A common repair that needs to be carried out on well-worn winter coats is to replace any lost or loose buttons. In some cases, this will include buttons that have a thread shank which slightly elevates the button up and off the surface of the fabric.
In our book How To Start Sewing the step-by-step process of creating a thread shank button is shown in more detail. In this blog post, we will put this skill to good use, and also show you how to use a smaller backing button to support the fabric.
- Hand Sewing Needle (How To Start Sewing, Chapter 3)
- Embroidery Scissors or Thread Snips (Chapter 3)
- Pins (Chapter 3)
- Beeswax (Chapter 45)
- Tailor’s Chalk (Chapter 6)
- Chalk Pencil (Chapter 6)
Fabric / Materials / Trims:
- Thick thread (topstitching thread) in colour to match (Chapter 39).
- 36L buttons (or size to replace original missing buttons).
- 18L buttons (smaller buttons as a backing button).
- Flat Buttons (Exercise 45.06)
- Waxing Thread (Notes 45.01)
- Waste Knot (Notes 45.01)
- Secure Thread with a Knot (Exercise 4.03)
- Secure the Thread with a Small Backstitch (Exercise 7.02)
Step 1: Check the Missing Buttons
The first step is to look at which buttons are missing, and how many are missing on the coat. Have the buttons just come loose? Or have the buttons been lost and will need to be replaced? Also, check whether there is any damage to the fabric of the coat that will need to be repaired.
Step 2: Mark Positions
Before you remove any loose thread, use chalk pencils or tailor’s chalk to mark the position of the buttons with crosses. The crosses should be large enough so that they can be seen when you are sewing on the new button, to help with alignment. If a button has been lost but you aren’t sure of the position, button up the rest of the coat and hold the fabric layers in place with a pin. Then you can use a chalk pencil to mark a dot through the buttonhole.
Step 3: Check for Spare Buttons
Check how many buttons are missing, and if they are lost, see if you have a spare button that was originally provided with the garment. Sometimes a spare will be sewn inside the hem, or to the care label, or one may have come in a separate small bag with the label.
Step 4: Look for Hidden ‘Spares’
If you have multiple buttons to replace, and some are missing, try to find ‘spares’ on unseen parts of the garment. For example, you can often switch out a button on the inside of the coat, or that is hiding under the storm flap, with a button that is similar but different.
Step 5: Check Size of Buttons
If you are switching buttons around on the garment so that you have a matching set at the front, you may then need to find additional buttons that are the same size. For example, you may now need to put a new button under the storm flap or on the inside of a double-breasted coat.
To ensure that you choose a replacement button that is the right size for the existing buttonholes, you can use the Guide Template for button sizes from Chapter 45 of How To Start Sewing. In this case, the main coat buttons are 36L (about 23 mm) and the smaller backing buttons are 18L (about 11 mm).
Step 6: Wax Thread and Secure with Waste Knot
Thick thread such as topstitching thread works really well to secure coat buttons. You can get a similar effect with regular thread that is doubled over, however, that tends to be much more prone to tangling. In this case, we have waxed the thread with beeswax and pressed it (Notes 45.01) and then tied a knot at the end (Exercise 4.03).
If the button needs to be secured through multiple layers of fabric, or the self fabric and a facing, you may like to use a pin to keep the garment layers aligned. Here we have then secured the thread in the fabric using a waste knot (Notes 45.01) so that the thread comes up through the centre of the chalk cross. You can then secure the thread in the fabric with a couple of small backstitches (Exercise 7.02).
Step 7: Sew Button with Thread Shank
You can now position the main button and sew a loop of thread through the holes to hold it in place. As explained in Exercise 45.06 of How To Start Sewing, a match can be used as a spacer to create the right amount of slack in the thread loops, ready to create a thread shank under the button.
Step 8: Purpose of the Backing Button
This image also gives you an idea of how to hold the main button and the backing button on either side of the garment as you sew the buttons into place. Here the backing button is the smaller red button. You can imagine that where a heavy coat button is sewn directly onto fabric, there is a risk that the button will be pulled, stress will be concentrated on just one point of the fabric, and the fabric will tear. The purpose of the backing button is to take all of the strain off of the fabric, so that it is spread over a slightly larger area, and so that the thread pulls against the button.
So basically when you are holding the main and backing buttons in place, you are sandwiching the fabric in between and then sewing back and forth through the holes as you normally would. For this reason, it makes sense that the main button and backing button have the same number of holes to make it easier to line up the stitches.
Step 9: Finish Thread Shank
Once you have the knack of sewing back and forth, you can then remove the match and complete the thread shank. This image shows you how you can hold the button at an angle so that you can secure the thread at the base of the thread shank. You can then snip away the excess thread and snip away the thread from the waste knot.
Step 10: Finished Coat Button
Here you can see the finished coat button as well as the backing button seen on the inner front facing of the coat. The thread shank helps to raise the button slightly so that there is enough space for the thicker layers of coat fabric when the garment is buttoned closed. The backing button will help to prevent future wear and tear.