Tutorial: Cheating hand-made buttonholes

Finished shirt, buttoned, with placket flap pulled back to show buttons and ribbon

Finished shirt, buttoned, with placket flap pulled back to show buttons and ribbon

Today I want to talk about buttonholes. Specifically, I want to talk about how painful and tedious it is to make buttonholes by hand, without a machine. I want to complain that although I have twice as many sewing machines as a reasonable amateur needs, neither of them has a buttonholing feature. Then, I want to talk about how to cheat—making buttonholes, by hand or machine, with only a simple, straight seam and a bit of ribbon.

I’ve been working on button-up blouses lately, so that will be the context for this tutorial; unfortunately the technique that I’ve come up with is pretty much exclusive to rows of buttons on plackets. It could work on fly buttons, cuff buttons, etc., but I leave that as an exercise to the reader. I recommend being familiar with the ordinary ways of making plackets before reading this tutorial: in general, plackets are folded-over areas of fabric that provide reinforcement and stiffness for the buttons. My technique is a form of hidden placket, meaning when the shirt is worn buttoned up, the buttons are hidden behind an extra flap of fabric.

You will need:

  • Fabric for a shirt (or any item with a placket/button closure)
  • A pattern you like, with allowance for ordinary (not hidden) plackets
  • Buttons; since they will be hidden it is okay if they are a poor match or ugly
  • Roughly 2 feet of ribbon, piping, or bias tape; anything narrower than 1/2″ and non-fraying, and preferably matching the color of the fabric. I used quarter-inch satin ribbon; I’ll refer to it as “ribbon” in the instructions but other options are fine.
Pattern piece (McCall's M6035) with allowance for ordinary plackets; note the fold lines and center-front line.

Pattern piece (McCall’s M6035) with allowance for ordinary plackets; note the fold lines and center-front line.

What I mean by “allowance for ordinary plackets” is this: starting from the center front of the garment (often marked on patterns with a dashed line with buttonhole and button positioning marks on it), extra fabric is added, two and a half times as wide as the intended placket; if the final placket will be 1″ wide, 2.5″ is added. The placket width must be wider than the buttons; typically shirts have half-inch buttons (plus or minus an eighth) and inch plackets, but skirts or coats may have larger buttons and correspondingly wider plackets. This added fabric has two folds in it, typically marked with fold lines on patterns: one at half-the-placket-width (1/2″ on shirts) from the center-front line, and another halfway between the first fold line and the edge.

Instructions:

  1. Make sure your pattern has allowance for ordinary plackets, not hidden plackets or a narrow hem or anything else.
  2. Cut fabric piece with center front line (including buttonhole positions) and first fold line marked with pins

    Cut fabric piece with center front line (including buttonhole positions) and first fold line marked with pins

    Cut fabric and transfer markings: mark the center-front line (and button/hole positions) and the first (closest to center-front) fold line. You can mark the second fold line as well, but I did not—it’s recoverable from the first fold line, and I was running low on pins. Make sure you mark the center-front line from top to bottom, not just where the buttonholes are; this will be a fold line on the buttonhole side. If you want to adjust the button/hole positions (I generally make mine closer together to avoid gapping), do it now. Note: I cut my pieces with the straight edge along the selvedge, which helps with construction, but if your fabric has a pucker or anything weird on the selvedge, don’t do this; make sure that the straight edge is as straight and clean as you can, though, as there is effectively less than a quarter-inch seam allowance on it (it’ll work out, I promise).

  3. On the button side (typically left side of the worn garment for women’s shirts, right for men’s), make the placket as normal: fold on both fold lines, creating basically a wide hem, and stitch close to the edge.
  4. On the button-hole side, lay the fabric piece flat with the wrong side facing you. Take your bit of ribbon and lay it right-side-down along the marked center-front line. You want to place just the very edge of the ribbon over the markings, with the rest of the ribbon extending out over the placket allowance (see photo). Pin it down, making sure the ribbon is as straight as possible. Make sure you’ve marked the top and bottom of each buttonhole.
  5. ribbon sewn down

    Ribbon sewn down; if you look closely (click for larger) you can find the tops and bottoms of buttonholes by the knots

    Start sewing the ribbon to the fabric, sewing as straight as you can right over the very edge of the ribbon and through the center-front line of the fabric. Sew from the top of the piece to the top of the first buttonhole, then stop and reinforce the seam. I found this easiest to do by hand, tying knots to reinforce, but it should still be less frustrating than hand-sewing buttonholes for all you machine-sewing folks out there. If you are machine-stitching, use a straight stitch with a fairly short stitch length, and take your time.

  6. Leave a gap for the length of the buttonhole, where the fabric and ribbon run parallel but aren’t connected. If you are hand-sewing, carry the thread across the buttonhole by inserting the needle into the fabric, running the thread loosely along the right side (far side) of the fabric, then coming up at the bottom of the buttonhole, and you’re good to tie a knot and start the next segment. If you’re machine-sewing, finish each segment as you normally finish top-stitching (this seam will be somewhat visible on the outside of the garment); I recommend leaving fairly long tails of thread, then using a hand-needle to hide them inside the finished placket sometime after step 12.
  7. Checking that the buttons go through the gaps I've made

    Checking that the buttons go through the gaps I’ve made

    Sew between the bottom of the first buttonhole and the top of the next, reinforcing at the beginning and end of the seam. Check at this point that your buttons will fit through the hole you just made; if they don’t, rip it out and do-over, and if they slide through too loosely, you can go back and make the gap a little shorter now or do it later.

