Ever wanted to know how to sew a buttonhole by hand?
If that last sentence just gave you hives, know that there’s an easier way to sew a buttonhole by machine.
The truth is that buttonholes are functional closures and whether you make them by machine or by hand, they take a little bit of practice.
If I were being honest, there’s days I’ve ripped out more buttonholes with my seam ripper than I’ve sewn. Along the way towards sewing buttonholes that I’m really proud of, I’ve picked up some tricks I’m going to share with you here.
Hand-sewn buttonholes take some time and practice, but if you’re willing to put in the effort, you’ll end up with a unique design feature that’ll make your garment stand out.
Ready to learn how to sew a buttonhole by hand?
Let’s do this!
Table of Contents
Why should you know how to sew a buttonhole by hand?
Sewing buttonholes with computerized sewing machines is almost a walk in the park. In a perfect world, you set up your buttonhole foot, line everything up and just stitch. Most of the time that’s the case. For example, you might be ready to finish up a button-down shirt, and with your nifty one-step buttonhole foot, you can simply finish up that last step of sewing on the buttonholes and buttons in just a few minutes.
On the other hand, hand stitched buttonholes take a lot more effort. So why would you bother?
- Buttons: It can be difficult to sew machine buttonholes for thicker buttons or larger diameter buttons. Hand worked buttonholes give you more ability to adjust for this.
- Fabric: Some heavy weight fabrics are difficult to sew machine buttonholes. I have a denim jacket I literally chose a vertical buttonhole on because my buttonhole foot could not handle making a horizontal buttonhole across the front band. The fabric was simply too bulky.
- The joy of hand sewing: There’s simple beauty in working stitches by hand. Choosing to sew any element by hand to enjoy the process is 100% a legitimate reason for doing so. Sewing by hand is a peaceful sort of process that can bring some calm into your day.
- Fabrics that fail with a machine made buttonhole: some fabrics do NOT play nice with buttonhole feet no matter what you do. Modern machines are a marvel with buttonholes, but they’re not foolproof. Here’s an easy test: If you’ve made a test buttonhole in a fabric by machine and it’s stalled out, made uneven length sides or something else, consider making a test of a hand buttonhole. Compare the difference.
- Expensive fabrics that you’re worried about ruining or maybe even a hand knit or crocheted item could be a good candidate for hand worked buttonholes.
- Making it special: You sew to make things you can’t buy, right? Why not add some hand worked buttonholes to make a sewing project like a coat something really special?
So that’s the why of sewing buttonholes by hand. Let’s talk about what you need to get started.
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How to sew a buttonhole by hand supplies
- Hand needle
- Buttonhole twist thread or other heavy thread (see below)
- Buttonhole gimp thread (or home dec thread)
- Tailor’s chalk or marking pencil
- Buttonhole chisel
- Sewing gauge or ruler with 1/8″ markings
- Beeswax (optional depending on your thread choice)
- Appropriate interfacing (see 13 types of interfacing that’ll make all your sewing better )
- Fray check or fray block
Specialty threads for sewing hand worked buttonholes
- Buttonhole twist: for working the buttonholes. This is the thread you’ll see on top. It’s a heavier weight thread than that you’d use for your machine.
- Buttonhole gimp thread: this is a wiry thick thread that goes on the back side of the buttonhole. It offers support to the buttonhole and helps the stitches stand out a little.
How is buttonhole twist thread different than machine sewing thread?
Buttonhole twist thread is a specialty thread that’s heavier weight and meant for hand sewing. If you really get into sewing buttonholes by hand, it’s worth looking for vintage silk buttonhole twist or something for tailors.
If you just want to try out this technique, grab one of the substitutes on this list.
You have some options for buttonhole twist thread:
- 16 weight silk buttonhole twist by Superior Threads.
- Silamide from Wawak: these are pre-waxed lengths of thread meant for hand sewing.
- Silk buttonhole twist from Burnley & Trowbridge.
- Gutermann Silk buttonhole thread
- Corticelli silk buttonhole twist: vintage and lovely. I have some Corticelli mercerized cotton thread and I use and reuse it it’s so wonderful to work with.
- Gutermann topstitching thread: This is a heavier weight thread and quite strong. Play around with this thread and see how you like it.*
- *I’m using topstitching thread in this post because I thought it’d work well on my heavy wool melton sample I’m making.
What if I can’t find buttonhole gimp thread?
If you can’t find it or just want to try this technique, substitute a heavy thread like upholstery thread or cotton buttoncraft thread.
My guess is that few people will inspect the backsides of your buttonhole stitches, so use what you have!
What thread color should I use for hand-worked buttonholes?
In general, matching thread colors are best because any mistakes you make, won’t be as noticeable. The gimp thread and the thread you use to overcast the buttonhole layers and stitch your guide stitches do not need to be matching since they are going to be covered by your buttonhole stitches.
