How to Sew a Buttonhole Without a Special Foot!

Hello everyone!

Today let's talk about a basic, but intimidating, sewing skill: buttonholes. Buttons are such a beautiful closure method for garments, and let's be real, who doesn't love jars and jars full of adorable, colorful buttons? When I used to mention the word 'buttonholes' in my sewing classes, students would look at my wide-eyed and terrified. I'm not sure what it is about these little openings that evoke such fear from newbie sewists, but I'm here today to quell those fears.

Let's learn, step-by-step, how to sew buttonholes on a sewing machine, without any special feet or attachments.

If you have one of these: 

Picture from 

you can put it away, because we're not going to use it. (sorry!)

For this tutorial, we'll be using a good old fashioned zig-zag foot (the one with a side-to-side oval opening) like this one:

**Some new sewing machine require the use of an automatic buttonhole foot. Reference your sewing machine manual to determine if you can make a buttonhole without this foot. If you cannot, this tutorial will not be helpful. However, as soon as I acquire one of these feet myself, I will write a tutorial on how to use it!**

As always, remember that sewing machine models vary! I am going to walk you through this on my sewing machine, so yours will likely look different. I will try to explain possible differences along the way. 

If your sewing machine does not have specialized 'buttonhole' stitches: You can still do this! You will be sewing a traditional, manual, buttonhole. This is a great way to get the same lovely buttonholes as any other machine. Look for blue text in italics to alert you of different steps!

This tutorial is intended for practice purposes. I'll get you started sewing buttonholes, you can get lots of practice, and from there you can sew buttonholes into your garments.

Let's cover two terms, real quick, before we begin. The bartack is the top and bottom stitches of your buttonhole. Think of these as the ends. The sides of the buttonholes are ,well, the sides. 

To prepare: 

What you'll need: Several pieces of fabric (preferably quilting-weight cotton, light denim or something 'medium' weight), sewing gauge, thread, bobbin, buttons (I suggest several different sizes to practice), scissors, pins and an iron.

Begin by measuring a button with your gauge. This big yellow one measure 1 1/4 inches. 

Mark a line that is a hair (think a scant 1/8") longer than the button measurement onto your fabric, and then mark two lines at the top and bottom of that line to create an "I" shape. I highly recommend practicing buttonholes on at least two layers of cotton fabric, if not three. Set it aside. 

Let's take a look at my sewing machine. Next to the straight, zig zag, and over lock stitches, is a row of buttonhole stitches. Let's note that they are color coded green. 

Here's a close-up of these buttonhole stitch selections.

The diagram on my sewing machine is trying to explain which direction the machine will pull the fabric through as it sews the buttonhole at each step. Pardon me, but I have to vent for a moment, see how stitch #6 is actually the third stitch to occur in the buttonhole and stitch #8 is the first stitch to occur? That makes no sense!! I'm sorry that it's backwards, I cannot control it. 

Your machine may sew different a different buttonhole pattern than mine! Options for buttonhole patterns include 4-step, 2 step and there is a 5-step (but for clarity's sake, we'll ignore that one for now...unless I get comments or email saying y'all need to know how the 5-step works, in which case I'll add some info about it).

If your sewing machine does not have specialized 'buttonhole' stitches: Set your stitch width and length to a satin stitch. What is a satin stitch? A zig zag stitch with the narrowest possible width to create a solid, thick, row of stitches. Skip steps 1-3. 

For a refresher on stitch width and length, read this post. 

Let's start sewing:

1. I'm going to set my stitch selector to #8 because that's the first step in the buttonhole...apparently. We're just going to do a couple test runs to figure out which direction the buttonholes are sewn.

2. Set your stitch to a short length. On my machine the length has a space that is coded green to match my buttonhole. 

3. Set the stitch width to something towards the narrow end (narrow meaning each zig zag is close to the next one, not spread out). 

