Monday, March 5, 2012

Vertical buttonholes--part 4 in a series

In this post--the fourth in a TECHknitting series about buttonholes*--we're going to look at vertical buttonholes. The first half of the post covers traditional (simple) vertical buttonholes, as well as the traditional sewn reinforcement: the buttonhole stitch.  The second half of the post introduces two new kinds of vertical buttonholes: intarsia and sewn strip.  

Some of this material was previously published in Interweave Knits magazine, some of it is new.

Traditional simple vertical
Traditional simple vertical buttonholes are made in two stages:
  • part 1: The side adjoining the garment is knitted with the running yarn, shown in lighter gray. 
  • part 2: The outer side is made with a scrap length of yarn shown in darker gray
The two parts are then united above the buttonhole, the resulting vertical slit is as shown below. (Of course, in a real garment the two sides of the slit are made with the same color yarn.)

These vertical buttonholes are somewhat fragile. You can see that a single strand of yarn has to take the strain in various places: at the top and the bottom of the slit, and also along the side edges. In addition to being fragile, these buttonholes are also messy: two loose ends (shown in pink and in red) have to be worked in for each buttonhole made.

Reinforcing the slit with stitches top and bottom, as well as the buttonhole stitch
Traditional knitters learned to solve the messy-problem while at the same time solving the fragile-problem with a real lemons-to-lemonade solution. The trick developed was to leave the two ends rather long.  At finishing time, one end would be threaded onto a dull needle, then used to add a sewn reinforcement to one half the buttonhole--a couple of stitches sewn at the end of the slit, then a "buttonhole stitch" reinforcement up the side, as shown below. The other end was then threaded and used to reinforce the other half of the buttonhole. At the end of all the sewing, the ends were skimmed in, using a sharp needle. (For more about dull vs. sharp needles, see here and here.)

Intarsia improved vertical
By using two balls of yarn, it is possible to make vertical buttonholes with no sewing at all, and no pesky ends to work in at each buttonhole. The idea here is to create the buttonholes via intarsia, by actually knitting two separate strips of fabric, interlocking them via the knitting process.

Intarsia is the trick of knitting two side-by-side columns of fabric at the same time, interlocking them as-you-go. Intarsia has you cast on several stitches across the bottom of fabric with one ball of yarn, then cast on the next several stitches using yarn from a different ball.  As you knit across the fabric on the first row, you'll come to where the different yarn was cast on.  Dropping the original yarn, you pick up the strand of the neighboring yarn from underneath and knit the rest of the row with the second yarn.  Picking up from underneath in this manner twists the new yarn over the old yarn.  By continuing to interlock the yarns on every row at the point where you switch from one yarn to the other, you get interlocked fabric columns made from two different balls of yarn.  

Although this trick is traditionally used to create neighboring vertical stripes of different colors on a garment, you can make buttonholes using this trick, too. Specifically, when you come to where you want the buttonhole, you simply work each side with its own skein of yarn for a certain distance without interlocking. When the buttonhole is as long as you want, you close the top of the slit by going back to intarsia,  until you reach where you want to put the next buttonhole. 

On the upside, intarsia buttonholes are a pretty slick trick because they eliminate all the ends you otherwise have to work in.  On the downside, not having those ends to buttonhole-stitch with means you're back to a somewhat fragile buttonhole. 

However, here are a couple of tricks to improve the situation:
Improved vertical: Sewn-strip method
With this trick, vertical buttonholes are made by sewing on a strip of knitted fabric, leaving slits for buttonholes. The major advantage of this trick is that you can try on the finished garment, then place the buttonholes EXACTLY where they ought to go based on your custom-fit.

The easiest and quickest way to proceed would be to make the inner portion of the buttonhole band as a self edge.  In the below diagrams, this means that the inner part of the two-part band (medium gray) is knit at the same time as the fabric of the sweater itself (light gray).  The outer strip (dark gray) is then attached afterwards. By this method, there is only one strip sewn on: the outer strip.

Another variation has you knit BOTH halves of the buttonhole band after the sweater is done, then sew the inner (medium gray) to the sweater fabric (light gray) and then the outer (dark gray) to the inner (medium gray).  By knitting both halves of the band afterwards, the total width of the sweater can be adjusted after the main part of the sweater has been knit and assembled.  If the finished garment seems a bit snug, a surprising amount of fabric can be added with these afterthought bands.

To attach the strip(s), swatch to see which the method which best suits your work. The overcast stitch (shown on both diagrams below) works well when the stitches will be hidden: on a fuzzy mohair, for example. (The link shows the overcast stitch used to attach woven fabric to knitting, but the exact same stitch, made the exact same way, can be used to attach the strips of knitting here.)

Note: do you wonder how to sew up both sides
of the buttonhole slit?  
See comment #3, in the comment 
section below, for details

The simple overcast is not the only way to attach: a slip stitch works well with ribbing in a smooth yarn. (The slip-stitch at the link is shown worked on a garter stitch background as an edging, but the identical procedure is used to attach two pieces of fabric--the hook is simply inserted through both pieces, then the same slip-stitch is performed.)  Or, use any sewing or attachment method you, personally, prefer. 

To sum up, there are three real advantages to the sewn-strip method.  
  • A very reinforced buttonhole is possible, because you can easily strengthen the edges and tack the slits top and bottom as you are going by with the sewing needle, as shown in the second diagram above.
  • Flexibility in creating the total width of the band  you can want to wait until you're done to knit the buttonband in two (long skinny) halves, and then attach them--the inner one to the sweater, then the outer one to the inner one. You would then knit the opposite band the same width, and attach it to the other garment front. Quite a lot of fabric can be added by this trick, yet the bands will never look like an afterthought. 
  • Flexibility in placing the buttonholes Not only can you control the total width, but, perhaps even more important, you can also choose the button spacing which best suits the finished garment.  Stated otherwise, you can try on the sweater and experiment with different button placements until you like the result, then sew on the strip(s), leaving slits for buttonholes as required. 
On the downside, the sewn-strip method can take a LOT of messing around.  Whether the advantages outweigh this disadvantage depends on the degree to which you are driven by perfectionism (or anxiety?) 

For a real-life look at this trick in action, have a look at this beautiful gray lace sweater which had the buttonholes made in exactly this way. The fourth photo down is a close-up of the band. The seam from the sewing-on created the furrow down the middle of this ribbed band: it is located where the button is inserted.
* * *

Good knitting--TK


*(Posts in this series)
.Buttonholes in hand knitting, part 1: lore and tradition plus some nifty tricks 

 (Related posts)

.Tulips buttonhole: the video (and an interview on Knitting Daily)You have been reading techknitting blog about vertical buttonholes, the buttonhole stitch for hand knitters, the intarsia vertical buttonhole and the sewn-strip vertical button hole.