Finding the Path to the Hand Embroidered Buttonhole

A couple of years ago I embarked on a serious quest to learn about the many ways to make buttonholes by hand. This is a very useful knotted edging stitch with many handsewing applications. My buttonhole stitch requirements were that there be ease in performing the stitch physically, and that desirable, uniform stitches could be produced. Since I enjoy doodling and puzzling over knots in other crafts, it was a pleasant journey. Today I can happily report that I can work buttonholes from left to right; from top to bottom; from right to left; or from bottom to top. I’ve chosen a favorite method and I’m ready to hand embroider the buttonholes of a blouse or shirt.

Book and Online Resources That Have Helped Along the Way

I first learned that buttonholes could be hand embroidered 20 years ago while reading Clothing Construction, by Evelyn A. Mansfield, (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1953).  Our sewing instructor used that book during her own college classes and she referred to it often while teaching us forty years later. I followed the needle and thread diagram of the stitch and was able to reinforce the buttonhole of a favorite pair of work jeans. As I worked the stitch, I was amazed at how neatly the stitches dropped into place simply by the application of embroidery thread to the buttonhole’s cut edge. It seemed a very useful and wondrous bit of needlework to learn. Mansfield’s buttonhole stitch is worked from right to left. The two threads from the eye of the needle are wrapped around under the needle point from right to left while the needle is parked halfway through the fabric. Many illustrations showing this method of working a buttonhole can be found on the Internet. For instance, archive.org has a copy of The Dressmaker by Butterick from 1921 that shows this method.

My favorite place to browse for interesting books at that time was the public library. One day I chanced upon Jacqueline Enthoven’s  The Stitches of Creative Embroidery; Revised and Enlarged Edition, (Schiffer Publishing Ltd.,1987). I soon was able to purchase my own copy for reference and often enjoyed studying the drawings and practicing the stitches. Near the back of the book I discovered her “Tailor’s Buttonhole” stitch included in a section titled “Edgings”. She had studied the stitch on Turkoman coats while researching embroideries in a museum. She recognized it as the buttonhole stitch she had been taught as a young girl in France. The stitch is worked from left to right, the two threads from the needle’s eye are brought under the needle point from left to right. The best part of Enthoven’s illustration is the detail of the knot right before it is formed and purled into place. While practicing this, I found it much easier to perform the mechanics of the stitch and decided I preferred the finished appearance of the buttonhole as well. I thought other people who have had trouble making satisfactory buttonholes might give this a try, and I searched on the Internet for a good example of this method.

Using the results of the search term “hand embroidered buttonholes”, as I remember, I chose a discussion of “Keyhole Buttonholes” at artisanssquare.com. Here Ann Rowley has published the link to a photo tutorial with accompanying text. She covers all the important parts of building this stitch: from the machine basting of the desired opening; to the barring of the cut edges, if desired; to the needle and thread sizes used. The instructions are very easy to follow and if the same type of fabric, needle and thread are used, it is highly likely one would be able to hand embroider a similar keyhole buttonhole. The happy surprise for me was that she appears to work her stitch from left to right, the thread looping under the needle point from left to right, just as Jacqueline Enthoven did with her “Tailor’s Buttonhole”. A big thank you to Ann Rowley for writing the thoughtful text that accompanies the photos and for making her “Keyhole Buttonhole” tutorial accessible and easy to understand. I accessed her posting at artisanssquare.com > Sewing Discussion at Stitcher’s Guild Sewing Forum > Sewing Techniques and Equipment > Machine Sewing > Ann’s Pearls of Wisdom > Keyhole Buttonholes. Or you might try the direct url at artisanssquare.com/sg/index/php/topic,18759.0.html. From here you can follow the link to her photo tutorial.

Over the last couple of years, further reading on the subject of buttonholes revealed yet another method. The needle is brought all the way through the fabric leaving only a small loop. The needle then weaves through the loop to form the knot. I’ve seen this technique illustrated in Vintage Couture Tailoring by Thomas von Nordheim,(The Crowood Press Ltd., 2012); in the Spadea Designer Pattern Tailoring Book by Marc Montaigne and Roberta Guthrie, illustrated by Rae Crawford, (Spadea Press, Inc., 1968);and in Ladies Coat and Skirt Making by Samuel Heath, (5th edition, Crosby Lockwood and Son Ltd., 1971). The von Nordheim and Heath books show the working thread thrown to the right side above the knot before bringing the needle around toward yourself, through the loop, and exiting with the needle point now leading the working thread away from you. The Spadea book shows the needle entering the loop from back to front. Both make an identical knot and one or both methods may work best at helping the thread remain pliable. All three of the sources mentioned here are worked from right to left or from bottom to top. The completed knot matches that of Clothing Construction and The Dressmaker, where the thread wraps around the needle point from right to left.

Just a few days ago I read Sewing the French Way by Line Jacque, (translated by Eileen Ellenbogen, Mills and Boon Limited, 1961). The buttonhole illustration shows that it is worked over the index finger from top to bottom. The thread gets pulled almost all the way through and the needle is inserted from back to front through the small loop. It is the same stitch as Jacqueline Enthoven’s. If you want to try this, while drawing up the stitch make note of the design of the loops in the knot. The needle-made stitch must look exactly like the thread-wrapped-around-with-fingers stitch.

It’s my own observation that Jacqueline Enthoven’s, Line Jacque’s, and Ann Rowley’s buttonholes would start at the least conspicuous spot: the bottom of the lowest buttonhole (starting at the end away from the keyhole or eyelet) in a garment that closes right over left. On the other hand, directions in Clothing Construction and The Dressmaker that show the bottom to top or right to left direction of stitching would seem to indicate use on a garment closing left over right as on a man’s tailored jacket. Indeed Gertrude Mason, author of Tailoring for Women,  (3rd. edition, A. and C. Black, Ltd., 1953), declares: “A tailor’s buttonhole is worked right to left, which is just the reverse way to an ordinary buttonhole”, (page 127). The position in which a tailor would hold the needle in the fingers; the use of an open top thimble; and the heavier weight fabrics used in tailoring might also determine the best stitch to use for the job.

Study Guides and Aids for Learning and Teaching the Buttonhole Stitch

Make a sampler using perle cotton and a needle in 14-count Aida cloth and record the name of each sample on a separate sheet of paper. Punch holes around two index cards and work yarn or string in a needle to practice.

Make a drawing of each knot. It helps to magnify the stitches to study them and it will be easier to sketch in detail. Name the knot.

Make a model. I made a large scale model of each buttonhole stitch I studied using one yard of cotton cord in a blunt embroidery needle for the buttonhole thread and needle. I attached the cord to a wooden dowel and began working the stitch; the top edge of the dowel representing the edge of the opening, and the lower edge, the desired depth of the buttonhole. I’ve also seen the buttonhole stitch worked over a metal or plastic ring or over stranded thread formed into a ring. By first experimenting using the magnified-size dowel and cotton cord prototype, I began to understand the many variables that may be encountered in the making of a consistent series of knots.

Make a thread dictionary. Tape threads to a sheet of paper, label and describe. Include thread size, number, and manufacturer. It can be helpful to get a very accurate measurement of the diameter of thread if you are making thread substitutions that vary from the usually suggested buttonhole twist. The stranded thread is laid down and couched into place using the buttonhole stitch. It’s not necessary to learn how to make stranded threads right now; it seems each book has a different method of stranding threads together. Ann Rowley has demonstrated that she uses perle cotton size 5 to bar the buttonhole in her wool sample. Perhaps perle cotton size 8 will work for shirt weight cotton, if needed.

Planning to Use the Buttonhole Stitch in the Garment

Consider the function for which the buttonhole will be required. Will it be used in lingerie or on an overcoat? What type of thread, if any, should strand or bar the cut edge, and which needle aid in laying it down. Choose compatible fabric, buttonhole thread and needle. Would tatting or No. 30 crochet  thread or cord or perle cotton in size 8 or 12 work as well? Is there a finer buttonhole twist than size D?

I hope to make buttonholes in a blouse and will be following along with EmilyAnn of retroglam.wordpress.com as she commences the construction of her hand drafted “Secretary Blouse with Bow”. I am pretty sure that the buttonhole twist alone will be an excellent choice and I may try passing the thread under a cool iron to relax it a bit. It will be a challenge, even using my new magnifying visor, but I am becoming more confident about being able to produce a consistent stitch. At first, certainly, I can hand embroider perfectly working  buttonholes in a concealed placket.

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