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A few months ago I published a sewing lesson for the Learn to Machine Sew series on one of the techniques that scares a lot of beginner sewers: sewing zippers. I got a lot of comments at the time along the lines of “I’d much rather sew a zipper than sew buttonholes!”
It’s true– buttonholes tend to have a really bad rap, but they’re really not that difficult. You really do need them a lot for closures and there are so many fun buttons out there to chose from, and actually you can use buttonholes in other ways, without a button, which we will get to in the buttonhole practice tutorial later this week.
A buttonhole is basically just a series of zig zag stitches put together in a specific way. The classic way to sew them for millennia was to sew them by hand. I’ll admit that I have never in my life sewn a buttonhole by hand, but you have a lot of control that way and you can also use lovely silk thread on them. This tutorial is a great resource if you want to sew them by hand.
Sewing buttonholes by machine is much faster, especially if you have a special buttonhole foot. But not everyone has this type of foot, and it’s not always possible to use one, as I’ll show you later, so it’s important to know how to sew a buttonhole manually. Are you ready to learn this really important skill? Then read on!
All you need to machine sew a buttonhole is a machine with the capability to sew a zig zag stitch. (If you don’t know much about how to regulate the zig zag stitch, I suggest you read this lesson on the zig zag stitch before continuing to buttonholes.) I think pretty much every sewing machine made in the past 50 years has one. If yours doesn’t… consider getting a machine that does. It’s true that you can sew all sorts of things with just a straight stitch, but if you plan on doing much sewing, you’ll be a lot happier with a machine that gives you more flexibility.
If you are sewing a buttonhole manually, all you need is a standard zig zag foot, which is most likely the one that you use for most everything on your machine. It’s much faster and easier, however, to sew a buttonhole with a buttonhole foot on a sewing machine that can sew 4-step or 1-step buttonholes. My old sewing machine had a more classic sliding 4-step buttonhole foot, but I no longer have that machine, so I can’t show it to you myself. However this is a great video on how to use that type of buttonhole foot.
What I can show you, however, is the easiest of the easy ways to sew a buttonhole, with an automatic 1-step buttonhole foot, which you can see above. All you have to do is slip the button inside the little space and select the correct stitch setting, and your machine will do all the work for you! And a fantastic thing is that the buttonhole size stays there, so you can sew a whole bunch of perfectly identical buttonholes without any problems at all. Let’s start with this automatic buttonhole foot, and then after I will show you the completely manual way of sewing a buttonhole.
Some things are the same no matter what method you use for sewing buttonholes. First of all, your fabric needs to be stable enough. If your fabric is folded in half so you’re sewing on two layers, it’s probably be fine. If, however, you are using very lightweight fabric or you aren’t doubling it over, you will need to put a square of interfacing, stabilizer or scrap fabric on the back of the fabric right where the buttonhole is to be sewn. This will create enough stability for the tight zig zag stitches and to keep the fabric from getting all wavy or puckered. In this lesson I am using a scrap of sheet fabric folded in half.
Second, you need to mark the position of the buttonhole on the fabric with tailor’s chalk, a wash-out fabric marker, or any other fabric marker that is not permanent. (In these pictures I used a regular pen so that the markings would show up better, but this is just a practice piece, so I wasn’t worried about it showing.) To do this, either transfer the markings from the pattern you are using or, as seen in the image above, make markings at the top and bottom center of the button and then draw a line between them. Buttonhole markings generally have two short perpendicular lines at each end.
The 1-step buttonholer has a little part on one end that moves back and forth. Once you’re done marking the button’s position on the fabric, open up this part, slip the button inside, and snap it closed.
It’s very important to always sew a test buttonhole or two on a scrap of the same exact fabric you’ll use for your project, with interfacing if you’ll use it. This way you can make sure that the buttonhole comes out correctly and that it is the correct size for your button.
This particular buttonhole foot makes buttonholes that are slightly too big for the button, so what I do is open the the sliding part by two snaps, take out the button, and close it by four snaps. I then test this setting on fabric scraps to make sure that the button slips through it well.
Make sure that you consult your machine’s manual on how to use this foot correctly and on which settings. My Elna Lotus has two possible buttonhole shapes: classic buttonhole (#16) and keyhole buttonhole (#17, good for pants). Here we will stick with the classic style.
