Monday, February 20, 2012

Button holes in hand knitting, part 1: Lore and tradition plus some nifty tips

This is the first post in a multi-post series on buttonholes.  Some of this material has appeared in print in Interweave Knits, some of it is brand new. This first post covers the lore and tradition of buttonholes, as well as offering some nifty general tips. 

Which side? 
Tradition puts men’s buttons on the right band and buttonholes on the left, with women’s clothing opposite: buttons left, buttonholes right. Do you wonder why? At certain periods in history, women’s clothing became so elaborate, assistance was required in dressing. Buttonholes on the right are easier for a right-handed assistant facing the wearer (although not for the wearer herself!)

Girl? Boy? Don’t know? 
If gender traditions are important for you, here's a nifty trick. For baby sweaters, make buttonholes on both sides, but leave off the buttons.After the birth, sew the buttons on over the “wrong-side” buttonholes. This closes the unneeded buttonholes, yet permits switching for a future sibling of different gender.

Perfect spacing, no math
Cut a piece of sturdy no-stretch string about 1 inch shorter (for really big buttons, maybe 2” shorter) than the proposed button band. Determine desired number of buttons, then subtract 1 from that number and fold the string into that number of sections. Example: for 5 total buttons, 5-1=4, so fold the string into 4 equal sections. Mark each of the three resulting folds with a pin. Straighten the string. The top and bottom button are to be centered on the very ends of the string, and the intervening three buttons are to be centered on each pin in the string segment. Measure each string segment to figure out how many inches of band to allow between the holes. If using vertical buttonholes, remember that the pin shows the buttonhole center, not bottom so start the actual buttonhole accordingly.

Horizontal or vertical? 
Ever wonder why some sweaters have top and bottom buttonholes horizontal, and intermediate buttonholes vertical? Horizontal buttonholes prevent vertical slippage, keeping bands aligned top and bottom.Vertical buttonholes prevent horizontal slippage, keeping the bands centered on one another. This two-way alignment is found on high-end sweaters, and adds a touch of class to hand-knit sweaters, too. A further refinement: Horizontal buttonholes are worked so the outer edge not the center of the buttonhole!) is centered on the buttonhole band. Why? When wearing, the button pulls to the outside of the slot. This off-center placement keeps the bands aligned.

Buttonholes and their bands
Buttonhole bands and button bands are best made in a non-curling fabric (i.e.: NOT stockinette). Horizontal buttonholes work well in a row-structured (horizontal) fabric, such as garter stitch, while vertical buttonholes work well in a column structured (vertical) fabric, such as ribbing.For two-way alignment, something’s got to give, so swatch it out both ways and see whether you prefer horizontal holes in a vertical fabric or vice-versa.


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The second post in this series will cover background information about the actual buttons themselves. Subsequent posts will show how to make various buttonholes and fix common buttonhole errors. Til then, good knitting!

--TK