Reverse engineering standard work pt.8

As a production pattern maker, the thing I liked least was making buttonhole guides. There was no way to get out of it. It’s boring. It’s not creative. It’s not fun. Just drone work, I hated it. CAD is great for this sort of thing. Little did I realize I’d have to write about it. That’s insult to injury. You guys should know that some posts I write are like homework for me. The topic doesn’t interest me. I hope you guys appreciate what I put myself through for your sakes. I really don’t mean to sound grumpy just trying to make a point which is: this is a boring topic but it’s necessary. It’s something that really separates the amateurs from the pros so you need to know it. If I had to put myself through writing it, you should put yourself through reading it (end of grumpy sounding lecture). This post will be useful to anyone who puts button holes and buttons on any kind of apparel item. I am never surprised anymore at just how many people don’t know how to mark buttonholes and buttons quickly and easily, ensuring a dead certain accurate line up between the two of them. I realize it’s a small anethestizingly boring thing but it’s one of the most useful things I have ever learned in a factory.

I’m not sure how to start. You have to learn about three things, one of them few of you ever think about. First is the mechanics of the thing, how do you mark the button hole to guarantee perfect line up with the button? Second, what is the process of doing it to specification so you can apply the concept to different situations? And third refers to the correct order -the process- in which you apply the buttonholes. I know, the last one is easiest. I’ll do that first. Then I’ll do the first one. I might not do the second one cause I’d have to draw it (I wish Danielle liked me half as much as I like her, then maybe she’d draw for me). Maybe that’ll be text only.

Okay, here’s the third thing you need to know (first because it’s easiest). In the case of garments that are washed before they’re shipped, you have to do things differently. In the normal course of making a product, you usually sew the whole thing and then you wash it, then you inspect it, then you pack it up and send it off. But not if your stuff is garment washed and you’re using buttonholes. No no. You want to wash the garments before you put on any buttonholes (is buttonholes one word or two?). Have you ever owned a garment in which the buttonholes later got too tight? Well, that’s because the thing shrank and they put on the buttonholes before they pre-shrank the garment. You don’t want buttonholes to shrink. Plus, they get wonky in the wash and you don’t want them to look wonky before they get to the customer. Not to say that you want them to look wonky after the customer has it either, that’s why you do the buttonholes last. They won’t get wonky if they don’t shrink. If the garment is pre-shrunk, problem solved. I notice stuff like this on DEs stuff all the time. It’s one of the things I look for. For all their sins, you don’t see big companies making this mistake. And home sewers, I definitely think this would be a good habit to adopt too.

Now on to the first thing you need to know, the mechanics of the process. First, you have to make a guide. A guide is a pattern piece that is a tool. It’s a custom template you need to make for each job, you’ll use them a lot. You need to make a button guide for the cuff. First you trace off the pattern piece:

I know the photo above is a little blurry but you can see what I’ve done. Next, you want to take off all the seam allowance. In this case, that means 1/2″ for the top and 3/16″ for the edge. You’ll see I’ve done this below:

Now you’d technically cut it out but fabric doesn’t work that way. Your guide will not fit neatly on the cuff like mine does below

because you haven’t subtracted an allowance for the “turn of cloth” or what I call “bend allowance”. Most of you will want an amount I can tell you off the top of my head but that won’t work. Fabric weights vary quite a bit and the amount of allowance is directly proportional to the thickness of the cloth. Now, for this light shirt weight percale, I cut off an additional 1/8″ (1/16th off the top and 1/16th off the edge). So add that in and cut out your tracing. Once you’ve done that, you need to figure out the placement of the buttonhole but those instructions will come in part two because it’s a long story. For now, I’m just going to show you how to do it once the guide has been finished. Below you can see I’m marking a dot through a hole punched through the guide. I like to use china markers (wax pencils) for this.

Below you can see the mark, that’s where you want the buttonhole to start. So now you make your buttonhole.

Below you’ll see I’ve made my buttonhole (a crappy one, this machine never has made decent buttonholes). I’ve folded the cuff and matched the two curved edges, layering them together.

