Category: The Art of the Buttonhole

Four Cord or Gimp

The next step in creating a buttonhole is to make some four-cord, or gimp, if you are not using the ready-made gimp that Gutermann makes. The purpose of the gimp is to stiffen the buttonhole a little and give it a more pronounced, three-dimensional shape.

Start by taking a roughly 4 foot long piece of buttonhole twist. Double it and tie a knot at the cut end.

Loop the thread through itself around some heavy or stationary object like an iron, chair, or whatever you have nearby. You can even tape it, though it has a tendency to twist loose.

Stick a pencil through the other end of the loop, and grasp the thread with your other hand to keep control of everything and prevent the thread from slipping off of the pencil. I’m using a hexagon pencil here but if you have a round one it works much more smoothly.

Use the pencil to twist the thread about two dozen or so times. Then release the twists to the rest of the thread and continue the process until there is sufficient twist in the entire piece of thread. The more twists you put in the firmer and thicker the final gimp will be. For a more delicate buttonhole you’d use fewer twists. Feel free to experiment and use the different weights of gimp on different buttonholes!

After you’re finished twisting, double the thread on itself, bringing the pencil end next to the looped end.

Then let go of the non-pencil end and allow the strands to wrap around themselves.

Straighten out the four-cord (see where it gets its name from?) by gently pulling on the cord until everything evens out.

Holding the thread to prevent unraveling, cut the thread off of the object that’s holding it and quickly tie a knot to keep everything in place.

Rub the four-cord liberally in the beeswax, I’d say at least four times, then place between a folded sheet of paper and melt the wax into the cord with a hot iron.

You now have a nice piece of gimp with which to make (I think) four to six buttonholes, depending on how much twist you put into it.

Attaching the Gimp

We’re now going to attach the gimp to the buttonhole prior to doing the actual buttonhole stitch itself. I used to not do this step, but found that over time, the gimp would wander in the buttonhole, looking unseemly after a couple of years. This solves that problem, in addition to making it one less thing to worry about when doing the buttonhole stitch, giving you a lot more control.

Begin by making several stitches in place at the beginning of the buttonhole.

On the last of these stitches, leave a little loop of thread open.

Place the gimp in this loop with about 1/4″ to 1/2″ remaining past the non-buttonhole side, just so it doesn’t slip out when working. Pull the loop snug, securing the gimp in place.

Working from the top side only (the needle does not pass into the buttonhole at all), begin to secure the gimp in place by stitching from one side to the other as shown. I’m not really going through all the layers, just the top and maybe the canvas layer. The gimp should be between 1/16″ and 1/8″ away from the buttonhole, though this largely depends on the fabrics you are using, how delicate they are, and the look you are going for.

The thread goes perpendicularly across the top of the gimp, and then diagonally under the layers to the next stitch.

Continue securing the gimp along the buttonhole, following the general teardrop shape.

When you get to the other end, secure the gimp with another three or four stitches in place, the first going around just the gimp as the other stitches did, and the remainder going around the entire thickness of the buttonhole. This should secure the gimp firmly and permanently in place.

Take your scissors and allow the lower blade to come up beneath the gimp as close as it can go without actually cutting the stitches you just made.

Cut the excess gimp, saving the larger piece for the next buttonhole (be sure to knot it right away!).

Here is the buttonhole so far with the gimp attached. If there are small uneven areas, don’t worry about it too much at this point. You can fine tune the position with your thumb while doing the buttonhole stitch.

And the video demonstrating the above techniques. Tomorrow, the buttonhole stitch!

The Buttonhole Stitch

With all of the preparation done and out of the way, we are finally ready to begin the buttonhole stitch itself. It’s not really difficult, but it takes a lot of practice to get truly comfortable with the stitch.

For a 7/8″ buttonhole, you’ll need about a yard of waxed buttonhole twist, and more if your buttonholes are longer.

Begin by knotting one end of your thread, and inserting the needle into one side of the buttonhole, between the layers, hiding the knot inside. The needle needs to come out at a point exactly even with the end of the buttonhole for best results.

For your second stitch, go through all three layers from the underside to the top. Stop before pulling the needle through all of way.

