Sewing with less stress Front

Sewing with less stress Front
My newest sewing book

Sewing with less stress back cover

Sewing with less stress back cover
What my new book is about

Clothesmaking mavens

Clothesmaking mavens
Listen to me on the clothes making mavens podcasts

About me

My photo
I am a mother, a 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 book Sew.. the garment-making book of knowledge was published in May 2018 and is available for pre-order from Amazon



Follow me on Instagram

Follow on Bloglovin

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Handy sewing hint #18: buttonholes

I must confess that life/family and actual sewing has interfered with my blogging lately. The good news, if you think this way, is that I am full of new ideas on handy sewing hints.

Here goes, and as usual please add your own insights into the comments.


This week a notice of a new Indie pattern arrived in my in box. This detail caught my eye:

A couple of things I noticed. 

First of course was that the buttonholes were way too big for the buttons and that shirtdress was sure to come undone at some point, which is not really a great outcome for a shirt dress or the person in it.

The second thing I noticed was that the buttonhole at the top was dangerously close to the end of the placket likely to fray through. It needed to be moved down so the end of the buttonhole was at least 5/8" below the neck edge of the placket. Of course the sewer might have wanted to keep the placket ends right on top of each other at the neckline but buttons aren't staples. If you want that to happen what you really need is to end the top of the buttonhole that 5/8" or so below the neckline and sew in a small snap to keep it all neat.

All that is showing here of course is inexperience and there isn't a lot of information around on buttonhole fine points, and so I will try to make a bit of a contribution here.

First of all buttonholes freak sewers out. 

I was once followed around a fabric store by a woman with a blouse in a bag. She had heard I sewed and wanted me to put the buttonholes in her finished blouse for her. For 20 years she had sewn snaps onto her blouses with buttons on top because she had such terrible luck making buttonholes.

How nuts and how identifiable is that?

The thing with buttonholes is they are the last thing. It is entirely possible to ruin a perfectly wonderful garment in the last 5 minutes with a buttonhole disaster or buttonhole cutting disaster. I know. I once made a suit for a friend and sliced through the entire front cutting open the very last buttonhole.

I have tons of stories like that.

Truth is that some machine do a better job with making buttonholes than others. This is often a case where it is not you it's them.

My personal view is that many of the super duper computerized gadgety buttonhole systems are not as reliable as the sales person will lead you to believe. When they tell you "You will be able to make buttonhole after identical buttonhole, after the first one because the machine will memorize it" what they should add is that the "sensor" most often is just counting the number of zig zag stitches on the first side and of course if fabric layers change, as they can do in a garment, this may not be the right number of stitches to match the sides, and despite the miracles of New Machines your buttonholes can unexpectedly still turn out uneven even in your $5,000 machine.  (Does that make sense or only to me?) 

I have a former top-of-the-line for example that does this and, even worse, has a default where the sides of the buttonholes are so close together there is a 105% of cutting some of the stitches when the buttonhole is cut open.

So back to the machines.

I personally prefer old school four step buttonholes where you turn the dial - down one side, bar tack at the button, up the other side, bar tack. I have a couple of vintage Berninas and an expensive Janome that make buttonholes this way and I trust them.

This system allows you to control what is happening and that is a good thing.

Of course the nicest and completely most foolproof buttonholes in the world are make with the old template attachments, that you can buy anywhere, eBay, or at consignment shops sometimes (I got a spare at Value Village for $3.50).

Here is what those look like:

These units require you to cover, or drop your feed dogs and remove the presser foot and screw them onto the needle bar.

The buttonholes are made by inserting cams or templates of the buttonhole (including keyhole) of various sizes into a trap door in the bottom of the unit.

To operate you line up the foot, lower the presser bar and give it gas. These devices make a real racket, sort of like a tin truck on a tin road and you really wonder if this is a good idea.

The thing is that totally without any skill at all they make gorgeous round ended buttonholes with zero skill or involvement from yourself, which is kind of nice.

This week I made a short sleeved Negroni shirt for my youngest son's surprise birthday (music festival theme, hence the tie dye) and I made the buttonholes this way.

