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Buttons play functional and decorative roles when sewing clothes, home decor, and other accessories.
As such, buttons for sewing come in different sizes, shapes, colors, and materials and even have different methods of attachments.
Curious how many different types of buttons are used in sewing accessories and clothing? Wonder no more, and figure out the most common uses for each button type!
Flat, Sew-Through Buttons vs. Shank Attachment Buttons
By the broadest criteria, there are two main types of buttons for clothes. Those that attach to clothes via sewing through a shank and those that are sewn on through holes.
Of course, there is MUCH variety within these two subsets of buttons, but here’s some brief information before digging further.
1. Shank Buttons
Shank buttons have a solid top surface and a small protruding loop on the back called a shank. Think of the button top as the “head” and the shank as the “neck” of a button.
Commonly made from metal, plastic, or wood, the purpose of a shank is to lift the button off the fabric, providing clearance for the buttonhole fabric layers.
Shank buttons thus work great for thick fabrics and garments such as jackets, sweaters, and coats, thanks to the extra space underneath the button. Shank buttons are also well-suited to button loops as a fastening method.
This type of button has to be sewn on by hand. If needed, an additional thread shank can be created underneath the button to accommodate incredibly bulky fabrics.
Shank buttons are also often more expensive than flat buttons and are used in dressier outfits and projects.
2. Sew-Through Buttons
As the most common type of button, sew-through buttons have two or four holes in the button center. There are three-hole buttons, but they are uncommon.
Since sew-through buttons are flat buttons, there is no shank on the back.
Thus, for purely decorative uses and for attachment to lightweight fabrics and garments such as blouses, skirts, and dresses, sewing the button flat on the garment is sufficient. Allowing a little give in the thread when stitching provides adequate space between the fabric and button.
However, when hand sewing a flat button to thick fabric, you must create a thread shank by hand to provide enough clearance for the buttonhole. This is done by wrapping your thread underneath the base of the button where it has just been stitched to your fabric. The thread shank needs to be thick enough to accommodate the buttonhole thickness plus an extra 1/8″ for movement.
Hand-Sewn vs. Machine-Sewn Buttons
Buttons with shanks must be hand-sewn, whereas buttons with holes have the option of hand or machine attachment using a specialty button fitting presser foot.
Machine sewing attaches a button flat to fabric and does not automatically create a thread shank. Thus, machine sewing works well for buttons intended for decorative purposes, children’s clothing, and lightweight fabrics.
However, if you place a toothpick or pin with the button sewing foot, this leaves extra space for hand-winding a shank underneath. Furthermore, some specialty button sewing feet like the one below even have a small plastic shank lever that can be slid forward to provide that extra space for creating a shank later.
In contrast, sewing buttons by hand is my favorite method for functional buttons on mediumweight garments and thicker fabrics. In addition to providing a more couture look, you can more easily add a thread shank on the back and create a crisscross “X” appearance on four-hole buttonholes.
More Button Characteristics Explained
Before diving into the full list of the different types of buttons, here’s an overview of other defining characteristics of buttons within the two broad categories explained above.
When choosing a suitable button for your garment, consider these criteria carefully.
1. Size and Weight
The most important criterion when selecting a button is the button size.
The button size describes the diameter of the button and is denoted in millimeters, inches, and ‘lignes.’ You can learn more about button measurements here.
Buttons can be super small like those found on bridal wear (some as little as 1/4″) or oversized like those 2″+ plastic buttons on kids’ accessories and home decor.
The back of a pattern envelope also suggests the number and size of buttons needed to complete a sewing project. Always stick close to this size if you’re new to sewing! If veering too far from the suggestion, you risk affecting the garment’s final appearance. Also, when changing the size, the buttonhole length and placement may be off.
When not specified, choose smaller, lightweight buttons for thin fabrics and larger, heavy buttons for thicker fabrics. Why is this the case? One reason is sewing a huge, heavy button on delicate, lightweight fabric like chiffon results in unsightly fabric distortion when the fabric cannot support the button weight adequately.
2. Material, Color, and Style
Buttons can be made of plastic, shell, metal, glass, bone, leather, and SO many more materials. The material plays not only an important part in the appearance of the button but also the durability, weight, and thus intended use.
Depending on the material used in construction, buttons also have different colorings. Plastic buttons come in the colors of the rainbow, and metal buttons can be polished to shine or left looking weathered. Fabric buttons can even provide an exact color match.
