Handmade Buttonhole Directions

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today:

Friday, August 9, 1912: We had sort of s sewing bee here today. Besse was out and brought some of her stuff along. 

Source: The Dressmaker (1911)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Besse was Grandma’s oldest sister. She was married and lived in nearby Watsontown. Was Grandma’s mother making buttonholes during the sewing bee?

Three days prior to this post, Grandma wrote that her mother was making her a dress for school, and I posted hundred-year-old drawings of dresses with lots of buttons.

Several readers commented that it would have been difficult to make a dress with that many buttonholes. One reader noted that people didn’t need to make buttonholes by hand a hundred years ago because treadle sewing machines had an attachment that made them.

But, in case,  if you ever want to make them by hand, here are the directions from a hundred-year-old book:

A well-made garment that is otherwise perfect may be greatly injured in appearance by badly made buttonholes. They should always be properly spaced and marked before they are cut.

Mark the points for the top and bottom buttonholes, and divide the distance between these two points into the desired number of spaces. The slit must be cut on the thread of the goods, if possible, and must be large enough to allow the button to slip through easily.

With the buttonhole scissors carefully test the length of the slit and make a clean cut with one movement of the scissors.

Barred buttonholes are used for underwear, waists and shirts. To make the buttonhole bring the needle up at one end of the buttonhole, and, allowing the thread to lie along the edge of the cut on the right side of the material, stick down at the opposite end.

Do the same on the other side of the cut and stick down opposite the first stitch, with a stitch across the end to fasten the thread. If the material is inclined to fray, the edges may be overcast before working the button holes.

To make the stitch, place the buttonhole over the forefinger of the left hand, holding it in position with the thumb and second finger as shown in Fig. 48.

Begin to work the buttonhole close to the corner or starting-point. Insert the needle, and while it is pointing toward you, bring the double thread as it hangs from the eye of the needle around to the left under the needle. Draw the needle through the loop, letting the tread form a purl exactly on the edge of the slit.

Continue these stitches to the opposite end, being careful to make them the same depth and close together. Now pass the needle up and down through the goods until two or three threads cross the end of the slit quite close to the button hole stitches, thus forming a bar tack.

At the end, turn the work around so that the bar end is toward you and make several buttonhole stitches over the bar tack and through the material. Work the other side of the button hole and the second bar.

The Dressmaker (1911) by The Butterick Publishing Company

26 Responses

  1. I don’t think very many sewing machines had that attachment – the first time I saw the attachment was long after I learned to make hand-made buttonholes just like in your directions. I guess I made quite a few, as I made many blouses!

  2. We do have a Singer sewing machine from around 1910 that my husband purchased from his supervisor and belonged to his grandmother, anyway it had all the attachments and does have one for button holes. Could be at that time, it was a new attachment and many sewing machines may not have had them yet….interesting to check out. Either way, bless their hearts (and to Labyrinth-living) for doing them by hand, my eyes are squinting just thinking about it and my fingers, well, lets just say they are not as nimble as a 17 yr old!! LOL Those ladies had talent and such precision – but then that is how they were taught.

  3. I used to make my children’s clothes. I found a dandy pair of buttonhole scissors in an antique shop in Maine. It has a screw on the side and you size the opening of the button hole. It cut a perfect measured slot every time. I wonder how many people actually owned buttonhole scissors . I am sure there were more that measured and hand cut them.

  4. My Mother could make beautiful buttonholes by hand but in all my life I’ve never made a buttonhole that didn’t turn out to be a mess. I soon learned to avoid patterns with buttonholes, but every once in awhile I could no avoid it. I wear a little vest I made myself now… the buttonholes are a mess… but it’s an everyday item just to keep my shoulders and back warm in winter so it doesn’t matter a bit.

  5. And the sad thing — I remember making hand-made buttonholes — and even sadder, those looked better than my machne-made button holes.

    • We had a 1950s sewing machine when I was a child. My mother used to always say that you could make better button holes by hand than with that machine. :)

  6. My mother taught me how to do button holes, similar method. I preferred the hand method over the machine when I made dresses for my daughters when they were small.

  7. I’ve never liked making buttonholes either by hand or with the machine. A sense of accomplishment perhaps, but fun, no.

  8. I’m with Pauline, I never liked making buttonholes in any way,shape or form and to tell the truth, they never looked too good either. I always used the biggest buttons I could to cover them.

  9. I have never made buttonholes by hand but I think I will give it a try :)

  10. The company that made the bottonholer was called “Famous” http://silkmothsewing.blogspot.com/2011/07/famous-buttonhole-worker.html
    I had to get the thing out and look at the name on the box to google it. They are pretty rare now for collectors to find now. My came with the machine. It was my neighbor’s when I was growing up and she gave me the machine after I left home. It is easier to operate then it looks. If you go down the right side collumn on the site and click on Singer VS 27 1889 that is the type of machine that had this button worker. Only my machine was made in 1893. Collectors call them fiddle base because of their shape of the bed to it.

    Many of the attachments were made by attachment companies. Grist is the most well known. They made all of Singer’s attachments. My 1915 Standard treadle came with instructions on how to make a bound buttonhole using the machine. It shows a lady in her home made nightie robe of shear fabric with pretty bound buttonholes. This machine came from my husband’s grandmother and no one wanted it in the family so I got it from the trash. It still had everything to it. She never bought a buttonholer for it and when she wanted one the company had gone out of business. I know she made bound button holes because I have an apron she made that button in the back. She told me she bought the treadle when it was new because she did not want an electric one. She told me the electricity was too unreliable at the time and would go out for hours. I just couldn’t let the pretty machine go to the dump after she died. She was so proud of it. She was 99years old when she died.

    http://www.burdastyle.com/techniques/how-to-make-really-neat-bound-buttonholes

    • The link to the Silk Moth Sewing Blog about old-time button hole machines was awesome. The pictures and description of how it was used were wonderful. I feel like I can picture the process now.

      You are so lucky to have these old machines. I don’t have a treadle machine–but I have a sense of why your husband’s grandmother preferred a sewing machine that was sturdy and that she was very familiar with. I don’t sew a lot, but I still use a 1950s Singer machine that my mother had when I was a child. When I first got married I had a “modern” machine, but it didn’t work nearly as well the old one.

  11. Awesome! My mother taught me how to do handmade button holes…and I still love them. Sometimes a machine doesn’t quite do it how you want it…maybe too small…etc. And it is helpful to know how to use this technique…when you have to touch up a damaged button hole.

    • My mother also taught me how to do handmade button holes–it’s interesting the things that are passed on to the next generation.

      (I wonder if I ever taught my children how to made hand-made buttonholes?) :)

  12. [...] Sometimes Besse brought needlework or sewing along when she came to visit. For example, on August 9, 1912 Grandma [...]

  13. Handmade buttonholes are sturdier than machine made ones. Plus they cover the entire slit made for the buttonhole. These instructions are almost identical to the ones in my 1980 edition of “The Readers Digest Complete Guide to Sewing”.

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