Oh, buttonholes! It’s amazing how something so small can cause so much stress. When I first started sewing, it was on a vintage Elna Lotus that had a very basic buttonhole method outlined in the manual that I used for many years before I upgraded to a machine with an automatic function. So today I am going to show you how you can sew buttonholes on your machine without an automatic function, using only the zig-zag stitch. Yes, you can!
This method is really handy if you have a sewing machine without a buttonhole function or one that has a buttonhole function that results in really bad buttonholes (I’ve been there!). It’s also really handy to know how to do this in case you are in a situation where your automatic function can’t cope. My Bernina has an excellent automatic buttonhole function, but it simply can’t sew a good buttonhole using topstitch thread. Nope, not going to happen. Disaster. So times I have really wanted to sew buttonholes with topstitch thread I still use this method.
The key to sewing a buttonhole using a zig-zag stitch is tweaking until you figure out what settings work on your machine to achieve the buttonhole you would like. This is not a first-time wins method, you will need to tweak and try different settings till you get what you like.
All you need to learn to sew a buttonhole is some scrap fabric, a pencil, ruler, buttons and pins etc. I recommend practising on a sturdy fabric in at least two layers. Here I am using a cotton calico/muslin fabric. There is no point in learning a new technique on a fabric that brings its own challenges. It’s better to learn on a sturdy fabric, then once you have the hang of it you can adapt your method to whatever fabric your project requires.
First up measure your button! My button is 1.5cm in diameter.
Next up use your ruler and pencil to draw a line as long as you would like your buttonhole opening to be. I like to add 2mm to my button measurement to get my buttonhole opening. So here I have drawn a 1.7cm line.
Draw a perpendicular line at the top and bottom of your buttonhole opening, this will help you with your stitching to figure out where to start and stop.
The order in which you are going to sew is this: Top bartack, right side, bottom bar tack, left side.
First, place your fabric as above with the top bartack directly under the centre of the foot opening. Set your machine to sew a wide bartack. For example, on my machine, I set the stitch length to zero and the stitch width to 5.5 (which is the widest). You will also need to set your stitch length to zero but will need to experiment to determine what width you prefer.
Next, sew down the right side of the pencil mark using a narrow zig-zag with a short stitch length. On my machine, the settings that work well for me are a stitch length of 0.3 and a width of 2. You will need to experiment to find which settings work for you. When your machine sews a zig-zag the needle moves from left to right over and over. You want to ensure that your left needle position is next to your pencil mark and the right needle position is in line with the outer edge of your bartack.
Sew down the right side of the buttonhole until you read the mark for the bottom bartack.
Sew the bottom bartack using your preferred bartack settings. As a reminder for me, these settings were length zero and width of 5.5.
To sew the left side of the buttonhole you will need to switch back to your side zig-zag settings which should be a short zig-zag. For me, this was a length of 0.3 and a width of 2. You can now either sew backwards until you reach the top bartack (but personally I find this hard), or you can turn your work and sew the left side as you did the right (this is what I do).
Again sew down the side of the buttonhole making sure that the right needle position is in line with the outer edge of the bartack and the left needle position is next to the pencil mark.
Once you have finished sewing your buttonhole will look like this!
I like to pull the threads to the back/wrong side and knot them off then trim the excess thread.
To cut your buttonhole open use either a buttonhole cutter or a seam ripper, making sure that you place a pin at the end of the buttonhole opening so you don’t slice too far through the buttonhole. Please make sure you don’t skip this step – I honestly just learnt this the hard way this week, it’s so heartbreaking to ruin your project at the last minute by carelessly slicing too much.
Finally, make sure that you write down your preferred buttonhole settings so that you can remember them next time you need them. This will be your base setting. Next time you need to sew a buttonhole you will need to test these settings on the fabric used for your project and tweak from there if it’s not working as well.
There you go my dears! You now know how to sew a buttonhole without an automatic function and using only the zig-zag stitch on your sewing machine! BOOM!
You can use this method on sewing pattern that needs buttonholes! I’ve included this tutorial as part of the Matilda dress sewalong, but you will also find it helpful sewing many of my other patterns like the Darling Ranges dress, Flint pants and shorts, Kelly skirt, Cascade skirt and Banksia blouse.
LOOKING FOR MORE MATILDA POSTS?
Here’s the full list of Matilda posts and tutorials:
- Tour of all the details in the Matilda dress
- Pattern tester roundup!
- Skirt and skirt pockets
- Bodice and breast pockets
- Front and back yoke
- Waistband and placket
- Collar and stand
- How to alter the pattern to add sleeves
- Hemming & sleeve band
- How to sew button holes without an automatic function (covered in this post!)