How to Do Buttonhole Stitch

Wooden Button Through a Hand-Stitched Buttonhole
Mollie Johanson

Don't have a sewing machine? Sew a buttonhole by hand and finish garments and other items with this simple stitch.

A buttonhole is basically an opening in the fabric which the button can slip through. And while you can cut a slit and use it that way, the fabric will wear and fray, destroying the buttonhole. Even non-fraying fabrics like felt will stretch and show wear with a lot of use. Binding the fabric edge protects the fabric and creates a strong opening for the button to pass through again and again.

Additionally, buttonhole stitch does more than just wrap thread over the edge as an overcast stitch would. Each stitch makes a knot at the edge of the opening, locking the stitches together.

Modern sewing machines usually have a setting that automatically makes a buttonhole for you, and while this is helpful, it's not always the best option. Even if you have a machine that could do this for you, you might choose a hand-sewn buttonhole so that you have more control over the shape and size. If you're making historically accurate garments as costumes, the buttonholes would never have been made on a sewing machine. Hand finishing a buttonhole is also a way to give your handmade garments a well-tailored couture element.

Sewing patterns will tell you how to prepare an area for installing a buttonhole, so be sure to follow those instructions. Buttonholes are usually reinforced with interfacing and/or a double layer of fabric.

You can sew your buttonhole stitch with a doubled strand of good quality sewing thread that matches the fabric, but for better visibility, this example shows contrasting embroidery thread.

  • 01 of 09

    Measure and Mark the Button Size

    Mark the Size of the Button
    Mollie Johanson

    Choose the button(s) you want and mark where the buttonholes should go. For thin buttons, you can mark on either side of the button close to the edges, as the hole will become slightly larger after stitching. For thicker buttons, you should add the thickness of the button to the total width of the marking. For example, a 1/2" wide button that is 1/8" thick should have an opening that is 5/8" wide.

  • 02 of 09

    Mark the Slit and Stitch Around the Markings

    Stitch Around the Markings with Running Stitch
    Mollie Johanson

    Draw a line between the button width markings. This will be where you cut the fabric.

    Next, make small running stitches around the buttonhole space. You can make this rectangular like the sample or you can create a different shape like a keyhole. The running stitch defines the edges of the buttonhole which makes it easier to keep the stitches even while also preventing the fabric from fraying under the stitching.

    Keep the thread attached so it is ready to continue after the next step.

  • 03 of 09

    Cut the Buttonhole Opening

    Cut a Slit on the Marked Line
    Mollie Johanson

    Cut the opening on the marked line being careful not to cut the stitches or the working thread. Sharp embroidery scissors are good for this because you can poke the tip through the fabric and then snip cleanly along the line.

  • 04 of 09

    Begin Buttonhole Stitch

    Needle Inserted Through the Fabric and Up Through the Slit
    Mollie Johanson

    With the thread still anchored from the running stitch, bring the needle up through the opening in the fabric.

    Insert the needle through the fabric just outside the running stitch, then bring the needle back up through the buttonhole opening. Pass the working thread behind the tip of the needle.

    Pull the needle through.

    Continue to 5 of 9 below.
  • 05 of 09

    Make the Next Stitch

    Making a Buttonhole Stitch
    Mollie Johanson

    Repeat the same process for each buttonhole stitch.

    Insert the needle just outside the line of running stitch and bring it back up through the opening. Keep the working thread behind the needle, then pull the needle through to complete the stitch.

  • 06 of 09

    Continue Making Buttonhole Stitches

    Buttonhole Stitches Close Together
    Mollie Johanson

    As you add more buttonhole stitches, be sure to keep them even and close together. This can take a little practice, but with time your stitches should look smooth and professional.

  • 07 of 09

    Stitch the Buttonhole Ends

    Fan the Buttonhole Stitches at the Ends
    Mollie Johanson

    You can stitch the ends straight across with satin stitch, but a more consistent finish is to continue with buttonhole stitch. For rounded ends, fan out the stitches.

  • 08 of 09

    Finish the Buttonhole

    Hand-Stitched Buttonhole
    Mollie Johanson

    Work your way around the entire buttonhole.

    When you need to end a thread and start a new one, go down through the fabric as you do to start each stitch. Secure the thread on the back. Anchor a new thread with a knot and a small stitch on the back, then bring the needle up through the opening, catching the last stitch so the new thread locks with the previous one.

    Continue to 9 of 9 below.
  • 09 of 09

    Add a Button

    Wooden Button Through a Hand-Stitched Buttonhole
    Mollie Johanson

    Attach your buttons and put your new buttonholes to use!