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I am a mother, a new grandmother, and a teacher. But whatever happens in my life, I keep sewing. I have worked as a political communicator and now as a teacher in my formal life. I have also written extensively on sewing. I have been a frequent contributor and contributing editor of Threads magazine and the Australian magazine Dressmaking with Stitches. My first book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge will be published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon


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Sunday, May 20, 2012

The little bit I know about buttonholes

In response to a few comments about buttonholes here are my thoughts:

First of all many times buttonholes are demonstrated during the sales pitch in the best of all possible conditions. This means a cotton fabric like twill that gives lots of places for the lock stitch to bury and so looks nice and neat, and a sharp needle - a 70 denim is the sharpest of all needles and gives the best stitch. Stablizing helps a lot too.

That's why the buttonhole in the dealer's may look better than you feel you can do at home. There are a few things you can do yourself however that will make your own buttonholes look better:

1. Use a new sharp needle. A friend of mine who was a great shirt maker always put in a new needle just before he made buttonholes - he had noticed that often he got a skipped stitch or two in his buttonholes (using the same needle he had made a whole shirt with) and this eliminated it. He then left the new needle in to start the next project.

2. If you don't already, and if your machine doesn't have some sort of default for this (or like the Bernina have a hole in the bobbin case to thread through the bobbin thread just for buttonholes, effectively tightening the lower tension) loosen your upper tension to about a 3 or less so the lock stitch join is pulled towards the back - giving you the smoothest possible satin stitch on the right side.

3. If you fabric is light and tends to tunnel or pull with a tight satin stitch, stablize your fabric behind the buttonhole area.

4. Use a cotton machine embroidery thread to make your buttonhole. This is fuzzier than sewing thread and therefore fills in the spaces between the stitches and makes a smoother satin stitch for your buttonholes.

Some buttonhole realities. 

Don't make yourself nuts trying to figure out why the right side of the buttonhole looks nice and the left side looks messy. 

This is just going to happen in any buttonhole that sews down one side and reverse up the other. All machines sew more effectively in forward than reverse. A buttonhole that is designed in an automatic system to sew both sides forward (usually this is achieved by a reverse row of straight stitches up the second side that are covered in the second row of satin stitching) will generally always look neater in my experience.

Always make your test buttonhole in interfaced fabric with the same layers as the garment. This will eliminate the surprise of buttonholes that suddenly seem too small for the button.


For the most stress free buttonhole experience you can always invest in an old Singer buttonhole attachment (eBay is full of them) and a simple straight stitch machine from a yard sale even (must be one that is low shank and has feed dogs that can be covered under the attachment). This attachment  uses metal cams or templates that sew identical buttoholes, noisily, on light to medium weight fabrics. Completely foolproof with either keyhole, or my favourite, round ended buttonholes.

I have this set up on a small Janome at my shirt button default and can do a row of perfect button holes in about 5 minutes.

For fancy automatic machines with buttonholes that are a disappointment you can still make up your own system by playing with your zig zag, the right width and density for sides and the end, and of course you can swing this around to make a buttonhole that sews forward both sides.

I finally did this with my 7570 and wrote down on a little paper the settings I liked. A bit fussy but better than unpicking a messy buttonhole. For the Pfaff 7570 or 7550 you can usually get a fairly decent buttonhole if you use the default on the first display screen and always, always use the buttonhole sensor unit.

The problem with the Pfaff buttonhole, in my opinion, is that the sides are sewn in the opposite direction and that the sides are sewn too close together- it can be nearly impossible to cut the buttonhole open without cutting some threads. Too bad in machines that have that wonderful built-in walking foot.

Now what did I forget?


Karin said...

Super useful post! I am sure I will be coming back to this one.

Colleen G said...

I have always known that my mother's old Singer with the buttonhole attachment created better buttonholes than either of my Pfaffs but now I understand why and how I can improve the results. Of course practice will help too but maybe now I will embrace the challenge instead of avoiding it. Afterall, I have too many jars full of buttons to ever use up in my lifetime of sewing.