Here is the shirt:

 And here is the buttonholer in action:

So assuming you have rigged up, or figured out, how to make a decent buttonhole, here are a few other random facts you might want to consider:

  1. Make a test and make it in the same number of layers of fabric, including the interfacing you will use in the final garment. Interfacing in particular can really tighten up a buttonhole and make it smaller.
  2. When you cut the buttonhole open put a pin across the end so you won't slice through to the garment (see voice of experience above and jacket incident). You can use one of those Barbie doll chisel things if it is the same size as the buttonhole, or a seam ripper to open a small hole in the middle and sharp small scissors to cut through further.
  3. Since the interfacing will show through once the buttonhole is cut you might want to think about this when choosing that. I have had white interfacing show through on a dark shirt for instance and got all involved with trying to Magic Marker to match, which was actually not a good use of my time.
  4. Don't get all obsessive about heavy coverage with your buttonhole satin stitches. Industrial strength bars of close satin stitches are actually a dead give away of a home- made as opposed to a hand made garment - you don't want the stiffness of the buttonhole to overpower the weight of the fabric itself. If you look at the example above there is good coverage but tiny space between the stitches, that is OK.
  5. Be aware that all machines move forward better then they move backwards and it is entirely normal, not any thing wrong with your machine, for the side of the buttonhole that stitches down to look better than the side that is stitched in reverse. Not a lot you can do about that but this:
    1. Use a device like those shown here that do not use feed dogs to move the fabric.
    2. Loosen your top tension (actually you should do this with all buttonholes anyway) so the top thread is pulled to the underside, hiding the lock stitch on the wrong side of the fabric, creating a nice smooth bar.
    3. Use a cotton machine embroidery thread instead of a sewing thread to make your buttonholes. Unlike sewing thread that is smooth, cotton machine embroidery thread is slightly fuzzy with the specific intent that the fuzzes fill in the stitches a bit. This will make both sides of your buttonholes look prettier
  6. Use vertical buttonholes for garments that you definitely do not want to gape. The shirt dress above for instance. Use horizontal buttonholes for garments where a little lateral movement or give might be handy, coats, jackets and bands on collars for instance.
  7. So your buttons do not pucker or pull in make sure you have a slight thread shank in all but the thinnest of fabrics. The principle is that the shank should be as long as the thickness of fabric the button has to travel through once it goes through the buttonhole. Putting a darning needle, a toothpick or whatever better idea you have between the wrong side of the button and the fabric while you sew on the button ( you remove this later of course, it is just a sort of button elevator during the sewing process) is helpful. And of course for really thick fabric proper shanked buttons are the best option. The idea is once buttoned, your button should float on the surface of the fabric not pull it in.

Any other buttonhole thoughts I have will come to me at 3:00 a.m. but this is a start.


Anonymous said...

I have often wondered 'why not stitch the buttonholes before you put the garment together?'
There would be less fabric to deal with. I have wondered but never done as rote memory always kicks in.
Your thoughts would be appreciated. Renita

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those who are scared of making buttonholes on my current machine (4 step, inexpensive, newish) so I now make either bound buttonholes or do them by hand. This turns out so much better for the garment and for my stomach lining..... I never thought of using a toothpick etc to allow a bit of space between the button and the garment, genius.


bbarna said...

I always make a couple of practice buttonholes using the exact fabric plus interfacing that is in the garment...At least I know if I have to reinforce with cording, or change my settings. I have one of those template sets , inherited from my grandmother...perhaps I will dust it off. Thanks for the reminder.

Anonymous said...

I have vague memories of using a buttonholer with a 1960s Singer touch & sew. The buttonholer was reliable, the machine was not. Since then I've been using an old mechanical Bernina with the 4 step buttonholes. Mine is a bit out of whack because at the last "tune up" the repairman got the needle set slightly off center - its endlessly annoying but I haven't got around to getting it fixed. I think the 4-step is good for regular garments, but if I was sewing a coat or something like that, I'd do it a different way. David Page Coffin has a great manual method for keyhole buttonholes in his pants book.

karenviser said...

Can you use the template on any machine? I have one that I use on a 1930's Pfaff but I would love to use it instead on my old Bernina. The Pfaff is harder for me to use and thread so would be very happy to slap the template on a more familiar machine. You're right - my TOL computerized machine doesn't come near to the old fashioned template. I have never had any disasters with it.

theresa said...

