By Nicole Vasbinder
If zippers are one of the most intimidating things in sewing, well, buttonholes are a close second! Not to fear, I will show you just how simple and fast they are when you have the proper tools. And did you know that you can sew on a button by machine?
Types of Buttonholes
Sewing machines tend to do one of two types of buttonholes: either a 4-step manual buttonhole or a 1-step automatic buttonhole. Usually mechanical machines do the 4-step and computerized machines do the automatic.
Basically, a buttonhole is a box with each of the sides made up of tiny zigzag stitches. The top and bottom are known as the bar tacks which is a wide zigzag with no length. The sides are known as the bead and these are narrow zigzags with a short length. You could actually make a buttonhole with just a zigzag stitch but it would be a pain to have to keep adjusting the length and width for each side. That's why sewing machines come with a buttonhole stitch. Genius!
Mechanical machines can usually only do a box buttonhole, but computerized machines can often do a box buttonhole, rounded buttonhole and keyhole buttonhole. The box buttonhole is the most common and is used for both sew-through and shank buttons. Rounded is a fancier looking basic buttonhole and keyhole is often used for high shank buttons or ball buttons, as they open wider for a thicker button.
Tip: Always do a couple of practice buttonholes on a scrap of the fabric you will be using. Some fabrics, like knits or flannel, are kind of spongy and don't feed as easily. You may need a longer stitch length on these. If your fabric is stretchy or slippery, you can stabilize it with a little fusible interfacing on the wrong side before stitching your buttonhole. Once you've done a practice one, cut it open and make sure that your button goes through easily.
Manual buttonhole foot
Chalk or washable fabric marker
Step 1: First, place your buttonhole foot on the sewing machine (most machines come with them). This can be snap on or have an attached shank that you screw on. If you have a hard time getting the foot under the shank, push up on the presser foot lever to give you high clearance. The foot has a little slider window and markings on the left side. Make sure that you don't put it on backwards.
Step 2: Next, figure out how big to make your buttonhole. The general rule of thumb is that the buttonhole should be the diameter of the button, plus the height of the button, plus 1/8". The reason why you add in the height is because ball or half-ball buttons need the buttonhole to open wider than flat buttons. The extra 1/8" is to give a little bit of wiggle room so that the buttonhole doesn't come out too small. Mark your buttonhole on the fabric using chalk or fabric marker.
Step 3: Adjust the pattern selector to buttonhole step 1 and the stitch length to .5mm. Adjust the slider so that your marking is perfectly framed in the window.
Step 4: Zigzag down the left side of the buttonhole until you get to the bottom. You'll notice the window sliding closed as you stitch down towards to the bottom. Make sure that the last stitch is on the left side of the zigzag and that the needle is out of the fabric.
Step 5: Adjust the selector to buttonhole step 2 and do 5 stitches. (Or really any odd number so that you finish on the right side.) The stitch will automatically adjust to a wider and shorter zigzag. Make sure the needle is out of the fabric when you finish the last stitch.
Step 6: Adjust the selector to buttonhole step 3 and zigzag back up to the top. You'll be going in reverse but you don't need hold the backstitch button as it is part of the programmed stitch. As you sew, the window will slide back open. Make sure the last stitch is on the right and that the needle is out of the fabric.
Step 7: Adjust the selector to step 4 (often the same as step 2) and do 5 stitches. Make sure the needle is out of the fabric when you finish the last stitch.
Step 8: Now you want to lock in the stitch, so adjust the selector to straight stitch and change your stitch length to 0mm and do 3-4 stitches.
Step 9: Your buttonhole is done! Trim off your thread tails and admire your work!
Step 10: Now perhaps you'd like to adjust the stitching on your buttonhole. The buttonhole on the left has a longer stitch length of almost 1mm while the buttonhole on the left has a very short stitch length of .25mm. While a shorter stitch looks nice, be aware that some fabrics don't feed as easily and they may jam when the stitch length is too short. So always do a couple of practice buttonholes on a scrap of your fabric.
Automatic buttonhole foot
Chalk or washable fabric marker
Step1: The automatic buttonhole foot has a space on the back to pop in the button you will be sewing on. This will slide the window to the correct size to fit that particular button. Since this will not take into account the height of the button, if you are using a ball or half ball button then you should use a keyhole button. But if you are using a fairly flat button then you can use either a box or rounded buttonhole.
Step 2: Install the automatic buttonhole foot on your machine. Lower the buttonhole lever so that it is between the 2 tabs.
Step3: Adjust your pattern selector to buttonhole stitch. This should automatically adjust your stitch length and stitch width to the standard settings. But feel free to adjust the length if you like.
Step 4: Mark your buttonholes on the fabric with chalk or a fabric marker. Some machines start at the top and work their way around counterclockwise. Other machines (like the one I am using) start at the bottom and work their way around clockwise. Always do a practice buttonhole to be sure. Position the foot so that you are starting at the beginning. Press the foot pedal and start stitching. The machine will stitch one side, across the top, back down and then across the bottom all in one step. You don't have to do a thing. When the buttonhole is done, the machine will do a couple of lock stitches to secure and may even beep at you to tell you it's done.
Cutting Open a Buttonhole
MaterialsSeam ripper and pin
Buttonhole cutting kit
Hole cutter (for keyhole buttonhole)
Option 1: The easiest way to cut open a buttonhole is with a standard seam ripper. Place a pin through the top bartack and then, starting from the bottom bartack, carefully slide the seam ripper up through the center of the buttonhole. The pin will form a stopper and will prevent you from slicing through.
Option 2: You can purchase buttonhole cutting kits that have a razor sharp chisel and a hole cutter. They also have a piece of wood. Place the wood under your buttonhole and use the chisel to slice open the buttonhole.
For keyhole buttonholes: The hole cutter is used to cut open the round end of a keyhole button.
Types of ButtonsThere are two main types of buttons: sew-through and shank
Sew-through buttons have holes that you use to sew the buttons on to the garment. Some have two holes and some have four. The benefit of a four-hole is that the button will be sewed on more securely. These can be sewn on by machine.
Shank buttons have a little loop sticking out on the back of the button that you use to sew the button on to your project. These need to be sewn on by hand.
Sewing On a Button By Machine
Hand sewing needle
Step 1: Install the button foot on your machine. It should have short toes that are covered in rubber. The rubber will hold your button securely in place. You could use a regular foot, but your button may slip and it's not as easy to see what you are doing.
Step 2: Adjust your stitch selector to the widest zigzag and adjust the stitch length to 0mm.
Step 3: Align your button in position and then lower the presser foot down so that the holes are between the toes. Using the hand wheel, manually walk the needle down into one hole and back up and down into the other hole. You may need to adjust the stitch width to make sure the needle goes in the holes. Once you are sure, then let it rip and zigzag back and forth about a dozen times. If you have a 4-hole button, then just rotate the button to do the other set of holes.
Step 4: Make sure to leave long tails when you are done stitching. Then thread the top tails through a hand sewing needle and pull them through to the back side. Knot them off and clip the threads.
I hope this has taken some of the fear out of buttonholes!
About the Author:
Nicole Vasbinder has designed the accessory line Queen Puff Puff since 2003, and sells her retro-flavored handbags and accessories throughout the United States and beyond. Nicole also owns StitchCraft, a hip sewing and craft studio in Petaluma, Calif., and co-produces the popular Petaluma Downtown Craft Mart. As a sideline, she recently started making and selling journals made from recycled record albums under the label Vinyl Frontier.