Once you have those layered together, you’ll mark the button placement through the buttonhole itself. Below you’ll see I’m marking my button toward the edge side of the button hole.

And below, you’ll see the button mark. Now, if you don’t sew buttons on from the back (most people don’t), just fold your cuffs together the opposite way so your mark will end up on the face side.

This is how you should mark any kind of button arrangement which includes center fronts. For center fronts, you’d trace out a strip, cut off all the seam allowance -add an allowance for turn of cloth- and have it finish at 3″ wide. You’d use that for buttonholes. You’d also fold the fronts together in the same way and mark the button placement from the buttonhole side just like I did with the cuff. It’ll always come out perfect if you do it this way.

I’ll bet most of you are yawning. This is boring, not dramatic and not fun and I know that. This is technical finessing. It’s not exciting but your clothes will look more professional in that small unidentifiable way that you’d never noticed before. You’ll be able to see whether your competitors are doing it right and just where your quality really lies when compared with theirs. These are the kinds of things we notice. To check your competitor’s products, fold the edges back onto themselves and lay it flat, buttonholes side up. You should be able to see the center of the button underneath through the buttonholes. This is one of the first things I check. Flash and glitz doesn’t impress me. This would.

In case I’ve convinced you that button guides are fabulous -you’ll start using them immediately- and have in fact, decided they’re so wonderful that you can use it to mark buttonholes and buttons in one fell swoop -don’t. The guide can only be used for the buttonhole side if you’re not using automated equipment -like an indexer. I hope I can explain the reason why correctly. See, every item ends up with tiny individual differences. Say the operator doing the buttonhole had this particular cuff a little off when she lined it up. That happens. It’s rarely such a crisis that it wouldn’t pass final inspection, right? Now, if the button were sewn on in the correct place, the two wouldn’t match up. It’d be wonky. I realize this isn’t a big deal for a one button cuff but just imagine that this were a center front with ten buttons (we mark these the same way) it’d be a real mess. There will always be tiny differences between otherwise identical products. If you design your process to include the human variance factor from the get go, you’ll have fewer problems. That’s why you mark everything from the position of the completed buttonhole. That way, each item will be matched according to it’s own unique differences.

Entries in the reverse engineering standard work series (how to copy industrial sewing methods)
Shirt making tips
Standard Work (sounds boring, read it anyway)
Reverse engineering standard work pt.1
Reverse engineering standard work pt.2
Reverse engineering standard work pt.3
Reverse engineering standard work pt.4
Reverse engineering standard work pt.5
Reverse engineering standard work pt.6
Reverse engineering standard work pt.7
Reverse engineering standard work pt.8
Reverse engineering standard work pt.9

Spin off of Reverse engineering standard work pt.5:
A failed experiment
A failed experiment pt.2
A failed experiment pt.3
Reverse engineering standard work pt.5.1

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  1. Karen says:

    Wow! That’s encouraging. I’ve always thought that the only sensible way to do things was to make the buttonholes first. Then the buttons are *guaranteed* to match up.

    I saw a kid once, getting ready for the end-of-year sewing-class fashion show, who’d apparently marked her blouse buttonholes and buttons separately–early on?–and never checked them after. The buttons were severely out of alignment with their holes. It made me glad that I’ve always saved buttonhole placement for the end.

    Thank you again for putting solid, sensible information out on topics like this.

  2. Carol Kimball says:

    ..and don’t ever apologize for providing information, though it may be boring and tedious for you to write it up. This is what so many of us are here for.

  3. Danielle says:

    I like you a whole lot Kathleen! Let’s not quibble over who likes who more =)

    Now if you need something drawn, anytime! Just ask – you know how to reach me, I’d be happy to help you in a small way as you’ve helped me so much already.

  4. Kathleen says:

    I like you a whole lot Kathleen! Let’s not quibble over who likes who more =)

    You know I just like needling you. I think you represent the finest of new designers we’re putting out today and I think you’ll go far. I look forward to saying that I knew you way back when so don’t forget me :). Actually, I look forward to saying that about many of my visitors (I already say it about some of them). I love for my companies to grow. That’s the only way to measure whether I’m really doing any good.