While most buttons are circular, buttons come in shapes from simple squares, triangles, or ovals, to even animals or flowers.
A funky-shaped button can add flair to a garment, whereas simple, circular buttons are most professional for work attire.
4. Durability and Washability
For items that will be washed and dried frequently, consider how a button will weather these conditions. For instance, will the finish degrade, the button change colors, or the shank break?
If you need to wash a garment with delicate buttons, rather than sewing the buttons on, consider attaching them with button pins so you can remove them before laundering.
Different Types of Buttons for Clothes
Now, let’s touch on examples of some of the different types of buttons used in garment making and when to choose each.
There is, of course, much overlap within these types, but I want to provide pictures and some extra information for each of these specialty options.
1. Covered Buttons
Covered buttons add a fun, professional finish to clothes like dresses, jackets, and blouses. They are easy to make, and what’s unique about them is you choose the fabric used to cover the button.
As such, with self-covered fabric buttons, choosing the same fabric as the garment it’s constructed from provides an exact color match. Of course, you can also choose a contrasting fabric for a different look or feature a small fabric motif more prominently on the button.
Using this tutorial, you can create your own covered buttons with a small scrap of fabric, button, needle, and thread.
Or, you can purchase a set for button making. These sets come in a wide variety of sizes.
When using a set, if you have problems getting the fabric to shape, try wetting it. Also, for thin fabrics, make sure to use a second layer of lining or fusible interfacing to prevent show-through.
2. Oversized Buttons
Oversized buttons add a decorative look to home decor (like throw pillow covers) or even kids’ accessories.
Oversized buttons can have 2 holes, 4 holes, or be shank buttons.
3. Reinforced Buttons
When sewing a larger button on a knitted or loosely woven garment or sewing a button at a point of strain on a heavyweight garment, it’s common to add a second small, flat button to the inside to help reinforce the heavier button, holding it in place. This reinforcing button is also sometimes called a backer button.
To create this effect, sew the larger visible button and the smaller reinforcement button to the garment simultaneously. Ensure the reinforcement button and the main button have the same number of holes with similar spacing. And, if needing a thread shank, leave room for sewing this by hand after the two buttons are attached.
One other method of reinforcing large buttons on lighter fabrics is to use a piece of self-fabric, ribbon, or even seam binding in the place of the backer button.
4. Layered Buttons
Position one button or more on top of a larger button to create a layered button, thus adding whimsy to your home decor or garments.
Pay attention to the number of holes in the buttons you want to layer. Sew the buttons by hand, two at a time. Meaning, sew the base button and the button immediately on top of it first. Then, sew the third button on top of the first two in the second step.
5. Dome Buttons
Dome buttons are hemispherical buttons with a shank on the base and are often used with heavyweight fabrics.
Because dome buttons can have a great height (thickness), using an automatic buttonhole sewing foot may create a too small buttonhole if the machine automatically sizes the hole based on button diameter only.
6. Spherical Ball Buttons
Purely spherical in shape, ball buttons have a small molded or cut-out hole on the back for stitching through.
These are common in bridal and evening wear.
7. Jeans Buttons
Check out your denim shorts or jeans, and you’re likely to see this type of button at the closure!
These buttons are not sewn on. And, in contrast to other buttons and fastenings, installing a jeans button takes extra effort and tools, such as a hammer and awl. That is unless you use pin-on or screw-on faux jeans buttons, which are becoming more common.
8. Novelty Buttons
Novelty buttons are often funky and geometric or made in other unique shapes. Some novelty buttons may all be the same shape, whereas others may be a part of a set like my nativity buttons above.
Novelty buttons often have shanks but can also be flat.
8. Chinese Ball Buttons (Button Knots)
Chinese ball buttons are formed with fabric tubing or cord and have a rounded appearance. They appear in frog fastenings or can be used as a stand-alone button.
Check out some different ways to make these button knots if you want to add them to your projects.
While not technically buttons, toggles perform the function of buttons and have a shank at the base. Used with fastening loops, these are common on coats and other thick fabrics.
Button Types When Sewing – Final Notes
And, that’s it! I hope this detailed discussion on the different types of buttons has taught you when to use certain ones and when to create a thread shank by hand.
And, if you’re interested, check out the different types of buttonholes used in sewing clothes also!