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 fell 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 a felling 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 felled 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 felling 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 fell 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 Facebook group!