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Making Buttonholes (And Buttons) Easy

I used to be terrified of sewing buttonholes – to the point where I stressed out so much about them I would almost be in tears just thinking about having to sew them – but actually they can be quite simple with the right foot for your machine and good markings. It can be done with a regular presser foot, but honestly it’s so much easier to use the dedicated foot. Buttons are also surprisingly easy to sew using your sewing machine – hopefully if you’re reading this post it’ll help you get over any fear you may have of sewing buttons and buttonholes! This is another post based on my sewing machine’s instruction manual, following on from my guide on basic and utility stitches, though today we’re deviating a little from what the manual advises. My tips:

  1. Get a buttonhole foot for your sewing machine
  2. Know your button’s size
  3. Mark your fabric with room for the button
  4. Set your stitch lengths and choose the buttonhole setting
  5. You’re halfway there!
  6. Sew the other side
  7. Secure the ends and carefully free the buttonhole
buttonhole foot for sewing machine
A buttonhole foot for your sewing machine is a must

Get a buttonhole foot for your sewing machine

Firstly, get yourself a buttonhole foot. They don’t cost much, but if you want to sew anything with buttonholes, they’re indispensable. My machine’s instruction manual talks through the steps of how to use a regular presser foot to make buttonholes – and while it’s entirely possible to do, it’s difficult and stressful to get everything lined up right. A buttonhole foot takes all the guesswork out of making buttonholes and therefore all the stress too. It allows you to see the entire area you want to sew a buttonhole in, so you can ensure your buttonhole stays straight. The underside of the buttonhole foot should be grippy, in order to keep your fabric in the right place and there should be markings along the side of the foot. The markings are useful for ensuring your buttonholes are all the right size – which is kind of important for garments like shirts!

Know your button's size

Next, mark your buttonhole up. If you’re working from a pattern, you may have already transferred your buttonhole markings onto your item. If not, you’ll need to work out how big your button is, as this will affect the size of your buttonhole (kind of obvious, but worth stating nonetheless). There’s a few ways you can do this. If you know the size of your buttons, then that’s perfect – simply add 5mm to their diameter and that’s the length of your buttonhole. You can also measure your buttons using special callipers designed for measuring button gauges, if you have them, or you can use the buttonhole foot itself to measure your button. You need to make sure you add 5mm to the size of your button in order for the button to pass through the buttonhole easily – if it’s too small then it’ll be difficult to push the button through the hole, though if it’s too big then it may not stay fastened. 5mm is therefore roughly the right amount to ensure your button passes easily through the hole while also staying secure.

Marking up a buttonhole
Mark your buttonhole clearly so you can see it when you're sewing

Mark your fabric with room for the button

Now you know the size of your button, you’ll want to mark your fabric. This should be in the shape of a capital ‘i’. Buttonholes should preferably be made on fabric which has been stabilised, whether using interfacing, batting or another stabiliser – if you’re making a shirt, you may have found your pattern directs you to interface the plackets in preparation for stitching your buttonholes and buttons. Your button should sit in the upper half of the buttonhole, so you can align your buttonhole from the top of the button’s holes or shank. Markings should be clear and easily visible – the best options for this are tailor’s chalk in a contrasting colour or a vanishing ink pen. You can use tailor’s marks for this (loosely stitched markings which have open ends on one side of the fabric) though you run the risk of catching the loose threads in the buttonhole as you sew it, so it’s perhaps best to use these up until you’re ready to sew the buttonhole and then re-mark it with chalk.

My machine is only capable of sewing a four step buttonhole, so the following instructions are based on this. If you’re lucky enough to have a machine that can do all in one buttonholes, I’d double check the exact procedure with your machine’s instruction book. The overall effect will be the same, even if your machine is able to do different shape buttonholes.

