Thread Theory

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How to sew on a button (so that it won’t fall off!)


Finished button

When I first started sewing I didn’t own too much in the way of sewing manuals and, anyways, they may not have helped me much even if I had them because I am more of a ‘try and try again’ style learner and probably wouldn’t have referred to them as I bumbled along the learning curve to becoming a proficient sewer!

When I began my first semester of fashion design school after spending several years avidly sewing my own clothing, I was very eager to learn the ‘proper’ way to do things thinking that I likely did them all wrong.  As it turns out, I’ve since come to the opinion that often the ‘proper’ way of doing something when sewing is the way that works best for the circumstance.

In the case of sewing on buttons, for instance, the ‘proper’ way of attaching them is in any manner that results in a fastener that is strong, will not fall off over time, is easy to use and looks very nice.

So I’ll show you the way that I sew on a button and you can give it a try; if it fills all of the above criteria, then it is the ‘proper’ way for you!

merchant and mills boxed

And while I’m at it, I thought I should use some of the Merchant & Mills tools we have in our store so that you can see what is within the beautiful packaging.  To sew on this button I’ll be using the measuring tape, the wide bow scissors, a hand sewing needle, a glass headed pin, and most importantly, tailor’s beeswax.merchant and mills unboxed

And I’m sewing the button to this pair of linen shorts that I just made for Matt.

732X600 image

The linen is courtesy of the Fabrics-store which is an online shop that specializes in the most lovely of linens.  Both linens that I used (for the self fabric and the contrast waistband and fly shield are yarn-dyed.  I think yarn dyed fabric has such beautiful depth to it and is so appealingly rustic.  Check out the Fabrics-store’s gorgeous selection – it was lucky that Matt was around to pick the fabric because I was totally unable to pick a favorite (they’re all favorites!).

button - shorts front

Okay, now lets move on to sewing on the button! First off, I like to determine the perfect button placement.  On trousers, the button should sit directly above the zipper.  On these shorts that was one inch in from the edge of the waistband.  I also measured the halfway point between the top and bottom edge of the waistband so that the button would be centred.button - measure

To prepare my thread, I ran it through the tailor’s beeswax.  To do that, just pinch the thread between the wax and your thumb and run it along the edge of the wax.  Then repeat the process a second time.  Finish the application by quickly rubbing the thread between my fingers to work the wax into it.  It only takes a couple seconds and makes a world of difference!

button - wax thread

I used to hand sew without preparing my thread, which I now know was a silly thing to do!  I was plagued with knots and tangles while carefully sewing hems and my buttons would often (and I mean OFTEN) snap off at the most awkward of times.  Beeswax is quick to apply to the thread and helps to make it stronger.  It also causes the thread to behave in a completely different manner than un-waxed thread – if it becomes tangled while hand sewing, my exasperating initial reaction of tugging at the knot actually works – the knot doesn’t become tighter, it just magically slips away!

Choose a sewing needle with a long eye – that way you can double up your thread and feed both ends through the eye at once.  This may seem an impossible feat (two big fat thread ends through one tiny hole?!) but just give your ends a quick trim and the wax will keep them nice and stiff so you shouldn’t have a problem.

button - clip rough thread ends

Threading the needle in this manner makes sewing on a button twice as fast…my construction teacher taught me this and I send her a telepathic thank you every time I sew on a button!button - double thread needle

Make the thread ends even with the looped end of the thread (so that you will be sewing with four strands of thread) and knot it.
button - tie knot in thread

Now this may seem counter-intuitive (at least it initially did to me!): Start sewing on the button from the FRONT of the garment rather than the back.  That way the knot is hidden underneath the button.button - begin sewing

Once the needle and thread are pulled through to the back, bring the needle through to the front again as close to your original stitch as possible (but not in the same spot or you will simply be undoing your stitch!).button - shorts from back

Instead of pulling the threads super tight, leave a gap between the button and the garment like so:button - room between button and shorts

This will later be filled with a shank made out of twisted thread that holds the button away from the garment making it easier to grab and use.  If you were sewing on a button with a shank, you wouldn’t have to do this because the shank is already provided!

