How to Make Hand Worked Buttonholes

Yesterday, you saw the blouse where I applied these lovelies. Today, I’m going to show you how to make your own hand worked buttonholes. This is a technique I’ve done on a few different garments and even though I haven’t yet perfected their art, I’ve still found them to be extraordinarily beautiful. I’ve picked up tips and tricks here and there from various sources on the best way to do these for the home seamstress, so my info is a mish mash of this and that. And much of it is based on what is available to us nowdays. For instance, finding true buttonhole gimp….I’ve looked high and low and have never been able to find any, so I’ve listed my best substitute. I’ve got some pretty awesome ideas at the bottom (that I haven’t even yet tried), so make sure you scroll to the end, too.

You will need the following:

buttonhole twist (you can buy beautiful silk threads here or another option is to use the pearlized cotton found by the embroidery threads, you can also use wool thread which is great for a “hairy” effect or even on sweaters!) Tip: buttonhole twist is different from other threads. You need a fat, tightly woven thread, so sadly regular thread and embroidery floss do not work. (believe me, I’ve tried, you’ll cry because I did)
buttonhole gimp (I use a strand of the buttonhole twist or for a sturdier option use button and craft thread)
fray check
small shears or a seam ripper for cutting buttonholes

Start by measuring your button. You’ll need to get the diameter plus the thickness of each button. For example, my button diameter is 3/4″ and my thickness is 1/8″ so I need to create a buttonhole that is 7/8″. Transfer this marking onto your fabric.

You now need to create a boundary for your buttonhole with your machine. Machine stitch a scant 1/8″ on each side and across both ends of the buttonhole marking. Carefully slash the buttonhole down the middle and add a little fray check to the slash.

While the fray check is drying, cut a 15 – 18″ length of buttonhole twist and run it through your beeswax. Press the thread with a hot, dry iron allowing the beeswax to more thoroughly coat the thread.

Once fray check is dried, take a long length of your buttonhole gimp (either a strand of the twist or the button and craft thread) and tie a knot in one end. About 1/2″ away from the buttonhole, thread your buttonhole gimp through the fabric and up through the bottom end of the buttonhole.

Taking the buttonhole twist in hand, begin the buttonhole by back tacking the reverse side of the buttonhole to secure the thread in place (this is in place of a knot). Thread your buttonhole twist up through to the right side of the buttonhole in the corner opposite the slash. Allow the gimp to lay across the buttonhole and start working the buttonhole across one of the long edges. The buttonhole stitch is like a blanket stitch in reverse – visit here to see the difference. (Thank you Patty for correcting me from yesterday’s post!) Tip – the key to a well worked buttonhole is even stitching along with keeping the purl (the small braid that forms on the inside lip of the buttonhole flat against the edge)

As you near the first opposing end of the buttonhole, begin to fan the stitches to round the corner. Now this fan is only going to be on one end and a bar tack on the other, alright? Alright.

To finish off the buttonhole, you’ll need to bar tack the end. To make a bar tack, take 3 or 4 long stitches across the width of the buttonhole and then blanket stitch over the top of the those long stitches catching a bit of the fabric underneath. This forms a rather beautiful braid at the end of the buttonhole and gives it a very sturdy and long lasting effect.

Pull the thread through to the reverse side of the buttonhole and back tack in place to secure the end the thread. Cut the knot in the gimp and bring both gimp threads through the reverse side of the buttonhole. Trim all threads close to the buttonhole.

A few tips:
when working the buttonhole, allow a small space in between each stitch. the buttonhole stitch is not meant to be a satin stitch
make sure that the buttonhole area has been interfaced
use a similar color gimp as the color of your fabric
use a slightly different shade of buttonhole twist from the color of your fabric to really make the buttonholes stand out
♥ Try using different stitch lengths – one short, one long, one short – for a different, more “starry” effect
♥ Have a blouse calling for vertical buttonholes? Bar tack both ends instead of fanning one of the ends
♥ Keyhole buttonhole? Punch an awl through the keyhole end first, then slit the buttonhole. Fan the threads at the keyhole end, leave out the bar tack at the other and instead satin stitch the end together.
♥ What about eyelets? Totally! Now how cool would these be on a belt?

I had someone ask why these buttonholes are better than regular buttonholes. I don’t know that they are better, but they are different. Think about the buttonhole your machine makes. It’s two long rows of satin stitch which are tacked at both ends. Then you slice open the buttonhole. With hand worked buttonholes, you slice the buttonhole before working it. The edges on the lips are covered with a purled knot (which looks rather beautiful, if I do say so myself) and you’ve “gimped” the buttonholes which makes them very strong. There are pros and cons to both and places to use hand worked buttonholes and not too. It’s more of a technique to learn and use when you are in the mood. Kind of like bound buttonholes. Make sense? These are pretty exciting though huh? I know. It’s so cool to find “vintage” techniques and try your own hand at them. You’ve totally got to try these now. Throw on a good movie (my latest vote is Amelie), get a nice cup of tea and get your stitch on!



