Sew Brave: Conquering My Fear of Buttonholes in the Quest for the Perfect Waistcoat

When I saw this month’s theme Sew Brave there was one project in particular that came to mind that I knew I wanted to try out – a fitted waistcoat.

Making a waistcoat for myself has been on my sewing to-do-list for a while now, because it is one of those items that I consistently struggle to buy off the rack to fit my body shape. Trying on clothes that don’t fit properly has a tendency to make me think there is something wrong with my body, rather than there being something wrong with the clothes.

For me in particular, I’m non-binary and I experience dysphoria around my body shape.  The fit of the clothes I wear can have a significant impact on this. While it’s generally quite easy to buy jeans and t-shirts that fit, I find it particularly difficult to buy things like shirts and suiting. Whether I buy from the ‘mens’ or the ‘womens’ sections of the shop I feel like I’m always having to compromise on something. Women’s clothing fits my hips and shoulders, but over-emphasises my waist and chest and is generally made from thinner, flimsier fabrics. Men’s clothing has a straighter, less fitted silhouette and is usually made from more robust fabrics, but is usually huge across my shoulders, too small around my hips, and too long in the body.

Getting items of clothing, such as a three-piece suit, made to measure would be great but unfortunately it’s a bit out of my price range.  But I already owned a sewing machine, so I thought making my own seemed like the next best solution, if not a bit of an ambitious one. I’d previously only sewed simple things like tea towels and cushion covers. I first launched into sewing shirts, starting with the Archer button up shirt from Grainline Studios, which is a ‘womenswear’ pattern but is essentially a simple plain shirt that you can customise easily for a more traditionally ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ look. I’ve been so pleased with my shirt making results so far, and realised just how amazing and dysphoria-relieving it feels to wear clothing that is made to measure exactly for your body.

But one skill I haven’t got around to mastering yet is buttonholes. I’ve been finishing all my shirts so far with metal snap fasteners! Adding buttonholes is usually the very last step, and I’ve been so scared to cut holes into my projects in case it all goes wrong and my precious shirts are ruined. But I knew I would have to figure it out one day, if I wanted to master waistcoats and eventually things like blazers and trousers. Sew Brave month seemed like the perfect opportunity!

I chose the Belvedere waistcoat pattern from Thread Theory designs, because although it is a ‘menswear’ pattern and likely to not fit my body shape without adaptation, they offer lots of handy tips for fitting the pattern to a range of body types on their website. They also give lots of advice about customising the pattern further, adding a belt at the back or different pockets for example.

A photo of the Belevdere waistcoat instruction manual, teal wool fabric, brown lining fabric, rainbow scissors, brown buttons and teal and brown threads.

I picked out relatively cheap fabrics, so if it all was a disaster and went horribly wrong at least I hadn’t wasted too much money. I chose a teal wool twill for the main fabric, and a brown polyester lining fabric for the back and lining.

The first step was to measure my body and compare to the body measurements in the instructions. I did this wearing my chest binder as I will always be wearing this with the finished garment. As I expected, the ratio of my waist to chest measurement ratio was significantly different to the ratio in the pattern. This basically meant re-drawing the side seam in my pattern pieces. I also raised the armhole level as I have small-ish arms. I didn’t adjust the height, as although I’m only 5’4” it looked about right for me. Adapting the pattern was probably the trickiest part of the whole project, but I knew once I’d got it right, I could use it again and again.

Teal wool fabric and brown lining fabric cut into the pieces to make the waistcoat.

The actual assembly of the waistcoat was surprisingly straightforward and didn’t take very long at all. It was actually much simpler than making a shirt — no sleeves, collars, or button bands! Even the welt pockets weren’t actually that difficult; although they didn’t turn out completely flat and perfect, I was pretty thrilled with them anyway.  

A finished welt pocket in teal wool fabric.

I also opted to add a cinching narrow belt at the back to aid with the fit.

The back panel of the waistcoat, featuring a cinching belt in brown fabric.
A close up of the waistcoat, finished except for the buttons and buttonholes.

So in no time at all, it seemed, I’d got to the last part, the dreaded button holes. I put it off for a few days, trying to mentally prepare myself, and more than once debated whether I could get away with a strip of Velcro instead of cutting holes into my precious waistcoat (that I’d kind of fallen in love with by this point).

But I decided it was time to be brave and dug out my sewing machine manual. First I needed to swap the regular foot to the buttonhole foot, and learnt what settings I needed to select on my machine. Finally I tried out my very first buttonhole on some scrap fabric.

A scrap of teal wool fabric, with test attempts at buttonholes

And.. to my utter delight they were actually really easy. The machine practically does it all for you! Who knew? The only slightly scary part was opening up the hole with a seam ripper at the end – you need to make sure you don’t cut through the stitches of the buttonhole.

The time had come to put the buttonholes on my actual waistcoat. I put extra care into making sure I was happy with the positioning of the holes (normally I’m a bit of a ‘that’ll do’ type person! But not this time), and then just went for it.

A close up of the buttonholes no in the waistcoat.
A close up of the buttonholes and buttons in the waistcoat.

The last button is purposefully offset so that it can’t be done up, because apparently it’s a bit of a fashion faux pas to do up that last button!

And here it is all finished. I am actually thrilled with it and really proud of myself. It fits almost perfectly – fitted to my body but not accentuating its curves. Next time I might use a slightly thicker interfacing to smooth out the front even more. The buttons and buttonholes look great, and I’m finding it hard to believe I resisted learning how to do them for so long.

A cropped photo of the author, wearing the finished teal wool waistcoat, with a white shirt and a a white tie with rainbow constellations.
A photo of the author, wearing the finished teal wool waistcoat, with a white shirt and a a white tie with rainbow constellations.
A photo of the author, wearing the finished teal wool waistcoat, with a white shirt and a a white tie with rainbow constellations.
A photo showing the back of the waistcoat, which is brown, worn by the author also wearing a white shirt.
A photo showing the side view of the waistcoat, worn by the author also wearing a white shirt, who is looking at the camera.

I’ve paired my waistcoat here with a couple of other makes of mine, a white Archer shirt as I mentioned before, and a tie I made from my own fabric design printed on fabric from Spoonflower.

Making my own clothes has now become a bit addictive — it’s opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me to create from scratch the clothing I can’t find in the shops. It’s been amazing tool to help me feel more at home in my body and for relieving dysphoria. So it’s definitely been worth being a bit brave. I’m already ambitiously planning a whole range of floral shirts and three-piece suits.

Emery Smith is a surface pattern designer and chartered accountant from the UK. They can be found on Instagram as @emeryallardsmith and you can check out their designs over at Spoonflower.

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