Shirtdress Sew-Along: Buttons and Buttonholes

McCall Pattern Company Shirtdress Sew-Along

If you’ve been following along with us, your shirtdress is probably looking like a shirtdress! The next step is buttons and buttonholes, which are one of the most distinctive features of this style. Read on for our very best tips on picking the right buttons, sewing professional-looking buttonholes, and cutting them open cleanly and accurately.

Picking your buttons

Shirtdresses generally look best with buttons that are no larger than 3/8″ to 1/2″ wide. Take a look at the shirts in your closet: You’ll probably find that the buttons are on the plain side, most likely some shade of white or pearly gray. And that’s ok. With a placket and collars and sleeves and pockets, your shirtdress already has a lot going. Keep your buttons simple to focus attention on your dress.

McCall Pattern Company Shirtdress Sew-Along
Small, simple buttons on this Lisa Marie Fernandez shirtdress (Net-a-Porter)

Placement and Marking

When you’re ready to go, mark the buttonholes on the overlap side of your placket using chalk or a washable marker. You don’t have to follow the placement guide in the pattern exactly—if you have an existing shirt or shirtdress that you like, go ahead and copy the buttonhole spacing onto your new shirtdress. Or, you can place buttons at stress points like the waist and fullest part of your bust first, then space the remaining buttonholes at even intervals on either side of them.

For the most accurate placement, you’ll want to mark both ends of each buttonhole and along the center line. The buttonholes should be a bit longer than the button’s length plus its thickness, so the buttons will fit through smoothly but securely.

standard machine buttonhole. McCall Pattern Company Shirtdress Sew-Along

Tips for Machine Buttonholes

Different machines have different procedures for sewing buttonholes, so if you haven’t done one in a while you might want to flip through your machine’s manual to refresh your memory. Mark and sew a test buttonhole on an interfaced scrap of fabric first to make sure you’re able to accurately hit your marks, and that you’re happy with the size, width, and stitch density. Cut it open to make sure your buttons fit through nicely. When you’ve made a successful test buttonhole, you’re ready to move on to the real thing.

When sewing the buttonholes, start at the bottom or on a sleeve and work your way up to the more visible areas. If you’re going to botch one or two, make it in an inconspicuous area! By the time you’ve reached the front-and-center locations, you’ll be a pro.

If you do mess up, take a deep breath! Get out your seam ripper and carefully cut the buttonhole stitches from the back side, to reduce the chance of cutting into the visible face of your fabric. Once you’ve cut enough stitches, you should be able to pull gently on the top thread and remove it in one piece. Hit the spot with some steam and rub it with your finger to minimize the stitching marks, then touch up your markings if necessary and try again.

Alternative Buttonhole Methods

Not all sewing machines make great buttonholes. If you’re not happy with yours, here are a few other options you can try:

zigzag buttonhole. McCall Pattern Company blog Shirtdress Sew-Along
Buttonhole made using only the zigzag stitch.

As long as your machine has a zigzag stitch, you can make a buttonhole by adjusting the settings manually. Set a very short stitch length – about 0.5mm – and a 1.5mm stitch width for the sides of the buttonhole, then turn the length down to zero and the width up to 5mm for the ends.

If you have an embroidery machine, you can download plain and fancy buttonholes in all different shapes and sizes. For a shirtdress you probably want to stick with the plain ones, but you may find that the embroidery machine produces more consistent and attractive buttonholes than the standard buttonhole function.

Vintage Greist buttonholer and template. McCall Pattern Company Shirtdress Sew-Along
Vintage Greist buttonholer and template

I like to make my buttonholes using a vintage buttonhole attachment. It was originally invented for use with straight stitch machines that didn’t have their own buttonhole function, but you can find versions to fit most modern sewing machines (Greist and Singer both made these for many years, and you can get them inexpensively on eBay and Etsy. Or, you might luck into one at your local thrift store). The attachment should come with several templates for different size buttonholes. Just insert the correct size for your buttons, screw the attachment on in place of the presser foot,  drop or cover the feed dogs, and go. Because the attachment moves the fabric in place of the feed dogs, I find that I get the best results with the presser foot pressure turned all the way up.

Cutting your buttonholes

buttonhole cutting tools. McCall Pattern Company Shirtdress Sew-Along
You can cut buttonholes with a seam ripper, sharp-pointed scissors, or a buttonhole chisel.

There are several different ways to cut buttonholes. Before I cut, I like to run a line of fray-check along the inside of the buttonhole to prevent fraying and unraveling. Allow to dry completely before cutting.