Repeat this process several times but make sure to leave enough free thread on your needle to create a shank (somewhere in the vicinity of 5″-8″ (12 – 20 cm)).

button - sew from back

End with your needle on the right side of the garment and twist the 5-8″ of thread around your stitching (in the space between the button and the garment).  Pull tightly to create a solid shank.
button - wrap to create post

Once your shank has been created, it is time to secure the stitching.  To do this, don’t just begin with a granny knot (that’s what I always did and they never held!).  Instead, push the needle through the thread shank.  It will probably be difficult to do, but you can always push the end of the needle against a hard surface or use a thimble to coax it through.button - go back through post

Now do this again from the opposite direction to lock everything in place.button - go up through post

My teacher said the next step is unnecessary but I can’t help myself – it feels too weird to end a hand-stitching process without tying a knot – so just tie a little knot using the loose ends from when you started stitching and the ends attached to your needle.button - tie threads

Trim off the excess thread and you have a super strong, beautiful and easy to use button!Finished button close up

You can hardly see any thread on the wrong side:

Finished button inside waistband

And it is really easy to grab and use:

Finished Button thread post

Is this the process you use to sew on a button?  If you do something different, what do you do?  I’d love to hear as I imagine there are all sorts of techniques out there with many of them being just as good as what I have come to consider my ‘proper’ way.

Now one more photo of the finished shorts:

side view

I think Matt will be wearing these shorts all summer long (and he reports that the wide legs are perfect for riding his bike to work)!

28 thoughts on “How to sew on a button (so that it won’t fall off!)

  1. Thank you so much for this! I’ve tried all sorts of methods including my sewing machine attachment for buttons and nothing has worked as well. I’m giving my Dad a shirt for fathers day and I finally have the confidence that the buttons won’t come off after the first wash.

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  4. Thanks! I’m glad you’re loving your Jeds! These shorts are a sneak peek of a pattern we are currently working on (complete with welt pockets). I hope to have it all ready for release near the end of the summer or early fall. I’ve made a tutorial to sew these welt pockets for the Fabrics-Store blog and it will be posted within the next couple weeks. I’ll do a quick post on our blog when it is published so that you can take a look!

  5. Beautiful shorts! The Jeds I recently completed have been my every-day summer shorts — so comfortable! Any comment on this pattern? I am very interested in putting welt pockets on my next pair of shorts.

  6. As an experienced seamstress, unable to sew a button since forever, I thank you for this tutorial! No more, hopefully, will my husband wear a shirt to a special dinner and have buttons fall into the soup and salad the first time he wears it.

  7. very nice. I’ve been experimenting on these techniques myself! thanks for the pro-tips!

  8. I feel so much better knowing that there are others who sew buttons similar to my way. However, because I have boys who are hard on their clothes, I have resorted to using my machine. This technique is so strong that my boys have ripped the fabric or broken the button. I have decided for the boys, I’d rather lose a button than ruin the pants.

    • Good call! At the studio where I used to work creating pillows and duvets, we were careful not to back stitch thoroughly when installing zippers in silk for the very same reason – after all, it is a (relatively) quick fix to re-stitch a zipper but nothing can be done about the ripped and ruined silk!

  9. almost exactly how i do it also! though i generally skip the waxing, unless it’s for a coat. i have read that you need to iron the the waxed thread (between newspaper or parchment) before using it. feels really weird to iron your thread, but it does make a difference!

    • Thanks for this info! Another commenter had mentioned this as well so I think I’ll be doing that from now on! I can imagine that on more delicate fabrics the wax build up from un-ironed thread could create some pretty undesirable stains.

