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Back to Basics
Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Measuring up
While it's not a bad idea to follow the buttonhole placement guidelines on commercial patterns, determine the buttonhole length on your own, even if you use the same diameter buttons called for in the pattern. The correct length of a buttonhole is determined by the diameter, thickness and type of button used.
If your machine doesn't automatically (or accurately) determine buttonhole size, use the formulas in "Measuring Up" to calculate buttonhole lengths. These formulas are good rules of thumb; however, depending on the fabric's thickness and the button's shape, you may need more or less ease in the buttonhole length. Quickly test the length by making a slash in the fabric and passing the button through the slash.
No matter how accurate your (or your machine's) calculations are, before you start making buttonholes on a new garment make a test on fabric scraps. It's much better to make any mistakes on a sample, than to try to remedy an error on the actual garment. Make the samples on the same number of fabric and interfacing layers that are in the garment where the buttonholes are located.
What do you do if you accidentally make a buttonhole too short or too long on a garment? From the garment wrong side, carefully cut the buttonhole threads with small, sharp scissors. Then gently pull the threads away; a little masking tape will help pick up the tiny threads left behind.
Accurate markings make the process of sewing buttonholes much easier. Tailor's chalk, disappearing-ink markers, masking tape or basting work well for this purpose.
Mark the position of each buttonhole opening and the ends of the buttonhole. Extend the marks so they are visible while you're stitching. If you're sewing numerous buttonholes, it's helpful to make a "ladder" of marks so all of the buttonholes will line up perfectly and be the same size (4).
Take care to mark buttonholes directly on the grain. Mark vertical buttonholes parallel to the garment edge and horizontal buttonholes perpendicular to the edge.
A common error among home sewers is always making buttonholes with close satin stitches. Although easily raveled fabrics may look great with such a buttonhole, if you examine ready-to-wear clothes, you'll often find a much looser stitch used. Sometimes the stitches are so loose that they're nothing more than a regular zigzag. Using scrap fabric, take some time to experiment with the stitch length; the results may surprise you.
When made along the fabric cross-grain, buttonholes can stretch and sag. Interfacing the buttonhole can help eliminate this problem, and also prevent fraying. Choose an interfacing that's appropriate for the fashion fabric, and doesn't add bulk or weight. Cut a rectangular interfacing piece 1" larger all the way around than the finished buttonhole. Place the interfacing between the top fabric and the facing, and baste or fuse in place. Stitch the buttonhole as usual, removing any basting stitches when finished.
If the white interfacing shows through when your test buttonhole is cut open, consider switching to black interfacing for dark fabrics, or coloring the interfacing with a permanent pen in a matching color.
When making buttonholes on lightweight fabric, temporarily stabilize them with a piece of water-soluble stabilizer placed under the buttonhole. After sewing, wet the stabilizer to remove it. (If the fabric stains when wet, trim the stabilizer close to the buttonhole after sewing, then steam the buttonhole from the garment wrong side to remove excess stabilizer.)
To further prevent stretching, lightly cord the buttonhole. For the cording, use a matching color of topstitching thread, embroidery floss, pearl rayon or cotton, crochet thread or a double strand (for very fine fabrics, a single strand) of regular sewing thread. Depending upon your machine's buttonhole foot, loop the cording around the tab at the back of the foot, on the center toe at the front of the foot, or thread it through the center hole on the front of the foot (follow your machine manual for specifics) (5). The cord will be looped at one bar tack, with the cord tails at the opposite bar tack (6).
Hold the thread while stitching,making sure it stays in the channels on the foot underside. When you've finished sewing the buttonhole, pull both cord ends until the loop is hidden in the opposite bar tack. With a hand sewing needle, draw the ends of the cord to the underside; knot and hide the ends.
Some people prefer a specially made buttonhole cutter for opening buttonholes. However, a seam ripper can work just as well if you follow this simple method: Insert the point of the ripper just inside the bar tack on one side of the buttonhole. Bring the point of the seam ripper up through the fabric in the center of the buttonhole and cut only to the center. Repeat on the opposite side. This method ensures you don't accidentally cut too far and cut into the bar tacks. The old-fashioned way to cut a buttonhole is to fold it in half, matching the bar tacks, and snip it with sharp, small scissors, then unfold the fabric and carefully snip the cloth just to the bar tacks. With this method, be sure to place a pin just inside each bar tack to prevent accidentally cutting into the stitches.
If your buttonholes tend to fray, place a dab of fray retardant on the back of the buttonhole. Be sure you use just a dab; more than that will make the fabric stiff.
Kristina Seleshanko is the author of a dozen books on fashion (written under her nom be plume, Kristina Harris). She lives in Oregon where she sews, knits, writes and sings.
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