How to Sew A Button…And Much More!

How to Sew A Button…And Much More!

When I was a child, my mother had a large, glass jar filled with buttons. When I started learning how to sew a button, I loved tipping out the contents and sorting through to find something that suited the garment I was making. Sometimes this took ages, as it wasn’t always easy to find the number of buttons that the I needed. I did enjoy the ‘labour-of-love’ aspect of button hunting.

The ‘button jar’ is a good example of old-fashioned ‘recycling’ – removing and saving everything that could possibly be used again from a garment that was worn out. It’s also family history – a chance to ask my mother ‘what outfit was this special button on?’ Although I now live in a small flat in London, I still have a pretty glass jar to keep my buttons in.

From a young age, I recognized that a set of special buttons could transform an outfit from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary. From a Christian Dior 1950s jacket with pearl buttons, to Mary Quant’s signature daisy buttons in the 1960s; each new fashion trend can be elevated by the placement of appropriate buttons.

The exact origin of buttons first being used for fashion purposes, and not just for fastening, is contentious – let’s just say that it was hundreds of years ago. Traditionally, buttons were made by hand from wood, metal, glass and even seashells. This meant that they were expensive and only wealthy people could afford to buy them. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution started in the 1760s that buttons were mass-produced for the first time, meaning that they became affordable and more widely used.

Choosing the right button

A number of factors need to be considered when choosing the right button. You need to start by taking a close look at the stability, fray, stretch, strength and texture of the fabric. Then you can move on to choosing the button:

Size patterns usually indicate the appropriate size (or range of sizes) for a button, so check this before beginning your search. It’s important to think about even placement on the garment and how this looks to the eye.

Color the choices are endless! Think about complimentary and contrasting colours or different shades of the same tone. You could also consider natural shades and textures such as metal and wood.

Function don’t forget to consider how the button will be used. Does it need to go through a buttonhole or loop? How often will the button be opened and closed?

Style are shanked or sew-through buttons appropriate for the garment? You also need to keep in mind that you will see the thread on sew-through buttons. If the fabric you are working with is thick, a shanked button will give you more space underneath the button for the fabric to sit. 

Types of Buttons 

Flat Buttons

The most common buttons are flat and mass-produced with either two or four holes in the centre. The choices are endless, from plain plastic through wood, metal and glass buttons to hand-crafted ceramic ones. Flat buttons can be sewn on by hand or with a machine.

Shank Buttons

There are no holes in the top of a shank button; instead they have a ‘shank’ underneath to fasten the button to the fabric. This ‘raises’ the button on a garment made from thicker fabric (for example, a jacket). If shank buttons are sewn onto fine fabrics, they can be floppy.

Stud (or Jeans) Buttons 

Stud (or jeans) buttons are usually for commercial purposes. A special machine is used to press a stud button onto fabric. There are hand held tools available for home use.

Toggle Buttons

An elongated oval shape button, usually made from wood, that has two holes in the centre to sew the toggle in place.  Toggles usually use loops as their fasteners.  

Decorative and Covered Buttons

Decorative buttons say it all – they are generally for the look over function. Be brave and give it a go on a special jacket, dress or shirt! 

For covered buttons you use fabric (same as the garment or contrasting) to cover metal or plastic parts that has a back piece you press on. 

Flat Buttons

Shank Buttons

Covered Buttons


Toggle Buttons

How to Cover a Button:

  1. Draw a circle that’s bigger than the button you want to cover,
  2. Sew around the fabric following the circle,
  3. Pull the stitches in tightly and secure the back of the button in place.

Types of buttonholes:

Hand sewn (embroidered) buttonholes

For a special item or to add a touch of couture a hand sewn buttonhole is the trick! They are also useful when the fabric is too thick for the sewing machine.

Machine sewn buttonholes

The modern sewing machine does different buttonholes in one easy step. In saying this, it can be scary when you try for the first time. I always attempt a trial button on a fabric off-cut before I start. Believe me, it’s difficult to unpick a machine-made buttonhole!

Fabric loop buttonholes

Measure the button and add on enough fabric to create a loop. Make a rouleau strip out of the same fabric as the garment (or a contrasting fabric).

How to Sew on Buttons by Hand:

Flat Buttons

  1. Cut a length of thread about 40cm.
  2. Thread a needle, and loop the thread so it is folded back on to itself.
  3. Make a knot, catching both ends so you are working with double thread. This makes the thread stronger, so the button doesn’t fall off after you’ve sewn it on.
  4. Make a mark for where you want to button to be positioned – you can do this by stitching an ‘X in the fabric in the button location.
  5. Bring the needle up through one hole of the button, then down through the hole across from it. Make sure you pass the needle all the way through the fabric each time from front to back and then back to front.  Repeat this several times to ensure your button is secure.
  6. One the button is secure, bring your needle and thread up through the fabric once more, but keep it UNDER the button.
  7. Wrap the thread tightly around at the base of the button where it is now attached to the fabric. Wrap it around a few times. This reinforces the button and creates a mini “thread-shank” so that the button slips in and out of the buttonhole more easily.
  8. Bring the thread through to the back side of the fabric again.
  9. Pass the needle through a few of the stitches, and form a loop. Pull your needle through this loop to form a tidy knot.
  10. Trim off the excess thread.

Note: if there are four holes in the button, sew diagonally across to make an X with the thread.

Shank Buttons

  1. Broadly follow the steps for sewing on a flat button with the following alterations to the process.
  2. Place the button where you want it to sit, and then pull your thread up through the fabric, through the single hole of the shank button and back down through the fabric four or five times.
  3. Knot the thread and time the excess.

Tips when sewing buttonholes

  • Before you start, measure the positioning of the buttonholes with pins, pencil, thread or chalk.
  • Make sure that the markings for the buttonholes are evenly placed and that the length of the button hole is consistent.
  • Sew the button before sewing the buttons on.
  • Ad for all sewing…press at every step!
  • For men’s clothing the buttonholes will be on the left side of the garment and for women’s clothing they will be on the right side of the garment. 
  • Carefully make the opening of the buttonhole with a sharp tool (I use a quick unpick).