Buttons and knits are such a great combination, that I thought I had a blog post about this, but apparently I haven’t spoken about buttons yet.
Buttons as Perfect But Imperfect Closures
Although they seem like perfect companions, there is often a pulling/gaping issue with buttons and buttonholes. Buttonholes in knits aren’t always stable, and buttons work better on stable surfaces. That said, buttons look great on knits, and are often the final piece of creating a wonderful hand-knitted item, whether it is a garment or an accessory. Personally, I like to go big with buttons: I spend whatever is needed to get the perfect button (because I can always take them off!), I will try things until I find the perfect match, and I will spend extra time to get them placed just so.
What should you do to counteract the potential problems when putting buttons on knits? I set out the problem, then give you solutions.
Buttons tend to pull upward from the fabric, as well as droop vertically downward. Although we can create stability by how we anchor the button, the knit surface is flexible and cannot be perfectly stable.
Solutions: backing buttons, attention to weight, a proper shank for the fabric, and sewing the button with the appropriate materials.
Knit fabric is flexible. Different stitch patterns and types of knitted fabric are more stable than others, but none are perfectly stable. A buttonhole needs stability, or it is going to be unreliable.
Solutions: stabilizing stitches around the buttonhole, backing materials to create stability, firm fabric for the buttonholes, and keyhole buttonholes. see button solutions.
- I often sew backing buttons behind my buttons. These are clear two or four holed buttons designed specifically for this purpose. They are flat and designed to blend. But don’t confine yourself to that type of backing button. Depending on the application, make this solution a decorative one! I like putting beads or coordinating buttons instead of backing buttons.
- If you have a swatch, or can take your finished piece with you when purchasing the buttons you are more likely to get the perfect button. You can get the color you want for the finished fabric, and you can test the buttons on the fabric. Weight can be a real issue, and sometimes a backing button will work, but sometimes not. Shanks can be unstable, but if they are attached to a backing button, they may be more stable. If your button source has a sale jar of buttons, this is a great source for decorative backing buttons, but make sure you are solving the problem, not creating one!
- Even a button with holes should have a shank that is at least the height of your knitted fabric. A shank button may not have a sufficiently long shank, so you can extend it with a sewn shank. see Graphic
- Don’t automatically use thread. Thread can be hard on yarn, so I like to use yarn instead if possible. If your yarn is too thick, try using a single ply. It might not be strong enough, depending on how it was spun. If you do use thread, cover the thread with yarn. My favorite trick is to use a dental floss threader instead of a needle; it is often possible to pull the yarn through a hole using that, but it can be difficult to find a needle with an eye that will pass through the same hole .
These are often the real culprit. It is hard to make a buttonhole large enough for buttoning, that is stable enough to keep your pieces in place. This requires intervention.
- Thread a tapestry or bent-tip needle with yarn and run a stabilizing stitch through the edge of your buttonhole or use the buttonhole stitch to create a stable edge. This might be great, except that the fabric surrounding the buttonhole may still be unstable and a problem.
- Back in the day (the 60s and 70s) gros grain (pronounced grow-grain) ribbon was sewn behind button and buttonhole bands. This was often done by your local dry cleaner/alterationist or the LYS. It means that you either have to put a machine buttonhole in or do additional handwork to attach the ribbon behind the buttonhole. The ribbon could be sewn on decoratively, or by machine.
- An alternative would be to make buttonhole tabs that would sit right behind the buttonhole, but this again would require additional handwork or machine sewing.
- Don’t discount using a firmer stitch pattern for buttonhole bands. That might be the solution.
- A key-hole button is used in coats and jackets to allow the button shank someplace to sit, as well as the length needed to get the button through the buttonhole. This could be accomplished with a little effort in your knit.
Horizontal Buttonhole Example: You are binding off X stitches. At the outside edge of the buttonhole, or where the BO is beginning, put a YO in front of the first stitch worked for the BO to give it extra flexibility. Bind off that first stitch using the YO (see JSSBO for more detail on the first BO yarn over, but don’t use JSSBO for remaining stitches). Bind off the remaining stitches, adding in an extra BO. On the return, e-wrap cast on the number to match the BO, then YO after the last BO and work to the end of the row. On the return row, knit the stitch before the YO and the YO together. Knit into the back of leg each cast-on stitch. Pick up the inside loop of the last BO stitch and knit that together with the next stitch to close up the end of the buttonhole.
Not a perfect keyhole, but there is flexibility at the outside end for the shank to sit without distorting the fabric. Go in with your threaded tapestry needle to improve the buttonhole, but don’t remove the flexibility.
Vertical Buttonhole Example: After working the second side of the buttonhole, work the joining row to the join then do a dbl-YO, and work to the end. On the next row, knit the first YO loop with the stitch before it, and the second YO loop with the stitch following it.
Again, not a perfect solution. In the case of a vertical buttonhole, you may need to work the buttonhole slightly shorter.