Buttonholes and buttons are known for being many garment-makers’ nemesis. It can be common for makers to stick to stretch fabric designs to avoid having to use them altogether. But buttonholes don’t have to be scary or intimidating; you just need to know how and where to create them, and know about some useful tools. We’ll cover all of this and more (including how to cheat if you really don’t want to make buttonholes) in this post.
Unfortunately, creating a buttonhole isn’t quite as simple as cutting a slit in your garment for the button to pass through. In theory this would work but the raw fabric edges will fray and become weaker. A buttonhole that will stand the test of time (and use!) needs to be stabilised and strengthened with dense stitching around the edges.
Tips for creating buttonholes
Not all pattern instructions will mention interfacing when it comes to adding in buttonholes but it’s a really important addition. Not only will interfacing strengthen and stabilise your buttonhole stitches, but it will also make the process much easier. There are lots of different types of interfacing so make sure you choose one that is suitable for the fabric you are using. As a general guide, you want an interfacing which is the same (or very similar) weight and thickness to the fabric.
There are lots of different types and styles of buttonholes but the most common (and the ones used in Waves & Wild patterns with buttonholes) are machine sewn. If your sewing machine can create buttonhole stitching then you might have to option of just one of these styles or up to all three. Although each one has “ideal uses” they are fairly interchangeable so don’t worry if you machine only has one style.
Rectangular (left): most commonly used in a vertical position on garments like shirts.
Rounded (centre): similar use to the rectangular style but more popular on lighter fabrics as it has a more delicate look.
Keyhole (right): most commonly used on heavier fabric and ideal for buttons with a large shank, like jeans buttons.
Should your buttonholes be horizontal or vertical? This depends on both the location of the buttonhole on your garment and where the most pressure on the buttonhole will be.
Buttonholes on waistbands or on a button fly will be pulled horizontally (left to right) so the buttonholes should be positioned that way too. If you were to place a waistband buttonhole vertically then the left-to-right pull would cause the buttonhole to open up.
Whereas buttonholes in a row, like on a shirt, have less pull on them generally as the “strain” is spread evenly across multiple buttons. This means it is more common for buttonholes like this to be placed vertically.
Try having a look at some garments you own with buttons to see which way the buttonholes are orientated.
When it comes to spacing out a row of buttons, ideally a pattern will have this information or the button placement marked on the pattern pieces, but this isn’t always the case. Plus if you have adjusted the length of a pattern you may need to alter the button placement yourself. The great thing about making your own garments is that you can customise them to your taste so really it’s up to you how many buttonholes you use in a row; if you love the look of buttons then add extras! But it’s important to keep in mind who will be undoing and doing up the buttons and where on the body they will be when the garment is worn. For example, a long row of tightly spaced buttons on a toddler’s shirt could be too much hassle to deal with when dressing them…or when they insisted on dressing themselves. On the other hand, spacing buttons too far apart could cause some modesty issues. For example, widely spaced buttons over a more shapely like part of the body, like the bust, are more likely to pull apart while being worn.
There are no specific rules for button spacing but there are a few tips to take into account when you are deciding where to position buttons:
- keep the button spacing even
- always take into account any seam allowances or hems that might alter where the buttonholes will be on the finished garment
- test your buttonhole on scrap fabric before you add it to your garment so you can see exactly how long the buttonhole will be (hint: it’s always longer than the actual button!), this will help with spacing and location
You’ve chosen the buttonhole style, worked out which way to position them and where, added interfacing and sewn a beautiful buttonhole. Now you need to cut it open so it can actually function. Yikes! This part of the process needs to be done with care you don’t cut into any of the stitches that create the buttonhole edges. If you catch and snip some of those then the buttonhole stitches will come unravelled.
You can use a buttonhole cutter. This looks like a mini chisel and is positioned in the centre of the buttonhole (on the thin fabric line) with a hard surface like a cutting mat or wooden block underneath. The sharp chisel end is pushed into the fabric and rocked back and forth to make a precise cut in the fabric. This tool is great for an accurate and neat cut but you are limited by the size of the cutting edge. A large buttonhole can be cut in stages but if your chisel end is larger than the buttonhole then you can’t use this tool.
Another option is to use a seam ripper and pin. Carefully use the seam ripper to create a slit in the thin fabric line down the centre of the buttonhole, making sure you don’t catch any of the stitches. Before you start cutting, place a pin across each end of the button hole, just inside the stitches. The pin will create a barrier to stop your seam ripper going too far and cutting into the stitches at the top and bottom of the buttonhole.
Adding the buttons
Once you’d created all the buttonholes who need on a garment, the final stage is to add the buttons. This is really simple but if the buttons aren’t placed accurately, it can really effect the fit and overall look of the garment.
The easiest way to get accurate button placement is to lay your garment out with everything in the right place then mark a dot through the centre of each buttonhole. Use this dot as the position for the centre of each button.
Here are a few tools you might find useful to help when creating and placing buttonholes. None are essential, although there is one especially that will make buttonholes on a sewing machine so much easier (and most likely if your machine can sew buttonholes, then you’ll already have this tool).
This is the tool that will make creating buttonholes on a sewing machine so much easier. Although it is possible to mark your fabric and sew the edge stitches using a regular sewing machine foot, this is a time consuming process. The buttonhole foot does all of the measuring for you.
Place the button you are using inside the buttonhole foot and pull down the guide on your sewing machine (commonly located behind and to the left of the foot and needle). Both of these steps mean the sewing machine can calculate the length of buttonhole needed. A buttonhole foot always starts sewing at the bottom of the buttonhole so keep this in mind when positioning to sew.
A regular button gauge is a little metal ruler used for marking the placement and length of individual buttons. They often include a button shank gauge too to help when adding buttons and making sure they aren’t attached too tight to the fabric. This tool can also be used for measuring hems and pleats.
An expanding buttonhole gauge is very different to a regular button gauge, despite the similar name. This hinged, zigzag metal ruler helps to guide the even spacing of several buttons at once and also guide the distance from the garment edge. Gaps in the gauge mean you can mark the fabric without moving the gauge.
This tool gives a little extra help to neaten the final finish of buttonholes. It looks similar to glue and is added to raw fabric edges. Once you have cut the hole in the buttonhole, this can be added to the inside edges as an extra protection against fraying fabric.
Tips for Cheating
There is a pattern hack for the Adult Kinjarling Dress, to add a row of functioning buttons to the centre of the bodice (perfect for breastfeeding) and you can find the instructions to this here. However, you might love the look of this but don’t want or need the buttons to function and open up the dress front. You could simply sew buttons to the front of the dress bodice, but to create more of a faux button placket look. For this, simply follow the hack instructions and at steps 10 and 11, work from the right side of the dress and top stitch round the neckline and down the front opening but sew the opening down to the second front layer underneath. Then sew buttons onto the front; there’s no need to add actual buttonholes (step 14 in the hack) because you won’t need them!
The Child’s Kinjarling Dress includes instructions for having an opening bodice front or back with buttons. If you wanted the look of buttons but wanted to avoid adding buttonholes or avoid having to do and undone buttons on a child, follow the steps for the the opening but rather than adding buttonholes, attached velcro where the bodice halves overlap and the add buttons to the outside.