How to Sew Perfect Buttonholes // Closet Case Files
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HOW TO SEW PERFECT BUTTONHOLES

I‘m always a little surprised by what causes sewing anxiety. High on the list of “scary” sewing tasks is sewing buttonholes. At the end of every Ginger workshop I’ve taught so far, I’m inevitably behind the machine in a frenzied buttonhole assembly line since most of my students are too nervous to do it themselves (often we’re also crunched for time and it’s just faster for me to do it all at once, but I always hear a collective sigh of relief when I volunteer).

Maybe it’s just my lovely Bernina, but I’ve never had an issue sewing buttonholes. Even my old Singer did a great job with them, and now that I’ve collected a few tools that makes the task easier, I can bang out 10 in a row without breaking a sweat. Here are my tips for sewing beautiful buttonholes every time.

GATHER YOUR TOOLS

How to sew buttonholes-7

I have a few favourite tools in my arsenal for tackling buttonholes, although most of these are totally optional. Here’s what I definitely recommend:

  • Fray Check or Fray Stop. The key to a long lasting buttonhole is a product to prevent your threads from fraying each time you insert a button. I use this stuff all the time and highly suggest picking up a bottle. It will last for years.
  • A button hole cutter. Stop trying to cut open your buttonholes with dull seam rippers! This little chisel cuts sharp, beautiful openings without snipping the threads you just laboured to sew.
  • A buttonhole foot. While you can sew them manually, don’t do that to yourself. A buttonhole foot will help you sew perfect, consistent buttonholes every time. Your machine should have come one with one, but if not there are lots of generic options out there.
  • A button foot. I resisted buying this for a while since Bernina feet are really expensive, but not having to hand sew buttons on is basically the biggest gift I could ever gift to myself.

Using-machine-foot-to-sew-on-buttons

Optional but highly helpful is an expanding sewing gauge. I freaking love this thing, a) because I hate transferring shirt markings and b) most patterns have buttons on the wrong spot for me around the bust. This gauge spreads evenly letting you space as many buttons as you want, without having to measure and divide manually with a ruler and piece of chalk (it also works double duty for marking pleats if you’re worried it’s just a one trick pony). All I do is expand the gauge the desired amount and then mark each division with a pin. Easy peasy.

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TIPS FOR SEWING BUTTONHOLES

  • Always, always stabilize the area where you are installing the buttonhole. You are piercing that area with a needle and thread many times over and you are asking for a frayed mess without it. Tear away stabilizer is a good option for areas that are  not otherwise interfaced.
  • Sew a few practice buttonholes before committing to sewing them on your garment. You’ll feel more confidant when its time to sew them for real.

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  • Adjust your tension if necessary. A nice balanced buttonhole should not have visible bobbin thread.

Perfect-button-hole-tension

  • Read your manual! Each machine may have its own best settings for buttonhole sewing; I learned recently that my Bernina requires me to thread the bobbin thread through the hole on the arm of my bobbin case in order to get proper tension. It made an amazing difference.

Thread-bobbin-to-sew-button-holes

  • Make your buttonholes the right size. In general, it should be the length of your button plus 1/8″ on either end for wiggle room.
  • Mark the location for your buttons AFTER sewing your buttonholes. Line everything up so that the overlap is in the proper place and then mark through the center of your buttonhole with a pencil. Much more accurate!
  • Finally, take a breath! Don’t let your fear of buttonholes stop you from making the stuff you want to make, or prevent you from putting the finishing touches on that project you’ve been working on. Practice a few times and just put your head down and do it!

SEWING JEANS BUTTONHOLES

Jedediah Pants by Thread Theory _Jeans hack2

  • Sewing buttonholes on your waistband (or along the button fly for the Morgan boyfriend jeans) can be a little tricky depending on your machine. Here are my suggestions:
  • Grade your seams so the buttonhole is on as few layers as possible.
  • Interface your waistband and facing where the buttonhole will be installed.
  • If you can’t get a nice tension with your topstitching thread, switch to regular thread, either matching the denim or in a  fun contrasting colour like Sallie did here.
  • If the denim is very thick, flatten the area first with a hammer to thin everything down.
  • Some buttonhole feet will get stuck on the waistband edge and the foot can’t move forward smoothly. I had this issue on a high end Singer I had to use in a  Ginger class. If you’re having this issue, you may need to sew them “manually” using a regular foot and a dense zig zag stitch. Set your stitch length to .5 or 0. The width of the short, wide bartack is about 4, and the narrow long bartacks will be 2. You will need to move your needle position over to the left or right when its time to sew the narrow bar tacks. You should definitely practice this a few times but it’s a good option if you can’t make it work with your regular buttonhole foot.
  • If all else  fails, hand sew that baby! Morgan did some gorgeous hand sewn buttonholes here, and there is a wonderful tutorial on By Gum By Golly.

How do you get perfect buttonholes? Any other tips I missed?

How to Sew Perfect Buttonholes // Closet Case Files
  • Jen l

    The list just about covers it. I think it’s important to practice, not just before making a button hole for a nearly-finished, but just for the sake of practice. Takes the fear out. I like sewing freehand buttonholes for jeans because I like those kind of fish-shaped buttonholes and my old Bernina only makes standards. David Page Coffin’s pants book has tips on how to do it, but it does take practice. I first made some pretty odd looking fish.

