Practice does make perfect when it comes to making beautiful buttonholes. Most people know how to sew a button, it’s almost a life skill, but the buttonhole is another story. Even the most experienced seamstress will shy away from making their own buttonholes. However, from bolsters to blouses and beyond, a beautiful buttonhole really adds the finishing touch.
There is a well-traveled four-step approach to sewing a buttonhole by machine. Don’t miss out on the practice run and keep a sample for yourself as a reminder of how you mastered the four steps to a buttonhole.
To Sew a Buttonhole You Will Need
- Buttonhole foot or zig-zag foot.
- The sewing machine manual to give the settings for the buttonhole.
- A scrap of the fabric you plan to sew on for your practice sample.
- The buttons.
- A fabric marking pen.
- Sewing machine thread in either the same color as the garment. I used a contrast so you could see the stitching but beginners should always use a matching thread.
- Sharp scissors or a seam ripper.
- Straight pins.
- Fusible Interfacing. (Read: types of interfacing)
How to Sew a Buttonhole
Prepare the Fabric
Most fabrics will need some interfacing as reinforcement under the button holes even if it is not specified in your sewing pattern. Press a lightweight to medium interfacing on the wrong side of the fabric.
Next measure where you plan to place the buttons. Buttons should be evenly spaced along the opening.
TIP: If there will be many buttons on a blouse front for instance, then use two strips of masking tape lined up with space for the buttonholes.
Use a ruler and your fabric pen to draw a line with markings at the top and bottom to show the start and end of the buttonhole. This will resemble a capital I.
Your buttonhole could be set in a horizontal or vertical position depending on the item you are making. Most jackets and blouses have horizontal buttonholes.
FORMULA: length of buttonhole = diameter of button + height of button
Prepare your machine
Attach your buttonhole foot and check you have enough thread in your bobbin. There is nothing worse than running out of thread halfway through a buttonhole.
Read your manual and check you have done everything required to get the machine ready.
If you don’t have a manual then try getting a free one online. Read download sewing machine manuals to see if you can get one for your model.
You can get specialized buttonhole feet like the one below or use a regular zig-zag foot.
This special foot has a spot at the back to place the button and the machine will automatically create a buttonhole that same size. My buttonhole foot takes buttons up to 1 inch (2.5cm) which is fairly standard.
The buttonhole foot attaches to the shank with the button section to the back. This does seem a little strange as there is a lot of the foot hanging over at the back, but this is normal.
Sewing the Buttonhole
Many machines have slightly different variations or orders of these steps but this will give you some guidance to get started.
The basic steps are
- First side
- First T bar
- Second side
- Second T bar
One Step Buttonholes
When using a buttonhole foot your machine will generally do all the steps for you. It will have some kind of indicator that will communicate to the machine when to reverse back, giving you perfectly sized buttonholes.
IMPORTANT: Check your machine manual or start a test stitch. Some machines start at the top and go backwards and some start at the bottom and go forwards.
My Janome starts at the t bar and then goes backward.
Remember not to pull or push the fabric as this affects the tension badly and sets the buttonhole foot off course. The buttonhole foot is specially grooved to allow the two sides of the buttonhole to stitch up parallel to each other and if you pull, the material slips and the foot takes the wrong steps.
You can do a buttonhole with an ordinary zig-zag foot and simple zig-zag settings.
Step one: First Side
Make sure you have lined up the needle to start exactly at the top of the T bar ready to sew down the first side in a straight line. Try a stitch width of 2.0 with a length of 0.3-0.5.
As you get to the end of the first line, slow down the machine stopping at the T bar.
Step two: First T Bar
Make sure your machine needle is up and turn your setting to the next step of the buttonhole. Try a width of 5.0 and a length of 0.
Your machine should stitch several stitches across the bottom of the buttonhole to secure the T bar.
If you are nervous here, you can turn the flywheel by hand to make about six stitches to secure the end of the buttonhole.
Step three: Second Side
Set your machine to the third setting of the buttonhole. Try a stitch width of 2.0 with a length of 03-0.5.
Check your needle is on the correct side of the buttonhole ready to travel back to the top of the buttonhole. You will go in reverse at this stage. Let the machine do the work as the buttonhole foot guides the stitches to the other end of the T and ends next to the point where you started.
Finish this step with the needle up as you adjust the stitch on your machine.
Step four: Last T bar
This is the final step and the machine stitch should be ready to do several stitches across the end of the buttonhole. Try a width of 5.0 and a length of 0.
It is important at this stage to see that the stitches are going to cover the gap at the end of the buttonhole.
Once again you can control the flywheel by hand if you like. The four steps have been completed.
Tying the Ends
Now on some machines, there is a fifth option of a little stitch just to run the threads in and secure the end.
If you don’t have that feature, then you will have to tie the threads off by hand. Pull your garment out of the machine and leave a reasonable amount of thread at the ends. Pull the threads through to the reverse side and you can knot the threads or sew the threads into the back of the buttonhole with a hand needle.
Cutting Through the Buttonhole
Check that both sides of the stitching are not overlapping in any way so that when you cut through the buttonhole you are cutting fabric and not stitching.
Place a pin over the bar at the top and bottom and insert the seam ripper to create an opening. The pin will stop you from overshooting the mark and ruining the buttonhole.
Also, pay attention that you are cutting straight through the middle. I was in a hurry to take this photo and went a little off track and ended up cutting through some stitches.
There is also a very handy little tool called a buttonhole chisel that is useful for cutting through the buttonhole if you are doing larger quantities. The chisel will need a cutting board behind it, so you don’t chisel a hole in your table!
If your fabric frays a lot, you can add a little Fray Check solution to make the buttonhole last.
Remember it is wise to practice on a scrap first before stitching on your garment. Use the fabric you will make the buttonhole on and prep it exactly as you plan to use it.
Now step back and admire your workmanship. Push the button through its very neatly and firmly made buttonhole. Now you can say you ‘have buttoned up’ the four-step process of a machine stitched buttonhole. Well done!
If the thought of sewing buttonholes still makes you nervous, then try these alternatives