  10. Genial ,lo voy a poner en practica,gracias!!!

  11. I use the sewing machine! I take off the pressure foot, lower the feed dogs and use the button program. The pressure foot shank holds down the button and I set the width of the holes using the machine program. If I need a thread shank then I prop the button up on some layers of cardboard, pull out lots of thread, and use a hand needle to neaten the thread shank just like you have.

    • Thanks for this tip, it’s really interesting to hear your process! I’ve never tried sewing a button on a machine as I thought it would sew the button on too tight…but of course, that could easily be prevented with the cardboard – so simple, why didn’t I think of that?

  12. When I use beeswax, after pulling the thread through the wax I iron it using a pressing cloth. This makes the wax melt into the thread fibers and ensures no wax build up when the thread is passed through the fabric.

  13. So helpful–thank you! I’ve been sewing for a long time and have never done anything even close to this 🙂 When I’m sewing buttons on, I’m usually thinking something along the lines of ‘this is just going to fall off later’. Looking forward to mastering this method!

    Great shorts–fabulous fabric, and the contrasting fly, etc. is a really nice look.

    • Haha that is exactly what I used to think…and every time I did the buttons up when wearing the garment I would shake my head and look at the loose and floppy buttons in dismay!

  14. Absolutely loving this post. Somewhere back in the midst of time my Home Economics teacher taught us how to sew on a button, and I sort have adapted and forgotten bits of that over the decades since. This isn’t exactly what I was taught but makes perfect sense and being backed up by such knowledgeable commenters, I’ll start doing it properly again. I actually find sewing buttons on the nicest finishing stage of a make. Very calming and satisfying. Thank you.

    • Yes it is quite calm and satisfying, isn’t it? It’s interesting how as our sewing skills evolve we tend to lose some of the basic techniques along the way – not matter what skill level I reach in the years ahead I know I will always be appreciative of quick reminder articles and tips to refresh my memory!

  15. Almost exactly what I do, Morgan:) Except on shirts (for which I use waxed dental floss), I use button-and-carpet-weight thread (my favorite is an Irish linen made for hand book-binding; that medium-gray spool will outlast me) so I don’t any longer bother to double it as you describe. I do wear a thimble, and keep a hemostat close by for pulling the needle, plus I made a little spacer from a couple of business cards folded twice and taped together, with a 3/16″ slot cut half-way into it, so I can slip it under the button at the first stitch and tighten it right up to the exact distance; took me years to bother and it’s such a help I feel dumb for not doing it sooner! You can buy plastic shank spacers, but folding up a few of your own is as satisfying as doing the buttons! And your teacher’s right; you don’t need to knot the threads, even at the start, esp. if waxed; a couple of close, crossed stitches on top of each other before adding the button won’t be coming out. And I actually never push the needle completely through to the wrong side. The last two stitches after wrapping the shank are looped before tightening, then all the ends get trimmed close, with no knots anywhere to mar the little hidden thread cylinder. That thing’s not leaving! I’ve heard it argued that the garment will rip long before these buttons pull off, which is a worse problem of course unless the buttons themselves break first… Bilbo’s bones would no doubt still be under the mountain if his brass vest buttons had been properly attached, but I’m not squeezing through too many tight places these days, fingers crossed.

    • Great information David! I’m really intrigued that you use dental floss for shirts – I’ll have to try that! I wonder if we should keep Bilbo’s close call in mind when I sew samples for our Alpine Collection seeing as it is for adventure-wear :P. The recipients of these garments likely will be crawling around mountains if not inside of them!

  16. I thread my needle with both ends through the eye, but when I start sewing, I catch the loop on the first stitch (no beginning knot needed!). Then I add the button after the first stitch is secured in the fabric.

    When I make a thread shank, I use a small knitting needle as a “spacer” seen pictured here. I always knot off at the end (usually on the back and away from the buttoning action) and hide the tails in between the fabric layers.

    Nice pair of shorts!

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