Ah, buttons! Tiny details with lots of personality, buttons can change the vibe of a garment. Buttons are so great that sometimes we use them just for fun. There is even an idiom to celebrate the button. Originally used to describe something clever or ingenious—cute is a shorter version of acute—the idiot developed to accommodate the new meaning of the word—adorable.
Buttons are so important that there is a day dedicated to them. The National Button Society declared November 16 to be National Button Day, and who am I to argue? I am always ready for a celebration!
The History of Buttons
The button has an uncertain past. The first button-like objects date back to prehistoric times. In Medieval Europe, clothes were fastened with strings, pins, or belts. In the 13th century, the buttonhole was invented; buttons started to be used to give clothing a fitted look.
The word button comes from the French word bouton, which means bud or knob. For centuries, buttons were used as a sign of status and wealth. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, dress code laws were put in place to regulate personal spending on luxuries, putting limits on the use of fancy fabrics, furs, and—you guessed it!—buttons.
Buttons became primarily utilitarian in the 20th century. The button lost even more ground with the invention of the zipper. Plastic allowed for the mass production of buttons, and what was a luxury item in yesterdays can now be purchased for a few cents.
Types of Buttons: Function
The fun one in the family. Because of their unusual shape, these are usually non-functional buttons that are used for decoration purposes only
These are, well, flat. They are made from plastic, resin, metal, or natural materials and have two of four holes. Because they are flat, you can use a specialty foot to machine sew them. This button is flush against the fabric.
When sewing light- to medium-weight fabrics, use two-hole buttons. When working with heavier fabric or clothing that will withstand a lot of wear and tear, four-hole buttons provide a stronger attachment.
Shank buttons do not have visible holes; the “hole” is a protuberance that grows from the bottom of the button. This type of button allows for some space between the button and the fabric.
Shank buttons work well when a garment needs to hang or drape. With thick fabric, shank buttons allow extra room between the button and the garment.
Snap Buttons (aka Press Buttons)
This button is made of two pieces, one sewn to each side of the garment, and the two pieces snap into each other to close the opening.
Stud Buttons (aka Jeans Buttons)
These are the buttons you find in jeans or other denim garments. They are made of two parts that are pressed together onto the fabric by a special tool. Once together, it is almost impossible to separate them.
These are elongated buttons with one or two holes in the center. A string passes through the holes; one side of the string attaches to one side of the garment opening and the other attaches to the opposite side to create a loop. This is a button that does not require a buttonhole.
Types of Buttons: Materials
Plastic buttons are easy to find, practical, and very affordable. They can mimic other, more expensive materials like metal or pearl, and really, who is going to grab your shirt button to verify the authenticity of the material? I hope no one!
Not only for the military or steampunk fans, metal buttons can be made of one or a combination of metals. Zinc and brass are the most popular metals for button manufacturing. Metal buttons are your best bet if you are looking for resilient, long-lasting buttons.
If machine washing, select a gentler setting. Avoid the dryer. Make sure that the buttons are dry before storing your garment. If your buttons need cleaning, this article on the Clorox website has steps for different kinds of metal.
Shell buttons are made of abalone, marine snails, or mother of pearl, the same material that eventually becomes a pearl. These buttons are beautiful, changing color with the light. Many question if these materials are ethically sourced and sustainable.
Horn and Bone
These are buttons made of animal bone and horns. Given the ethical issues, some may prefer to purchase plastic buttons made to imitate horn and bone. Hand wash garments with horn or bone buttons. Hang to dry.
Glass buttons add a nice decorative touch to garments. Much more common in the past, today many of the buttons that look like glass are actually plastic.
Even though durable, you should not wash garments with glass buttons in a washing machine. Hand wash garment to ensure that your glass buttons are not nicked or cracked and hang it to dry.
These are made of wood that can be left untreated, varnished, or painted. When possible, go for buttons that are described as eco-friendly or sustainable. Avoid soaking in water. Hand washing is preferable.
These are made of real and more recently faux leather. Because real leather can be uneven in color and texture, buttons made with this material can show variations even within the same batch.
Do not wash garments with leather buttons in the washing machine. Do not soak. Clean with a polishing cloth and saddle soap, Neetsfoot Oil, neutral shoe cream, baby oil, or mineral oil.
These are plastic frames covered in fabric. You can match your buttons to their garment perfectly. You can find kits that make the whole process quite easy.
Tools and Techniques to Work with Buttons
Automatic Button Sewing Foot
Tired of sewing your buttons by hand? A button sewing foot can do all the work for you. Make sure to read the instructions on your sewing machine manual to use this presser foot
One-Step Automatic Buttonhole Foot
A buttonhole foot is presser foot that allows you to sew perfect buttonholes. There is a slot for you to place your button, and based on its size, your machine will sew a buttonhole in one step.
If you’ve never seen a Simflex before, it looks like someone stole a piece of an old store security gate. This contraption helps you mark your buttons and buttonholes with accuracy and speed. Pull it open, decide how much space you want between your buttonholes and buttons, mark their location, and that’s it! No more Math to hurt your brain.
How To Sew a Button
The video below by Nikki Callahan is the best tutorial on sewing a button I have ever seen. I particularly love that she used a very large button for her demonstration—it makes the process super clear.
Hand Sewing Button Stitches
You can add some flair your hand sewn buttons with the stitches below.
Where to Find Buttons
I am very lucky to be surrounded by some of the best fabric stores in the country. In 20-30 minutes, I can get to Mood or Michael Levine Fabrics 26 and see all the most beautiful buttons in person. There are a lot of online stores that can easily ship buttons. Unlike fabric, buttons are light, so shipping charges are not expensive—and many will ship for free if you reach a minimum.
National Button Day
As small as they are, buttons can definitely change the vibe of a garment. They can hold sentimental value like the buttons I inherited from my grandmother. They can breathe new life into old clothing and make boring pieces exciting. On this National Button Day, let’s raise a glass to this unsung hero of the sewing world.