Clip the buttonhole foot on the machine. On the Lotus, you must then lower a lever which stops the foot from moving at a certain point (#1 above). Also make sure to pull the thread through the center of the foot and to the side out of the way (#2 above). This will assure that it doesn’t get in the way or get stuck in your buttonhole.
Generally you would use matching thread, but I am using contrast thread so that you can see it better on the fabric. Although really you could use contrasting thread if that’s the look you’re going for.
Now lower the foot onto the fabric in the correct position. Again, make some tests before sewing buttonholes on your project just to make sure of how it should be positioned. For my machine, the bottom perpendicular line needs to be just barely sticking out from under the foot (#3 above). And remember that the long central vertical line needs to be centered in the foot’s opening.
Because pictures are worth a thousand words, and who knows how many pictures a video is worth, I took a quick video of how this foot works on my machine. Notice that I don’t even touch the fabric. The machine does it all by itself. It may work differently on other machines, but all I do is press the pedal with my foot and the machine sews a backwards on the left side, then back down with a tight zig zag stitch. Then it sews a bar tack (a wide zig zag stitch) at the bottom, then sews backwards on the right side, sews another bar tack at the top, and then goes back down on the right side with a tight zig zag.
And voilà! A perfect buttonhole (#1)! Of course, a buttonhole is useless unless it’s opened up, so let’s do that. There are special chisel tools* for cutting open buttonholes, but I just use a classic seam ripper*. Stick a pin in each end of the buttonhole (#2). This is to keep from accidentally cutting into the bar tacks at each end. Then stick the seam ripper into the fabric in the center and rip the fabric open between the seams (#3). And that’s it (#4)! If you want you can trim any little threads sticking out or apply Fray Check* to the fabric, but I generally just leave it as is.
If you’ve sewn the buttonhole correctly, the button will fit through easily, though slightly snugly. At this point you’d mark where to sew the buttons on, but we’ll get to that another day.
You can’t get much easier than that, right?
But sometimes you can’t use a one-step automatic buttonhole foot, for example if your machine doesn’t have that setting or if the button you’re using is too big to fit inside the foot’s button slot, as you can see above. In this case, you need to sew a manual buttonhole with a regular zig zag foot.
As we did before, mark the buttonhole’s position on the fabric (on the left above). This next step isn’t mandatory, but I find it much easier this way. Sew a line of straight stitches no more than 2 mm away from the center line on each side (on the right above). This stitching will be your sewing guide.
- Line up the intersection between the center vertical line and the top perpendicular line under the needle.
- Sew a bar tack with a zig zag stitch 5 mm wide and 0 mm (or as close as possible) long. This means that the machine will sew left to right over and over again on top of itself. (Remember in the zig zag lesson when I had you sew a library of all your machine’s possible zig zag stitches? Consult it to find the best stitch widths and lengths.)
- Raise the needle and presser foot without cutting the thread. Move the fabric over slightly so that the top of the left line of stitching is under the needle. Lower the presser foot and sew down the line of stitching with a zig zag stitch 2 mm wide and about 0.4 mm wide.
- Raise the needle and presser foot again without cutting the thread. Move the fabric over slightly so that the bottom of the center vertical line is under the needle, and sew another bar tack like in #2.
- (not shown) Now you need to sew the other side of the buttonhole like in step #3. You can either do it directly from the bottom and sew while holding down the reverse button or lever, or cut the thread and start from the top and sew down. I find it hard to do this in reverse, so I prefer cutting and restarting from the top. Either way, make sure that you position the right line of stitching under the needle and use a zig zag stitch 2 mm wide and about 0.4 mm wide.
Ta da! In this example I sewed the right side going backwards, and you can see it didn’t come out very nice-looking (left). Now cut open the buttonhole with your seam ripper as we did before (right), and you’re done!
See? It’s really not that hard to sew a buttonhole, even if you don’t have a fancy buttonhole foot! So next time you get the urge to sew something that requires buttonholes, don’t get scared off! And remember, if your first buttonholes don’t come out perfect, try try again! Practice really does make perfect!
I’ll be back in a few days with the practice tutorial for a cute little project using buttonholes, but no buttons. Can you guess what it is?
This lesson on how to sew a buttonhole with or without a buttonhole foot is part of the syllabus of Cucicucicoo’s beginner’s sewing course! Don’t forget to share pictures of your work on the Cucicucicoo Creations Flickr Group or the Cucicucicoo Facebook page!
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