Friday, January 16, 2009

How To: Make a Consistent Buttonhole Manually

It has always seemed unfair to me that great projects are so easily ruined at the end with tricky steps. Flights end with landings, fashion drawings end with faces, and cooking ends with seasoning. By far the worst, in my opinion, is that garments end with buttonholes. Knowing I need to make buttonholes has tanked whole weeks for me, in all seriousness!

There are a few solutions for buttonholes: Technology, avoidance, and mastery.

Many of the new sewing machines will make an automatic buttonhole for you. They are almost foolproof. If you are lucky, you live in a city with buttonhole services. You give the nice man your placket and in a few hours you have a parade of industry-grade beauties. Neither of these are an option for me, because I insist on having a reliable machine that does basic functions well every time. This means no tricky computerized gadget I can’t pull apart myself, no functions I will never use, no automatic buttonhole. Also, I don’t work or think far enough in advance to send my plackets away.

Avoidance, though. That I have mastered for years! You would believe what can be closed with zippers, snaps, velcro, ribbons, loops, or hooks and eyes to avoid the vortex of buttonhole despair only because you too, dear reader, have avoided this battle!

Mastery. I have tried the techniques. I have avidly sought wisdom in Threads and come up dry. Because of course those who do couture sewing have machines which are to the seamstress as Alfred is to Batman. Or not.

So here is my anxiety-reducing low tech technique for professional-looking buttonholes every time (once you get the hang of them). Really. It won’t win you any speed records, but think about how many times you’ve redone a buttonhole until the fabric is worn and fuzzy, and tell me your way is faster!
  1. Measure and mark the length of the opening of your buttonhole carefully and precisely onto your placket.
  2. Set your machine to a short straight stitch and sew exactly the same number of stitches on each marked buttonhole line. Yes, I do mean count, and walk it if you need to. Hint: It is easy to lose the end of the mark. Make sure you have good natural light, and it might help you to turn the sewing machine light off to reduce glare.
  3. Use an Exacto knife or razor blade to slit along the right-hand edge of the stitching.
  4. Set your stitch width to a narrow zigzag and the length to a satin stitch. I like my length comparatively long to avoid rogue bulges and bumps, but this is a matter of preference.
  5. Position your buttonhole with the needle swung to the right at the center of the slash, just a hair above where it begins. Satin stitch down the left edge of the cut with the needle plunging into the slit on its right extreme. End with needle down in the fabric swinging to the right, a hair above the bottom of the slit.
  6. Raise the presser foot and turn the fabric. Sew up the second edge of the slit ending with the needle having just completed its left-hand extreme.
  7. Trim all threads and treat with fray check or a drop of clear nail polish as needed.
  8. Carefully measure the width of the buttonhole and stitch width for exactly that amount. Bar tack on each end of the buttonhole a count of 4 stitches, or whatever looks right for your project. Leave threads long enough to thread a hand-sewing needle.
  9. Tie the threads of your bar tack and hide them with a needle.

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