I’m using a contrast so that you can see it well here. If you’re confident in your abilities, and you’ve practiced making hand buttonholes, contrast thread can be a fun design feature.
How to sew a buttonhole by hand step by step
Measure your buttons for the buttonhole length
The first thing to do before you can start stitching your buttonholes is to measure the buttons you’ll be using.
To do this, wrap a thin strip of paper around the button. Use a pin to mark where the ends meet. Lay the paper flat and measure the distance from the pin to the fold. Add 1/8” to this measurement if you have a thicker button or one with a shank.
You can also simply measure the diameter of the button and add the thickness of a button. For a 5/8” button that’s 1/4” wide, you’ll need a buttonhole that’s 7/8” long.
Add interfacing and any facings
Next, you’ll need to add a layer of interfacing between the top part of your garment and the facing. I’m using a piece of fusible weft here.
Check out how to use fusible interfacing for how to apply the interfacing.
Mark the buttonholes
Use a sewing gauge or a ruler to mark the length of your buttonhole where it will go. Mark the length and both ends on the right side of your buttonhole.
Also mark just under 1/8” on either side of the length marking. You’ll use this to create a box of guide stitches for yourself. This will make sewing buttonhole stitches with even width much easier while also adding some stability to the buttonhole opening.
Slash the buttonhole
Next, machine stitch along the ends and down the guide markings you made, leaving the middle line free of stitching. When you get to one of the corners, be sure to lift your presser foot. You want to stitch exactly on the lines you marked for the best looking buttonhole. If needed, lift up the needle and place it exactly on your marked line.
If you don’t want to use your sewing machine here, you can use a running stitch to outline the same path.
Use your buttonhole chisel to carefully cut through all layers along the unstitched marked line.
Whipstitch the edges
With a lightweight thread, make a small whip stitch around the fabric edge along the slash. Do this by poking in your needle just below the edge of one side of the slash and making a stitch around the edges. Continue making whipstitches around the entire buttonhole.
This type of overcast stitch will hold the layers of fabric together while you’re making the buttonhole stitches later.
Use your judgment here. My wool melton is very stable, so I probably could have skipped this step. If you’re using a fabric that has a little more movement in it or has a tendency to shift on you or frays along the raw edges, definitely don’t skip this step.
Anchor your buttonhole gimp thread in the fabric
Cut a length of your buttonhole gimp (or upholstery thread etc), then thread a needle. There’s no need to tie a knot here. Make large stitches the length of the buttonhole.
Alternatively, you can just hold this thread in place as you work buttonhole stitches over it. That being said, I found it easier to have the thread anchored in the fabric.
Make the buttonhole stitches
From here, thread up a needle with your buttonhole thread of choice, making a small knot at the end. Apply some beeswax to the thread if the thread is twisting.
Poke the needle between the layers of the buttonhole, then bring the thread through the slash and around the edge. Insert the needle just below the stitch guideline.
Pull the thread. See how it makes a nice loop? Poke the point of the needle through the loop as you get to the end of the thread. This will create a purl stitch. Do your best to get the purl stitch to sit on the edge of the buttonhole. This is very similar to a blanket stitch.
This will take practice. Tailors spend a long time mastering these things, so don’t get discouraged if your few attempts are less than the perfect buttonhole. Heavier thread definitely makes it a little easier, but every try is progress!
Fan stitches at the side of the buttonhole
Keep making your buttonhole stitches down one side of the buttonhole. When you get to the end, you can make a small rounded edge with the gimp thread as a guide.
Fan stitches around to the other side, continuing the same stitch. Keep working down the length of the second side of the opening of the buttonhole.
Add a bar tack stitch to finish
When you get back to where you started, make a few stitches the length of the side. This will create a bar tack for your button.
Bury the thread end on the inside of the fabric with a knot, then cut off the excess buttonhole gimp thread. Apply some fray check to the buttonhole where you cut off the thread. Give your buttonhole a good shot of steam with your iron and admire your work.
And that’s how to sew a buttonhole by hand. Repeat for as many buttonholes as you have in your finished garment. With a little practice, your beautiful buttonhole skills are just around the corner.
Does this sound too DIY or die for you? Check out how to sew a buttonhole by machine. You’ll love how easy a 1-step automatic buttonhole can be!
Elizabeth Farr is the writer behind the Elizabeth Made This blog where she shares helpful sewing tips, step by step sewing tutorials and videos to help you explore your creativity through sewing. She has written sewing Eguides and patterns, been a featured teacher at Rebecca Page’s Sewing Summit and Jennifer Maker’s Holiday Maker Fest and her work has appeared in Seamwork and Altered Couture magazines. She also created a line of refashioned garments for SEWN Denver. When her sewing machine isn’t humming, she’s playing and teaching violin, and hanging around a good strategic board game with her husband and 4 kids.