Martha said...

Great post - thanks!

I wondered why my Bernina did that straight stitch up the middle. And it does make great buttonholes with the sensor.

My challenge area is the collar stand. The sensor doesn't work there. Using the standard buttonhole foot is iffy.

annie said...

Thanks for this.

Sophie Miriam said...

Can the Singer buttonhole attachment fit a sewing machine that isn't a Singer? My main wish is that my vintage Kenmore sewed buttonholes.

Barbara said...

Sophie, it should fit. Just make sure your machine is low shank, I think it certainly should be, but you need to have a little cover that snaps on to cover your feed dogs so they are not able to move the attachment . As I said I use the attachment fine on a Janome.

Unknown said...

Sophie, my first machine was a Kenmore that I bought in the 60s, and I had the Singer buttonhole attachment that worked fine with it. I now have a Viking Sapphire that makes wonderful buttonholes, I have never had a problem. ....Anna

Sophie Miriam said...

Awesome! Thanks!

Mary said...

Thanks for these tips-I hate(read "fear")buttonholes because they come at the end of a project and can color my enjoyment of the garment. My new Elna 5100 does good buttonholes as long as I follow the tips you have listed.

velosewer said...

Sewing buttonholes can take a lot of courage even with my Janome machine. I'll use your tips to get a better result.

Dixie said...

Thank you so much for your helpful tidbits. I'm currently working on a shirt, so I'll do some experimenting. I drive a Pfaff 7530, and it usually makes decent looking buttonholes. I actually kissed it last winter when it made perfect buttonholes on a shirt I made for my Mom. But different fabrics can have different results, and now you've armed me with the information I may need in future garments.

Anonymous said...

Barb: How did you do the buttonholes on the lovely red cord jacket you made last year? Your jacket inspired me to make one of my own from that pattern. Sadly, it's been one of those projects for me where i do everything wrong twice before I get it right, however, I'm down to the buttonholes at this point, and samples aren't going well. Any helpful hints would be appreciated. Sandra (ps, I love your blog)

Barbara said...

Sandra I just used my old Singer buttonhole attachment and went around them twice, once with a narrow width and once with a slightly wider width. Tell me what's wrong with your samples?

Anonymous said...

Hi Barb: My machine (which I recently purchased new, and am already regretting, and purchased specifically because i thought it would do buttonholes better than my pfaff7570) can't seem to move forward consistently, and sews the buttonhole in a big glob all in one spot. The bernina dealer says there's some sort of attachment that will assist in doing buttonholes on bulky fabric, and I may try that as well. Sandra

Barbara said...

Sandra turn your foot over. If your machine won't move forward easily once you have started any kind of satin stitch it may be because you don't have grooves cut out on the bottom that are large enough. Sometimes an embroidery foot with a big cut away will help or a specific buttonhole foot, keep me posted.

Barbara said...

Sandra turn your foot over. If your machine won't move forward easily once you have started any kind of satin stitch it may be because you don't have grooves cut out on the bottom that are large enough. Sometimes an embroidery foot with a big cut away will help or a specific buttonhole foot, keep me posted.

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biker chick said...

I wonder if you have tackled this one: I have a Pfaff 7550 and would like to make keyhole buttonholes on a jacket. My challenge is that the keyhole end of the buttonhole is the end of the buttonhole, not the beginning. My buttons are big and I had anticipated making horizontal buttonholes to ensure that the large pattern on the fabric matches when the jacket is buttoned. I think getting the keyhole near the finished front edge of the jacket is impossible. Have I missed something?

Barbara said...

Hi Biker chick, the best way to deal with this, and a method I have used with my own 7570, is to make test samples, same number of layers with interfacing, and when you have a length you like trace off a copy on tracing paper and lay that on the fabric so you know where to start your needle. That is the only way to know where the buttonhole you start will end up. Does this help?