Hey everybody! We are happy to end our “No Fear New Jeans” month with a special post on sewing jeans buttonholes. Your buttonhole is one of the very last details to finish before you can take your Ginger or Morgan jeans out into the real world for a spin, and a surprising number of people feel complete panic at the thought of disfiguring their brand new pair of handmade pants with a potentially less-than-perfect buttonhole. The whole point of our jeans-making months was to encourage everyone to eliminate “fear” from their sewing vocabulary. So say it with us… a buttonhole is NO. BIG. DEAL!
Getting friendly with your sewing machine and its manual will take away a lot of the insecurity when it comes to sewing buttonholes. There are also lots of video tutorials for all makes and models of sewing machines, so do your research before getting started. Practice a few times before you get started to help with any lingering anxiety you might have. Like all things sewing, you get better the more you practice.
GRADING & PREPPING SEAMS
When you are attaching your waistband, be mindful of your eventual button and buttonhole placement when you are grading your seams. Some sewing machine’s buttonhole feet have trouble climbing over thick layers of denim, so grading the waistband seam allowance will help keep things flat. We try not to grade anything more than 1/4″ along the waistband seam since being too aggressive here can create holes if the denim frays.
Another way to reduce bulk in this area is by hammering down the seams so they will flatten and fit more easily under the buttonhole foot. Yes, we said it… literally pound the heavy seams down with a hammer to flatten them! You’ll want to place your jeans waistband face down on a hard surface like a cast-iron pan or a piece of heavy board to protect your table or floor. Hammer from the inside of the jeans to protect the outer fabric from damage. The area that needs the most flattening is where the waistband is sewn to the fly front at center front.
MARKING THE BUTTONHOLE SIZE AND LENGTH
Measure the button you will be installing to determine the required length of the buttonhole. The general rule of thumb is to add 1/8″ of length to either end of the opening, but after sewing a few practice buttonholes, you may find you need a longer hole if your fabric is very thick and if the profile of the button is very wide. If you have an automatic buttonhole function, you should be able to set the length of the buttonhole on the foot itself. Again, make sure you do a test run first to ensure the finished buttonhole is long enough.
The buttonhole should begin about a 1/4″ from center front, and should be centered horizontally along the left side of the waistband. Mark the position of the buttonhole with a removable marking tool before sewing.
BUTTONHOLE TIPS & TROUBLESHOOTING
Many sewing machines get cranky sewing buttonholes on jeans. It’s a complex stitch at an area with a lot of thickness, so there are a few things that may help make the process a little easier.
- Try using regular thread for your buttonhole. Even our high-end Bernina can struggle to make buttonholes with topstitching thread. Choosing a contrasting colour makes it feel more intentional, or buy regular polyester thread in the same colour as your topstitching thread if you want it to feel more cohesive. You can also match the colour of your denim if you want something as unobtrusive as possible.
- Check your bobbin case; if it has a little arm with a hole in it, thread your bobbin through that. This helps create nice, crisp tension with a buttonhole/bar tack stitch.
- Invest in a buttonhole cutter! These sharp little chisels help cut beautiful, sharp incisions in between your button hole stitching. Seam rippers are less accurate and often aren’t sharp enough to cut through multiple layers of denim.
- Before cutting your buttonhole, thoroughly soak the front and back with a fray check product; this will help prevent fraying down the road.
- Even if your waistband isn’t fully interfaced, ensure you interface the area where your button and buttonhole will go. Since you are cutting a hole in the fabric and adding a lot of pressure with daily wear, the area must be stabilized.
- When practicing your buttonholes, adjust the tension if necessary. You want a nicely balanced stitch, without any of the bobbin threads being pulled to the front.
Sometimes despite all your best effort, you may have a hard time getting a nice buttonhole with your buttonhole foot. They generally have a fixed height and they can get “stuck” on the thick seams you’ll encounter at the waistband edge. If this is the case for you, keep reading! We have explained a few different methods to help make buttonholes without a buttonhole foot below.
SEWING A CORDED MACHINE BUTTONHOLE
One really fun feature of our Bernina’s 3A Buttonhole foot is the possibility of adding cording to the buttonhole to add stability and to enhance its profile. A hidden “filler” thread is sewn under the beads of the buttonhole. The Bernina 3A foot has pins specifically intended to keep this cording in place while stitching. If you don’t have a Bernina, check your machine’s manual. It may have a similar function!
We used a scrap of topstitching thread for our cording. Choose a colour of thread that will match the regular all-purpose thread you’re using for teh buttonhole itself. Hook the cording over the back pin of the buttonhole foot, and wind the ends around the two front pins. The cording should be taut and stay in place on its own.
Once the cording is hooked through the pins of the buttonhole foot, carefully position your waistband in place. Drop the foot down with the needle and corded centered over the position of the marking you made. When sewing a corded buttonhole, start the buttonhole at the position where the button will be sewn- you want the loop of the cord sewn to this position.
