Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hand worked Buttonholes

Hand worked buttonholes are a hot topic these days on the discussion forums.
A sign of bespoke craftsmanship and a badge of honour to many, and subject to discussions of technique and materials to use, from needle size to which brand of silk thread and gimp.
Obviously, buttonholes needed to be made by hand before the invention of a machine that could make them and even then, the machines were, and are, expensive and generally limited to factories which could justify the expense.
Many people who are interested in the craft of tailoring are keen to learn these hand sewing skills and all the power to them. I too, learned the art of the hand sewn buttonhole and was equally enamoured of it.
I think for me the pleasure wore off after a time, due to the volume of buttonholes we were making at work because we didn't have a machine. Hours and hours spent on the buttonholes(always under time pressures too). Some people made them more beautifully than others and there were debates about the nicer form, whether an elongated teardrop shape or a pronounced keyhole was better, but I have to admit that some of the nicest ones you will see are found on vintage coats.

One of these vintage coats appeared in a fitting the other day, to be used in a show. It was a cutaway coat, I'd say from between 1910 to 1920 anyway, and look at these buttonholes.
Not bad for their age, don't you think?

We got a Reece industrial buttonholer at work around 15 or so years ago and to be honest it was a relief to have it. If you are good making them by hand, you can do one in 20 minutes, but now it is maybe a minute each including the prepping before going to the machine. If you have 90 buttonholes on a period costume, or even just a dozen or so on a suit, the time saved is enormous.
Some may say that hand sewn buttonholes aren't needed on costumes, and that may be true if you have options. We didn't, but now we do. The downside is that some of my colleagues have never made a hand sewn buttonhole, so that isn't good for maintaining traditional skill sets. The upside is that it is a skill that can be learned and there are people still interested in having that finishing touch on their garments.


  1. Vintage garments frequently have beautifull buttonholes indeed. There are some on the best bespoke modern ones too, but on old garments it was just the norm. I've seen incredible ones on waistcoats from the XIXth century.

    Buttonholes are a pleasure to make on leisure time. When it is to finish a garment, they easily become hell. A suit with waistcoat and to button-fly trousers can need 36 buttonholes. When I'm in rythm, I can make 4 per hour, which means 9 hours making buttonholes. A good day of embroidery, just spent on that, for 1 suit only. So I can understand why your Reece buttonholer was welcomed !

    I have a question for you : what is the "braid" used on the border of this vintage coat ? I've heard a few days ago about "russian braid", and wonder if it could be it. And buy chance, would you know a supplier for this ?

  2. Hi,
    I can't tell you much about the braid on the coat other than it too has withstood the rigours of time very well. I have seen the same or similar braid on many vintage frock and cutaway coats, and finishing them with the braid was more common than not.
    Locating similar braid isn't easy, and I'm not sure if this would be called Russian braid. I will be binding a velvet smoking jacket in a similar but wider braid(if I ever get a fitting!)
    The braid that was purchased recently for me to use is from Mokuba. It may be marginally wider, I'll have a look at it when I am back to work.

  3. Many, many thanks for the Mokuba tip. I didn't know them, and just discovered they have a shop in Paris which seems to be The place to go for braid and this kind of trimmings. I'll go tomorrow, I'm sure I will find there things I've been looking for for such a long time.
    Terri, you're the best ! :)

  4. Paul, you forgetful thing :)

    look here

    at your own reply :-DDD

    glad you seem to be well again