Thursday, July 16, 2015

Buttonholes through the Periods

Updated 11-4-16: 16th Century buttonholes.

Some time ago, I began to wonder: How do buttonholes differ in construction throughout history (up to the modern day)?  So, I began searching, looking at some extant garments for clues--what I found was rather interesting (hence the article on them).

It appears to be rather difficult to find exactly when buttonholes appeared on European clothing--conventional wisdom (i.e. "everybody knows!") has that buttons themselves have been used as a fastening--for a tunic neck, or Russian svita--but with a loop fastener, rather than a hole sewn in the fabric.

I'm actually finding it rather difficult to track down when they appeared in Western Europe (supposedly, they came from the East, either near or far.  However, I cannot yet document this). The typical form of clothing of the 13th Century just didn't call for them, since it was generally loose.

However, in the 14th Century, they pop up--the earliest effigy I see is from 1319.
Germany Wurzburg Burgerspital Johann von Steren 1319

 The buttons are clear, yes, but not the buttonholes.  However, if you look at the sleeves you can see that the edges overlap--as though there were buttonholes.

Anyways, at this point you see them pop up more and more, and there are actually extant finds for us to examine, rather than relying on whether or not the artist was being accurate.

Textiles and Clothing 1150 - 1450.  Crowfoot, Elisabeth
Textiles and Clothing 1150 - 1450.  Crowfoot, Elisabeth
 Like these ones from the London Finds.  My discovery of the difference in how they are worked came from when I began examining these for my 1370s Cotthardie project.  They are just a simple buttonhole stitch--there are no retaining stitches that we know of, and there are no bar tacks on the ends, much less a keyhole.  I also found that they are worked from the wrong side of the garment with the needle going down through fabric and up through the slit--with how the needle is angled towards the cut on the outside (which is typically a fulled wool, so raveling wasn't an issue) it gives a nearly unnoticeable buttonhole from the outside, if matching thread is used.  The threads weren't necessarily tight against each other, either.

My favourite tutorial for this period is the one on Cotte Simple--she actually has left handed instructions!  You can find it here.

From Pattern of Fashion 3.  Arnold, Janet. page 20.
PoF.  1605 doublet.  page 23

PoF 3.  Leather Doublet.  page 25
You can see that sometime in the 16th Century, Bar tacks were added.  These bar tacks were another row of buttonhole stitches running perpendicular to the buttonhole slit in order to re-enforce the ends.  The bar tacks were sometimes covered in trim on one or both ends.  On the whole, they seem to be worked more neatly (admittedly, these garments are upper class).  I believe they are also now worked from the right side of the garment.
Notice that in the third image, of a doublet in lightweight leather, the bar tacks are dispensed with.

Added 11-4-16: I decided, after a conversation on the Elizabethan Costuming group, to do a survey of the buttonholes in Patterns of Fashion 3, by Janet Arnold.  Specifically, paying attention to the bar tacks.
This is what I found.  The numbers correspond to the image in the book:
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.  
So; the synopsis: It appears that the bar tacks for 16th (and early 17th) century buttonholes were worked over a few satin stitches at the end and were closely done.  As a general rule, the bar tacks should be worked so the perl forms inwards.  If one or both ends of the buttonhole will be covered in trim, the bar tack on that end may be dispensed with; likewise on leather.  Other options which do appear, but may not be as common are a starburst (like a more modern basic buttonhole), or "braided" bar-tack.

The effect of the latter is caused (for me) by not tugging the anchored end of the thread towards me when I take and tighten the stitch, so it is just allowed to go as it wishes; the stitch was probably tightened at more of an upwards (away from the fabric) angle.  This is by no means exhaustive, since I only went over the one book, but should help.

The main (really, only) tutorial I could find for this period is by the writer of Garb for Guys (excellent blog, and I wish he would publish more).  It has nice, visible images, and can be found here.

I also have put together a video tutorial for 16th century buttonholes, which is for lefties.  If you're right'll have to flip it.

1620s, worn by Gustav Adolphus II. (Supposedly, anyways.  I am unable to access the museum site).
Doublet associated with Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, 1627
Looking more deeply, with more examples to pull from than when I first wrote this, I seen no real difference in the construction of 17th buttonholes as compared to the 16th century examples.  Perhaps a slight narrowing of the bar tacks, and the occasional garment with contrasting buttonholes.  
The turning point appears to be around 1670, give or take a few years.  Around then you see the buttonholes (and fashionable garments in general) moving in style and construction to the proto-justaucorps and 18th century buttonhole construction.

Swedish "Rock", 1680-1690.  This is the beginnings of the justaucorps or frock coat (i.e. Iconic Pirate coat).
Frock Coat, English.  1765-1780
1755, British. 
As you can see, in the 18th Century the buttonholes became a bit more decorative.  They were sometimes sewn in a colour complimentary or contrasting the main fabric rather than trying to match, and are far longer than needed.  The goal here seems to be "how fine can we make them".  By this point, a filler (or gimp) thread is being used, and the buttonholes get a whip-stitch to keep the threads in check while working them.  Tiny bar tacks are on the ends, which are worked by taking several satin stitches at the ends, and working a buttonhole stitch over them, with the perl pointing outwards.  They were not always cut open and functional (especially in the case of the button side decorated "buttonholes").  Occasionally (or often, depending on class), they have embroidery or even trim (gold/silver gimp) around the button and buttonhole..

There are a couple of excellent tutorials here (video), and here (image gallery).  There is also this live demo by Burnley & Trowbridge on FB.

1790s Waistcoat.  Sorry for the poor image.
1815 Tailcoat
1820 Banyan. 
 The overall construction during the Regency era appears to be about the same as during the 18th Century, with the main difference being that they are no longer decorative--the thread matched the fabric, and the buttonholes were only as large as they needed to be.

You can see on the banyan that it may have keyhole buttons on the top, but not the other buttons--this is one of the exceptions I mention.

1840s Frock Coat

And now you see the last (roughly) development in buttonholes--the keyhole.  The keyhole is added to prevent gaps due to the button stem.  Again, the method of construction has not really changed--the only difference is the hole on the edge side, which is either clipped or (I suspect by the neatness of the above photo) punched.
Personally, I found this rather fascinating--as near as I can tell, based on images of extant coats, the keyhole appears in the mid-1830s.  I haven't seen it prior to then, with the exception of 1 or 2 solitary (as in, only one on the coat) examples. 

© John Frey, 2015. 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.  Photographs of my work may not be duplicated.
NOTE: None of the pictures in this document are mine.


  1. Wow thanks so much for all this information, I had never realised how much a buttonhole could differ, I will keep this information in mind when I make my 14th century re-enactment clothings.

    1. You're welcome. I'm glad you found it interesting and of use.
      I really need to see if I can track down information on early Tudor buttonholes as well.

  2. This is really interesting. Thanks for taking the time to compile all this information and blog about it.

    I've nominated your blog for a Liebster award. Accepting it is voluntary and there are details on my blog: .

  3. Thank you very much for this overview. If I understand this correctly, the 17th century buttonholes are more or less worked the same as the 18th century ones, only less neat?

    1. I would say it depends on the garment. If the clothing style is closer to the 18th century, go with those. If during the 17th century period with those weird long skirted doublets, stick with the more 16th century method.
      I need to find more on that period, actually.