Saturday, April 13, 2013

How to sew on a button

I'm not a sewing expert. Nonetheless, just as everyone who eats needs some basic cooking skills, everyone who isn't a nudist needs to master some simple skills in mending clothes. And here's the most common fix: sewing on a button that's come loose. I know -- how hard can it be to sew on a button? But as with so many other tasks, there's a right way and a wrong way to get it done.

There are two types of buttons you sew on: shank buttons and flat buttons. The shank button is smooth or rounded on top with no visible holes, and a loop on the underside (called a shank) through which you loop the thread to sew it to the garment. The flat button has two or four holes centered in the middle of the button; you use the holes to sew the button to the fabric.

Clearly I'm slumming it around here and should be wowing the professors in art school.
Whether or not they come with one built in, all buttons need shanks. Think of the shank as "breathing room" between the button and the fabric it's sewn to, enough space to allow the buttonhole to fit easily around the button. If you sew a flat button down too tightly, it won't hold the garment closed properly, or the button may tear the fabric or pop off from the stress (kind of like a college student's head during finals).

As it happens, my niece recently popped a button off her skirt, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and document the whole process for posterity. Thanks to the talented Michele for taking some of these pictures, since I don't have three hands.

You will need:
  1. A few minutes' time.
  2. A matching flat button to be sewn on.
  3. A thin sewing needle (needles sold as "sharps" are good choices).
  4. Sewing thread.
  5. A shank spacer, such as a tapestry needle, toothpick or matchstick.
  6. Sharp scissors.
YES! Welcome to the wonderful world of PHOTOGRAPHY!
Start with a button that matches the others on the garment, if at all possible. If you're fortunate enough to have the original button that popped off (as I did), by all means use it. If it rolled away and is lost for good, first check along the inside seams of your garment; sometimes the manufacturer will sew on an extra button or two for mending purposes. If that fails, you can snag a button from somewhere else on your garment where it's unlikely to be noticed (at the lower hem of a skirt or a shirttail is usually a good place), sew that one on, and replace the less noticeable button with one that's close to the same color, shape and size. If you're ~=*!!!SUPER OCD MAN!!!*=~ and the idea of mismatched buttons anywhere on a garment drives you batty, you could remove ALL the buttons from the garment, buy a matching set of replacement buttons that are the same diameter as the originals, and sew them all on using this method. Or you could just follow your doctor's advice and take your meds.

Any loose threads still attached to your button? Trim them off before you begin. Nice and neat.

Thread your sewing needle with about 18 inches of thread in a matching color...

...and pull it through until the thread is doubled over on itself. You can tie a knot in the tail end if you want, but you really don't need to.

Give the garment a close look. You should be able to find the place where the button popped off (helpfully indicated by the blindingly white arrow here) -- it will have small, regularly spaced holes where the stitches used to be, or a rough spot in the fabric. If you can't find it, just button up the garment neatly and poke the needle through the empty buttonhole to find the right spot.

Time to secure the thread. Flip the garment over to the wrong side and, at the point where you're going to sew on the button, make two or three small stitches in the same space. If you didn't knot the thread, leave a thread "tail" a few inches long at the end of your first stitch, then hold these thread ends in place with your thumb so they don't slip out of the fabric as you take the second stitch.

After the third stitch, the thread should be nice and secure. Trim off the thread end "tail" fairly close to the stitching.

Poke the needle through to the right side of the fabric and draw the thread all the way through, preparing to sew on the button. Check the wrong side to make sure you haven't left a rat's nest of tangled thread back there. You may need to pull gently on one side or the other of the doubled thread to close up any thread loops on the wrong side.

Look at the other buttons on the garment to see how they're aligned. The buttons on this particular skirt are vertically aligned, with stitching running from the top to the bottom holes.

So align your button the same way, in just the spot where you want it to be.

Poke the needle through the top hole of the button and draw the thread through.

Before you do anything else, grab your shank spacer and place it between the two button holes as shown. I used a big ol' tapestry needle because it happened to be in reach and its smooth metal surface makes it easy to remove, but I could have used a matchstick or a toothpick or even a super-small knitting needle. You'll have to hold the spacer in place with your non-dominant hand while you sew with the other one.

Poke the needle through the bottom hole to the wrong side of the fabric, and draw the thread all the way through, looping it over the shank spacer and pulling it taut. First stitch made.

Repeat this process several times -- poking the needle up through the top hole, drawing the thread through, looping it around the shank spacer and down through the bottom hole -- until you've got a good number of stitches in place. Pull gently on the sewing thread as needed to make sure you aren't leaving loose, messy loops of thread on either side of the fabric. Since your thread is doubled, it shouldn't take very long until you've got a nice solid loop of threads, like this.

Now pretend you're Arthur with the sword in the stone and, with one bold move, pull out your shank spacer. Tadaaa! You are rightwise king of England!

Next up: form the shank. Poke the needle through to the right side of the fabric (but NOT through a button hole) and draw the thread all the way through...

...then wrap the thread four or five times around the sewn threads underneath the button to complete the thread shank...

...and poke the needle back through the fabric at the same spot it came out, drawing the thread through and making sure it's nice and taut.

Back on the wrong side of the fabric, take a few small stitches to secure the thread...

...and take one more stitch, but before drawing the thread through completely, thread the needle through the thread loop and pull it tight to create a knot that's flush against the surface of the fabric. Then trim off the thread.

All done!

Fasten the new button to make sure it looks all right. Then air-guitar like a rock star at the awesomeness of your well-done job.

(Four-hole flat buttons work almost exactly the same way -- you just create an X with your threads, alternately sewing vertical and horizontal stitches over the shank spacer. And shank buttons just need to be sewn firmly down without any added spacing, since the shank is already built into the button.)

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