19 thoughts on “How to Make Hand Worked Buttonholes

  1. Can you clarify the benefits to hand worked buttonholes compared to machine buttonholes? The finished look is very similar the only thing I can think of is with hand worked you don’t have the raw edges exposed in the centre like machine button holes.

  2. i’ve never cared much for the idea of handworked buttonholes (my machine makes beautiful one-step buttonholes :), but this tutorial has definitely piqued my interested. i never thought i would get excited by a buttonhole, but i kind of am! haha! thank you for posting this – i can’t wait to try it!

  3. You are super brave- I took a hand stitch couture class and couldn’t figure out the buttonholes! I’m serious! I am going to try again after seeing this tutorial – I have some vintage buttonhole twist thread. . .and am a huge fan of tailoring techniques.

  4. Well, the movie Amélie inspired me (and my husband) so much in our own romance, our first daughter shares the same name…
    I’ve commented everywhere about this tutorial, I know, but for someone who is terrified of buttonholes, and who’s machine is botching every one, this gives me hope! I’ve even ordered some silk twist to start practicing. Thanks for the inspiration (both the movie idea, and the tutorial!)

  5. Thank you so much for this. I hate how the buttonholes made by my machine look but I’ve been too intimidated by hand worked buttonholes to not use the machine. I’m still pretty much a beginner but I’ve done enough that now I’m getting ready to do some really nice blouses using fabric I actually care about. I think I’ll get practicing on making these so that I can do nice buttonholes for them.

  6. Nicely done, Sunni!
    And a valuable technique to have in your arsenal of sewing skills.
    This would be very handy when making a heavy coat – which would be seriously difficult to machine-sew through all those bulky layers.
    I’ve done some eyelets this way, and I really liked the look of them, especially when compared with metal eyelets, on a summer-weight cotton dress. They’ve held up well. I may have to try buttonholes soon. I had no idea how the blanket and buttonhole stitches were different, but now I see how much sturdier the buttonhole stitch is. Thanks!

  7. Thank you for the tutorial! I’ll definitely have to try this on a special garment sometime (or maybe just any old one–still have yet to test the replacement butthonhole foot that I had to get for my machine, so if it doesn’t work, I might have to handsew all of them from now on!)

  8. Sunni, you’re doing beautiful work. Many years ago, during a summer job at a historical park, I made a reproduction “redcoat,” or British marine officer’s uniform. Two whole days were devoted solely to making three-inch long buttonholes (both functional & decorative, depending on their locations) with silk twist, using doubled, waxed strands of Hy-mark as gimp. Ever since, I’ve been fearless about hand-stitching anything. Practice really is the key; making samples on scraps helps. Keep it up! You’re a great teacher. Thanks for sharing your passion.

  9. It’s true they don’t have the raw edges exposed. I too wish that my camera could really capture the beauty of the purled edge, but alas it can not. Benefit? Well, these are sturdier than your average machine buttonhole, and perchance you have a very oversized button these might come in very handy. Ultimately its just more a matter of trying out a new technique to add to your arsenal. Plus there are different variations for these which are also fun to play with.

  10. Thank you! This project you did sounds very daunting, however it does really give you practice! It’s true, practice really is key. It took two times before I attempted on the blouse. I haven’t heard of Hy-mark either, but am delighted to check out new ideas and sources for these babies. Thanks a bunch!

  11. I’m about to embark upon the hand-worked buttonhole train tonight. 🙂

    I remembered this tutorial from when you first posted it and am using it as my reference. But as soon as I read it today, I realized I bought the buttonhole craft thread (gimp) thinking I was buying the buttonhole twist! Darn. I’m going to have to stop back at JoAnn to get some pearlized cotton thread.

    I’ll make sure to reference your tutorial when (and if) I finish. 🙂

    1. I’m quite sure yours will be absolutely stunning! Oh how exciting! I was using that pearlized cotton the other day and it is a dream to sew with – almost better than the silk buttonhole twist! Oh I can’t wait to see the finished result!

  12. Thanks for the wonderful tutorial. I look forward to trying this technique. I was at a historical site this summer talking with a tailor, and he says he slits his buttonholes with a chisel of the correct size from the hardware store. He always gets a perfect length without worry of what a slip with the seam ripper or scissors might do. I think that is ingenious.

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