4.  Place your presser foot in the middle of a different piece of double layered fabric. Like this:

Not on the edge like this:

5. Ready to sew? Press on your foot pedal and let your machine take it away. Does it travel down or up first? Either way, take your marking pen and make note of it on your fabric, or write it down on a piece of paper. 

6. Next, set your machine to the bartack step. Practice the bartack.

If your sewing machine does not have specialized 'buttonhole' stitches: You will have to set your stitch length to something much longer in order to create a bartack. Additionally, you will need to turn your fabric in your sewing machine after this step. By 'turning' I mean you will have to lower your needle into the fabric, raise your presser foot, and pivot your fabric around the needle so that you are headed in the right direction.

7. Next, select the second 'side' in your buttonhole step and sew. See which direction it travels now.

If your sewing machine does not have specialized 'buttonhole' stitches: Set your stitch width and length back to a satin stitch to complete the second side. 

8. Complete the last bartack. Lastly, make notations of which pattern (and in which order) your buttonhole stitches sew. Continue practicing. Below, you can see I made lots of practice buttonholes and wrote both on the fabric, and a piece of paper, the order in which my machine sews a buttonhole. 

If your sewing machine does not have specialized 'buttonhole' stitches: Set your stitch width and length back to a wide stitch length to complete the second bartack. 

Ok so now that you've practiced, let's attempt a more official buttonhole on the fabric we marked in the beginning, repeating the steps we did above, after we dialed in our stitch width and length.

You may place pins in the fabric where you drew the large "I". This is especially helpful on dark fabrics where you cannot see a marking pen, but is optional.

This time, place the fabric under the foot with the center of the "I" you drew on the fabric, aligned with the center of the presser foot. 

Sew the first side of your buttonhole and then change your settings and sew the bartack. 

If your sewing machine does not have specialized 'buttonhole' stitches: Now is the time when you'll turn your fabric. 

Complete the second side, and the second bartack of your buttonhole.

Turn your hand wheel until your needle is out of the fabric (if it isn't already), pull your buttonhole out from the machine and trim your threads. 

Placing pins at each bartack (if they're not still there), use sharp embroidery scissors to cut open the buttonhole. The pins will prevent you from cutting through the bartacks and ruining your buttonhole.

Lastly, insert your button through the buttonhole several times. This will loosen up the extra threads from the fabric in the center, and you can carefully trim them away. 

Look at you, sewing buttonholes like it ain't no thang. I'm proud!

 I'm sure you have questions, please ask by commenting below! Don't forget you can send me questions on Instagram as well, just search for @palindromedrygoods

Thanks so much for reading, everyone. Happy sewing!


Oh, and P.S. here is a diagram for the manual buttonhole sewists out there! I didn't forget about you. :)


  1. A great tutorial!! My older machine has a manual buttonhole feature. It adjust the stitch length/width for each step, but I have to manually move a dial between each step. I actually really like it. Anyway, just thought I'd let you know that I've got a Craft Gossip post scheduled for later today that features your buttonhole tutorial: --Anne

    1. Hello Anne,

      Thank you very much for sharing my post, I appreciate that so much. Thanks for reading and commenting! Happy sewing.

  2. Ok this buttonhole really doesn't look good or professional. You need to do it 2 times around to get it to look right.If fabric thin put stablizer under to keep stitches flat. Also before you cut put fray check on it. Then it will never fray. Also go on the bottom and put the stitches that direction to seal them for coming undone. You showed how to do them great. Can do with just regular ziz-zag too same way just takes a while to learn the number to set your machine on .

    1. Hello Anonymous!

      Firstly, thanks for reading and for the input, all comments are appreciated. Your advice is golden, as those are all things I do when I sew buttonholes onto my garments as well. However, the intent of this post was not to have beginners produce professional looking buttonholes, or to turn them into expert sewists. As I said in the beginning of the post, this was intended for practice purposes only. As you may remember from when you were a beginner seamstress, just getting started can be the hardest part! I am here to ease the nervousness and to get newbie sewists to try these methods first, practice, and then perfect their skills later. Thanks for reading and commenting. Happy sewing!


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