Sunday, April 12, 2015

Buttons and Buttonholes

I have FINALLY gotten around to covering some buttons for Kenny's breeches and waistcoat! It's taken me long enough. After stitching a few buttonholes I have concluded that I need a lot more practice on buttonholes. Good thing I have many more to stitch before his outfit is concluded! Hopefully by the time I get to the coat, they'll be... presentable. Perhaps not perfect but hopefully getting there.

These are the items I used:

Listed from left to right:
1. Measuring tape, for measuring out the space between all the buttonholes. I like my handy retractable one from Jo-Ann's.
2. Sharp "betweens" needles! I like this type needles because they are short and therefore easier for making little stitches, quickly. This kind of needle is often used by quilters for that reason. Mine are made by S. Thomson & Sons, size 10 (the smallest, sharpest size), available here.
3. #60 basting thread. I waffled about purchasing this (because can't one just use normal thread to baste, and just stitch lightly?) but I really love it! It seems to be lightly waxed or something, because it is springy and doesn't twist up on itself. It also is fine enough to keep from leaving any marks on my silk taffeta.
4. Hammer, for pounding the buttonhole chisel. Probably could get away with a rubber mallet for this, but I don't have one.
5. Buttonhole cutter and block. Super-sharp, much nicer than scissors for cutting evenly through all layers of fabric.
6. Silk buttonhole twist. I used Superior Thread's #16 buttonhole silk. This is so much nicer than cotton embroidery twist found at hobby stores. It slides through the fabric like butter!
7. Needle-threader (there is no way I can get the buttonhole twist through that tiny, sharp needle's eye without a little help!)
8. Tailor's thimble. I am NOT a thimble-wearing seamstress, which is probably bad, but I determined to try stitching with one for this project. I used an open-ended tailor's thimble (which is held so that you push the needle through with the side of your finger/thimble), and I really liked it. Still feels a little awkward, but I'm getting the hang of it the more I use it. (NOTE: I bought mine from WAWAK, they have a variety here, and I did NOT realize that I would be getting a dozen of them for $2.29! That is what happened to me. Maybe they wear out? Maybe they were mis-packed? Just a head's-up.)
10. Scissors and pliers, for pulling stubborn needles through the fabric and clipping threads.

Stitching the Buttonhole:
I started out by basting (with a ginormous pad-stitch?) around the spaces where the buttonhole would go. The below picture shows that handy-dandy basting thread in action, as well as the tailor's thimble doing what thimbles do.
The index finger starts things off by guiding the needle into the fabric,
and then the middle finger with the thimble comes up behind
and does all the heavy lifting (pushing the needle through).

Next, I punched a slit almost the length of the buttonhole into my fabric. (I broke the little wooden chisel block in the process. Sad. Will use a scrap of 2x4 next time.)

Then I whipped the edges of the new slit with basting thread. Just to keep things tidy and all in place when stitching with the silk twist.

I ran two long stitches (with my buttonhole twist) along each side of the buttonhole. I'll later stitch over these and they will help reinforce the overall buttonhole. Notice that the long stitches extend a little ways past my cut-out. Back in the day (vaguely late 18th century), buttonholes were often decorative, and also often excessively long. Even when a buttonhole was functional, the stitching would often extend way past the actual slit in the fabric, to create the visual impression of a long buttonhole even if the actual hole was pretty small. I am not quite sure when this practice stopped - I think that by the turn of the century, buttonholes were shrinking back to a respectably practical size, but I don't have a lot of research to prove when that happened. (Also note, I just used my silk twist for these base stitches. Probably I should have used something weightier, like buttonhole gimp, but I guess I'll try that next time!)

Starting where I want the non-functional end of my buttonhole to be, I started stitching along one side of my buttonhole, wrapping the thread around my needle for each stitch (as per this Burnley & Trowbridge tutorial on 18th century buttonholes).

Once my stitches reached the slit in the fabric, I started going straight through the slit and coming up on the outside edge of the buttonhole, still wrapping the thread around the needle. My fabric has narrow, buttonhole-width stripes, which made it a perfect guide!

At the end of the buttonhole, I made two long stitches across the width of the buttonhole. These are to support my bar tack. The bar tack is stitched just like the first end of the buttonhole was - little stitches in and out of the fabric, wrapping the thread around the needle as I go.

Aaand, back we go. All the way to the end where I started.

One more bar tack... (I am miserable at bar tacks. Need a lot of practice!)

And the buttonhole is finished!

I clearly need to work on my tension - silk taffeta is not super forgiving when it comes to poor tension/fabric slippage. But, glad to be almost done with this piece. Just have to add the covered buttons and slip an extra wedge of fabric in the back (it is a bit snug around the waist), and it will be complete!

Useful resources:
- Burnley & Trowbridge tutorial (on facebook)
- YouTube video of Mr. Stuart Lille of Ft. Ticonderoga stitching 18th century buttonholes (updated here)
- Overview of 18th century buttonhole-making, by Mara Riley (somehow, my buttonholes look nothing like hers. Hmm.)

And a couple of fun links about thimbles and their uses:
- The Purl Bee looks at lots of different kinds of thimbles
- The English Cut - Savile Row blog offers a couple tips on how to use a tailor's thimble


  1. I never thought hand-sewing buttonholes could look so effortless and elegant! Amazing work!

    1. Thanks so much! They are more fun than I thought they would be. Hand-sewn details like buttonholes always sound so daunting, but they are not so bad once you get started on them.