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Sewing buttonholes is an integral part of the garment construction process!
Not only are buttons and buttonholes an important fastening method, but they can also add a decorative touch to sewing projects. There are so many different types of buttonholes beyond just your basic shapes, too.
If you’re new to sewing, knowing when to use each type of buttonhole is important.
So, let’s talk about buttonholes! First, I’ll cover differences in construction methods and then move onto the basic shapes and unique alternatives while describing which projects work best with which buttonholes.
Hand-Sewn vs. Machine-Made Buttonholes
Buttonholes can be sewn by hand or stitched with a sewing machine.
If you’re proficient with a needle and thread, well-made handmade buttonholes can give a garment a couture look. However, they take longer to construct, so machine-made buttonholes are more common on ready-to-wear garments (and are also my preferred method of construction).
One-Step vs. 4-Step Buttonholes
When using a sewing machine, there are two main methods of constructing basic buttonholes.
First are automatic one-step buttonholes, which are standard on higher-end sewing machines.
Here, you place the button in the back of the buttonhole presser foot and select a buttonhole stitch, customizing the stitch length and width if needed. Then, the machine stitches a perfectly sized buttonhole with minimal user input.
Inexpensive sewing machines, on the other hand, feature 4-step buttonholes.
Here, you create a buttonhole manually in 4 different sections using zigzag and bar tack stitches. You have to measure your button and determine the necessary buttonhole size yourself (usually 1/8″ longer than the length of the button). Then, guide the machine yourself as it creates the stitches.
Buttonholes can be horizontal or vertical and should be generally oriented in the direction strain is placed on the garment.
Horizontal buttonholes run perpendicular to the fabric edge in a sideways direction.
As buttons are unlikely to be released during garment wear from horizontal buttonholes, this is the more secure type. Buttons on waistbands especially should be situated horizontally (the direction of greatest pull) to prevent the buttons from slipping out.
As the name suggests, vertical buttonholes go up and down.
In general, buttonholes are only placed vertically when a placket or other fabric piece contains the buttonhole. These are common on dressy shirts or blouses and with smaller-sized buttons in larger quantities. With large numbers of buttons, each buttonhole receives less strain, and as such, buttons are less likely to slip out of vertically oriented holes.
Basic Types of Buttonholes (Shapes)
Now, let’s talk about the most common built-in buttonhole stitches you’ll find on your sewing machine. Of course, these stitches can be mimicked with hand sewing also.
1. Basic Rectangular Buttonhole
The most basic buttonhole shape is a rectangle with perfect 90-degree angles on all 4 sides. The two long sides are zigzag stitches, whereas the smaller end sides are both bartack stitches. These are commonly used vertically in shirt plackets on lightweight or mediumweight fabrics.
There are several variations of the simple squared buttonhole. For instance, replacing the zigzag stitches with heirloom stitches adds a decorative effect. Or, lengthening and making the coarser the zigzag stitches increase the stretch on knit fabrics.
2. Round-End Buttonhole
Round-end buttonholes have at least one side with a rounded edge. The other side can be a squared edge, rounded edge, or even a tapered edge depending on intended use and appearance.
Round-end buttonholes can be situated vertically on lightweight jackets or shirts or used on heavier-weight fabrics with a vertical bartack stitch on the squared end for extra reinforcement. Adding a tapering to the rectangular edge can also add extra reinforcement for waist buttons on jeans or skirts.
3. Keyhole Buttonhole (aka Tailor’s Buttonhole)
This buttonhole has one squared end and one keyhole end.
It’s commonly used horizontally on suit coats, winter jackets, and other thick, heavyweight garments. It’s also handy for large, flat buttons or buttons with large shanks since the keyhole opening makes extra space for these buttons to squeeze through. (Check out the different types of buttons to learn more.)
Adding a vertical bartack to the squared end adds reinforcement for thick fabrics, and tapering the squared end is another option for jeans or slacks.
Other Unique Types of Buttonholes
Besides your basic buttonhole shapes created with your sewing machine, there are other fun options if you want to add a different look to your garment.
1. Bound Buttonhole
A bound buttonhole is created with an extra piece of fabric stitched to the buttonhole area. As such, it appears as two small pleats that touch each other at the buttonhole center.
This type of buttonhole is common on coats and jackets, and it requires more time and knowledge than a basic buttonhole shape.
My sewing machine has a bound buttonhole stitch that is just a simple rectangular outline, which is the first step of construction. After that rectangle is stitched, you then have to create a patch of fabric before moving to construct the remainder of the buttonhole.
2. Piped Buttonhole
A piped buttonhole is a variation of the bound buttonhole. Piped buttonholes use a thin piping cord in the long sides to add bulk and reinforcement.
I recommend this tutorial if you want to make one!
3. Triangular Bound Buttonhole
Using the same concept of adding a fabric patch to the garment fabric, you can also create a triangular-shaped bound buttonhole. This adds a stylish, decorative finish to jackets, coats, other outerwear, and even purses.
4. Corded Buttonhole
As you’re stitching your buttonhole, adding a thick thread (like embroidery floss) or thin cord underneath the zigzag side stitches results in a corded buttonhole. Making a bolder statement with its elevated edges, this type of buttonhole also distorts less on stretchy fabrics.
5. Embroidered Buttonhole
This is something fun I discovered within my embroidery software!
Simply add a buttonhole shape to any premade embroidery design and stitch on the fabric. For example, I recently made a fill-stitch heart, added a buttonhole shape, and stitched it on a shirt for my daughter.
6. Tape-Bound Buttonhole
Use twill tape or grosgrain ribbon around the buttonhole when stitching on specialty fabrics that don’t fray to create a tape-bound buttonhole. Examples of suitable fabric types include faux suede, fur, and leather.
7. In-Seam Buttonhole
If you need a discrete buttonhole for a garment or home decor item, make an in-seam buttonhole by adding fusible tape to the fabric back and then stitching up to the edges of where you want the buttonhole to be in the seam. If you’d like, you can also topstitch around the buttonhole itself.
8. Invisible Buttonhole
If you add an extra placket to your garment, you can decrease the visibility of buttonholes.
As a buttonhole alternative, you can use button loops made from cording or thin, lightweight fabric cut on the bias.
Button loops are common on special occasion clothing like wedding dresses and evening gowns. They work great with rounded buttons, and spacing between button loops can even be varied for decorative effect.
Frog fastenings are popular on Asian-inspired projects such as dresses, coats, and shirts.
Each frog fastening comes in a pair and is made from decorative cord loops. One fastening of the pair has a ball button, and the other has a large loop to slip over the button.
I hope this tutorial has illuminated the many different types of buttonholes you can sew and you’ve now learned the most common indications for use.