Machine-made buttonholes can be very helpful. But there are many ways a machine can do it. You need to know not just how to control the steps, but also how to alter the length and width. And does your machine start with stitching end/ side? left/ right? backwards/ forwards? No wonder people get confused and avoid buttonholes. You can’t expect instant success ! you need to explore to find out how to use your machine. Hopefully this post will give you an idea of what to look for and try.

Many points here apply to all machine-made buttonholes.
The longest section is on sewing 4-step buttonholes, which need more try-outs and practice.  Most mechanical sewing machines have a 4-step buttonhole (mechanical machines have no display screen).

If the machine has stitch choices like in this image, it makes a 4-step buttonhole. It sews the 2 sides and the ends of the buttonhole in separate steps :
4step buttonhole

Sections in this post on :
– supporting the fabric,
– marking,
– buttonholes on a basic zigzag machine,
– 4-step buttonhole,
– 1-step buttonhole,
– editing the buttonhole,
– cutting the buttonhole open,
– an example of a 1-step buttonhole.

These are some general guides on marking and sewing machine buttonholes, and choosing which buttonhole style to use where :

written :
Here are links to a surprisingly large range of tutorials from Closet Core patterns about sewing buttonholes, button plackets, and different types of buttons.

Placing and sewing buttonholes, pdf from the University of Kentucky.

Machine Buttonholes made easy, C-231 pdf from New Mexico State University.

video :
Sarah Veblen’s class at Pattern Review (Not free).

Support against distortion and strain

Buttonholes are tightly stitched, so it’s a good idea to add support so the fabric is not distorted by the stitching.
Buttonholes may also take much strain when used, so need to be strong enough to hold shape against a pull.
The support can be :
fusible interfacing – good support for buttonholes that take strain :
– – lengthways strain, as the ends of many machine made buttonholes are not very strong,
– – sideways strain as, unlike hand made buttonholes, there is no connection between the stitches of a machine made buttonhole.
fray check or similar – used along the inner edges of the buttonhole.
embroidery stabiliser – these keep their shape against distortion despite being full of small holes (cut-away is stronger than tear-away).

As noted, satin-stitch buttonholes don’t actually have much inherent strength against strain, as each stitch is only linked to its immediate neighbours in a zigzag. As well as the above suggestions, my machine has some helpful features :
– it can do a straight-stitch buttonhole, which can be used as an underlay for a satin-stitch buttonhole, to make it stronger. Stitch one after the other, without moving the presser foot or changing the settings.
– it can do a proper bartack with reinforcing stitches, which can be stitched over the end of a buttonhole that takes heavy strain, such as on a waistband or bag strap.
bernina buttonhole

Machine stitched buttonholes on thick fabric (jacket, coat, the collar buttonhole on a shirt) can be distorted by the buttonhole foot bumping against or falling off any seam-allowance lump at the edge of the garment. Bernina machines have a special levelling tool to hold the foot up at the highest fabric level. You can improvise with layers of fabric or card.

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

4-step buttonholes don’t have an automatic way of setting the length of the buttonhole. The user has to start and stop the sewing. So the ends need to be clearly visible – on some feet it’s easier than on others.
Starting and ending points – mark cross lines which can be seen clearly each side of the foot.
Centre line of buttonhole – most buttonhole feet have a mark centre front which you can match to the line you want the buttonhole to follow. Mark a line long enough so you can see it in front of and behind the foot.

”buttonhole-marking”

You are marking on the right side of the fabric, so make sure your marker can removed later. If you iron fusible support in the buttonhole area – do it before marking, as some markers are fixed by heat.

There is a tool which makes it easy to mark evenly spaced buttonholes.

Machine made buttonholes

The simplest machine-made buttonhole has 4 parts – the 2 side legs, and the 2 end bar tacks.
”m/cbuttonhole”

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. You choose the step, and control the start and stop of each step.

Videos make a 4-step buttonhole look easy, but as you have to start and stop the steps yourself, there is some learning to do. Make samples until you feel comfortable that you can do it, there’s no need to get it right first time !
This (silent) video about a Brother machine is a 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 these tryouts :

Learning to sew 4-step buttonholes
1. Find the best machine settings to sew close zigzag stitch
On good quality buttonholes, the stitches look parallel, close together but not too close.
On some machines the closeness of the buttonhole zigzags can be altered by the stitch length control.
Stitches too close together : the stitches make a big lump and the stitching gets caught on the presser foot instead of moving on.
Stitches too far apart : it’s obvious that the stitches are a zigzag. Try test stitching with contrasting colours of thread and fabric, so you can see this easily.
What works best is affected by the fabric and the thickness of the thread. So make samples to test the stitch length setting is right before sewing a buttonhole. Start by trying about 0.3mm stitch length.

Stitch width : on some machines the width of the buttonhole is set. On some machines the stitch width control affects the total width of the buttonhole. On some it controls the width of a leg of the buttonhole.

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. (See below for how the settings may be shown on your machine.)

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 cannot be controlled to 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.

”selector”
Janome made machine from John Lewis

On some machines you choose the steps using push buttons.

”pfaffbuttons”
Pfaff Select machine

The sequence of steps may be named by pictures, numbers or letters, see your 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 (both the above photos show machines that do that).
Here’s a video from Janome of starting by sewing a side.
And here’s a photo tutorial from Tilly and the Buttons showing a machine which also sews a long side first.
As well as sewing ends or sides first, some machines start sewing buttonholes forward, some backward, some left, some right (in the above photos, one machine starts with the left side, one with the right).
So make notes about your discoveries of what your own machine does !

Different companies use different designs of presser foot. They don’t all use a slider foot. Here’s a different presser foot, from Singer.

