Saturday, October 1, 2011

How to sew on a button without the spacer sandwich

A spacer sandwich?  What?

one kind of spacer sandwich

Actually, this post is not about UFO's on a bun, it's about a different kind of spacer sandwich--it's about a little trick to make sewing on buttons easier.  How it came about is that recently, I had to sew 9 buttons onto a sweater-coat.  Naturally, only on the very last one did today's neat trick decide to reveal itself.

The problem arises because non-shanked buttons (the kinds with holes in the top) still need to have a shank (shank = little stem on button back).  The shank raises the button high enough so that you can work the button into and out of the button hole without the button compressing the fabric.  Naturally, the thicker the fabric, the longer must be the shank.  

shanked and unshanked

Shanked buttons are offered in different shank heights, but unshanked buttons are more generally versatile--making the shank yourself out of thread allows you to custom-control the shank height, and so use the same button on a thin fabric or on a thick one.

The usual method for making a thread shank on an unshanked button involves inserting a spacer of the desired height (a matchstick or toothpick is common) between the button and the fabric, then sewing the button on over the spacer.  At the end, the spacer is removed. The needle is then poked into the space between the button and the fabric, and the loose sewing loops are wrapped tightly with thread to make the shank.  Finally, the end of the thread is "buried" in the thickness of the underlying fabric, taking one or two 180 degree bends on the way to stop it from pulling out.  The end result of all the sandwiching and sewing and wrapping and burying is a thread shank.

a thread shank being wrapped

Until today's trick revealed itself to me, I dutifully sewed on buttons by making each into a button-spacer-sandwich: the button on top, the matchstick in the middle, and the knitting on the bottom.  Naturally, until several stitches were made and this slippery sandwich snugged down, the spacer wanted to shoot out, fall down or generally wiggle around, taking the button with it and requiring the whole works to be carefully repositioned before sewing could re-commence.  Annoying.

a spacer sandwich about to be sewn

So, on button number nine, when patience was wearing out and sailor words were about to fly, it occurred to me to tack the spacer down FIRST! with a couple of stitches! and THEN sew the button on over the spacer.

tack the spacer down first with a stitch or two, 
and say goodbye to the wiggly sandwich



Blogger Snapper said...

You are a freaking genius. That is all.

October 1, 2011 at 5:57 AM  
Blogger Cambria said...

lol, it's always at the very end of a frustrating project that we are suddenly struck with genius ;) Thanks for sharing so the rest of us can avoid cursing like a sailor too...we hope ;)

October 1, 2011 at 7:07 AM  
Blogger Cheryl S. said...

I usually use a tapestry needle as my spacer (I guess a matchstick would work equally well), and insert it across the top of the button through the first loop (or loops, for 4-hole buttons) of thread. Then I continue to sew the thread up through the button, over the top of the tapestry needle, and down the other button hole. The thread holds the tapestry needle neatly in place until I'm done, then I just slip it out when I'm ready to create the shank.

October 1, 2011 at 10:36 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Rosenberg said...

You are so smart. Thank you!

October 1, 2011 at 1:16 PM  
Blogger adriene said...

Maybe I'm just ignorant, but it never occurred to me that I would need a shank on a shankless button. I kind of like how they sit flat against the fabric. Raised in a barn, that's me...

October 2, 2011 at 9:50 PM  
Blogger Diana Troldahl said...

One of those simple things that are failed in passing on the knowledge sometimes. My grandma taught me to secure the spacer with a basting thread, to be removed after the button was sewn on.

October 2, 2011 at 9:58 PM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

As always, aptly timed. I have a bunch of buttons to sew on my Einstein Coat. Thanks!

October 3, 2011 at 5:54 AM  
Blogger Gamba Girl said...

Nice! I have been using a large yarn needle, but putting it on the top of the button. Very slippery and fiddly, and exceedingly tedious. Stitching a match stick to the fabric is much better!

October 3, 2011 at 8:42 AM  
Blogger Naycha said...

Don't feel bad Adriene....I didn't know you were supposed to do this either!! Of course, I'm normally sewing buttons back on my husband's carpenter shorts and he's never complained, so on his shorts it's probably not crucial. But on my next knitted project that requires buttons, I'll definitely give the shank a try.

October 3, 2011 at 8:46 AM  
Blogger TECHknitter said...

On thin fabric, its probably OK to sew buttons on without a shank, but on thick fabric, it really stresses out the part where the button is sewed on if there is no shank to give "wiggle room." Another good trick on a heavy coat is to sew on an "anchor button" on the inside of the garment, too, to spread the stress around.

October 3, 2011 at 12:22 PM  
Blogger dillpickle said...

Oh! So that's what shanks are about! I've often wondered about them, but never for long enough to go investigating!! Thanks :-)

I've just popped over from Briney Deep Designs to your short row post, started poking around and learned a few things. I think I'll need to spend some time exploring your archives, and adding you to my reader, too :-)

October 11, 2011 at 12:02 AM  
Anonymous Judy C said...

Well, I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that it has never occurred to me to use any kind of spacer at all. I always just left the stitches "long" and then wrapped the thread around the long stitches at the end to make the shank. I just love this new idea and can't wait to try it! I'll bet it will save a lot of fussing.

October 11, 2011 at 10:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this trick!
Pavla (

P.S. for some reason I cannot post with my gmail account.

October 15, 2011 at 12:59 PM  
Blogger gayle said...

Um, I use a comb for the spacer. Easy to hold, the needle pokes easily between the teeth, easy to pull out afterward.

October 17, 2011 at 9:59 AM  
Blogger TECHknitter said...

Oooo Gayle--very clever!

October 17, 2011 at 8:52 PM  
Blogger EverEvolving said...

Uhmm..I always believed that the easiest way to sew a button with thread shank is to
-fasten thread to fabric;
-put the button on fabric
-put the "spacer", as you call it, (big yarn needle works well for me)on top of the button
-sew the button in this position, with the spacer on top, so thread goes over it
-pull the spacer out
-lift the button using the slack from the spacer gone
-wrap thread around to solidify the shank.

October 27, 2011 at 1:59 AM  
Anonymous dustyboyer said...

Could you use a tapestry needle as a spacer, but just "pin" the fabric with the tapestry needle, where you want to sew the button? That is, pierce the fabric with the tapestry needle in two places in such a way that the fabric holds the needle in place. This may leave unsightly holes in tightly woven fabric, but in knitted fabric I don't think that would be a problem.

February 27, 2012 at 10:39 AM  
Blogger TECHknitter said...

Hi Dusty Boyer--that sounds like a good idea! TK

February 27, 2012 at 12:23 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hmm - I thought the idea was to put the spacer on the top of the button, where you could control it easier, then pull it out and the button has room to do the loops on the bottom (found some pictures here: )

January 26, 2014 at 2:06 PM  

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