Buttonhole pattern selector for a four step buttonhole
Here you can see how my machine represents the four steps of making buttonholes in just three pattern selections. It should look similar on other machines too

Set your stitch lengths and choose the buttonhole setting

Set your stitch length to 0 and select your left side buttonhole from the pattern selector – this typically looks like a box or vertical line with a number 1 next to it. Position your marked fabric under your buttonhole foot, aligning the bottom of the marking with the bottom of the channel in the foot, and twist your control handle until the needle moves down to the right hand side. Align your needle position with the top of the ‘i’ in your marking, so that the needle touches the left side of the centre of the ‘i’. Now you can get set for sewing – remember to take things slowly and carefully. Just because the machine does most of the work for you, it doesn’t mean you should race through things or not pay enough attention to it. The stitches will be very tightly clustered and the fabric will slowly move along the feed dogs, though you will still need to guide it to prevent any bunching up of stitches from occurring.

You're halfway there!

When you reach the bottom of your marking, raise your needle before changing the pattern selection. This time you want the box with ‘2’ and ‘4’ marked at the top and bottom. This is your bartack – the top and bottom of your buttonhole. You only need four or five stitches in the bartack, too many more and it becomes bulky. Raise your needle again and change to the next pattern step – a box or a vertical line with ‘3’ next to it. This is the same as the first step but in reverse – you’re creating the right hand side of your buttonhole now – and the feed dogs will slowly move the fabric back up towards the top of the buttonhole. Remember to keep carefully guiding your fabric to prevent the stitches bunching and don’t let them get too close to those from the left side of the buttonhole – you need to be able to cut in between the two when you’re finished in order to open the buttonhole up.

Sewing a buttonhole with a sewing machine
Be careful to guide the fabric while your machine sews to prevent stitches from bunching in your buttonhole

Sew the other side

Once you get back to the top of your marking, raise your needle and select the previous pattern again, the box with ‘2’ and ‘4’ at the top and bottom. This is your top bartack – and the finishing point of your buttonhole. Four or five stitches and you’re done! Remove your buttonhole from the machine, being careful to leave long tails of thread before snipping, then repeat the process if you have more to stitch. When you’ve finished stitching your buttonholes, take a sharp needle and thread it with the tails you have left at the top of your buttonhole on the right side of your fabric. Pass these thread ends through to the wrong side of your buttonhole and tie them in a knot with the tails from the underside of the buttonhole – ensuring the knot is close to the stitches. Then you can carefully clip away the remaining tails above the knots. These just help to prevent any stitches coming loose or undone in the buttonhole.

Secure the ends and carefully free the buttonhole!

Once all of your buttonholes have had their thread tails knotted and clipped, you can open them up. For this, you’ll need a sharp craft knife or a seam ripper at the very least, though it’s probably best to get either a buttonhole chisel or a pair of buttonhole scissors if you can. You’ll also need a clean cutting mat, though if you don’t have one (or don’t have a clean one) you can also use a thick piece of cardboard, though it does make things a bit more difficult. To prevent the accidental cutting of your bartack stitches, place a pin through each buttonhole at the top and bottom, just to the inside of the bartack – this will stop you before you hit the stitches if you accidentally slip. Now this stage is slightly different depending on the tool you use to open the buttonhole with, so I’ll go through it as best as I can.

If you’re using a craft knife, you’ll want a blade with a flat end, not the typical angled end you use for slicing. Buttonhole chisels already have this flat end, plus they often come with a cutting block for you to use them with. Be very careful with both of these tools, as they can be extremely sharp and are more likely to hurt you if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing than other tool options. Carefully position the blade of your knife or chisel with the flat back against the left edge of your buttonhole and the angled side in the middle of the buttonhole. Be sure to leave a little space from your stitches so you don’t accidentally slice them. Once you’re happy with the position of your blade or chisel, press downwards. You might have to do this several times with the craft knife in order to cut right the way through, especially if you’ve used a thick fabric like denim, but be careful not to snap the blade from using too much pressure. Chisels should cut through cleanly and easily – and since they’re a solid tool you can apply more pressure than you would with a craft knife. Lift the knife or chisel, move it along slightly and repeat. Flip your buttonhole over and do exactly the same on the other side to ensure a clean cut all the way through.

