Sewing a 4-step buttonhole needs a bit of knowledge and skill.
With an automatic 1-step buttonhole, you just set the buttonhole length, find out whether the machine sews forwards or backwards first – so you can start at the right end, and then press the buttonhole control.
There’s a little more to it with a 4-step buttonhole.

Sections with links on :
– marking buttonholes,
– buttonholes on a basic zigzag machine,
– 4-step buttonhole.

Check which direction your machine sews in.
My previous machine sewed buttonholes forwards, towards the sewer.
So the marked starting point for a buttonhole needed to be the end away from the sewer.

My newest machine sews buttonholes away from the sewer.
So the marked starting point needs to be the end nearest the sewer.

4-step buttonholes don’t have an automatic way of setting the length of the buttonhole. You have to stop the sewing. So the ends need to be marked clearly. It’s best to make marks longer and wider than the presser foot, so you can always see them.

Also it’s helpful to have a sliding buttonhole presser foot, with markings you can use for reference when controlling the length.

Some general guides on marking and sewing machine buttonholes :
Placing and sewing buttonholes, pdf from the University of Kentucky.
Sarah Veblen’s class at Pattern Review (Not free).

Machine made buttonholes

The simplest machine-made buttonhole has 4 parts – the 2 sides, and the 2 end bar tacks.
As sewing machines have added more controls, so various ways of making the process easier have been devised.
So any particular tutorial may be nothing like what your machine does. I’m trying to cover the possibilities here.

Machine has no specific help with making buttonholes

If your machine has zigzag stitch but has no specific buttons or controls for buttonholes, you can sew a buttonhole.
Here are a couple of photo tutorials :
Megan Nielsen.
Sew Mama Sew.
Does need practice, especially if the reverse stitching control is not near the stitching area, but it is possible !

4-step buttonhole

The machine automatically sets the position and width of the zigzag stitching, and sews each of the 4 sides of a buttonhole as a separate step. The machine operator chooses the step, and controls the start and stop of each step.
Modern mechanical sewing machines usually have this sort of buttonhole.

Videos make it look easy.
This video about a Brother machine is a good general introduction which works for many machines.

There are many variations on the process shown in that video.
Different machines start with different sections of the buttonhole and sew them in different directions. So I suggest this sequence.

Learning to sew 4-step buttonholes

1. Find the best machine settings to sew close zigzag stitch
On most machines the closeness of the zigzags is set by the stitch length control. And on some machines, if the stitches are too close together, the stitches make a big lump and the stitching gets caught on the presser foot instead of moving on.
What works best is affected by the fabric and the thickness of the thread. So it’s worth making samples to test the stitch length setting is right before sewing a buttonhole. Start by trying about 0.3mm stitch length.

2. Find out what each of the buttonhole settings does
– start by fitting the buttonhole foot to your machine,
– if it’s a sliding foot, start sewing in the middle of the foot,
– try out what each of the 3 buttonhole settings does – where it sews, and in what direction.

3. Practice stopping at a specific point on the foot
With 4-step buttonholes you control the length of the buttonhole by starting and stopping the stitching yourself.
If your machine does not sew one stitch at a time, finish the stitching manually by ‘walking’ the stitching – turn the hand-wheel (top towards you) to make the final accurately placed stitches.
If you have a sliding buttonhole foot, it will stop the sewing backwards. But, when sewing forwards, you need to stop the sewing at the correct point yourself.

4. Sew a complete buttonhole, in the numbered sequence.
Find out :
a. how to place the buttonhole foot relative to your marked buttonhole, to get a buttonhole in the right place.
b. which end of the presser foot the needle needs to start at for your machine’s direction of sewing.

Here are some of the variations in this process which you may have on your machine.

On some machines you choose the steps on a selector dial.

(Janome made machine from John Lewis)

On some machines you choose the steps using push buttons.

(Pfaff Select machine)

The sequence of steps may be named by pictures, numbers or letters, see the machine manual. As those 2 photos show, the parts of a buttonhole may be numbered differently by different manufacturers.

Some machines, like the Brother in the video, start sewing with an end bar tack.

Some machines start by sewing one of the sides.
Here’s a video from Janome of starting by sewing a side.
And here’s a written with photos tutorial from Tilly and the Buttons showing a machine which sews one of the long sides first.

As well as sewing ends or sides first, some machines start sewing buttonholes forward, some backward.

Different companies use different designs of presser foot. Here’s a different presser foot from Singer.

On some machines you can control the width of the buttonhole, using the stitch width control.

How does that slider foot work ? Most 4-step buttonholes use a slider foot like the ones in the videos. The bottom of the foot has a gripping surface, so foot and fabric move together. The feed dogs move the fabric, and the foot is sticking to the fabric so is moved too. So this process may not work well on a very slippery fabric ! Another good reason to make a sample buttonhole including all the fabric layers you plan to use, before doing it ‘for real’. If the layers of fabric slide around, baste round the buttonhole area first.

When sewing a buttonhole in a knit, loosely woven, or other unstable fabric, use embroidery stabiliser underneath the buttonhole area, to give extra support. Try both cut away and tear away – embroidery stabiliser is a special fabric that continues to give support even with a large number of needle holes in it.

4-step buttonholes can be easy to make, once you’ve got your head round how your machine does it. But you do need to do some testing.
To understand your machine and the general process :
– find out what each buttonhole setting on your machine does,
– practice stopping in a specific place,
– practice placing your presser foot to get a buttonhole where you want it.
For a specific project :
– find the best machine settings for a close zigzag stitch with this thread on this fabric,
– find what support layers this fabric needs to give a stable wear-resistant buttonhole.

Sew test buttonholes with the same fabric and support layers and the thread you plan to use, before doing it ‘for real’.

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