Monday, December 19, 2016

(SCA) Period Buttonholes, the Class Handout

Buttonhole construction for All; Medieval and Elizabethan Buttonholes 

Photograph by Halfdan "Twobears" Ozurson of the Buttonhole class at Selviergard Yule.
Essentially, the way it works is that the construction and form of buttonholes has changed a fair amount since they show up in the early 1300s. Happily, the changes are actually linear for once—you can easily see the evolution from the original, fairly rough examples, to the modern keyhole buttonhole. However, since this is an SCA class, I will only cover the evolution through around 1600.

They can basically be broken down into two parts, as you might guess; Medieval, and Elizabethan. I could probably add Late Medieval/Early Renaissance (1400s) in there as well, but since it is firmly between the other two in style and construction, I doubt I need to. Both styles are worked with a buttonhole stitch—not ever a blanket stitch--, which you hopefully know how to do; if not, you’ll learn.  All period buttonholes are worked perpendicular to the edge of the material, and fairly close to the edge.

Yours Truly, discussing the topic.  Photograph by Halfdan "Twobears" Ozurson


· Layers are just the single layer of wool, supported by a linen or fine silk facing on the wrong side of the opening, and perhaps your lining material. It’s unknown whether the lining goes to the edge, or is sewn to the facing as in later garments.

· Buttonholes are just barely large enough to fit the button through; some of the London examples are only 6-7mm long! [Crowfoot. pp. 171]

Figure 135, Crowfoot
· The stitching is worked from the wrong side and with the needle coming up through the slit for at least the first 60-70 years of the 14th century. At which point it gradually changes to the more familiar “Work from the right side, coming up through the cloth.” This would be the Late medieval style. I believe that both were in use at the same time at the end of the 14th century, gradually changing to the Later style in the 15th century.

Charles VI, from the La Cotte Simple paper.  This would be the Late Medieval buttonhole.
· Because of the direction and side it’s worked from the early medieval buttonholes are angled; very little shows on the right side of the fabric, which would normally be a fulled wool.

· The threads are not packed extremely tight, but may have narrow gaps (.5mm) [Crowfoot. Pp 171]. More loosely woven fabric requires closer stitches.

Figure 142, Crowfoot
· Thread was usually silk, not super fine in comparison to the buttonhole length, but still thinner than no 5 floss. It really varies. Wool or linen threads may be other options--I have used both; wool isn’t particularly strong, and there isn’t much evidence for either of them, although the linen thread usually would have rotted.

· There are no signs of finishing or bar tacks on the ends, and the thread was often run from one hole to the next.
Malatesa Farsetto--late 15th century.
And for the general instructions; I do recommend the La Cotte Simple tutorials for the photos.
To work the buttonhole, first baste around where you will be cutting. You can get away without doing so if you are only working through two layers, but more than that I recommend the basting.

Cut your buttonhole, either with shears or a chisel.  Using a chisel will give the neatest results, especially when you are making the tiny buttonholes for sleeves.  Then work the stitches with the slit horizontally in front of you, going right to left with a counterclockwise wrap to form the perl if you are right handed; left to right and clockwise for lefties.  Remember that the needle is going down through the fabric from the wrong side at an angle, and coming up through the slit.


· At this point, you are working through the fashion fabric, any underlayers for pinking, the heavy linen interlining, probably an extra layer of canvas to help support the edges, and an additional layer of fashion fabric as a facing. As you might guess, that makes cutting the holes difficult unless you use a chisel.
PoF, Fig. 120
· The buttonholes are now uniformly worked from the right side, with the needle coming up through the layers, and are about equal in width on the wrong side. Like the Medieval buttonholes, they aren’t much larger than needed to fit the button through.

· Thread was almost always silk, although that may be in part due to it being the upper class garments which survived. The weight could vary, from fairly fine and tightly packed, to fairly coarse and not as neatly packed.

· Some attempt is usually made to keep the perl on the outside (right-side) edge of the slit, rather than on the inside of the slit. The perl is also usually distinct.

