I'm always a little surprised by what causes sewing anxiety. High on the list of "scary" sewing tasks is sewing buttonholes. At the end of every Ginger workshop I've taught so far, I'm inevitably behind the machine in a frenzied buttonhole assembly line since most of my students are too nervous to do it themselves. It's kind of ironic that the very thing people shy away from is the very thing that makes me a pro: practice. I've also collected a few tools that makes the task easier, and I can bang out 10 in a row without breaking a sweat. In this tutorial, I will show you how to sew a buttonhole a few different ways plus all the tools and tips for nailing it, every time. You will be looking for excuses to add buttons to things in no time! Let's get into it!
TOOLS FOR SEWING BUTTONHOLES
I have a few favourite tools in my arsenal for tackling buttonholes, although most of these are totally optional. Here's what I definitely recommend:
- Fray Check or Fray Stop. The key to a long-lasting buttonhole is a product to prevent your threads from fraying each time you insert a button. I use this stuff all the time and highly suggest picking up a bottle. It will last for years.
- A button hole cutter. Stop trying to cut open your buttonholes with dull seam rippers! This little chisel cuts sharp, beautiful openings without snipping the threads you just laboured to sew.
- A buttonhole foot. While you can sew them manually, don't do that to yourself. A buttonhole foot will help you sew perfect, consistent buttonholes every time. Your machine should have come one with one, but if not there are lots of generic options out there.
- A button foot. I resisted buying this for a while since Bernina feet are really expensive, but not having to hand-sew buttons on is basically the biggest gift I could ever gift to myself.
Optional but highly helpful is an expanding sewing gauge. I freaking love this thing, a) because I hate transferring shirt markings and b) most patterns have buttons on the wrong spot for me around the bust. This gauge spreads evenly letting you space as many buttons as you want, without having to measure and divide manually with a ruler and piece of chalk (it also works double duty for marking pleats if you're worried it's just a one-trick pony). All I do is expand the gauge to the desired amount and then mark each division with a pin. Easy peasy.
TIPS FOR SEWING BUTTONHOLES
- Always, always stabilize the area where you are installing the buttonhole. You are piercing that area with a needle and thread many times over and you are asking for a frayed mess without it. Tear away stabilizer is a good option for areas that are not otherwise interfaced.
- Sew a few practice buttonholes before committing to sewing them on your garment. You'll feel more confident when it's time to sew them for real.
- Adjust your tension if necessary. A nice balanced buttonhole should not have visible bobbin thread.
- Read your manual! Each machine may have its own best settings for buttonhole sewing; I learned recently that my Bernina requires me to thread the bobbin thread through the hole on the arm of my bobbin case in order to get proper tension. It made an amazing difference.
- Make your buttonholes the right size. In general, it should be the length of your button plus 1/8" on either end for wiggle room.
- Mark the location for your buttons AFTER sewing your buttonholes. Line everything up so that the overlap is in the proper place and then mark through the center of your buttonhole with a pencil. Much more accurate!
- Finally, take a breath! Don't let your fear of buttonholes stop you from making the stuff you want to make, or prevent you from putting the finishing touches on that project you've been working on. Practice a few times and just put your head down and do it!
SEWING JEANS BUTTONHOLES
We wrote a dedicated post on sewing jeans buttonholes if you would like to read more about that but here are the main tips for how to sew a jeans buttonhole:
- Grade your seams so the buttonhole is on as few layers as possible.
- Interface your waistband and facing where the buttonhole will be installed.
- If you can't get a nice tension with your topstitching thread, switch to regular thread, either matching the denim or in a fun contrasting colour.
- If the denim is very thick, flatten the area first with a hammer to thin everything down.
- Some buttonhole feet will get stuck on the waistband edge and the foot can't move forward smoothly. I had this issue with a high-end Singer I had to use in a Ginger class. If you're having this issue, you may need to sew them "manually" using a regular foot and a dense zigzag stitch. Set your stitch length to .5 or 0. The width of the short, wide bartack is about 4, and the narrow long bartacks will be 2. You will need to move your needle position over to the left or right when it's time to sew the narrow bar tacks. You should definitely practice this a few times but it's a good option if you can't make it work with your regular buttonhole foot.
- If all else fails, hand-sew that baby! Morgan did some gorgeous hand-sewn buttonholes here, and there is a wonderful tutorial on By Gum By Golly.
HOW TO SEW ON BUTTONS:
How do you get perfect buttonholes? Any other tips I missed?