Ask the Sewcialists — Buttonholes and Zippers

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The clamshell case for Kerry's vintage Singer buttonholer. It's classic retro grey-green, in an elongated oval bubble. The case sits on Kerry's sewing table with a pair of Ikea scissors that she swears she didn't use to cut fabric!
Vintage buttonholer from Singer that comes in this Jetsons’ style case. I did not use those Ikea scissors for cutting fabric — don’t @ me.

Hey all! A few weeks ago, when I was managing the Instagram account, I asked if anyone had any questions for the Sewcialists. While I thought you’d all ask about how to become editors (seriously though — consider putting your name in next time there’s a callout! It’s a lot of fun!), there were actual sewing questions!

I’m going to take two questions related to my own fears: how to sew around a zipper pull, and tips and tricks for buttonholes. Editor Chloe is going to handle some other questions in another post.


I should preface this by saying that I don’t love doing either of these two tasks, buttonholes or zippers!

The question we got on Instagram was just a plea for advice on how to make buttonholes. I’ll run through a few options, and show off my new-to-me toolkit!

My last sewing machine had all the feet and a buttonholer; my new(ish) Janome is more of a heavy duty basic machine and is missing some of these key amenities. In face, you have to make buttonholes manually on my machine, and not in a cute or pretty way.

Luckily, I was listening to the podcast Love to Sew one day and Helen (from Helen’s Closet Patterns) was talking about this very handy very old Singer buttonholer. I’m not gonna lie, I was on eBay 5 minutes later and got one of my very own.

The buttonholer attachment, nestled into its case. The tool itself takes up most of the case, with compartments on either end for the dies of different sizes.
Vintage Singer buttonhole foot

I will absolutely confess that I have not used it yet, but it rather closely resembles a giant walking foot and makes key hole and regular straight buttonholes from dies (cut metal templates). They’re appropriate for all low shank machines.

So, back to actually making buttonholes. If you’re freehanding the buttonhole (i.e. bar tacking around a pre-marked line where you want your buttonhole to be), I’d really like to send you to this Instagram highlight from Grace, aka @wzrdreams. I almost cried when I watched this, it was so pretty.

If you’re using the three step buttonhole method like my machine, you line up the needle on the top left side of your marked buttonhole line, then slowly but not too slowly (so, like a medium speed) sew to the end of your marked buttonhole line, switch to the middle setting which does a bar tack from left to right, stop on the right, switch to the right setting and go up from there, repeating the bar tack at the top. You can see why I bought the Singer attachment, right?

Kerry's sewing machine dial showing the three parts of its button-hole settings: left bar, right bar, and top/bottom bar.
Kerry’s dusty Janome three step button hole settings.

Using a Singer buttonhole attachment is another beast entirely. Again, they’re for a low shank machine; they’re vintage; get as many dies as you can in your kit; and watch this Instagram highlight from Helen to see how it works. It’s magic, people. Magic!

If your machine has a buttonhole attachment, use it. I really miss that feature of my old Brother machine. Basically, you put your button in the back of the piece of plastic that attaches to your shank, and the buttonhole setting “reads” how big that button is and adds a bit of extra space so you can get the button in and out of the finished hole.

Other useful tips and tricks:

  • Daub your buttonhole with a bit of Fray Check so that it doesn’t keep shredding. I think there are different schools of thought about whether to use the Fray Check before or after you cut the buttonhole — I use it after.
  • Get yourself a tiny little chisel to cut open your buttonhole. Listen, there are people who will tell you to use scissors. Those people are not me. My hand-scissor coordination is not good enough to cut such a tiny thing without cutting the stitches on the buttonhole.
  • When you do your practice rounds (did I mention that I normally make five or six buttonholes on scrap before I try to make the real deal?) make sure that you interface the fabric and use the exact same fabric that you’re going to make the final buttonhole on. Take it from someone who didn’t do this and couldn’t figure out what went wrong, this is a step too important to miss. No one likes messing about with interfacing, but just do it. It’s worth it.

Finally, when in doubt, rip it out. Yup, it’s a pain and it leaves 80 million tiny threads behind, but we aren’t doing fast fashion, we’re doing it right, amiright?


Onto the very specific zipper question, which was this: How do you sew around a zipper pull? I hopped on to say (not that facetiously) that you should do it very slowly. But there’s actually a tip here: Start with your zip open and sew it in place. When you’re about halfway down, move your zipper pull up to the top, so the zipper is closed. Now you’ve sewn around it. Repeat for the other side.

Sometimes the most simple option is actually the one that works the best. This doesn’t work in all cases, but it does work in most. Also, lots of people hopped on to the comments to hype this technique (specifically for invisible zippers, which is what I am grappling with now) from Kenneth D. King and the editors at Threads magazine.

I hope these tips and hints help!

Kerry is a moderate level sewist with many fears and not that much stick-to-it-iveness when it comes to things she’s not that good at. She can often be found @gymnauseous on Instagram.