Wednesday, October 17, 2012

How to do hand-worked buttonholes

I got a lot of comments on my hand-finished buttonholes on my two recent sewing projects, the WAAF blouse and Cherry blouse.

Most modern sewing machines have a buttonhole attachment, but if, like me, you're using a basic machine - or if you just prefer the hand-finished look - hand-worked buttonholes add a nice vintage touch. I learned from a recent charity shop find, "Senior Needle Craft" (that's senior school - high school - not senior citizens!), a 1930s teaching manual covering sewing skills for 11-15 year olds.

First, mark the size of your buttonhole by placing your chosen button on the fabric and marking off each end of the buttonhole with pins. You want the hole to be slightly wider than the button, especially if the button is quite thick, as mine is.

Slash between the pins (I place the garment on a cutting board and use a stanley knife). If the material frays easily, overcast the raw edges.

Double check the size of your buttonhole by passing the button through it - the button should slip through quite easily, but the hole shouldn't be so big that there's a risk it won't stay closed. If you need to adjust the size of the hole, extend the cut to make it larger or stitch over the ends to make it smaller.

Then it's needle and thread time. The true buttonhole stitch has a knotted edge, as opposed to the rolled edge of blanket stitch (which in embroidery is sometimes referred to as buttonhole stitch). The knotted edge is very strong and is formed as in the diagram:

Starting near the bottom left corner, make the buttonhole stitch along the edge. Your stitches should be quite close together (not spaced out like the diagram), but because of the knotting you might find you need a thread-width gap between each one.

When you get near the corner work a simple satin-stitch, curving round until you've gone 180 degrees.

Then repeat the process to take you back to where you started. Previously I've given both ends a rounded edge, but for this one I experimented with a bar end, where you make long stitches across the end of the slash, then buttonhole stitch over them.

And there you have it, a beautiful hand-finished buttonhole, authentically vintage looking for your retro sewing projects.

Note: I just used regular sewing thread. I'm told that using proper buttonhole thread will give a smoother finish, as you don't get the gaps between stitches, but exactly what the difference is and where to get some, I couldn't tell you.


  1. I just am so intimidated by my sewing machine! I will def be using this tutorial, thanks!

    1. That's exactly what I was going to write!!! Super easy tutorial!

  2. Thank you for this tutorial, I will definitely be trying it out on my next sewing project.

  3. I generally use my sewing machine for buttonholes, but I'm still not used to making them and I often get a bit confused because I never really remember if my machine is going to start backwards or forwards...which can lead to mistakes!Doing your buttonholes by hand might take a little longer I guess, but at least you have a precise idea of HOW you are doing it! So thank you for this how-to!

  4. My sewing machine always makes a mess of button holes, so I will give this a try next time :)

  5. I usually use a Singer buttonhole attachment, but I like the idea of being able to hand work them for delicate and fine fabrics. This tutorial is lovely in that it makes it look so easy!! Thanks for sharing it!

  6. Nice tutorial. I love the look of hand finished buttonholes.

    I remember doing this at primary school. How strange, as I never remember doing any full sized textile work... just buttonholes and darning! Random!

  7. Excellent tutorial, thank you very much for sharing, Charlotte. I'm not much of a sewer and don't make my own clothes, but part of thinks I may get more into the craft one day, so this is certainly a post I'll be bookmarking for future reference.

    ♥ Jessica

  8. Thank you for this great reminder. I used to make a lot of clothes and have started again after quite a gap.

    What I find interesting is how much has changed in the world of buttonholes (I don't get out much).

    When I first learn to sew at school in the early 80s, we used buttonhole scissors and buttonhole thread neither of which seem to exist anymore.

    Your buttonholes look very professional, but when done with buttonhole thread there are no gaps between the stitches, so it is more forgiving of less proficient sewers.

    Ah, it brings back happy memories of the teacher persuading me to use press-studs as my buttonholes were so bad...

  9. Thanks for the great tutorial! I've been trying to figure out what way to do the button holes on a dress I'm making, so this was perfect timing!

  10. Great tutorial! I've been wanting to try my hand at these - will definitely give them a go some time.

    What kind of thread do you use? Just regular? I've seen on Etsy you can still get vintage buttonhole twist but have never found any new.
    And that gimp thread - I don't even know what that is or what to use as a substitute. I guess you would only need it for buttonholes on jackets or heavier items.

    1. Yes, I just used regular thread. I understand from a previous commenter that proper buttonhole thread will give a smoother finish (I don't know what the difference is though!).

      xx Charlotte

  11. Thanks for this, I handsew a lot and this will really help! X

  12. It's thicker and harder wearing, like quilting thread. It's sort of silky looking and corded like a high twist cotton. Devere yarns stocks it.

  13. You can get buttonhole thread new at Wal Mart here in the US. It is made by JP Coates. It is thicker, glossier and makes a very nice hand made button hole, but will not work whatsoever in the machine. I will send you a spool if you'd like.

  14. Buttonhole thread is made out of 100% silk and much thicker than regular thread. Its only purpose is for handsewing buttonholes =)Since it's made of silk it's glossier and more prettier looking than regular thread.

    I am a tailor myself, and the ground rule is that you use buttonhole thread for thicker fabrics, such as on skirts or jackets. For shirts, blouses or other items of clothing made out of thinner fabric you use regular thread.

    The method in which they are sewn differ as well.

    Tailored buttonhole with buttonhole thread:

    Plain buttonhole with regular thread:

    You may notice that the tailored one has an "eye", that is mainly because otherwise the thicker thread would form a "lump" at the end.

    As for where to find thread, at least here in Sweden the buttonhole thread is sold in most sewing stores, but I also have a large amount of vintage thread that I've bought for next to nothing at second hand shops.

    Hope this helps =)


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