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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



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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: