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Narrow Bound Button Holes

I love bound button holes. They’re beautiful beasties. The problem is, I don’t like fat bound button holes with a smaller button.  Many bound button holes are half inch, top to bottom. To my eye, that’s too much for a polite jacket. I prefer 1/4″. If you are similarly persnickety,  this is the bound button hole for you.  This is not the infamous turnsy-foldsy bound button hole you see in a lot of sewing books, which is difficult to do in some fabrics (like leather). This one is for those of us who are better at sewing than ironing. It is what I remember from a tailoring class, which may or may not be what was actually taught in the class. It does work out well, though.

You will need:

  • TO MAKE A SAMPLE FIRST (I am not kidding – don’t try this for the first time on a garment!)
  • Fabric
  • Interfacing (I am using fusible weft)
  • A clear, gridded ruler
  • Normal Sewing Stuff ™, hand and machine
  • Patience

First thing’s first: math time!

The anatomy of a button binding strip. You need room for the hole in the middle (1/4″), the fabric for the front and return of the lips (1/8″, twice) above and below, then two 1/4″ seam allowances. That’s a total of 5 quarters.

For a 1/4″ button hole, this method requires a 1 1/4″ wide prepared strip of fabric. The length of the button hole, and therefore the strip, is generally 1/8″ longer than the diameter of your button. I do not have my buttons yet, so I have decided that the button of my dreams will be 7/8″. I can love anything that involves even numbers. (7/8″ + 1/8″ = 1″ I mention this because teaching Flat 1 has made me aware that everything my sister said about teaching high school math, and the state of math education in this country, is abysmally true. Le sigh….)

closeup of fusible weft
Find some scrap pieces of interfacing, 1 1/2″ and at least 1″ longer than your buttonhole. You do compulsively safe small scrappies of interfacing, right? ;)  (This is the mysterious fusible weft interfacing. It’s a tailoring thing.)


fused interfacing on fabric
Fuse the interfacing to the wrong side of a scrap of your fabric. Use the grainline, Luke.
measuring strips
Measure out 1 1/4″ strips along your interfacing.

Yes, this is a different chunk of interfacing than the one shown in the last step. I, ahem, made a little boo-boo in my maths the first time. It happens more often than I like to admit…


marked guide lines
You need to mark a total of three guide lines on your binding strip: a center line 5/8″ from the long edge. You will also need two pressing guides, each 1/8″ away from the center line – one to the left and one to the right, in the strip above.
using stitch lines as pressing guide.
You need to do a little pressing next. Fold one long edge to the pressing guide farthest from it. Press.

I have to apologize – it’s hard to hold a camera and an iron at the same time, and in this case, plopping the iron down on my work while I fiddled with the camera seemed unwise. The jacket I’m making is for my mother, and I have literally no extra for mistake-making after that little math oops earlier. (I actually had to darn some sort of moth hole to get everything cut!)

creasing the other side
Open that last crease enough to take the other long side and press it over to the other pressing guide.
finished binding strips
You’ll end up with a pile of binding strips all neatly folded into thirds. Don’t try to guess what a neat third is. Use the rule. Mr. Ruler is your friend.
marking button guides
You will need to mark several guidelines on your garment so that you get your button holes in the right size and places. The location of your button holes (duh), and the outside edges of your button holes. In this picture, those are the pencil lines. I transfer these to the right side of the garment by hand basting (black thread).

There are a couple things to note here: If you are using a commercial pattern, they should have given you a little chart-thinger to show button hole placement. If you have made your own pattern, or made significant alterations to a commercial pattern so as it no longer resembles the original,  start your button holes on the center line of the jacket. Measure the width of the finished button hole towards the body of the jacket.

I do my marking on the inside, because I can use a pencil and it won’t show. It saves me from the fear of disappearing pens that don’t, easy-to-remove-markings that aren’t, and such-like. I transfer them with hand basting because I find that machine basting can sometimes stretch things. Also, I like hand basting. It is easier to remove.  However you choose to put in your guide lines, you will want to use a contrasting color so that you can *see* them. Guidelines you can’t see easily while sewing are sort of silly. I mean, it would be like putting road lines in in black…  ;)

machine stitch settings
Set your machine to a fairly short stitch. I am using 1.5 on a scale of 0-4.
checking for stitching placement
We are going to be sewing at 1/8″ away from our center line.  While sewing, I will not be able to see the guides on the machine’s foot plate.  I am using a gridded ruler to check and make sure that I know exactly where that lines up on the foot.

I actually do this all the time. I show students how to do it, and I strongly advocate making it part of your sewing process. Take your gridded ruler and place it on the machine. Line it up so that you can sink the machine needle in one of the holes. (I like to make sure that my sewing foot is veeeeeery far away from the machine pedal when I’m doing this.) Pretty much every modern machine (and by modern, I mean “not a treadle”) has a marking indicating the center of its straight stitch foot. It’s the arrow on mine. It might also be an inscribed line, a thin split in the foot, a dot…. There’s generally some marker. Line your center marker up along the same ruler line than your needle is sunk into. Now, note some sort of landmark on your machine foot that is at that location. On this foot, there’s a little split next to the arrow. Under that split is a little upside-down stair case. My 1/8″ is at the edge of the first stair. My 1/4″ is 1/3 of the way into the toe of the foot. Etc….

You can’t sew accurately if you’re guessing where the right line is.

basting binding strip in place
Place your binding strip directly over your button hole placement guide, with an equal amount of excess strip on either side of the button hole end guides. Bast down the center line.

I’ve seen people use pins to do this, but for me they just get in the way. Also, they get into my fingers, which is annoying.

check for proper alignment
Flip your work over to check that you have really lined everything up correctly. You should see stitches right on your button placement line.
sewing the first side
Fold one long edge of the binding strip down. Starting at one button hole end guide, stitch the strip 1/8″ from it’s folded edge. Continue sewing to exactly the other stitch guide.

These are meant to be permanent stitches, so you’ll want to secure them by backtacking (or whatever  method you prefer).

This is one of those sitations in sewing where you want to sew both sides of something from the same direction to avoid any sort of weird-stretchy-twisty-torquey-monkey-business. (I feel like there’s a technical term for that, but my brain can’t grasp it right now.) The easiest way to do this is:

easy way to grab threads between lines of stitch
Lift the presser foot. Pull your work straight forward to draw out a bit of thread. Use your index finger to catch this thread loop. Reposition your work under the machine and lower the presser foot. Use your index finger to keep the thread loop taut as you begin sewing.

This is also the easy way to start a rolled hem, btw – take three normal stitches, do the magic loop trick above, and reposition your work into the rolled hem foot. The loopsie gives you something to hold on to to control your work at the beginning, which is always the fun part.  You can run corners of a roll straight off the ends so you can make the magic loop to start the next side if you’re unfortunate enough to be rolling something with corners.

sewing other side
Fold the other side down and sew 1/8″ in from it’s folded edge.
checking stitch lines
This is another excellent time to flip your work over and check to make sure you actually sewed what you meant to sew.
cut button hole
Cut open the center of the button hole. Do not cut all the way to the ends. Stop 1/4″ before the ends, and clip at an angle right up to the end of your stitch lines. (Your ends will look like little triangles.)

This is usually my cursing point…. A small, sharp pair of snips will help. You want the kind for embroidery, not the big orange-handled fiskers.  Alternately, if you have a very sharp exactly knife (or other razor based-cutting tool), that will work. You could also use a button-hole chisel in an X pattern. You will also want to cut the binding strip out to the ends  on the center line so you can do the next big of bind-a-gami:

one side of binding pulled through
Here comes the magic: Take one end of the binding strip and push it through the button hole.
Binding strip turned
Repeat with other side of biding strip. At this point, things might look a little wonky. Fuss (gently) until everything lines up straight and your button hole is no longer sneering at you.
sides of buttonhole need securing yet
We still have to do something the secure the sides of the button hole so that they don’t shift back to sneering wonkiness, and so that that little triangle cut at the end doesn’t flip out to the right side of the work.
sewing end bits
Sew the sides right at the button hole end guides, catching ONLY the binding strip and the little triangle thing.
finished button hole
The button hole is now technically finished, but it’s pretty common practice to sew his little lips shut so he doesn’t sass you while you’re sewing the rest of the garmnt. And by sass, I mean shift. ;)

At this point, you can lather, rinse, and repeat. I find that sewing each one of these little boogers shut as you go is the best practice. They will affect any others in line with them if they shift. I will have no sass from my buttonholes!

front of jacket with three bound buttonholes
This is the unfinished front of the jacket I’m giving mom for xmas (she says, at the end of January), with three neat little bound button holes.

The top one looks a little catywampus in the picture, but it is level when the jacket is on the stand. I did some rather weird jiggery-pokery with dart transfers. The final jacket lying smoothly is going to depend a lot on my skill at steam-shaping wool, I fear, and the silk-linen bias band along the seam that needs the shaping might not have been the best choice. Le sigh.

Usually, I do this in a contrasting material – silk and leather are personal favorites. I just feel that if I have to put this much effort into a buttonhole, it should be noticed and admired. ;)  You can also use the same method to do bound slits at the top of a doublet or in sleeves.

We’ll talk more about what happens to finish the inside of the buttonholes in another post. Hint: it’s as much hand sewing as you fear it might be…. ;)


  1. Gregory Laffrenzen
    Gregory Laffrenzen January 27, 2013

    Beautiful and terrifying. Thanks for the level of detail and linking to the start of rolled hemming–I’ve always had trouble with my rolled hems.

  2. Jeanne
    Jeanne February 1, 2013

    I don’t know this looks more complicated than the way I’ve done them. It’s hard to explain in words, but I just use one piece of fabric to bind both sides.

    • missa
      missa February 1, 2013

      Hi, Jeanne –

      If the way you have always done them is “Take one piece of binding, sew it right-side-up to the target location in a little rectangle, clip opening, pull through, make little foldsy-tucks to create lips, sew down ends”, then this method is slightly more complex. It is also worth it, as it creates less bulk, and can be used in a) narrower applications, and b) with fabrics that don’t crease well.

      I have an admitted weakness for doing these in leather. I can’t help it. It just looks cool. ;)

      Gregory – It’s not terrifying, excepting the cutting part in the middle. I check with the ruler to control the terror factor. It checks good? I know it’s ok.

  3. Gregory Laffrenzen
    Gregory Laffrenzen February 18, 2013

    I tried using this hold the stitches technique on a rolled hem and it didn’t help me at all. If you’re ever in the mood I’d love to see a more in-depth explanation of how to use it.

  4. Mel
    Mel October 24, 2019

    Hello! Did you ever publish a post on finishing the inside of the buttonhole? I can’t seem to find it. Absolutely fascinated by your blog, by the way!!

    • missa
      missa October 26, 2019

      No, but I really ought to! Lol – it’s basically a bit of hand-work. Prep the lining with a bit of interfacing where the button holes will be, then depending on the level of effort you want to put in you can either: a) see little squares and turn in to get a fully finished opening or b) cut an x and turn the edges back. Either way, you will secure this neatly to the inside of the buttonhole by hand.

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