With your dominant hand, grasp the two strands of thread that are coming from the needle, and pass them around clockwise, under the tip of the needle, as shown.

Gradually pull the knot (purl) taught. It’s very important to get the tension correct here. Too loose and the buttonhole will look sloppy and wear out more quickly, while pulling the stitches too tight will give you a misshapen buttonhole as various things are pulled out of place.

The point where the needle leaves the fabric is very important, and one of the things that takes the most practice to get a feel for. It also depends on the fabric, how thick it is, does it fray, and so on, which is another reason it’s a good idea to practice on a variety of fabrics.

The needle must come out at the same distance each stitch from the buttonhole. I find securing the gimp in place like we did helps a lot with that. The stitch must also be spaced evenly next to the prior one. Not so close that the purls interfere with each other, but at the same time, not far enough apart to leave an unsightly gap.

Here’s a view of the purl from the side. This is an aspect of the stitch that you can change to suit your preference. Having the purl more on the top side gives a stiffer, more pronounced and three-dimensional feel to the buttonhole. If you place the purl more to the inside of the buttonhole it will give you a more relaxed, delicate appearance.

Continue stitching along the length of the buttonhole. Just try to keep relaxed, even stitches, and if you mess up, just keep going.

On my buttonholes, I prefer to keep the purls just to the inside of the gimp, rather than centered directly over the top.

However, when you get to this point, just before the teardrop begins, you do need to start gradually moving the purls towards the top of the gimp, so that when we go around the circular part, you can keep the same density of stitches, but the purls have room to sit nicely.

Here you can see over the last four or five stitches I’ve moved the purls to the top of the gimp.

Keep going around the hole with the same density of stitches, purls on the top. The threads on the inside will be closer together, giving more durability to that section of the buttonhole.

When you get to the end of the curved part, gradually move the purls back to the side to match the first half of the stitches.

And continue sewing until you reach the end of of the buttonhole. This part seems to play mental tricks, and has a different feel for some reason than the first part of the buttonhole. So be extra careful to keep the same density and size of each stitch as you get towards the end.

I forgot to photograph this, but after the very last stitch, pass the needle through as if you were going to make one more stitch, but leave out the purl this time. This prepares us for the following bar tack.

Now make a bar tack by making stitches across the width of the buttonhole about three or four times. Depending on the thickness of your fabrics, you may need to do a prick stitch, that is, passing the needle fully to the underside and then to the top each time.

Something I see that’s off in my buttonhole is that I allowed the gimp to flair out at the ends and failed to control it, giving somewhat of an hourglass shape.

Here’s the bar tack after those three or four stitches.

Now finish the bar tack by making about six stitches around the bar you just stitched. You’ll want to catch a bit of the fabric underneath as well to keep everything securely in place.

Here’s the last stitch of my bar tack.

Finally, pass the needle through to the underside and through the stitches forming the buttonhole. Do this three times, alternating direction, and snip off the excess thread.

Here’s the finished buttonhole from the right side. Not too bad though the camera is very good at point out all of my uneven stitches!

And the buttonhole from the underside. I suppose you could get picky with this and check the underside of each stitch before you make it, but all of the original buttonholes I’ve seen have been pretty messy compared to the top as well.

Finally, though not necessary for these practice buttonholes, on a coat it’s common to baste the buttonholes closed to keep them in good shape as the project is finished.

And here’s the video demonstrating the buttonhole stitch. Hopefully you can pick up something from watching.

Please share your completed photos in the support community!

Laying Out Your Buttonholes

To begin our buttonhole journey, we’ll first start with preparing some fabric samples to imitate the front of a coat. I’m using scraps of wool, linen, and silk, but you can use whatever you have available. It’s good to practice on a variety of fabrics to further your skills, as each feels a bit different than the others.

Mine are 14″ long by 6″ in width, though this can vary if you want. I’m able to get 16 buttonholes out of each sample by utilizing both long edges. You’ll need two of each of the fashion fabrics to mimic the coat front and facing.

You’ll also need a piece of linen in the same size to act as a coat’s canvas would, stiffening and giving some shape to the chest and buttonhole area.

