When you’re sewing on one button, doing it by hand is just fine. But when you have a whole row (such as with this pillow from last week or a shirt), it’s well worth the time to set up the machine and sew them on that way. It also comes out much neater than when you sew by hand (at least for me!).
(Also see “Using masking tape to align buttonholes.“)
My machine came with this button foot. It holds a button in place while you stitch it (more on this foot below). My old machine didn’t have one and I made do with a different presser foot. Any foot with a zigzag hole in it is fine, preferably one that’s clear so you can see well. I’ve also read that you can just take off the presser foot and not have one at all. I haven’t tried that, but it sounds like it would work.
Here’s another angle where you can really see those little teeth sticking up.
On many machines, there is a switch at the back that you flip to drop the feed dogs. Some machines don’t have this option, and for those I think you can buy some sort of plate to lay over them. I’ve never used a machine like that, so you’d have to refer to your manual.
Here, the feed dogs are dropped down into the machine so they won’t guide the fabric through.
Another image of the dropped feed dogs. The more I type that term, the more I giggle.
If you don’t have a button foot, you can use a zigzag foot (preferably a clear one like a satin stitch foot that allows for better visibility) or no foot at all. I will say from experience, though, that this button foot makes the process easier than a regular foot, which often slides about.
Refer to your manual for the exact stitch function. Mine said to use stitch 46, but if you don’t have a specific stitch function, you can simply use a zigzag stitch. My old machine wasn’t digital and was rather low-tech, and I could still do all sorts of things on it!
Honestly, I think my stitch function set everything for me, such as length and average width, which can then be tweaked. Out of habit, I changed stitch length to zero. I mean, the feed dogs are dropped and so I shouldn’t have to worry about stitch length (or the machine trying to move the fabric through), but I still felt better about putting it on zero instead of whatever was on there. Then the width can be adjusted to suit your button. My manual says to measure the space between the holes on the button and use that to set the stitch width, but I found it’s easier to just eyeball it. At first, I wasn’t really sure what the units were supposed to be, but I’m thinking now that you measure in millimeters between the holes and then the width setting is in millimeters, too.
Place your button on your fabric in its desired place and lower the needle into one hole. Then lower the presser foot, securing the button. (Tip: make sure your needle thread has a nice length of tail when you begin.)
At first, just turn the hand crank to carefully lower the needle into the other hole. This will ensure that the width is correct before you press the pedal and break the needle on the button. Once you’re sure the width is set correctly, go for it. Press the pedal and let it sew back and forth 10 times or so.
Repeat the process.
When you’re done, you should have two tails of thread at the front …
and two at the back.
Thread the tails onto a needle (both at once or one at a time; it doesn’t matter).
Push the needle through to the back and pull the front tails to the back. Tie in a know with the back tails to secure. Clip threads.
I have skipped this step many times in my life just because I didn’t think about doing it and I’ll tell you that the thread definitely starts coming undone. It’s worth the little bit of effort.