Buttons are one of the oldest methods used for fastening clothes, but before they were fasteners, they were used for decoration. Archaeologists have found buttons thousands of years old at sites in China, the Indus Valley, and in parts of the ancient Roman Empire. Those buttons were typically made of bone or shell, or sometimes from metal. Today, buttons come in all kinds of shapes, colors, and materials, from tiny flat plastic buttons to elaborate cast-metal buttons, and everything in between.
Since buttons are ubiquitous, you might think it would be easy to find the right button for a given project, but the sheer variety can make this a daunting task! How big a button should you use? What’s the difference between shank buttons and flat buttons? Should you use a loop closure or a regular buttonhole? It all depends on the project, but knowing a bit about the different types of buttons and closures available can help you make the right decision.
These are the buttons you’re probably most familiar with. Flat disks of plastic, wood, or shell, these buttons have two to four holes and are sewn on to garments using a “thread shank.” This provides a little bit of space between the button and the fabric, so that the fabric layer bearing the buttonhole fits snugly between.
Flat buttons are used in a wide variety of garments, from dress shirts to overcoats. They provide a subtle, classic look relatively inexpensively, and are available in many different colors to match a wide range of materials. They’re as useful to have on hand for craft and decorating projects as they are in constructing garments.
If you can’t find exactly the right shade for a project, it is possible to have flat buttons custom dyed, but this process can be tricky and expensive. If you’re struggling to match buttons precisely, consider using a contrasting color as a statement, or a complimentary neutral instead.
Pros and Cons
- Easy to find
- Available in a wide range of colors and materials
- Suitable for most projects
- Custom color matching can be expensive and tricky
- Not suitable for garments or projects that receive heavy wear
Another common type of button is the shank button, which has no holes through the face of the button and is instead stitched down using a loop, or shank, attached to the back of the button. Traditionally, these were cast in metal, but today, they’re also commonly made of plastic.
Shank buttons offer space for a little extra creativity. Since they don’t need to be stitched through, the faces of these buttons are often ornamented, stamped, printed, carved, or otherwise embellished in ways that just aren’t possible with flat buttons. It’s not uncommon to find shank buttons in different shapes, or made of unusual materials like rhinestones.
They make excellent statement pieces, but it’s also possible to match them precisely to your projects by using covered-button kits. These kits allow you to use your own fabric to cover the face of the button and then snap on a shank to lock it the fabric in place.
Pros and Cons
- Easy to attach by hand
- Widely available
- Can precisely match any project
- Suitable for most uses
- More expensive than flat buttons
- Cannot be stitched by machine
- Bulkier than flat buttons; may be uncomfortable on some garments
Toggles, Beads, and Miscellaneous Buttons
Not all buttons fit into categories as neatly as they do their buttonholes. Depending on the project, you may want to use toggles, frog closures, beads, or stud buttons to achieve the desired look.
These are commonly used on loose-fitting garments or outerwear. If you’ve ever had a duffle coat, you’re very familiar with these handy closures. Often made of wood, bone, or other rustic looking materials, they come in a variety of shapes, but are typically long and narrow. They can be used with regular buttonholes, but it’s more common to use loops of cord or fabric as the second half of the fastening.
Frog closures are decorative button-type closures that use twists of cord as embellishment and as anchors for the closures themselves. Like toggles, they use a knot, or button, on one side, and a loop of cord on the other. Frog closures are most often used to provide decorative fastenings on the front of garments like coats and gowns. They can be purchased commercially, or made by hand, and are stitched down either by hand or by machine using a narrow zigzag, if you prefer.
For heavy duty tasks, stud buttons are the most secure option. They are similar to shank buttons in that they have a flat surface attached to a post, but instead of being stitched to your fabric, they use a pin that pushes through the back of the fabric and locks into the post. These are the kind of buttons that are used in blue jeans, heavy outerwear, and other items that face heavy wear.
For some tasks, such as delicate bridalwear or formal gowns, bead-and-loop closures make an attractive alternative to hook and eye closures. They can be used on delicate fabrics since they’re very lightweight, and though rounded beads work best, it’s easy to choose beads that best match your project. These closures are largely decorative, and are not meant to take much wear and tear, so be cautious. They can be paired with secondary fasteners like hooks and even zippers to take any strain the closure may encounter.
Pros and Cons
- Specialty buttons are ideal for specialty projects
- Highly decorative
- Best for high wear or very delicate items
- Not suitable for general purpose construction
- Most cannot be stitched by machine
- Some may be difficult to find in local craft stores
A Note on Fabrics
When you’re selecting the buttons for your next project, it’s important to consider the fabric to which your buttons will be stitched. Heavy buttons will pull knits and delicate woven fabrics out of shape, while small buttons won’t stay fastened in thick fabrics like felt and canvas. In general, it’s important to make sure that the fabric you’re using is sturdy enough to support both the button and the buttonhole or loop. If it’s thin, soft, or too stretchy to hold its shape well, consider using interfacing to provide extra support. Either stitch-in or iron-on interfacing will work, and you should try to use the lightest weight possible in order to blend the closure into the fabric of the garment. For heavy fabrics, make sure that you create a deep enough thread shank as you’re stitching on your buttons. For most purposes, a matchstick or yarn needle placed under the button as you stitch it on provides plenty of clearance, but garments like coats may need a little extra.
A Note on Buttonholes and Loops
It seems that even the most basic sewing machines these days come equipped with an automated buttonhole stitch feature. If you plan to use it, be sure to read the manual carefully and always run a test on a scrap piece of fabric before attempting to set your buttonholes. If you prefer to work by hand, check out this tutorial on how to create a hand-worked buttonhole.
It may seem a bit backward, but buttonholes should actually be made before the buttons are attached. It’s much easier to mark the placement of a button based on the buttonhole–or loop closure–than it is to work in the opposite direction. Buttonholes and loops should be as small as feasible. You want to be able to slip the button through, but leave minimal wiggle room once it’s in place. If you’re using elastic cord for button loops, take the stretch into account. For buttonholes, some sewing machines will even use one of your buttons as a template to create the correct size, but if you’re working by hand or need to establish the settings manually, make sure of your measurements before you get started!
Button it up!
There may be a lot more to the simple button than meets the eye, but with a little background and some tricks up your (neatly buttoned) sleeve, you’ll find that buttons are a handy addition to your toolkit as a sewist! From collars and cuffs to elegant wedding gowns to trendy bags, you’ll be able to match just the right button to every project. Do you have favorite button or buttonhole tips and tricks? Any pitfalls to avoid? Share them in the comments below!