Sewing Tips: Sewing Around A Button Hole

You can sew or repair your own buttonholes with or without a sewing machine.

How a buttonhole is sewn depends on the size and shape of the buttons, the thickness of the fabric, and the type of garment. Buttonholes for tiny round buttons in an infant's light cotton dress would differ from buttonholes in a tailored coat or the waistband of a pair of boy's trousers. For excessive "button tugging," the buttonhole shape may be altered or a heavier thread used.

Usually, buttonholes are created with a sewing machine. Most machines use a built-in one-step buttonhole setting, or a buttonhole presser foot that is used in a four-step sequence to sew a zigzag stitch around the perimeter of the buttonhole. If you plan to use your machine, it is imperative to know what you are doing before you begin. Read the sewing machine's owner's manual, and follow the directions carefully.

It is often helpful to loosen the upper thread tension slightly so that the buttonhole doesn't pucker. If your machine uses the four-step sequence, don't sew too many stitches in the top and the bottom (the ends) of the buttonhole. For best results, use a backing for delicate or stretchy fabric. This can be trimmed away from around the completed buttonhole. When measuring for buttonholes, the inside of the buttonhole should measure at least one and one-half times the width of the button. Don't make it too large or the button will slip out.

Above all, use a scrap of your garment fabric and sew one or more test buttonholes. After each test buttonhole is complete, carefully insert a seam ripper to open the buttonhole, ripping the fabric but not the stitching! Slip a button through the buttonhole. Is it too tight or too loose? Make any adjustments and sew a suitable sample buttonhole before sewing directly on your garment.

If you don't have a sewing machine, or you want to sew your buttonholes by hand, there are two commonly used stitches: the buttonhole stitch and the blanket stitch. Use waxed thread when hand-stitching buttonholes for better strength and to prevent snags, knots, and unraveling. You can wax your own thread by dragging it across a lump of beeswax. Then place between a scrap of fabric and a hot iron and slide it out so that the wax melts into the thread and your ironing surface stays clean.

The buttonhole stitch is best for preventing fraying of the buttonhole. It is also less likely to unravel if broken because of a small half-knot at the top of each stitch. Unlike a sewing machine buttonhole, a hand-sewn buttonhole is cut first, then sewn. Working in either direction, begin at either end of the slit by laying the end of the thread along the cut edge of the buttonhole with the end pointing in the direction you will be sewing. Loosely loop the thread in that direction up and around, then bring the needle down through the loop to the wrong side of the fabric and through to the right side, bringing the needle up through the same loop. Pull the thread out and up to bring the half-knot to the top of the fabric, which will be the inside of the buttonhole. Securely holding the fabric close to the stitching with your other hand, continue to loop the thread up and then down around to the last stitch, bringing the needle through the loop from the wrong to the right side of the fabric, always staying inside the loop. Each stitch should be the same length, 1/16 inch (2 mm) to approximately 3/16 inch (5 mm), and spaced evenly, the closer the better. (Of course, the smallest stitches would be appropriate for thinner fabrics and smaller buttons, and the largest for heavier fabrics and larger or thicker buttons.) Continue to sew the buttonhole stitch around the buttonhole, taking special care at each end to rotate the stitches evenly around to the other side of the slit. When the buttonhole is finished, bring the needle through all of the stitches along the first side of the buttonhole and pull the excess thread through for added strength. Then carefully tie off the thread to the back of the buttonhole.

Another stitch that can be used for buttonholes is the blanket stitch. This stitch looks very similar to the buttonhole stitch when finished but lacks the half-knot at the top of each stitch, which means it can unravel if broken. Begin this stitch in the same way as the buttonhole stitch, but bring the needle through the fabric from the right side to the wrong side and over the top of the loop. Keep the stitches close together, and finish as with the buttonhole stitch.

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