· The overall shape is quite rectangular.

Kurornat von Christian I, 1590.  Note the eyelet construction as well! Source.
 · Unlike later (18th century onwards) there is no sign of a foundation gimp thread.

· Bar tacks! They finally appear. They are worked over 3-4 satin/whip stitches perpendicular to the button, then have the buttonhole stitch worked over them. The perl of the bar tacks should either go towards the inside of the buttonhole, or both towards the edge of the garment.
Leather doublet, 1610.  PoF Fig. 168
      o There are other variations as well, with some in leather lacking bar tacks, and one (the disputed green jerkin in the MET) having a radial pattern more like modern buttonholes.

      o Sometimes the ends of the buttonhole would be covered with a line of narrow trim. In these cases, it appears that the buttonholes are sewn first, and without bar tacks. Instead, the trim was relied on to reinforce the ends.
PoF. Fig, 150
· Like on the earlier buttonholes, the thread would be run from one hole to another.

And the process:
Like the Medieval buttonholes, you need to baste around the location of each buttonhole before cutting.  As I said before, using a chisel is the best option for neatness.

Now the differences; you should loosely whipstitch the raw edges of the buttonholes before being to work them.  What this does is keep them behaving--especially since you might be going through 5 layers of fabric--while you make the stitches.  At that point, you can begin stitching, with your needle going down through the slit, then up through the fabric; the buttonhole slit would be worked vertically from bottom to top.  For right handed, you will be working with the left side of the slit and giving the thread a clockwise loop to for the perl; lefties, right side and counterclockwise.  For deeper tutorials (with photos), I recommend the Garb for Guys tutorial, or my youtube video (which is geared towards lefties)

More data on Elizabethan era bar tacks, because I found them fascinating. The numbers correspond to the image in Patterns of Fashion 3:

Prunkkleid von Kurfürst Johann Georg I 1610.  Source.
· Perl in (worked with the needle and thread being pulled towards the buttonhole): 84, and 277

· Perl out (opposite of the above, and the way of 18th Century buttonholes): A big fat zero to the best of my vision.

· Perl in the same direction on both sides: One example, towards the left (or the front opening). 120.

· Bar Tack Not Present (and ends visible): 168, 178, 308. One of these was the leather one shown above. The other two examples have the ends covered with trim, and got pulled out slightly.

· Rounded end, with a starburst of stitches: One example, 170, which is a leather doublet.

PoF. Fig, 178
· One side visible (the other covered by trim or a button in the image): 148, 203 both have the perl pointing inwards.

· No distinct perl, but bar tack present: 345. In this example, the buttonhole stitch covering the bar tack was worked so that no distinct perl knot appeared, giving a braided appearance.

For more images of buttonholes (mostly SCA period at the time of publishing), go to my Period Buttonholes pinterest board.

Bibliography (Italics are tutorials):

1. Perkins S. Garb For Guys: Stitch demo: Handsewn Button Holes [Internet]. [cited 2016 Nov 30]. Available from:

2. Kelly T. How to sew a medieval buttonhole [Internet]. La cotte simple. [cited 2016 Nov 30]. Available from:

3. mac Finnchad, Brann. Matsukaze Workshops: Buttonholes through the Periods [Internet]. Matsukaze Workshops. 2015 [cited 2016 Nov 30]. Available from:

4. Paola Fabbri Storia del Costume - Photos [Internet]. [cited 2016 Nov 30]. Available from:

5. Arnold J. Patterns of Fashion 3. Macmillian; 1985.

6. Pfannenmann steht für die Werkstätten Ackermann & Pfannenberg Dresden - Figurinen Referenzen Galerie [Internet]. [cited 2016 Nov 30]. Available from:

7. Crowfoot E, Pritchard F, Staniland K. Textiles and Clothing 1150-1450. Boydell Press; 2001. (Medieval Finds from Excavations in London).

8. Kelly T. The Medieval Buttonhole [Internet]. La cotte simple. 2013 [cited 2016 Nov 30]. Available from:

© John Frey, 2016. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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