  5. LeAnna says:

    This tutorial is great and not bit boring. I’ve been sewing since I was about 5, and I was raised by a sewing teacher- and I still learn something new just about every time I read this blog. Don’t apologise! It’s great information.

  6. Pat Lundin says:

    I am not very experienced at sewing so I have always avoided making things with buttons! Thanks so much for this very valuable tutorial! I am going to keep your lesson in mind so that the next time I dismiss the idea of button holes I will take the plunge!

  7. Josh says:

    This is almost shocking to me. To think something has to be washed and dried before it’s finished. This never occured to me.

  8. Josh says:

    Questions, and this may be a really stupid one here. But I’m gonna ask it anyways. Can a hot steaming cause shrinkage in a garment? The same kind that a regular washing and drying can cause?

  9. Julia says:

    Home sewers usually preshrink fabric before cutting. I was quite surprised to see that the factory method of marking button placement was exactly what Mother taught me over 55 years ago. And she never worked in an industrial sewing environment. I’m looking forward to the part on buttonhole placement.

  10. Freda says:

    For Josh – Yes, hot steaming can cause shrinkage – probably not as much as washing and drying. Shrinkage can even be caused by the wearer of a garment being very hot and sweaty. Lesson learned – preshrink underlining before constructing man’s ballet jacket if you don’t want to see it wrinkle and pucker before your very eyes!!

  11. Josh says:

    hmmm, I think I’ll do some tests myself. Make 1 shirt and do nothing, then wash it. Make another washed and then the buttons placed on it. And then another that is steamed and then the buttons placed and see what the difference is.

  12. Esther says:

    This may sound dumb. As a technical designer, I never made a buttonhole guide. I felt there were too many variables. When my dresses arrived at the buttonholer, the sewers had a method to make sure the buttonholes were placed in the correct place. Then the garment was turned out, the backs lined up so the buttonholes would show the button location, and the buttons tacked on. Since I made girl’s dresses, there never was much of an issue. I suppose with men’s dress shirts it would be a different story.

    Now I learn that there is a way to make buttonhole templates. I will have to try this.

  13. La BellaDonna says:

    For me, at least, the basics are never boring. I’m never going to get bored learning how to do something better – which is why I come here, after all.

    I have a couple of questions: for those of us who preshrink our fabrics (I would be one), does the “wash the garment first” still apply? The patterns I make are sized to fit on fabric that’s been prewashed for, hopefully, maximum shrinkage, so that the garment won’t shrink (I lack the ability to figure out how to size a garment for shrinkage after it’s made).

    Second, is there a magic for figuring out how far apart and how many buttons there should be, or is it the designer’s preference? I usually figure a half-inch down from the finished edge of the top of the garment for the first buttonhole, and It Depends for the bottom buttonhole, then split the distance between the buttonholes in order to space them evenly (and marked the button placement after the buttonholes were made). If there’s a better way, I’d be happy to learn that, especially since I use the same method for spacing grommets (yes, I have figured out that I can use the Buttonhole Template Method for a Grommet Template, so that’s very useful, too).

    And Josh: a number of books suggest steaming fabrics that won’t be washed in order to pre-shrink them (wools, certain interfacings, etc.) Steaming is often used to shape garment pieces, too, by controlled shrinkage (one of the principles of tailoring).

  14. Deena says:

    First, I also prewash any fabrics for garments that will be washed after they are made. I try to make all my garments to be washable.

    Secondly – button placement on Ladies’ blouses.
    I place one buttonhole at the top where it will close the collar around the neck. This one is horizontal. I place one buttonhole at the widest part of the bust (I am very ample in this area), which seems to prevent gaping of the blouse. I then place the other buttonholes in a way that is pleasing to the eye. I actually lay out the buttons on the fabric to see the effect clearly.

    I do mark the buttonholes, make them and then mark the button placement by marking through the buttonholes. It is a fantastic way to make sure the buttons line up where they are supposed to.

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