Once the buttonhole is sewn, remove your work from the machine. You can trim the regular polyester thread tail ends. Gently pull on the ends of the cording to pull them to the inner side of the buttonhole.
Thread the ends of the cording to the back of the buttonhole using a sharp wide-eyed needle.
Tie off the cording ends and thread them through the waistband to conceal.
The cording adds a nice raised profile as well as some added strength to your buttonhole.
SEWING A MANUAL BUTTONHOLE WITH A ZIG ZAG STITCH
If you have an older machine that doesn’t come with a buttonhole foot, or if your buttonhole foot just won’t cooperate with a thick waistband, you can sew one manually using your machine’s zig zag stitch by changing the width of the stitch for the bartacks and beads of the buttonhole. This method does take some practice, but one of the advantages is being able to customize the width of the buttonhole to accommodate a wider button.
The settings will vary depending on your particular machine, but here is an outline of the settings that we used with our sewing machine:
Step 1: Sew the beginning bartack using a wide zig zag stitch, stitching 5-6 times over the same place (width 5 mm, length 0 mm).
Step 2: Switch to a narrower stitch (width 2 mm, length 0.5 mm), raise the needle and presser foot, and gently shift your work so the needle will drop down precisely at the left edge of the bartack. Sew this short, narrow zig zag stitch the length of your marked buttonhole to form the left bead.
Step 3: Switch back to the same settings you used for the first bartack (width 5 mm, length 0 mm). Shift your work again so the needle will drop down at the left edge of the first bead you sewed. Stitch 5-6 times over the same place to form the buttonhole’s end bartack.
Step 4: Change you setting back to the bead zig zag settings (width 2 mm, length 0.5 mm) and drop your needle down precisely at the right edge of the end bartack. While pressing the “reverse” button, sew the right bead by stitching backwards the whole way until you reach the first bartack.
Sew a few practice zig zag buttonholes so you get the hang of knowing what position the needle will be in when finishing each step. Thsi way you can shift the work and reposition the needle for the next bead or bartack without pulling too much.
SEWING A JEANS BUTTONHOLE BY HAND
If you have wrestled with your machine and it refuses to make an automatic buttonhole, a hand-sewn buttonhole is an option. This is also a great way to repair a buttonhole that has frayed from wear and tear or one that was damaged by accident when it was cut open.
Start by marking the position of your buttonhole in the usual place. Using a matching thread and a short stitch on your sewing machine, sew two lines along either side of the buttonhole where the beads will be sewn, backstitching at the beginning and end to secure. (We used a red thread for this step so you will be able to see it in the photo).
Use fray check on the area and carefully open the buttonhole with either a buttonhole cutter or a pair of sharp scissors. Denim frays easily, so using a matching lightweight thread, carefully sew an overcast stitch (or whipstitch) around the edges of this opening to prevent excessive fraying and to maintain the size of the opening. (Again, we have used a red thread instead of a matching thread so it is visible in the photo).
You can easily experiment with making a keyhole buttonhole with this method. A professional tailor would punch a hole with a special tool, and then cut the opening with small sharp scissors. You can also adjust the width of the buttonhole, which is practical when you’ll be installing a thicker jeans button. The general rule of thumb is making the opening as wide as the profile of the button you’ll be using.
The stitch used to sew the actual buttonhole is called a blanket stitch. Thread a very sharp needle with topstitching thread and tie a knot at the end of the line of thread. You want to cut a piece of thread long enough to sew around the buttonhole, but not too long that it will tangle as you work. On the right side of the waistband, feed the needle through the bottom inner corner of the opening. Bring the needle back up along the bottom edge of the buttonhole, with the knotted tail of the thread placed on the inside of the stitch. Before pulling the needle through the fabric, loop the thread around the tip of the needle, as pictured below.
When you pull the needle through the fabric, you’ll find that winding the thread around the tip of the needle will create a little bump or “purl”.
Repeat the blanket stitch around the opening to create the buttonhole. You want to space your stitches as evenly as possible, making sure they are all the same length and width apart. Hand-sewn buttonholes are traditionally corded, using a special thread called “gimp”. This provides extra stability and added profile to the finished buttonhole.
When you reach the loop of the buttonhole, continue sewing while carefully angling each stitch around the corner.
When you are finished sewing around the buttonhole, sew a wide bartack at the end of the opening to secure.
Stitch through the bartack a few times and pull your needle through to the back of the waistband to tie off and secure your thread. Our buttonhole was quite thick because the topstitching thread; using regular polyester thread would result in a thinner profile.
And that’s it! Hopefully you’ll find this post helpful the next time you’re ready to finish your jeans. Any other tips or tricks you find helpful when sewing jeans buttonholes?