Sewing: buttonholes

Buttonholes. Does anything drive a tailor or seamstress (seamster?) as crazy as a buttonhole? Especially if you dont have the special foot attachement for your sewing machine? I don’t think so.

My first button ‘hole’…. HA!

Only a zipper comes close to the level of annoyance that a buttonhole possesses. A button hole is literally a hole in the fabric.  If a button hole hasn’t been made properly, the fabric will unravel and shred quite easily. Before long, the bag will come completely undone. Bye-bye bag.

And yet, the other challenge of button holes is that they are the last part of the project that must be done.  They’re the most challenging work, and the most visible, and the most susceptible to inaccuracy, and the most likely errors to be noticed, and the most likely errors to result in the critical failure of the whole finished object.

That is to say, adding a button hole to an amateur project is most likely to make the project either…

  •  A) amateur, or
  • B) ruined.
My fourth and fifth …

So of course it was time for me to tackle the challenge of a button hole. Fortunately, I had a ready-made project that needed button holes: the Komebukuro or Japanese rice bag made of eight squares of fabric.

A Komebukuro has eight button holes. Technically, they’re not button holes. There are two holes in each of the side walls of a Komebukuro, and a cord is woven in and out of them to pull the bag shut.  So, the beginner looks upon these eight holes as eight perfect opportunities to ruin the whole bag, and puts in an internal drawstring, instead.

Or… one can look at it as eight opportunities to master another aspect of one’s craft.

My seventh and eighth button holes

My first button hole was terrible. First of all it was not a frame of sewn edges.  It was a garbled mass of threads that didn’t look anything like a hole at all. The Ted and fourth (not pictured) were garbled and not really square or even obviously rectangular.   My fourth and fifth were heavy handed: a lot of thread and bunched fabric.  Not very pretty at all. But they were recognizably better.   The seventh was square.  By the eighth buttonhole, I was… still not a master. But the hole was recognizably a button hole.  Maybe a bit large, but still a buttonhole.

The finished Komebukuro is not as elegant as I’d like.  I think I should have used a cord, as is traditional, rather than a ribbon. And it’s a little small for a lunch box or lunch bag.  But expanding the size of the squares from 7″ to 10″ should take care of that problem.  Don’t you think?

In a program to teach sewing, the Komebukuro should occupy pride of place.  It teaches button-holes, straight sewing, pinning, measuring, measured cutting, the basics of the idea of quilting based in mathematics, and both straight stitches and top stitches.  With colored or patterned fabrics, it can also be used to teach pattern matching and right-sides-together protocols.  In other words, it’s a nice complement to some of the other beginner’s sewing projects I’ve proposed here.  But it’s also clearly the work of a master, as well.

Someone who’s mastered button holes, for example.  Which I promptly used to help make the Viking dice bags.

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  1. P.S. By the way, those last two photos on the link I gave you are a bit misleading — the purl goes on the cut edge of the fabric, not away from the cut edge…but the person who did the sample admits to not having known about it beforehand, so…

  2. Hi Andrew,

    I saw this post yesterday and it immediately brought to mind my hand-sewing class. It’s possible to bind a buttonhole using a needle and thread, though the thread needs to be relatively tough (like Buttonhole Twist, which is thicker than hand-quilting thread, which in turn is thicker than sewing machine thread, which is thicker than serger thread, but I’m going on…) and the needle has to have an eye big enough to take the thread — and in this case, the needle needs to be sturdy enough to go through your fabric.

    There is a difference between buttonhole and blanket stitch –buttonhole stitch is like blanket stitch, but the thread twists against itself in the finished stitch, resulting in a “purl” at the fabric edge. I found a resource which is of more help than Wikipedia (which is wrong, by the way) — it’s here:

    It’s been a long time since I’ve needed to use this stitch, but I’ve had my share of frustrations with sewing machines too — which eventually made me want to hand-sew, though for straight sections the interlocking threads of a sewing machine are much more economical, time-wise. (Not to mention that hand-sewing may not hold up in a washing machine!)

    Just wanted to mention this, as it’s an easy (but laborious) solution to the sewing-machine problem. Hope this helps!

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