes by hand, anyway?
Why do we make any choices in our sewing adventures to use one technique over another?
I think handmade buttonholes can add a beautiful touch to a garment. For me personally, they shine in a way bound buttonholes (another alternative to machine-made buttonholes) don’t, as they can be equally at home on a tailored jacket or a casual blouse or skirt. And I might be going out on a limb here, but I really enjoy the handmade nature of them. I’m not a tailor, working hundreds of these regularly, I’m a home sewist who works a few now and again. They aren’t perfect. They’re handmade. Each stitch is unique and is made with my own two hands. And I kind of love that.
In the end, it’s just a matter of what you’d like to do and what you think will work for your particular project. I certainly use my sewing machine for most buttonholes, but on occasion I like to slow down and make buttonholes by hand. Here’s how I do it.
- silk buttonhole twist—to work the buttonholes (see below for more on that)
- buttonhole gimp (or cord), upholstery thread, or button and buttonhole thread—to reinforce the edge of the buttonhole as you work
- beeswax—to wax your thread
More on buttonhole twist
Silk buttonhole twist is the ideal thread to use for hand working buttonholes, but it’s not exactly the easiest resource to find in a weight you like. And since opinions vary, I thought I’d give you a rundown of options.
- Vintage silk buttonhole twist—This is my favorite, but of course it’s a limited resource! I mainly have used it from the brand Belding Corticelli (as an aside, Karen talked about sewing with Belding Corticelli silk sewing thread). It says “Button & Buttonhole Twist” on it. This my ideal thread for working buttonholes by hand… unfortunately. lol It’s about the thickness as upholstery or button thread, but extremely smooth and pliable since it’s silk, so it has a totally different hand.
- Japanese silk buttonhole twist—This is thicker than vintage buttonhole twist by quite a bit. It’s kind of like a couple of plys of embroidery floss. I wish it was half the weight, then it would be perfect. However the thinner the thread the more difficult it can be to work with, so take that as you may.
- Japanese 30 weight silk thread—This is described as topstitching thread, which we know is thicker than normal. While I haven’t tried it, I’m very curious! Regular silk sewing thread is far too thin, but this might be a good weight. There aren’t oodles of colors, but possibly enough to find something to match or contrast with your fabric.
- Silk buttonhole thread from B. Black and Sons—I’ve never tried this, but this is a tailoring web site and goodness knows they know their buttonholes. This is Size F that’s referred to in the the Williams Clothiers post which is rather thick, and might be similar in weight to the Japanese twist. Colors are limited.
- Gutermann silk buttonhole thread—Also referred to in that post, this is thinner, and from his description, might be very similar to the vintage buttonhole twist I have. Relatively limited in colors as well, however, and you’ll note this is clearly meant for tailors as it comes in 437 yards (as opposed to 22 yards for the Japanese buttonhole twist). So at $21 each, you’re not likely to want to buy it in several colors, unfortunately.
Non-silk options that might work:
- Topstitching thread—This was suggested by reader Beth, who said she’s waxed it and used it for buttonholes by hand. This is partially what makes me think the Japanese silk topstitching thread would work nicely.
- Pearlized cotton thread—I’ve seen this mentioned a couple of times as worth trying.
Be prepared that your first ones will suck
Big time. I’m not kidding. If you read anyone’s comments about their first hand-worked buttonholes, you’ll see they almost always say they were terrible. My first attempt looked like something the cat barfed up. I made one and was pretty much convinced I’d never be able to do them in a way that wasn’t laughable. But then I did another and it was a little better. And by the third, it actually looked damn nice! So stick to it. Your first one might be frustratingly bad. But they’ll get better, I promise. And remember they don’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. Mine are never quite perfect but I still think they’re wonderful.
How I do it
Your best bet is to interface the buttonhole area first. I used small strips of fusible weft interfacing for my lightweight cotton fabric.
Mark your buttonholes as normal. My buttons were 7/8″ wide and 1/8″ thick, so I marked 1″ buttonholes.
Traditionally from what I’ve gathered, tailors slash the buttonhole and then overcast the edge, and this is the same thing my vintage pattern shows. Instead, I do the method Sunni outlined, which is to sew a little ‘window’ on your sewing machine, around 1/8″ wide. You can do whichever method you prefer.
Then carefully slash through the opening like you would if you were opening up a buttonhole sewn on your machine.
For reference, as you’re looking at the garment as worn, you work the buttonhole as follows: top edge, down the side, then bottom edge, and finish up with a bar tack.
In the image below I show you the working direction right-side up, but you’ll actually flip your garment upside down when you start the buttonhole…I just wanted the picture to be less confusing.
