How to Successfully Sew Machine Sewn Buttonholes

Buttonholes are a crucial part of many sewing projects, but can be a scary prospect. Adding buttonholes is often one of the final steps in a project making it even more nerve wracking. Get them wrong and it could spoil all of your hard work - gulp! In this article we share our top tips and techniques to keep you cool as a cucumber when completing this vital step. You never know, you might even grow to like them!

Sewing Perfect Buttonholes

The most important piece of advice we'll share in this article is to test your buttonholes on scraps of fabric before sewing the real thing. It might take a little extra time, but you will be able to check you are happy with the results, deal with any unforeseen problems and test the fit with the button before taking the plunge on the actual garment.

When testing your buttonholes remember to:

  • Use the same interfacing and fabric as your actual garment.
  • Sew more than one sample to make sure the result is reliable.
  • Test the same number of layers that will be used in the final garment.
  • Test the size with the button - cut the buttonhole open and check it fits.

Buttonhole and Interfacing

Types of Machine Sewn Buttonholes

The way buttonholes are sewn varies between make and model of machine and should be covered in the user manual. Therefore we aren't including a step by step guide on how to sew buttonholes on your machine. However, we thought it might be useful to briefly cover the difference between a four step and one step buttonhole for anyone out there who doesn't know. If you are a four step buttonhole user a machine with a one step buttonhole could just make all your buttonhole dreams come true. No really, it is a complete game changer.

Four Step Buttonholes

Many of the entry level sewing machines come with a four step buttonhole. You have to measure the button, mark the correct sized buttonhole on the fabric then follow four steps on your sewing machine to create the buttonhole.

The four steps are essentially sewing the four sides of your buttonhole (two for the length and two for the width). You have to stop sewing at the end of each side then move a dial or similar to select the next stitch for the next side and repeat until all four sides are completed.

One Step Buttonholes

Machines with a one step buttonhole have a mechanism for measuring the buttonhole for you and will sew the buttonhole in, you've guessed it, one step! In other words there is no need to stop at each side and fiddle with dials or buttons before sewing the next side. The machine will do it in one fell swoop for you. Yes it really is that easy.

The image below is a one step buttonhole. You put the button in position, which allows the machine to stitch the right sized hole for that button.

One Step Buttonhole Foot

It is also worth mentioning that machines with a one step buttonhole will sew the zig zag stitch on each side of the buttonhole in the same direction. A four step machines will often sew one side with a forward zig zag stitch and the other side with a backwards zig zag stitch. The one step zig zag stitch in the same direction gives a better result aesthetically.

One Step Buttonhole

You can find our full range of sewing machines here complete with detailed product descriptions. If you need any help or advice drop us an email or give us a call and we will be happy to help.

Buttonhole Tips and Tricks

So far sewing buttonholes sounds easy, right? Then why do so many of us find it such a daunting prospect? This is because, like all sewing, results vary massively depending on the circumstances. Here we talk through some of the most common problems you may encounter and how to overcome them.

Tackling Varying Thickness of Fabric

Trying to sew a buttonhole across a seam or near an edge can be very tricky. This is because you may be sewing through two layers of fabric for one part of the buttonhole and up to four for the rest of the buttonhole. Therefore the foot is not working on a level surface and cannot grip the fabric.

To overcome this issue there are a number of options to try.

Firstly you could try a 'bulky seam aid' or 'Humper Jumper'. This tool slips under the back or side of the presser foot to give it something to work against and level the surface out. Janome and Husqvarna also do branded versions of this tool. This is also useful for sewing uneven surfaces and near bulky seams in general.

Bulky Seam Aid or Humper Jumper

You can only use this aid with a standard presser foot i.e. not with a buttonhole foot. Therefore you would not be able to sew a one step buttonhole.

Another alternative is to try cutting a piece/pieces of fabric big enough to cover the buttonhole then slipping them inside the two layers of fabric to even things out. You could glue it or baste it in place depending on the fabric you are using before sewing the buttonhole.

Sewing Buttonholes on Varying Thicknesses of Fabric

Using Stabilisers

In addition to the standard interfacing you would normally use you may need to use an additional stabiliser to create even, symmetrical buttonholes.

For thick and fluffy fabrics we'd recommend placing washaway stabiliser on the right side of the fabric so the stitches don't sink into the pile of the fabric. Again testing the results is crucial.

Sewing Buttonholes on Thick or Fluffy Fabric

Cutting Open Buttonholes

There are a number of options when it comes to cutting open your buttonholes. Some people use seam rippers or scissors. These are perfectly acceptable ways to cut open buttonholes, but they definitely up the 'living life on the edge' stakes in our opinion. The chances of slipping and cutting too far are pretty high.

To try and avoid this it can be helpful to place two pins perpendicular to the longest edges of the buttonhole and just within the shortest edges.

Cutting Open Buttonholes

If you want to give yourself the best chance of avoiding a drama and enjoy the therapeutic qualities of banging something with brute force a buttonhole cutter is the way forward!

This handy little tool allows you to cut precisely between the relevant points. First place a block of wood or similar under your garment to protect your work surface. Then position the button cutter and bang with a hammer. It gives us a strange sense of relief just thinking about it!

Using a Buttonhole Cutter

Spacing of Buttonholes

Another tricky aspect of sewing buttonholes can be getting the spacing right. If you are making a shirt, blouse or shirt dress for example. Using a tape measure or sewing gauge are common ways to tackle this step, however, there's a sexy new tool in town that makes life sooooo much easier!

Introducing the Simflex! With this handy gauge set the gap between the points to the right distance et voila accurate spacing for multiple buttons is available for you. Place the gauge on your garment, mark the points, job done! No fiddling with tape measures, checking and re-checking your markings. In other words - winning at life!

Simflex Sewing Gauge

Button Thickness

Have you ever measured your button and the buttonhole still isn't big enough? Annoying isn't it? This is often the case when the thickness of the button hasn't been taken into account. For example, a dome shaped button might be 1/2" wide from end to end, but if you measure across the dome you will notice it is slightly longer.

In the images below you can see the diameter of the domed side of the button is slightly longer than the flat side of the button.

Measuring Buttons for Buttonholes

To take the thickness of the button into account just add a little length to your buttonhole to accommodate the button. You can adjust your one step buttonhole foot slightly if necessary.

Sewing it Twice

Sometimes a buttonhole just doesn't look substantial enough does it? Perhaps on a tweed jacket or thick coating fabric for example. In these instances you can sew over the buttonhole a second time to get the result you need. After sewing the first buttonhole leave the garment on the machine and simply go round again.

We hope you've found our tips and tricks helpful. Go forth and conquer those buttonholes!

Have fun sewing!


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