Thursday, February 23, 2012

Button lore (part 2 of button holes for hand knitters series)

This is the second post in a TECHknitting series on buttonholes in hand knitting.  The first post covered lore and tradition about buttonholes, plus some nifty tricks. Today, some background information about the buttons themselves, as well as how to sew them on.

Buttons, shanked and unshanked
It is evident that a buttonhole must be large enough to allow the button through without straining, yet not so large that the button pops loose when you breathe. Less evident, perhaps, is the relationship between the thickness of the band and the height of the button shank.

Buttons come in two kinds: shanked and unshanked.   Shanked buttons are the kind with a little stem on the button back.  Unshanked buttons feature sewing holes which go right through them.  When using an unshanked button on hand-knit, it is wise to create a thread shank as the button is sewn on. Matching shank height to band thickness helps prevent puckering and undue wear from a too-short shank, or drooping from a too-long shank.

Thread shanks
To make a thread shank on an unshanked button, insert a spacer (traditionally a matchstick or a toothpick) between the button and the button band, before sewing down the button. Go to this post for a nifty new trick for holding the spacer in place as you sew.

Continue sewing the button. When the sewing is complete, remove the spacer. As the last step before knotting off the thread, bring the threaded needle up between the buttonband and the button, then reinforce the shank you've made by winding several times around the sewing threads. Whether you create the shank from thread or whether the button comes shanked, match the shank height to the thickness of the buttonhole band: a button shanked high enough for a heavy woolen sweater-coat will droop and wobble if buttoned through a thin summer sweater.

Anchor buttons
For a heavy button which wants to droop regardless, consider an anchor button on the inside of the buttonband.  An anchor button distributes the weight of a heavy button, and help keep it upright.  Conversely, anchor buttons also work well on thin or delicate fabrics: they distribute the weight of the main button, take the strain and prevent ripping at the attachment-point.

Both the main button and the anchor button are sewn at the same time, using the same thread and needle. The main button is shanked-- either by being a shanked button in the first place, or by sewing it on with a thread shank.  By contrast, the anchor button is sewn on flat because it is non-functional (it does not go through a buttonhole).

* * *
The next post in this series will be about how to make"sheepseye" buttonholes, which some folks call "yarn over buttonholes."  We'll look at the traditional method, plus a nifty trick to skip the yarn over, which tightens them up and makes them prettier.

Until then, good knitting!



Allison said...

I had never heard of an achor button. I'm learning something new everyday!

TECHknitter said...

From AVERY, via e-mail

I am emailing my comment.

Thank you for writing about buttons. So many reference books focus on buttonholes that the buttons get overlooked.

Have you any advice for the horizontal placement of the button? Should it be centered across edging, or placed slightly off-center? When a sweater is buttoned, sometimes the button gets dragged horizontally.

Also, there are lovely glass and ceramic buttons, but I have found that they sometimes drag a sweater downward if the the knotted fabric is thin and/or drapey (in the latter case, bulky alpaca). Any advice?



Hi Avery:
As to horizontal buttonholes, you are correct, the buttonhole should be off center. This is because the functional part of the button is its shank, and the buttonhole slit slides sideways until it is stopped by the shank. Therefore, in theory at least, the OUTER EDGE of the buttonhole should be centered on the button band. This way, when the sideways slide is stopped by the shank, the buttonhole is actually centered on the underlying button band.

However, most front bands are too narrow to allow such a fully-off-center placement (in other words, the band would have to be a lot broader to permit a horizontal buttonhole to be so off-center that only its outer edge was on-center). So, we have to do the best we can, and move the buttonhole as off-center as possible without having to make extra-wide bands, and without having the buttonholes look oddly placed when the sweater is open.

As to the issue of dropping--an anchor button helps a lot, as does a firm thread shank to hold the main button firmly onto the anchor button. The thread shank acts as a sort of firm bridge between the two buttons, keeping the upper one braces up.

A little-known fact is that even shanked buttons can be attached with an anchor button, then have the sewing thread wrapped around the metal or plastic shank to form a bridge between the two buttons. Not wrapping a shanked button (that is: sewing it only at the very bottom) allows it to swivel as if on a hinge, and therefore droop, but wrapping the shank prevents this.

Suzanne said...

This is very helpful information! I have a sweater that I am doing to sew big buttons on but they are too large to go through the buttonhole. I have a second button ready to sew on the reverse which will actually go through the buttonhole. Do I still follow the anchor button suggestion? And is it called an anchor button in my case? Thank you!

TECHknitter said...

Hi Suzanne--in your case, you sew the big decoration button on flat, and shank the underneath button. It is actually called a "hidden button" in your situation.

Suzanne said...

Thank you so much! I had no idea what to call it. I appreciate your reply.

D. Carlen said...

My comment has less to do about this post and overall an applaud to you and your blog. Amazing information you possess and share! THANK YOU for blogging and creating and diagramming and illustrating. You are a source not only of a wealth of information and inspiration, but thoughtfulness and joy.