1-step buttonhole

Modern electronic and computerised machines usually have a 1-step buttonhole. Less skill and knowledge needed for making these.
Some of the buttonhole feet even have a place where you put a button in the presser foot so it can measure the length automatically.

This video tutorial from Sure Fit Designs shows how easy it is to sew these, and also covers useful information about marking. She is using a Pfaff machine. (From about 8.45 the video shows how to cut open using a special tool.)
If you prefer a photo tutorial, here’s one from Tilly and the Buttons.

Before making buttonholes on a garment :

– find how to set the buttonhole length on your machine – if you have to enter a number, buttonholes are usually made 1/8″ – 3mm longer than the button is wide.

– is there a way on your machine of changing :
– – the closeness of the zigzags your buttonhole is made of.
– – the width of your buttonhole.
– – the width of the gap between the legs of your buttonhole (wider for thicker fabric).
– – the tension of the upper thread, usually a lower tension will give a better result.

You may get a better result if you change these, depending on the fabric and thread.
See below for an example of possible settings.

Other options :
If you have an embroidery machine, some of the design companies have embroidery files for exotic buttonholes, which can make them a major feature of a garment. Examples : Embroidery Library.

There are also ways of using buttons as a closure without making buttonholes, see e.g. Marsha McClintock, Creative Closures, at Craftsy.

Sampling and editing the buttonhole

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

On some machines you can control how close the stitches are together, by altering the stitch length control.

In everyday sewing, the tension of upper and bobbin threads is the same.
Buttonholes (and decorative stitches) may get a better result if the upper thread tension is lower than the bobbin thread tension.
My machine changes tension automatically. If your machine does not, you can try lowering the upper thread tension (smaller number) and see if it gives a better result.

Sew test buttonholes with the same fabric, thread and support layers you plan to use, before doing it ‘for real’. Check that the fabric does not distort, the stitches are closely spaced, and the opening is wide enough for you to cut it open without damaging the stitching. The buttonhole may be better if you :
– add more layers of support,
– lower the upper thread tension,
– change the stitch length (space between stitches).
The best overall buttonhole may be a compromise between these.

Machines with 4-step buttonholes usually have no memory. So make notes about the best buttonhole settings and materials for a project if you are likely to be interrupted.

How does that slider foot work ?

Many machines make buttonholes using a sliding presser foot like the ones in the videos.
With most presser feet you want the foot to glide smoothly over the fabric. For some fabrics you even need a teflon foot, so the foot can’t stick to the fabric.
But a slider buttonhole foot does the opposite. The bottom of this foot has a gripping surface, so the foot doesn’t move over the fabric, the fabric and foot move together. The feed dogs move the fabric, and the fabric moves the sliding part of the foot.
So this process may not work well with slippery fabric ! Another good reason to make a sample buttonhole with all the fabric and support layers you plan to use. If the layers slide around, then fuse or baste round the buttonhole area before starting to stitch.

Cut the buttonholes open

Several possible methods :

– special tool, a buttonhole chisel.

– if you don’t think you may be making enough buttonholes to justify buying a special tool, you can use a seam ripper.
Poke the long spike of the seam ripper into the end of the buttonhole, with the cutter facing towards the middle. Push the ripper along to the middle of the buttonhole.
Repeat from the other end.

– use scissors. You can buy special ones – they need to be tough to cut through all the layers.
Start by snipping in to the centre of the buttonhole, a hole large enough to get a blade through.
Place a pin at the end of the gap, to protect the cross bar stitching from being cut through.
Cut up to the pin.
Repeat in the other direction.

If you did not add interfacing to your placket, you may need to strengthen a buttonhole with Fray Check. Apply it around the edge and leave to dry.

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An example of exploring how your machine does it

My machine usually makes a 1-step buttonhole. It also has several options for a separate-steps buttonhole.

1-step buttonhole on my machine :
Length : controlled by holding a button up to the screen and adjusting the length measurement on screen.
On many machines which make a 1-step buttonhole, length is controlled by putting a button in the buttonhole foot.
The length of a 4-step buttonhole is controlled by the user starting and stopping the stitching.
Width of entire buttonhole, not width of an individual leg : controlled by stitch width control.
Density of stitching : controlled by stitch length control. Sample your fabric-thread combination for sewing satin stitch, as too close stitches can make a thread nest.
Gap between legs : controlled onscreen.
Tension : my machine lowers the top thread tension automatically. If yours does not, you may get a better result by lowering the top thread tension.

All machines stitch a vertical buttonhole.
On my machine this is the stitching sequence and direction :
vert buttonhole
Not what I was expecting, but on my machine this gives a better quality result than by stitching one of the legs backwards.
So the machine starts stitching from the top left corner, and the buttonhole position mark needs to emphasise the top of the buttonhole.

I suggest you make a similar record of what your machine does.

For a horizontal buttonhole, the fabric is placed so the buttonhole is stitched vertically. In effect on my machine a horizontal buttonhole is stitched like this :
horiz buttonhole horiz reverse
Depending on how you orient the fabric, you can stitch this buttonhole either from left to right or from right to left.

As you can see, there’s huge variation in the way different machines make their buttonholes. So it’s complex to explain. But do some exploring to find and make notes of what your specific machine does, as once you know this it won’t suddenly change to another method 😀

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 starting from a marked point,
– practice stopping in a specific place.

For a specific project, find :
– the best machine settings for a close zigzag stitch with this thread on this fabric,
– what support layers this fabric needs to give a stable undistorted wear-resistant buttonhole.

It must be admitted that some machines will never be able to make quality buttonholes. Though you can usually improve the quality by making adjustments. Some people change their machine in order to get better buttonholes !

Good Luck with making beautiful buttonholes. This is definitely a sewing skill where practice and sampling can reward you with good results !

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First written February 2017, links checked November 2022

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