  • NIkki Schreiner

    These are great tips! I’ve known for a long time I should invest in a buttonhole chisel, but now I think I’ll add the expandable ruler thing to my must-buy-soon list. I sew on a semi-industrial Pfaff from the 70s and must sew buttonholes manually. I dread it every time and then it never actually takes me that long! BUT, I’ve started teaching sewing camps for kids and thus ordered 3 Brother sewing machines … that have working buttonhole functions! Yippee!
    http://www.pincutsewstudio.com/blog

  • Excellent tips- as long as you have a machine that will sew good buttonholes lol I’ve only ever had cheap-as-chips machines, and never, ever had a decent buttonhole in over forty years of sewing- until I got my vintage Singer up and running this year. Oh the bliss! She’s got a lovely Singer buttonhole attachment, and my lifelong hatred of buttonholes has vanished. Gone. Kaput. I do a quick couple of tests to get the size right, and then every single one is perfect. I also recently got a chisel, so I endorse that recommendation.wholeheartedly

  • Phew! Boy was this post needed! I’m one of those who have been sewing for years but still get the heebie jeebies over doing a button hole on the machine! I think these tips will be super valuable for me to face my fear!!

    Gemma
    http://www.fadedwindmills.com

  • I must get a chisel. My old husky is a moody SOB when it comes to buttonholes so the process can be…. emotional. I heartily endorse using tearaway solvi stabiliser to prevent feed dog suckage.

  • Lefish

    The expandable button hole thing was cool! Quick q: at what point in the process do you use the fray check and how do you use it?

  • Christina Mano

    I can recommend using a scalpel to open the buttonholes… Very precise and easy to use????

  • My Bernina will no longer make a pretty buttonhole past the first one after a tune up. Proper cutting and a dab o’glue makes a crummy one look so much nicer.
    On jeans, I’ve done a welted buttonhole. I use black lightweight woven fusible for the welt, which stretches nicely and hey, who doesn’t like an iron on buttonhole?

  • John Yingling

    For those who swear by vintage machines, a Singer/Greist buttonholer will be the best investment you could ever make. I have an extra Pfaff 130 set up just for buttonholes, and yes I also have a button foot to sew on buttons. I think I have collected nearly every size cam for the attachment. Once you get the hang of using the buttonholer, you can complete all the buttonholes in a shirt in minutes. For opening the holes I use an Xacto knife with a 1/2″ chisel blade, only after applying Fray Check to each hole (allow overnight drying time). I see these buttonholers in thrift stores occasionally for just a few dollars. Consequently I have a few more than I need.

  • Jane

    Oh yes, I’ll be another one to endorse the vintage buttonhole attachment! I have one with the cams and another that is infinitely adjustable for size (but does not do the keyhole shape the cams can). I usually go around twice. Oh and I’m not sure why anyone would use a seam ripper to cut their buttonholes, sounds terrifyingly slip-prone! I always just use a small sharp pair of embroidery scissors.

  • Mel

    OMG, I can use my button gauge to do pleats!!! Mind blown. I’m another one who uses a singer 201k with a buttonhole attachment, my husqvarna does decent ones but my singer does absolutely beautiful ones .

  • Margaret von Zipper-Pants

    I love the buttonhole chisel! Best $6 ever. Tip: for sewing on buttons by machine: Because you don’t get a solid knot, I always use a drop of fray check on the thread to keep it from unravelling in the wash!

  • Great tips! Perhaps one thing keeping my machine from making perfect buttonholes is the lack of using the special foot.

  • I love my vintage Singer buttonholers. At one point I was having intermittent problems with skipped stitches on my buttonholes. Finally I realized I got skipped stitches when I didn’t pull the fabric tight enough as I lowered the buttonholer foot down onto it. It’s kind of a tricky operation on some fabric – it would help if I could use two hands to pull the fabric tight, then have a third hand lower the presser foot. Starch or Sticky Solvy wash-away stabilizer helps if your fabric is flimsy.

    I also couldn’t get the buttonholer to work on a jeans buttonhole because the fabric was too lumpy. I’ve been wondering if I stick layers of tape or felt or something on the thin areas so that the buttonholer’s foot is pressing on the fabric evenly all around the edge of the buttonhole area, maybe I could get it to work? I’ll have to try that when I get around to sewing my Morgan jeans.

    To open my buttonholes I start the cut in the middle of the buttonhole with a sharp razor knife, then finish cutting with duck-billed applique scissors. I agree seam rippers are a bad idea – I have cut through the buttonhole ends even with a sharp seam ripper and a pin at the end of the buttonhole.

    • DIY Wardrobe

      I have a vintage Singer buttonholer too, for my 201K, – I love it. It copes much better with heavy fabrics than my modern computerised machine. I agree it does struggle a bit with lumps – would Heather’s tip about bashing the fabric with a hammer first help it along?

      • Yes, always hammer thick spots when sewing jeans! I find that on thick denim, hammering still isn’t enough to get the buttonholer to work on the waistband, though. Hammering might do the trick for thinner denim – I’ve used the buttonholer on the waistband of twill pants and it worked fine.

  • Philip Goetz

    What do you mean, “stabilize the area”?

    • Use interfacing on the area where the buttonhole will be sewn.