How to sew or repair a buttonhole

How to sew or repair a buttonhole

Sewing a buttonhole is not difficult with today’s modern sewing machines. Utilizing the buttonhole program that has been incorporated into the machine makes the process foolproof.

An electronic sewing machine is programmed to sew a buttonhole in one step. These machines come with a special buttonhole foot and all you have to do is put a button in the foot and the machine will compute the opening size of the buttonhole. The machine does all the work and you just sit back and watch it sew the whole buttonhole automatically. The computerized programming enables various buttonhole styles to be offered which differ in width and type.

Modern sewing machines that do not have electronic circuit boards still have a program to sew buttonholes. Instead of hitting one button, the operator must select 4 machine settings in the proper sequence. The machine will sew zig-zag stitches of predetermined width in order to create a buttonhole. The top of the buttonhole, also referred to as a bar tack, is controlled by one set; making the right side of the buttonhole is another setting; the bottom bartack of the buttonhole is a separate setting, and making the left side of the buttonhole is another separate setting. The stitching order varies by machine brand.

If your sewing machine is a very old model, it may not have been equipped with any kind of specific settings for sewing buttonholes or buttons. But long as the machine can do a zig-zag stitch, you can sew a buttonhole.


For either type of machine, you must first mark the material where the buttonhole will be stitched. There will always be two overlapping pieces of material when buttons and buttonholes are utilized. Decide which flap will have the button sewn onto it and which will have the buttonhole. Traditionally, buttonholes are usually placed on the right side of a shirt for women and on the left side for men.

The flap of material that has buttonholes on it will always go OVER the flap of material with the buttons sewn on it, for any finished garment. The finished overlap will be half the button width plus 1/4. This also applies to the top button at the neckline of a shirt. The lowest button will be 4” away from the lower edge of the garment.
Generally, all buttonholes are evenly spaced on a garment. Consult your pattern instructions to find out how many buttonholes are recommended and then space them accordingly. You will now mark the flap of material that will have buttonholes sewn on it.

Using a regular pencil, or fabric marking pencil or pen, make a dot on the material that indicates where the button should be placed, on the flap of material where the buttonholes will be sewn. The dot indicates where the center of the button will go. You’re going to create the hole based on button placement. The length of the vertical slit that you’ll cut in the material will be the width plus the thickness of the button, plus another 1/8. Divide this total by 2 and that is how much above and below the dot you marked that you’ll be sewing.

As an example, if your button was round with a diameter of 1 inch and a thickness of 1/8, the total length of the slit will be 1 inch + 1/8 + 1/8 more. You would place a vertical ruler so that its edge is aligned with the dot you made on the material. Mark 1/2 plus 1/8 above the dot and 1/2 plus 1/8 below. Draw a light line connecting your marks and you’ll see that the length of the line is 1 plus 2/8 ť total, and the dot is located at the halfway mark. Extend your marked lines in such a way that they’ll be visible to you as you’re sewing.

The width of the bar tack stitching is going to be perpendicular to the vertical line you have drawn on your material. You want the pencil line to intersect the bar tack so that it divides it in half. In other words, if the bar tack stitch is 5 millimeters in width, your vertical pencil line should intersect it at 2.5 millimeters. Mark the material 2.5 millimeters to the left and right of your vertical line so you know where to start sewing your bar tacks.

The buttonhole has been correctly marked and now you are ready to sew. To save yourself heartache and labor, always make a sample buttonhole on a scrap of material first to see if the button will easily slide in and out before you sew multiple buttonholes on a finished garment. It takes a lot of work to rip out a buttonhole and sew it again.


If you have an electronic sewing machine, consult the owner’s manual to find out where along your marked lines to place the sewing machine needle. Once the needle is set down through the material at the appropriate starting place, then the whole buttonhole will be sewn automatically.

For a non-electronic machine with a program, two stitch widths are utilized that will override whatever stitch width you’ve set previously. Consult the owner’s manual to familiarize yourself with the controls you will operate. You will start by stitching one of the bar tacks, and you’ll know where to put the needle down because of the marks you previously made. Make sure you raise the needle up and out of the material before you switch the machine to the next setting. Tie down the loose threads after finishing.