The first thing to do is mark the wrong sides of the fashion fabric pieces.

Next, draw a line using tailor’s chalk, or even a pen, 1 1/4″ from one or both of the ends. This is going to give you the opportunity to practice seamed buttonholes, so doing one end will give you two of those buttonholes.

Mark the wrong side of the smaller pieces and then cut along the line.

With right sides together (yes, I messed this up in the video!), align the smaller pieces on the ends. You can baste or pin if you like, but if you’re skilled enough you can just hold the pieces in place as you sew them together.

Sew the seam using a 1/4″ seam allowance.

Remove the basting stitches, and press. I like to press with the following method:

  1. Press with the right sides still folded together to set the stitches and make the fibers a little more pliable. Use steam as necessary.
  2. Press the seam open from the wrong side.
  3. Press the seam from the right side, using a heavier iron for thicker fabrics.

Now, lay first your piece of linen on the table, followed by one of the fashion fabric pieces, wrong sides together. Lay the remaining piece of fashion fabric on top, right sides together, as shown (though you’d obviously align all of the pieces).

Baste or pin the pieces together if necessary and sew along both long edges using a 1/4″ seam allowance.

Trim off the excess 1/2″ (one inch if you resewed both ends).

Turn the assembly right side out.

Using your thumb and fingers, manipulate the fabric so that the edges are aligned, and baste along the long edges about 1/2″ to 3/4″ from the edge. These stitches will remain in place until you are done with the buttonholes to help stabilize the area.

On a coat or waistcoat, the facing would be turned under by about 1/16″ but it’s not really necessary to do for this practice piece.

Press the edges firmly, forming a crisp edge.

Topstitch both edges using a 1/4″ to 3/8″ seam allowance.

Buttonhole Layout

Begin by figuring out the spacing for your buttonholes. Generally, the top buttonhole will be located at 1/2″ below the bottom of the collar. The bottom buttonhole will either be in the waist seam in a frock coat, or about 1/2″ from the bottom of a waistcoat. Then space your buttonholes equally in between.

In this practice piece, I’m spacing the buttonholes 1 1/2″ apart starting from the in-seam buttonhole.

Next, draw a line perpendicular to the edge about 1 1/2″ to 2″. This gives us the angle of the buttonhole. On some coats, you’ll have a curved edge to the chest front. In that case you want to make sure the buttonholes are perpendicular to the curved edge, so each buttonhole will be at a slightly different angle to the next.

Set your seam gauge to 3/8″ to 1/2″ and mark the outer edge of each buttonhole.

Now set your seam gauge to that distance plus the width of your buttonhole. In my case I’m making a 7/8″ buttonhole as they’re the easiest size to work with, so my total measurement is 1 3/8″.

For the in-seam buttonhole, there’s no need to mark the position or angle of the buttonhole, because the seam itself gives us that position.

That’s it for today’s lesson! Your assignment today is to make up your practice pieces and layout the buttonholes on one or both sides. If you have any questions or problems, feel free to email me, or post a message in the support group!

Finally, here’s the video for today’s lesson, covering all of the above steps in detail.

Cutting Open the Buttonholes

In this lesson, we will work on cutting open the buttonholes and securing them to prevent fraying, both while working on them and during the life of the garment.

To begin with, baste around each buttonhole with a diagonal stitch to prevent all movement of the fabric layers. I like to start on one end and work my way to the other with one piece of basting thread, taking about three stitches per side of each buttonhole.

Try to keep about 1/4″ or so away from the buttonhole position to keep the basting threads from getting caught when you sew the buttonholes.

With the fabric layers secure, you can begin cutting open the buttonholes. A good block of wood is handy to stop movement on the table, but they sell little sets consisting of a chisel and a piece of wood in the shape of an apple that seems silly, but works also.

You’ll also need a hollow hole punch, 1/2″ chisel, and small hammer. You can get a different sized chisel for each buttonhole if you want, for example from 1/2″ to maybe 1 1/4″, but I find the 1/2″ works fine if you’re careful.

First place the hole punch precisely on the outer ‘x’ formed by the layout lines. You can adjust where it falls exactly to suit your preference as long as you are consistent between buttonholes.