I have one of those buttonholers, a Griest that is permanently set up on the Singer 15-91 with a keyhole template installed specificaly for jeans and trouser buttonholes. For most other buttonholes I use my Brother Inovis 40 as I can line up the buttonholes and can usually get every one exactly on line. Getting exactness on the Singer can sometimes be harrowing so I reserve it for heavier fabric.

The Griest and Singer buttonholers come in various configurations based on whether the machine is high or low shank, slant, etc. With an adapter you could probably put one on a Bernina. I have never tried to put it on my Bernina 930 but I think I could with an adapter.

eimear said...

great tips, i used have to use my 4 step buttonhole and would have been guilty of heavy bar tacks each end....but I did get better over time! but now use the electronic buttonhole in another machine. I would love to try out the old singer buttonholer but have only seen them on ebay / etsy posted from US and the postage to europe too high to justify the cost. great post.....

Bunny said...

100% agree with all you've said, Barb. I use my old Kenmore attachment for the best BHs. Computerized machine BHs can be unpredictable and nothing sears your sewing brain like a garment ruined at the last BH.

Just want to add that I cord my BHs with a couple of strips of matching thread or some embroidery floss. Gives a nice look and its easy.

Ccmel said...

Arghh, buttonholes. I upgraded a few years ago to a machine with automatic buttonholes and donated my old machine with a four step buttonhole. Even when I do several practice runs you can be guaranteed that something will go wrong on the most visible buttonhole on the project! I have learned that as soon as things are going pear shaped I have to stop and unpick. Nothing will salvage the situation. Probably why I seem to be sewing a lot of knits these days.

Lynn said...

Buttonholes (and zippers!) are my nemesis--I sometimes spend as much time on them as the rest of the garment! I smock and sew a lot of little bishop dresses with a bias bound neckline. I found that the top buttonhole was usually a mess compared to the others because the bias strip made a "hump" that my buttonhole foot had issues with. I solved the problem by sewing the buttonholes BEFORE finishing the neckline.

Just my 2 cents worth!

Marianne said...

Good tips! I no longer ever cut towards the ends of the buttonholes, after cutting through the crosswise threads once too often. Instead I poke my seam ripper into the buttonhole, facing away from the end, then cut through with scissors to about the middle, then do the same from the opposite side. No more cut threads, and no pin required.

badmomgoodmom said...

I have both a 1990s Janome and a 2004 Bernina. Both claim to memorize buttonholes and do a good enough job that I don't worry overly much.

Counting stitches is a bad idea because fabric can feed differently going forward and in reverse. There are different successful engineering solutions for this.

My Janome sews both legs of the buttonhole in reverse. The legs always end up the same length.

My Bernina measures the length of the legs instead of counting stitches. The first leg is sewn forward; the second in reverse.

Kay said...

My new(ish) computerized Singer machine has solved the problem of one side of the buttonhole stitching forward and one side stitching backward. It zigzag stitches forward for the first side, stitches a straight line back to the start, bar-tacks, then zigzags forward, making both sides go in the same direction. Huzzah!

Coco said...

Nice post. Singer Quantum Stylist makes prettier ones than my Juki F600, so it's nice to have both machines.

The pic you included from the Indie pattern typifies what makes me grind my teeth - really poor sewing technique. Not to mention the drafting. :-)

LinB said...

I'd rather make 200 buttonholes than install one zipper. Have taken to putting zippers in by hand, as it saves time ... go figure.

Have even found a couple of decent mechanical buttonhole attachments at my local Habitat for Humanity Restore, one is a Griest, one a Singer. I love them both.

Those attachments came in both long-shank and short-shank versions, so they should fit any machine (in theory). I like to watch them chug-chugging along like little trains on a tiny track, and know that I can sew around and around to make the stitches as thick as I want, without having to re-set the pre-set on my Janome machine's settings for every single blasted buttonhole. Sheesh.

ArkAngel said...

I've come late to this conversation but I wanted to say this is a great post and I'm appreciating reading through your hints and tips. I didn't know about those buttonhole attachment thingies and I'll probably buy one if I see one at a fair price. Having said that, my newish middle of the road Janome does a reasonable job which I'm happy with for most purposes. Some years ago an elderly neighbour gave me a pair of buttonhole scissors that have a screw on one side to adjust the size of the buttonhole. They are very effective and very accurate but for hand sewn buttonholes only and I don't do many of those these days. For sewers in the U.K. if I were making something really special, I would go here: