Sewing buttonholes on clothes - beginner dressmakers guide

Part Twelve

From talking to customers in the shop and teaching workshops workshop over the last 6 years or so, I know that they can be a really daunting thing for a lot of people. So in this top tips post I hope to make it all a bit easier to understand and get your head around!

To see my tips in video format, check out my latest Youtube video or read on for pictures and more!


Without meaning to sound patronising, put simply a buttonhole is a hole that gets cut into fabric so that a button can pass through it, BUT you can’t just simply cut a hole in your fabric right? It needs to be stabilised and supported so the fabric doesn’t just rip and fall apart as you wear the garment.

So, in the context of dressmaking a buttonhole is actually a section of dense stitching on an area of fabric that has been stabilised with interfacing, and then a hole cut in the middle. This will support the fabric, stop it from fraying and give longevity to the buttonhole.


Interfacing - Buttonholes need to be stabilised first, before the stitching is sewn and the hole is created, using interfacing.

Depending on the type of fabric you are using will depend on the type of interfacing you use and I’ve covered interfacings in another video and blog post which you can check out this link.

The interfacing will not only stop the buttonhole from fraying and ripping open over time, it will also give the garment the correct structure, for example a button placket or cuff on a shirt needs to be more sturdy that the rest of the garment.

Fray check - In addition to using interfacing on some fabrics that are fraying particularly badly, you may want to further support the fabric by using fray check. It’s a bit like a fabric glue and has this really pointy dispensing nozzle. You apply it to the cut edges of the buttonhole and let it dry to help seal everything.

Buttonhole placement and orientation

When it comes to working out where to place your buttonholes there are a few factors to consider. It’s likely that the pattern you are using will come with buttonhole markings, but from my experience I find it’s usually more accurate to work out your own buttonhole placement when you are just about to sew them. That means any slight changes in terms of pressing plackets, hems or seam allowances, anything like that, are taken into account and you end up with buttonholes that look like they are in the right place. It can be useful to have those pattern markings as a guide, but I wouldn’t shy away from deciding where you want the buttonholes yourself.

  • Vertical vs horizontal - consider whether the buttonhole should sit vertically or horizontally. This will be important depending on where the direction of strain or pressure will be on the buttonhole and where it is placed in the garment.
  • So on a trouser or skirt waistband or a collar stand on a shirt or in a button fly for example, there will be a tendency for the garment to pull open on the horizontal axis. Therefore, you want your buttonholes to sit horizontally as well. The button will get pulled to one end of the buttonhole and hold the garment together. If the buttonhole was sitting vertically, then that strain on the waistband would encourage the buttonhole to open up and then the button might just slip out!
  • If there are a lot of buttons on a looser fitting garment such as a shirt/blouse or dress for example, then there is less strain on each individual buttonhole to typically the buttonholes will sit vertically.
  • Type and shape of buttonhole - On your sewing machine you might find that there are several options in terms of shape of buttonhole that you can choose from. So what one should you go for and why? Pictured below, left to right are some common buttonhole shapes:
  • Regular rectangular buttonhole - this is the one I use most commonly for buttonholes that sit vertically on shirts and blouses in light to medium weight fabrics
  • Round double ended buttonhole - this one gets used in the same context as the regular rectangular one, some people prefer to use it on lighter weight fabrics are it looks a bit more delicate with its rounded ends
  • Keyhole buttonhole - This is best for heavy weight, thick fabrics and when using a button that has a large shank as the rounded end can accommodate the larger size of the button in a garment where the buttonhole will sit horizontally - so in trousers or jeans for example
  • Tapered keyhole buttonhole - This one gets used in the same context as the regular keyhole buttonhole on medium to heavy weight fabrics
  • Spacing - how far apart the buttonholes are might be a design feature as well as having very practical reasons too. For a dress or blouse that has buttons down the front and is more fitted, I will try on the garment and mark where the fullest point of my bust is as it’s good to have a button there so that you don’t get a bulging shirt placket.
  • If the garment is a shirt that has buttonholes and a placket that goes right the way up to the neck/collar, you can also consider if you are going to wear the button placket open or not and if so, where you would want a buttonhole to be placed for that. Once I have these points worked out, I’ll then have a think about how many buttons will sit between this point and the top of the placket. This will give you a spacing distance for the rest of the placket below.
  • Using a simflex gauge - This tool can make working out buttonhole placement a lot quicker and easier. It will expand and the pointy bits of the gauge are then evenly placed and you can use that to help you quickly mark even buttonholes. I also find it useful if I’m not sure how many buttons to put on a garment. Using the gauge you can quickly change the distance between the buttons and lay them out to give you a visual idea of what the buttons and buttonholes will look like once in situ.

Setting up machine for buttonhole stitch

If your machine is able to sew buttonholes it will either be a 4 step or 1 step buttonhole function. Buttonholes are like little rectangles so the machine can either stitch around those 4 sides of the rectangle in one step or 4 steps.

4-step buttonhole - this is when you have to manually adjust the machine to make it stitch each side of the rectangle that makes up the buttonhole.

1-step buttonhole - once you have set the machine up with the buttonhole foot and correct stitch, the machine will automatically stitch around the rectangular shape of the buttonhole.

The machines that I use (I have a Brother Innovis VQ2 at home and Brother NV1300 in the studio at the shop) have a one step setting. Both machines are set up in a very similar way.

  • To set the machine up you insert your button into the top section of the buttonhole foot - this sets the distance between the two markers at the side of the foot, so it calculates how big the buttonhole needs to be for the size of button you have.
  • Then attach the foot into the machine and lower the buttonhole lever, making sure it sits behind the little plastic marker on the foot.
  • Select the buttonhole stitch you’d like and then line up your fabric under the foot of the machine. I mark where I’d like the buttonhole to start with either a pin or a chalk marking and then line this up with the space in the foot that has the red markings around it.
  • Then lower the foot and start stitching. The machine will do its thing and stitch the whole buttonhole and automatically stop when its finished.
  • I recommend that your hands should still be on the fabric at the machine stitches, just lightly guiding the fabric and making sure it doesn’t get stuck stitching on one spot.

Cutting open the buttonhole once it has been stitched

The final stage of making the buttonhole is to then actually cut the hole in the fabric! You can do this in a few ways:

  • Using a seam ripper - place a pin at one end of the buttonhole just before the stitching in case you slip and make the hole too big. Use the seam ripper to gently cut the hole in the fabric, pushing away from you towards the pin.
  • Using a buttonhole cutter - this little chisel like tool is great for quickly and neatly cutting a the hole open. You need to use it on a self healing mat to protect the surface you are working on. Simply line up the blade of the tool with the space in the buttonhole and apply a downward pressure to cut open the fabric.

Make a garment with buttonholes

Hopefully you are feeling ready to take on a project with buttonholes now! Here are some suggested patterns.

If you’d specifically like to make a shirt I also have a video about choosing a shirt pattern and things to consider! Follow this link to check it out!

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