  8. Work down the rest of the center-front line, leaving gaps for all the marked buttonholes, to the bottom of the piece. Check, as you work or afterwards, that all the holes will accommodate your buttons.
  9. Fold the fabric around the seam line you’ve just made (center front line), right-side to right-side, with the ribbon sticking out away from the folded fabric. Pin and/or press.
  10. Fold the placket allowance wrong-side to wrong-side, matching the cut edge of the fabric with the marked first fold line (if you marked the second fold line as well, just fold along it). Pin and/or press.
  11. Fold along the first fold line, wrong-side to wrong-side, enclosing the raw edge of the fabric. From the front of the piece, it should look like an ordinary hidden placket: an unblemished 1″ strip of right-side fabric at the center-front. From the back, it should look a little weirder; see photos below.
  12. Topstitch all these folds in place, working close to the inside edge of the placket but making sure to securely catch the folded-in raw edge of fabric. If necessary, make two passes. Make sure not to catch the ribbon/buttonholes in this seam; there should be more than half a button width between where the ribbon is attached and this seam.
  13. If you want, for decorative reasons or because you’re worried about the raw edge unfolding, topstitch just the front part of the placket close to the outside edge.
  14. Your placket is done! Still easier than hand-stitching buttonholes, right? Anyway, time to make the rest of the garment!

Note on construction order: I generally make my side seams and bottom-edge hem before making my plackets, but for this construction, the hem really can’t happen before any part of the buttonhole-side placketing. It’s a little weird doing what I consider almost a finishing step, making the plackets, as the very first part of construction, but I think it’s the only way to work it.

Note on working with easily-frayed fabrics (linen blends, satins, silks? I am poor, I don’t know if silk frays): I would recommend trying this technique first on a cotton or cotton-poly blend so you grok the construction before trying it on any fabric that frays. Once you’ve done so, adapting to a fraying fabric is not too bad: the problem is that securely catching the raw edge of the fabric in step 12 is going to be difficult. This is solved by making the placket flap one layer thicker: add an extra placket-width (one inch, for most shirts), or a bit less, to the pattern before/when you cut, adding a fold line at the old edge of the pattern, and transferring all three fold lines. Around steps 10&11 make another fold, making the flap three layers thick instead of two. Then in step 12 you are catching a folded edge instead of a raw edge, which prevents fraying. I don’t recommend this extra thickness if you don’t need it, though, for two reasons: 1) altering patterns scares some people, and 2) the fancy placket is already thicker than most shirts; adding another layer of fabric will make it even stiffer and heavier and risks looking weird.

alt buttonhole

Variant method—the top buttonhole of my green shirt, with the ribbon folded around to hide the end and tacked down. For this one the ribbon was added after constructing the placket; if you follow the instructions above but end the ribbon this way it will be on the other side of the inner part of the placket.

Variant: I prefer the way given above, but if you don’t like having the ribbon run the full length of the placket (because there’s an open collar, for instance), cut the ribbon three-quarters inch above the top of the first buttonhole, before you start sewing; fold the tail of ribbon on a right angle above the buttonhole so it’s pointing towards the middle of the garment, fold the end under and sew it down to the fabric (see photo). In fact, you can construct steps 9-13 first, then mate the edge of the ribbon to the folded edge of the fabric, either with a whipstitch or a slight overlap and running stitch, folding under both ends of the ribbon; this is how I did my first attempt, allowing me to put off placing the buttonholes until the shirt was constructed enough to try on, but I still prefer the method given above overall.

green shirt 2

Green shirt with ribbon ended just above the top buttonhole: note that even with the collar folded down, no ribbon is visible, although the unusually-folded fabric is.

I suppose at some point I should address the question of, well, what happens when you finish the shirt? Is it wearable? Is it going to take hours to get in and out of? To which I answer, I was actually surprised by how well this works. I was expecting it to function, but be annoying to fasten/unfasten, and it is, but much less annoying than I expected; it’s only a tiny bit more annoying than ordinary buttonholes, and I think that even integrated over the lifetime of the shirt, the extra annoyance of using these buttonholes is completely compensated by the reduced annoyance of making them. On the other hand, I would not gift a garment with this kind of placket without checking with the recipient; I have unusually nimble fingers (as do you, if you do much fiber crafting), and I could see the unusual-ness by itself being a problem. As a final note, I used satin ribbon because I have it to hand in lots of colors, but I think the annoyance factor would go down if you use a thicker, less slippery material, like bias tape or piping or non-satin ribbon.

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One thought on “Tutorial: Cheating hand-made buttonholes

  1. Pingback: Journal: 18 August 2014 | seesawyer

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