If your machine came with a buttonhole foot, make sure to have it installed, as this will prevent the fabric from being tugged during the process which causes puckering and uneven stitches. If your machine didn’t come with a buttonhole foot, use a foot that will allow you to make zig zag stitches, or consider investing in a sliding buttonhole foot compatible with your machine.


Now all that you must do is cut a slit in the material to make the actual buttonhole. The machine has used thread to outline a very narrow vertical rectangle on your fabric. You must make a vertical slit in the material that is at dead center of the stitching, being careful to not cut the bar tack threads in the process.

Slip pins into the material at both ends of the buttonhole so that the scissors will be prevented from cutting into the stitching. This is good insurance in case you put too much pressure on the scissors.

Double the material over and push the scissor through to start the hole in the center of the buttonhole stitching. A pair of embroidery scissors with narrow and sharp points are best for doing this.

If you accidentally cut past the stitching and into the material, repair the buttonhole with zig zag stitching and then use trim to cover up the mistake. Sew or apply small appliques, beads, lace, or brass charms over the material that has been mended, and then do the same for all buttonholes so that they match.

Once you’ve made the slit, take your button and push it through to check the fit. If you’ve measured correctly and done a test on a scrap of material first, your buttonhole should be nearly perfect. If not, now is the time to make any adjustments, before you’ve sewn any more buttonholes.

If the buttonhole happens to be too big, this is an easy thing to fix. Just use handstitching on the wrong side of the buttonhole to shorten the length, in matching thread color, of course. A buttonhole that is too small is harder to fix. You’ll have to cut into one of the bar tacks to extend the hole as needed and then restitch the bar tack.


If your sewing machine has no programming whatsoever for buttonholes, all you need to do is manually sew your zig zag stitches, making sure they are the same width at the top and bottom, and left and right sides. With a little practice and noting the machine setting required to get the desired zig zag stitch width, it should be relatively easy.

It would be extremely time-consuming, but if you wanted to, you could sew a buttonhole by hand. It would never look as polished and perfect as the results obtained from a machine, but as long as the stitches were approximately of equal width, it would suffice. That is the way it was done for many years before the invention of the sewing machine.


To finish the job, fold the flap of the material which now has the buttonholes sewn on it OVER the untouched flap of material so that there overlap. The amount of overlap is dependent upon the size of your buttons. There should be at least 1/4 for small buttons (3/8 for larger buttons) between the button and the finished edge of the garment when you gently pull the button to the edge of the buttonhole.

Pin the two flaps of material so the overlap is held in place. Using a pencil or sewing pencil, position the pencil point so that it’s at the vertical center of the buttonhole slit and then push the pencil through the slit so that a dot is made on the material underneath. This marked dot is where you will sew your buttons onto the other flap of material.

If you like, you can use the sewing machine to do that (if the buttons are flat with two visible holes in the center) or by hand. If the holes of the button cannot be seen until you flip it over and look at the back, then you cannot use a machine to sew this type of button and must sew it by hand. A dozen or so tight hand stitches using doubled thread will hold the button in place nicely.


Once you know how to sew a buttonhole, repairing one is easy. If the buttonhole stitching has come unraveled or if the buttonhole has gotten too big, both of these problems can be fixed by either hand sewing or using a sewing machine. If a small portion of buttonhole stitching has unraveled, it may be quicker to do a bit of hand sewing to fix it rather than having to set up your sewing machine. Just make sure your repair incorporates uniform stitching so it will match the stitching of the buttonhole.

If you prefer to use the machine, simply sew over the loosened buttonhole stitching with fresh zig zag stitching that is the matching thread color and width of the original.

In the case of a stretched and distorted buttonhole, narrow strips of fusible interfacing can be ironed onto the back of the material at the edges of the buttonhole to add more support. Another method to stiffen the area is to place organza or a double layer of fine nylon net in a similar color on the underside of the buttonhole and then overstitch with a zig zag stitch on each side of the slit.

For buttonholes that cannot be saved, you can simply cover them with a decorative piece of fabric or trim and sew new buttonholes over these patches.

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