Since we launched the #sewtogetherforsummer sewing challenge over on Instagram, a number of sewers have said that they’re really keen to participate but the thought of sewing buttonholes gives them the heebie-jeebies! So, with that in mind, here’s a post full of tips and tricks to get you confidently sewing those dreaded buttonholes into your shirtdresses! I’ll admit I’m no ‘buttonhole expert’ myself so in putting together this post I’ve drawn on a wealth of knowledge from two other very experienced sewists, Diane and Suzy; happily I’ve now learnt some great tips too!
To cover as much ground as possible, Diane talks you through creating buttonholes generally whilst specifically advising on how she creates them using the 4 to 6 step buttonhole dial on her Bernina; Suzy (@Sewing_in_Spain) steps in and offers a great tip too regarding buttonhole placement and I talk you through using an automatic buttonhole foot.
Please, if you’ve any great tips to add, in the spirit of #sewtogetherforsummer, could you kindly share them in the comments for others readers to see!
So, over to Diane…
Thank you so much for having me as guest blogger on your blog Sarah!
So let’s talk buttonholes. I think, as with all things sewing, the fear of any new technique is worse than the actual process itself. ‘The only way around is through’ as the saying goes and I believe that good preparation and practice are key.
First of all, make sure that the area you’re doing the buttonholes is properly interfaced for stability. Your practice piece of fabric also needs to have the same interfacing and amount of fabric layers as your actual garment so that you get a good final result.
Now, some machines have a 4 to 6 step buttonhole dial and others have a long buttonhole foot attachment that your button fits into for measuring the length. My machine’s a Bernina and fits into the first category…I have 6 stages on my dial shown here…
The long foot attachment does work out the buttonhole length from the button held in it, but isn’t infallible….getting the right length for a domed button for instance…so I’ll address that problem later.
Onto marking out and measuring then: using either a special fabric pen that wears or washes away, chalk, or basting thread, you need to mark the position and length of your buttonholes. Note: the buttonhole markings on a pattern are there for position only and not to indicate the length of your finished buttonhole….they are either vertical or horizontal on the centre line. Horizontal markings always cross the CF line to account for the button shank/thread and the end of the buttonhole.
A good way to measure the length of a button is to get a narrow tape or ribbon and wrapping it around your button, pin the ends together. This is really good for domed buttons which end up needing a much bigger buttonhole than you might think. Fold the ribbon you pinned in half and then add a small amount of ease of about ⅛”, maybe a smidge more … that will be your finished buttonhole length. If you were to use a domed button in a long foot attachment I suggest you measure the button and then find a flat one of the same diameter as the length that you measure and place that in your attachment instead to get an accurate final buttonhole length*.
Regarding machine and stitch settings, it’s really important to get your bobbin tension right. No lower thread should be showing from the front at all so a tighter bobbin tension is essential. On my Bernina there is a small hole on the little arm of my bobbin case that I have to pull my thread through to create a tight tension. If you don’t have this you should be able to use a small screwdriver to adjust the tension on the case itself.
For those of you with the long foot attachments always make sure that the lever on the (usually left) side is pushed into the correct position before you start each buttonhole and refer to your instruction manual for getting the right stitch length and width settings. Those of you without that foot, will most likely have a machine foot like mine that has grooves on the bottom to accommodate the ridge of the stitches when you sew. I always notice a difference if I inadvertently forget to change feet because the process just isn’t as smooth running. Oh, and I nearly forgot to say that if you have a 4-6 stage dial setup like mine…don’t forget to have your needle in the up position before changing your dial, because you might break a needle (don’t ask me how I know!) Now is the time to start practising a couple of buttonholes before you do your final product. Don’t be scared…just practise till you’re satisfied you feel confident and, above all, don’t rush.
Assuming you’re happy with all of your finished lovely new buttonholes, you now have to cut them open. You can either place a pin at one end as a stop and use a seam ripper or use a buttonhole chisel and a wood block.
Then comes the button position marking. I always do this after I’ve cut all my buttonholes. Laying my garment over the ironing board, I overlap the fronts aligning the centres and I poke a pencil through the end of each buttonhole to make a little dot on the other front…and then it’s just a matter of sewing on the buttons.
So there you have it. I hope I managed to cover most things for you. Best of luck with all those wonderful shirtdresses!
Suzy´s tips for effective buttonholes
Patterns always mark the buttonholes but, as we are all different shapes, that spacing might not be the best for you. Before you start sewing your buttonholes, try on the garment and mark the widest point of the bust on the button band – here marked with a red pin. If necessary, you can also mark the widest tummy point too. This means you need buttons at those points to prevent gaping. Using the bust mark (and tummy mark, if used) as a starting point, work out the spacing of your other buttonholes, between 3 and 3.5 inches or 7.5 and 9 cm. This way you will have a shirt or shirtdress which never gapes! If you have a Buttonhole Gauge that makes it even easier to determine!
It’s easy to remember that women’s clothes are ‘right side over left’ because a woman is always right! Sorry chaps!
The Automatic Buttonhole (aka…my two-pence worth!)
A lot of machines these days come with an automatic buttonhole setting as standard to be used with the automatic buttonhole foot. As Diane says, check your own machine’s User Manual, but in general this is how they work:
First, choose your button! Put it into the designated slot in your foot and make sure that the holder is pushed up tight against the button and that the button itself is laying flat. (*Remember Diane’s tip if your button is domed, to insert a flat button that bit bigger than the button you will actually be sewing onto your garment). Then attach the foot to your machine (with the button at the back) and position your needle over your first mark. Mine stitches the bottom bar first then sews up the left channel, top bar and back down the right hand side to finish at the starting position.
Before you start sewing it is vital that you have pulled down the buttonhole lever/sensor located on the left hand side. This works in tandem with your buttonhole foot to determine the size of the buttonhole your machine will produce. And sew away! I have to click to ‘reset’ my machine after each buttonhole so that it doesn’t get confuddled. (I could do with a reset button myself too sometimes!)
The last thing to add is, before I tackle any new sewing task, I automatically Google and/or search You Tube. There is always someone out there who will have covered exactly what you’re wishing to learn. The online sewing community is a sharing and open space. Post a query on Instagram; I’ve no doubt you’ll get your answer!!
For example, I posted that I was planning to sew McCalls 6696 as my first Shirtdress for the Challenge (my first Shirtdress ever, in fact) and the lovely Jane of Handmade Jane kindly commented that she had needed to sew an extra buttonhole into the waist of this dress to prevent gaping. This reminded me of another great tip of Jane’s about sewing inward facing buttonholes in any area of remaining gape on the inside of the button band so it’s invisible from the front. Genius! You can find her whole post here.
So, until next time, I hope this was helpful (please do leave your own tips for others in the comments!)