Opening a buttonhole with a seam ripper
This is how you want to open your buttonhole if you're using a seam ripper

If you’re using a seam ripper, carefully insert the longer, pointed end of its blade into the middle of the buttonhole. It’s best to be dead centre – both in terms of the length and width of your buttonhole. Slowly push the blade upwards until it pokes through your fabric again and slice the fabric by pushing gently forwards with your seam ripper. Repeat and continue this process until you reach the bartack, then turn your buttonhole around and continue to the other end of your buttonhole. Once you’ve finished, flip your fabric over and do exactly the same on the other side of the buttonhole. Now seam rippers aren’t as sharp as craft knives or chisels, but please be careful not to stab yourself with them when doing this! They can hurt much more than accidentally catching yourself with a pin or needle might.

Extra tips

Buttonhole scissors are interesting tools. They have special blades and a screw which, when turned, will adjust the amount by which you are able to rotate the moving blade – one blade of the scissors is stationary while the other rotates to cut. They’re popular with tailors, though not as common in the home sewing market, which is a shame as they’re probably the safest and most accurate tool you can use for this purpose. Of course they’ll be sharp, but as with most scissors you can keep yourself safe by keeping your fingers and any one else’s away from them while you’re using them, plus they’re less likely to slip accidentally. The idea is that you set the rear corner of the blades just to the inside of your bottom bartack and simply cut – the first time you do this, you might want to adjust the screw so that you can’t cut too far, as you can adjust it again when you know how much of the buttonhole this actually cuts. It’s great for things like shirts which have multiple buttonholes, as once you’ve got the screw adjusted correctly you can cut your buttonholes quickly and accurately (just be sure not to knock the screw). I’ve made a video about these curious tools which shows you how you can use them too.

Sewing buttons

Now you’ve made your buttonholes, you may want to stitch your buttons on (if you haven’t already!) You can of course do this before you make your buttonholes if you find it easier, though I tend to do it afterwards. This is for buttons with holes – if you have shanked buttons, you’ll want to stitch them on by hand as there isn’t a way to machine sew them with domestic sewing machines.

Again, there’s a specific foot for your sewing machine which you can get hold of, though this time it’s not really necessary. If you’re planning on making lots of items with buttons on then it might be worth getting a button sewing foot, or if you’re lucky your machine may have come with one, but otherwise you can sew buttons on just as easily with a regular presser foot.

A button taped in place to be sewn
Tape your button in place before trying to sew it, it makes it much easier!

Mark where you want your buttons to go – if you’re working from a pattern you may have already transferred the markings; if not, you could use the buttonholes you just made or you could measure your fabric to place them in the right area. Get some tape – I prefer masking tape, though washi tape would work just as well – and cut it into strips about three times the diameter of the button. If the tape is quite wide you can cut it down the middle to double the amount of strips you have. Place a piece of tape over either side of the button, ensuring the tape is centred on the button and being careful not to obscure the holes, then use the tape to affix the button over your marking.

Zigzag pattern selector
This is how my machine selects the different stitch widths for the zigzag pattern

Change your pattern selector to zigzag, keep the stitch length at 0 and consider dropping your feed dogs. Put your button in place and carefully twist your control knob to align the needle with the first hole. Hand crank a stitch into place, raise the needle and then increase the zigzag stitch width until you reach the correct width for the needle to go through the next hole. I usually hand crank this one too, just to make sure it doesn’t catch the edges of the hole, but after that you should be good to go. Take things slowly, as the slightest movement could shift the placement of the holes in the button and cause your needle to catch or even break (I had this happen). After several stitches, you should have a strong enough attachment to the fabric to keep the button in place – don’t make things too bulky, but do ensure it doesn’t wiggle or move separately to the fabric as it’ll easily come loose if it does.

Finishing sewing a button
Once you've sewn your button, you need to pass the tails through to the wrong side and knot them to ensure they don't come loose

If your button has four holes, you’ll need to raise your needle and presser foot and carefully shift your button until the needle sits within the second set of holes. As before, you may wish to hand crank the first couple of stitches to ensure the needle doesn’t catch. When you’re confident it clears the holes, you can continue stitching as before. As with your buttonholes, leave long tails of thread when you’re done stitching your buttons – you’ll use a hand needle to pass the thread through to the wrong side and tie a knot in the back before snipping the tails off and removing the tape that temporarily held your buttons in place.

And that’s it. It’s pretty straightforward and simple when you actually do this, though it looks like a lot of steps when it’s all written down. Just take it one step at a time and you’ll be fine!