A sharp hollow hole punch is a must. All it takes is a good two or maybe three gentle taps of the hammer and you’ll be through even the thickest of fabrics.

Next, use the chisel to cut the rest of the buttonhole. I like to ‘choke up’ on the chisel, holding it down near the blade for maximum control. As long as your fingers are behind the blade you’ll be safe.

I like to place the end of the blade in the hole and kind of drag it until it’s at the innermost edge of the hole to get that perfect alignment. It’s hard to photograph but hopefully you can pick it out in the video. Make a couple of solid chops to ensure you go through the fabric.

For the next cut, don’t lift the chisel up, but rather slide it into place, keeping everything in alignment. Take your time with this as it’s very easy to mess up.

You may have to do this two or three times depending on how large you made your buttonholes.

It’s also very important to have a very sharp chisel. Just in case you need it, here’s a good video by Paul Sellers, a woodworker, on how to sharpen a chisel. You can use sandpaper in a variety of grits, say 100, 150, and 220 and a scrap of leather to sharpen rather than using the expensive diamond plates.

Next, use a pair of embroidery or other small scissors to cut off the little triangle of fabric next to each eyelet, turning it into a teardrop shape. I actually use scissors intended for fingernails because I like the little curve in the blade to get a more refined shape.

Here’s a diagram showing exactly the part of the buttonhole that I’m trimming. As you can see, we’re trimming off a very small amount.

It’s hard to tell in the photo, but this is the buttonhole after trimming. The stitches will further refine the shape. Now, if you happen to not have small scissors, you can do without the trimming. Though you may have a sharp edge poking out between the stitches in the finished buttonhole.

This will be controversial, but on fabrics prone to fraying, such as linen, silk, and some wools, I like to add a bit of Fray Check to the buttonholes at this point to protect the crisp edges from fraying. You could also experiment with using nail polish, or perhaps even melted beeswax if you need something more period correct (note I have not tried this). As always, test on a scrap to see how it looks when dried.

Apply to both sides of the buttonhole. I went a little crazy with the glue thanks to keeping too much of an eye on the camera.

RIf you are a professional tailor or dressmaker and need to make a lot of buttonholes, I’d highly recommend getting a buttonhole cutter. There are often antique versions on Ebay, I believe I found this one for $40, though that was about ten years ago. This one was made by R. Heinisch company, I’m guessing in the 1940s or 50s. There are even some German cutters that cut out the complete teardrop shape but I haven’t been able to find one yet.

It’s just a matter of setting the cutter to the right width and depth, and then punching out your buttonholes. I like to add a scrap of heavier wool underneath to ensure a clean cut.

If you are doing some of the in-seam buttonholes, such as would be found on 1860s frock coats, it’s basically the same method as above. But you need to make sure the hollow hole punch is perfectly centered on the seam, and keep the chisel directly in the seam as you cut. Sorry, I forgot to take photos of one, but it’s in the video below.

Finally, to secure the buttonhole edges permanently, we need to overcast the edges with a waxed sewing thread. I start by making about three or four stitches in place on one end of the buttonhole.

Continue with an overcasting stitch, beginning on the underside of the buttonhole with the needle coming through the topside. I like to use 10 – 12 stitches to the inch, but you could go even denser if you are more patient than I.

Continue around the end of the buttonhole. The stitches should be no more than 1/8″ to 3/16″ in depth, depending on how readily your fabric frays.

And here’s the completed overcast buttonhole. These stitches will remain in for the life of the garment, and should the actual buttonhole thread ever wear out, these will protect the buttonhole until repairs can be made.

Not pictured, but you can do a bar tack over the end for even further security by making three or four stitches in place across the width of the buttonhole.

Here are a couple of buttonholes from an original 1880s frock coat in my personal collection. The threads have rotted away over time but the overcasting stitches can still be seen if you look closely.

And the in-seam buttonhole.

And here’s a video of all of the above steps for clarification and entertainment.

Your assignment for today is to cut out and overcast your buttonholes. If you don’t have much time you can focus on just two or three and do the rest later. Please share your work in the support community!