A buttonhole chisel is a great tool for getting a quick, accurate cut. It’s usually sold with a little mat or block of wood that you place under the buttonhole so you don’t mark up the table underneath. The blade is used perpendicular to the fabric, and gives a perfectly straight, clean edge. You’re unlikely to cut too far with this method, but be careful to align the chisel correctly so you don’t cut your stitching by accident.

Small, sharp-pointed scissors are another option; you can use them to cut the entire buttonhole or just to neaten up the loose threads after cutting with a seam ripper.

Use a pin as a safety stop when cutting buttonholes open. McCall Pattern Company Shirtdress Sew-Along
Use a pin as a safety stop

To cut buttonholes with a seam ripper, first place a pin across the end of the buttonhole to prevent you from slipping and cutting too far. Insert the point of the seam ripper at each end of the buttonhole and cut toward the center as an extra precaution.

Sewing on Buttons

Once you’ve sewed your buttonholes and cut them open, line the overlap up on top of the underlap and mark the positions of your buttons. Position the buttons slightly above the midpoint of the buttonhole, as this will help to prevent the buttonhole from gaping open under strain or coming unbuttoned by accident.

Sewing a button on by machine. McCall Pattern Company Shirtdress Sew-Along
Sewing a button on by machine

The most secure way to attach buttons is by hand sewing, but if you’re in a rush or just hate this part you can do it by machine. First, set your machine to a zigzag stitch and drop your feed dogs or set the stitch length to zero. If you have a button foot use it, or if your machine uses snap-on feet you can remove the foot. Position the button under the needle and balance a pin between the holes to serve as a spacer. Then, adjust the stitch width to match the spacing between the holes on the button. Manually crank the machine through a complete stitch to make sure the needle won’t hit the button, then sew back and forth a few more times for a secure hold. After sewing all your buttons, clip your threads and dab a bit of fray-check on the back to prevent unravelling. You’re all set!

Next week: Hems and finishing. The end is almost in sight! You can still join our Shirtdress Sew-Along Facebook Group; plus, don’t forget we’re having a random drawing for an Oliso iron and other sewing goodies. Details here (scroll down to the end of the post). Have a great weekend! #shirtdresssewalong [8/22/16 update: This group is now closed as the sew-along is officially over. All shirtdress construction information and tips are located on this blog.]

  1. Thanks for this tutorial! So if I am going to sew my buttons by hand, do I still balance the button on a pin to serve as a spacer?

    1. You don’t need the pin if you’re sewing by hand because you can control how tight you’re pulling the thread – just leave a little bit of play in the stitches, and then after you’re done sewing you can wrap the thread around the base of the button two or three times to create a little shank before knotting it off.

  2. I learned a tip on Pinterest for buttons that makes it much easier (for me, anyway). Use painter’s tape to secure the top and bottom of the button (leaving the holes free) to the garment before you put it under the machine to stitch the button on. Keeps it from slip-sliding as you position your garment under the presser foot. Then you just peel away the tape when the button is on.

    1. Nice tip! Thanks for sharing.

  3. I have to say that l had broken every rule for my shirtdress – regarding buttons l chose chocolate brown 3/4 inch ones , as it suited the type of fabric l used. I understand if a person is starting out on their first shirt dress, then perhaps sticking to ‘traditional’ shirt buttons is a useful thing to do, but on the other hand when you are making your own garment – this gives you the opportunity to be creative and use whatever style and type of buttons you desire, as long as they fit on that button placket and not too oversized.

    1. In the end, you’re the one wearing it! Make what makes you happy.

  4. Hi, I have a question which is TOTALLY off topic, but I didn’t know where else to post it, so, sorry in advance! With the trend for off-the-shoulder tops and dresses being all the rage – where are the sewing patterns for us sewists to replicate? My google search shows plenty of rather old looking patterns, but where are the patterns that can be purchased from well-known websites? Surely the pattern companies are able to turn this one around in a reasonable time?


    1. Hi Lee! We have a brand-new Pinterest board featuring our off-the-shoulder patterns. Check it out!

      1. Hi Meg – Many thanks for the quick response! Will definitely take a look.

  5. Thank you for the tips! Question: regarding the vintage button hole tool, do you use it with a vintage machine from the same era or do you attach it to a modern sewing machine? I have a modern push (from 2005) basic computerized machine and I’m not happy with the buttonholes. Please advise when you can.


    1. I use it with a Janome Sewist 500, a modern mechanical machine. It’s the Greist #1 model, I believe, and I’ve also successfully attached it to a basic Brother mechanical. You may need a different buttonholer model depending on the type of foot attachment your machine has, but there’s a good chance there’s one out there that will work.

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