Take a length of buttonhole gimp about a foot or so long. (I use upholstery thread for this because that’s what I have on hand… tailors would probably object since it’s 100% nylon but it’s fine for my purposes.) Use a color that’s close to the color of your fabric because it can peek out a little bit between stitches, although it’s almost imperceptible.
I like to start the knot on my garment a few inches away from my buttonhole (so it’s easy to clip off later), direct it over the top edge of the buttonhole (bottom to you viewing the photo below), then take one or two huge stitches in the fabric just to anchor it in place temporarily as I work. The purpose of the gimp is to reinforce the edges of the buttonhole, which makes it nice and sturdy. Leave the tail long as you will use it when you move the gimp to the bottom edge as you work.
Cut a length of your buttonhole twist. For a 1″ buttonhole, I cut a 2.5′ length of twist. Run it through beeswax a couple of times. You can either press the thread (with a press cloth so you don’t get wax on your iron or board) or just run it between your fingers to coat the twist thoroughly with the wax (which is what I do). Knot it at one end… I actually like to run the knot back through the beeswax for a little extra oomph.
Hold your fabric so the top edge is facing you like shown above. Start at the right bottom (which is the top left of the buttonhole when worn). Depending on the fabric, I try to bury the first knot between the layers of the slashed buttonhole. This wasn’t possible with my thin cotton fabric, so I just left it at the back of the buttonhole. You’ll pretty much sew over it either way, and can always add a small dab of Fray Check at the end. (I do.)
Come up through the fabric and make your first buttonhole stitch. To do this, the thread goes behind the needle, down and under it as so, and pull the needle through.
Here it is from another angle, just so you’re sure about working this stitch. It’s easy!
Pull the thread tight (don’t crank down too hard). This forms a little purl bump at the opening of the buttonhole. Continue making small buttonhole stitches next to each other. You’ll see that the nice purl edge starts to form after you have a few stitches worked.
The purls should touch without a big gap, but you don’t want to stitches so tight that they’re bunchy. If you screw one up, you can easily just use your needle to carefully unpick it. And you’ll notice below the purls should line up with the edge of the buttonhole, they’re not sticking straight up into the air, if that makes sense. You can also see how the stitches are formed on top of the buttonhole gimp.
When you approach the edge of the top of the buttonhole, you need to start rounding the corner with your stitches. (Alternately for a vertical buttonhole, you can make a bar tack, which I’ll talk about when you get to the other end.)
At about the halfway point on the side edge your buttonhole gimp will start being in the way. At that point I pull out the large stitches I made with the tail of the gimp and then lay it across the side edge of the buttonhole, taking the final couple of stitches around the corner before anchoring it off in the other direction so it lays across the bottom of the buttonhole.
I forgot to take a photo of the gimp laying across the bottom at this stage, but you can see it in the photo below, anchored off to the left temporarily so that your bottom stitches are worked over it, too.
Continue working buttonhole stitches along the bottom edge of the buttonhole.
When you get to the opposite edge, you’re ready to make a small bar tack to finish it off. Make a couple (depending on how thick your thread is) long stitches that go from the top to the bottom edge of the buttonhole.
Then make a few small horizontal stitches over the long stitches, tacking them together. It’s so small it’s almost impossible to photograph, so it kind of looks like, well, not much. But you get the idea.
You’d done! Pull the tail of the buttonhole twist and the gimp to the back of the fabric. I don’t bother anchoring the buttonhole gimp, I just clip it close to the fabric (the gimp isn’t going anywhere, it’s wedged underneath all those stitches). I do anchor the buttonhole twist through the base of a few of the stitches, and dab a little bit of Fray Check for added insurance.
Repeat for all other buttonholes. Press them when you’re done, sew your buttons on, and marvel at your work!
- Make sure your stitches are on the outside edge of your overcasting or machine-sewn window. Those stitches are meant to be covered by your buttonhole stitches.
- Make sure the buttonhole gimp is inside your stitches. You make the stitches over it.
- These buttonholes won’t work well on loose weave fabrics or knits. Test one with your fabric to make sure it will work. Be sure to treat the test buttonhole exactly as you would the real garment, including interfacing.
- After you’ve practiced a couple of these buttonholes on scrap fabric, start with the least obvious buttonhole on your garment because they’ll get better as you go along. I start at the bottom and work my way up. In the case of my jacket, I did the cuffs first, then the bottom front buttonhole, then up to the top.
- If you’re daring, try using a contrasting buttonhole twist. I got this idea from Sunni ages ago, and she’s one smart cookie. I used red twist on blue fabric. This is the second time I’ve used a shade of twist that matched my buttons but not my fabric, and it’s fun!
But here’s the best tip of all: Don’t fret about perfection. You are not a machine. Unless you work hundreds of these like a tailor does, you’ll be hard-pressed to get each stitch exactly the same length as the next.
Embrace the hand-worked nature of these buttonholes and take pride in your stitches!