Any fabric can have buttonholes made in it – from fine chiffons to stretchy knits. In this article you will learn The key to success is the right mix of new sharp needle, fabric and support such as interfacing. Wendy Gardiner, Brand Ambassador for The McCall Pattern Company shares her tips and tricks (first published in Love Sewing Magazine)
Buttonholes are a breeze with today’s modern sewing machines, especially if they come with the nifty long buttonhole foot which holds the button in the back so the hole you stitch is made to fit your button perfectly. Fabulous for multiple buttonholes as it ensures they are all the same size!
What is the buttonhole foot?
The buttonhole foot supplied with today’s modern sewing machines is generally white, long and has a cache at the back to fit a button into. At the front are two little prongs, with one prong at the back (these are for making corded buttonholes). Down the left side are two lugs. It is important to fit the foot the right way around because those lugs are vital to making the right length buttonhole.
Firstly, push the second lug backwards to open up the cache at the back. Fit a button into it and then pull the lug forwards to hold the button snugly. The distance between the two lugs is now the correct distance for the buttonhole to fit the button in the back of the foot. (If you have a bulky button with a shank that won’t lay flat, don’t worry, once the gap has been created the button can be removed – just make sure you don’t adjust the gap.)
Attach the foot and then pull down the buttonhole lever which is tucked up behind the needle to the left of the machine – pull it down completely – it will have a little buttonhole symbol on the lever. This should sit just behind the first lug of the buttonhole foot. Select your buttonhole and your machine is all ready to go.
The little lugs on the buttonhole foot work in conjunction with the buttonhole lever. As the buttonhole is stitched out, the foot comes forwards or backwards and the lever will butt up against the lug, which effectively tells the machine it’s at the end of the buttonhole so to do the bar tack and reverse the direction of the stitching.
Support – all buttonholes should have some sort of stabiliser included and this one of the keys for achieving neat results. This may be the interfacing between facing and main fabric, a special waist banding stiffener or a layer or tear-away or soluble stabiliser placed beneath the fabric. This helps when stitching, preventing puckering or pulling and helps keep the area stable when buttoned up.
Top tip for sewing buttonholes in transparent fabrics
When sewing transparent fabrics, only interface the small area of each buttonhole, adding an extra layer of tear-away stabiliser under the fabric to prevent it being pulled into the feed dogs
Needle – make sure your needle is fresh and sharp as buttonholes are made with lots of compact zigzag stitches (satin stitch) worked closely together, thus lots of needle penetration through three or more layers.
Steps to sew
1. Interface or stabilise the buttonhole area as mentioned above.
2. If using a commercial pattern transfer the buttonhole markings to the fabric. If creating your own garment, mark buttonhole positions at least 1cm from fabric edge. One of the problems often incurred is when the machine appears to get stuck and stitch repeatedly on the spot rather than moving the fabric – this is most often caused by the back of the foot getting stuck on the edge of the fabric, or the buttonhole being stitched too close to the fabric edge – hence the 1cm rule.
- For vertical buttonholes, use chalk pencil or thread baste a centre line from top to bottom of buttonhole area. Then mark each buttonhole length, at right angles to the center line, spacing each approximately 6-8 cm apart (closer on very lightweight garments).
- For horizontal buttons, chalk or thread baste two parallel lines the width of the buttonhole apart, from top to bottom of buttonhole area. Mark buttonhole positions evenly along the marked placement lines, 6-8 cm apart for garments.
3. Set the sewing machine to your chosen buttonhole stitch. Most machines have one-step or four-step buttonholes, shown in the stitch diagrams. One-step means that the entire buttonhole is stitched out in one go. A four-step buttonhole will mean you have to move the stitch dial between sewing the sides and end bar tacks.
4. Insert button into the foot and attach as detailed above.
5. Place your fabric under the foot, lining up the buttonhole position mark with the markings on the front of the buttonhole foot. Note that most buttonholes stitch from front to back so make sure you have enough fabric behind the foot! Always test a buttonhole on a scrap of the same fabric with stabiliser to check it stitches as you want it.
6. Once satisfied, place work under presser foot, and insert needle at beginning of the buttonhole position. Stitch out, then feed thread tails through to the rear and cut off.
7. To open the buttonhole without accident, place a pin in one end, just inside the bar tack, then using the seam ripper to open the hole from the other end, pushing it towards the pin.
Make sure there is a buttonhole at the fullest part of the bust and stitch it horizontally so that it can’t be pulled open during wear!
Cord can be stitched over during the buttonhole process to provide a more stable buttonhole, especially useful for stretchy fabric or lightweight chiffons and voiles where repeated use can cause the buttonhole to bag or stretch.
To make a corded buttonhole, first cut a length of crochet cotton or other fine cord and hook it around the little prong on the back of the foot bringing the two ends underneath the foot to the front and hook them up on the two front prongs. In the aperture of the foot you should see two parallel lines of the cord. Keeping the cord in place, lower the foot and stitch the buttonhole. The satin stitch sides will stitch over the cord down both legs of the buttonhole.
Once finished, take the work out from under the foot backwards and then you should be able to pull on one of the cord tails at the front to pull up the loop of cord at the back. Either take the cord ends through to the reverse of the work, or pull tightly and cut so they disappear into the bar tack at the end of the buttonhole.
The buttonhole foot and auto buttonholes are a real boon but do have one small disadvantage – they can only cope with buttons that are up to 2.5cm wide. But there is a way to overcome this! You can stitch extra-long buttonholes by fooling your machine. To create extra-long buttonholes, you become the lugs!
1. Attach a satin stitch foot rather than the buttonhole foot.
2. Pull down the Buttonhole lever as before.
3. Mark the buttonhole length – making sure you mark wide horizontal lines so that you can see them beyond the buttonhole foot.
4. Start the buttonhole from the first mark with your finger poised behind the buttonhole lever. Stitch slowly as you reach the second mark and then just gently dab the buttonhole lever towards you from behind it. The machine will then stitch the next sequence of the buttonhole. As it reaches the front again, dab the lever from the front towards the back gently to get the machine to finish the sequence. Result – one extra-long buttonhole!
If your machine does not have the buttonhole foot which holds the button you need to determine the size required. Measure the circumference of the button (ie, all around it). Halve this measurement, then add 3mm. Domed or novelty buttons require larger buttonholes to allow room for the shape – test on a sample first.