Civil War buttonholes
Hooks and eyes (or eyelets) can be a great way to fasten a lot of mid-century clothing, but for some applications, you just can’t beat a button and buttonhole. Chemises, drawers, petticoats, nightgowns, dresses for all ages, men’s shirts–these articles have buttonholes, and they look nothing at all like a modern machined hole.
Learning to make a serviceable buttonhole takes determination and some patience. Learning to make a really gorgeous buttonhole takes practice. Loads of it. About your fiftieth or hundredth hole, you’ll look at it and say, “Gosh, this is really looking nice!”
But even if your finished hole is not a work of art, you can get a nice mid-century result by going for Stable, Serviceable, and Smooth. And this tutorial will help you get there!
This process can also be found in The Dressmaker’s Guide, just in case you were wondering. And yes, please do share this tutorial! Just link back to it here, and don’t go courting karmic retribution by re-hosting images or anything inconsiderate like that.
You’re going to want to make some practice holes, so grab some fabric scraps at least 6×6″, and we can get started.
Thread that is color-matched fairly well to the ground color of your fabric. Buttonhole thread is the ideal; it has a gentle ply that spreads out nicely for excellent coverage with fewer stitches. However, most of us are making do with our normal 50wt sewing thread, and you can get a nice result with this, too! Use good-quality 100% cotton thread. A close blend for color is fine.
Beeswax to strengthen and smooth your thread. It will help reduce tangles and cussing, too.
A Needle. I like a #9 or #10 Crewel needle, as it is slender but durable, and the longer crewel eye is easier to thread.
Small, sharp Scissors are useful for cutting your threads (don’t use your teeth!) and opening your buttonholes.
Now, you may ask, “What about a chisel?” A buttonhole chisel is a fine thing–with one tap, the hole is sliced open very precisely. It’s a tool I see come up frequently in tailoring manuals (where button sizes used are often delightfully regular)–but not in dressmaking manuals. And this tutorial covers dressmaking buttonholes, and dressmaking notes from the period more often indicate the use of fine sharp scissors, and thus: scissors. (You can use a chisel if you want. It’s your buttonhole, and I’m not going to yell. If you need to open a hole smaller than your chisel, arrange the hold half-over your block, so the chisel is not over your block for its full length, and open half the hole at a time.)
You will also probably want a bit of chalk or a fine pencil to mark your hole positions at first. Over time, you may find you don’t need so many marking tools. Please don’t use air-soluble marking tools. These have a bad habit of zombification with later pressing, and you really don’t need zombie markings besmirching your garments.
For this tutorial, I’ve used plain cotton and contrasting thread, to make it a bit easier to see what’s going on.
Mark the position and length of your buttonhole-to-be (you’ll see that as a dotted line above.) Use a doubled thread, lightly waxed, and no knots; simply secure your threads at the far end (away from the wearing stress of the hole) with two small back stitches, then continue with a short running stitch through all the layers of your garment, around the hole position. A doubled length of thread about 24″ to 30″ long is generally plenty to outline and work a buttonhole that admits buttons up to 5/8″ wide.
Grab those fine scissors! It’s time to open the hole. (You can speed up your work by marking all the holes at once, but work them start-to-finish one at a time for the best results.)
In this very magnified view of the opened hole, you can see how the outline stitching serves to hold the layers all together, and help stabilize the raw edges. This, plus a bit of attention to how you place the stitches, means you’ll get a straight hole, rather than an open egg-shaped one.
Hand position counts. Most people find it easiest to lay the work across the index or middle finger of their left hand. Try not to wad the work up, or crumple in your palm. You may need to reposition your work a few times as you go around the hole. Above, you can see the outline stitching done, and the hole opened and ready to work.
Your thread should be coming up to the right side of your work a bit away from the raw edge of the hole. Put the needle point down into the hole, and bring it back to the right side of your work just to the outside of your outline stitching.
It is here we see the big difference between a blanket stitch, and a buttonhole stitch: we need to make sure the length of the thread is laying under both the needle’s eye, and the needle’s point, like this:
You can use your left index finger and thumb to manipulate the thread and make this “wrap” a little easier.
Continue stitching: drop the point through the open hole, emerging just outside the foundation stitching and just a few threads to the left of the last stitch. Be sure the working thread is under both the eye and point of the needle. Draw the stitch firmly and smoothly, pulling the thread away from you and toward the open hole. This helps place the purl of the buttonhole stitch right on the edge of the hole, and keeps that edge straight and firm, rather than scooping back into the fabric in that weird egg-shaped mess that makes everyone cry.
We don’t want that. Crying leaves splotches on the clothing.
Keep stitching down the first “leg” of the buttonhole. As you reach the end, fan out your stitches just a bit to create a rounded end. Remember to keep drawing your thread away from you, toward the open hole, to place those purls right along the edge of the hole.
Do the same thing as you reach the far end of the hole: fan and work around the end, then spike your needle through the purl of the first stitch you made. You’re almost done!
Flip your work over to the wrong side, and run the needle under several stitches to secure it. No slobbery, lumpy knots for your buttonholes!
Notice, this test hole is not perfect on the back! Those little wibbly bits won’t compromise the function or utility of the hole, and on a coarse weave cotton like this Kona, the wibbles do tend to show up on the back.
Let’s take a look at the finished hole from the front:
This is not a perfect buttonhole. There are bits that are very pleasing, however! Had I taken time to do at least three practice holes before this example hole, I’d notice distinct improvements in my stitch placement, coverage, and uniformity–and that’s after years and years of hand-sewing buttonholes. It takes one or two warm-ups to get the muscle memory working smoothly, and it’s worth the few minutes of “wasted” stitching on scrap to get very nice buttonholes on the finished garment.
Keep in mind, too, that when you move to blending thread on a printed ground, or white-on-white, a lot of the small imperfections vanish.
See? Functional, quite smooth and lovely, well-supported edges… a good hand-sewn dressmaker’s buttonhole is a useful skill for all mid-19th century home sewing!