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Knitting Buttonholes – How to Do It

Buttonholes and buttons, they're everywhere on clothes, whether it's a shirt, blouse, cardigan, or trousers. And when we knit, we encounter button bands and those helpful holes. So let's dive into this topic
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By Claudia Ostrop

Buttonholes and buttons, they're everywhere on clothes, whether it's a shirt, blouse, cardigan, or trousers. And when we knit, we encounter button bands and those helpful holes. So let's dive into this topic.

A Brief Buttonhole History  

Did you know that buttons were initially purely decorative on clothing? Their practical use as fasteners didn't come about until the late Middle Ages. Interestingly, the technique of using loops and buttonholes for fastening is believed to have originated in Germany and quickly spread from there.

It's not entirely clear why buttonholes are always on the right side for men's clothing and the left side for women's attire. There are numerous ideas and explanations, some sensible, others amusing. However, one thing is certain: this gender-specific buttonhole placement has persisted in fashion to this day!

Knitting Buttonholes  

Before you start knitting buttonholes, you need to know one thing: Most patterns specify the size of the buttonhole. So, you can choose appropriately sized buttons to match. There are other times, however, when you already have buttons you absolutely want to use for that particular piece. In that case, consider whether the button you have works with the buttonhole described in the pattern. Buttonholes should always be slightly smaller than the button itself; knitting stretches over time due to buttoning and unbuttoning, so if the buttonhole is too big, it may not hold the button securely in the long run.

Types of Buttonholes: Round or Straight?  

When knitting, you'll come across two basic types of buttonholes: round or straight.

Round Buttonholes  

Round buttonholes are the easiest to knit and work well for smaller buttons. They're also great for drawstrings! Essentially, they're created by knitting two stitches together at the desired position and adding a yarn over. Whether you knit the stitches together first and then create the yarn over or vice versa doesn't matter – just be consistent within the same project. Otherwise, it might look messy, especially if you wear the garment open.

Here´s how it´s done: work a yarn over on the right needle, knit the next two stitches together, and continue in the pattern. In the next row, simply knit the yarn over. If you want to incorporate a buttonhole into a ribbed pattern, it's a good idea to make it blend into a purl column visually.

In a 1x1 rib pattern, you would knit one stitch, create the yarn over, then knit the next purl and the following knit stitch together. In the following row, knit the yarn over.  
In a 2x2 rib pattern, you would slip the second stitch of a knit column over the first stitch of the following purl column, do a yarn over, and then knit the next purl and the following knit stitch together. In the next row, you knit two stitches from the yarn over. Alternatively, you can make a double yarn over beforehand, but a single yarn over results in a more stable buttonhole.

Horizontal Buttonholes

The techniques described below create buttonholes that lie horizontally in the knitting. If you use them for a later added button band, it will result in a vertical buttonhole.

Horizontal buttonholes are typically worked over two rows. Knit until you reach the buttonhole position. Now, cast off the desired number of stitches, and continue knitting to the end. In the next row, knit until you reach the gap created by the cast-off stitches. Then, loop up the same number of stitches that you cast off earlier by forming yarn loops and lifting them onto the right needle. Continue knitting as usual. In the following right-side row, knit the looped stitches in pattern.

For slightly tighter buttonholes that are worked over one row, knit to the buttonhole position. Then, slip two stitches one by one as if to knit, pass the first slipped stitch over the second one, slip one more stitch, and pass the previous one over the slipped stitch. Slip one more stitch, and repeat until you've cast off the desired number of stitches. Lift the stitch from the left needle onto the right one and loop it up. Continue knitting to the end. In the next row, knit the looped stitches in pattern.

For wider buttonholes (and adventurous knitters), here's a technique with waste yarn: When you reach the buttonhole position, leave your working yarn aside and use a piece of contrasting yarn (in a matching thickness) to knit over the desired number of stitches. Lift those stitches onto the left needle and then knit over them again with your working yarn. Later, carefully pull out the contrasting yarn. Ensure that you secure the freed stitches so they don't unravel. Use a crochet hook to pull one stitch through the other gradually. Pull the last stitch through the first, bring it to the back, and secure it.

Vertical Buttonholes

Vertical buttonholes are quite inconspicuous as they appear as a slit between two stitches. They blend nicely into 1x1 rib patterns, in particular.  

Here's how you make them:
Knit to the point where the buttonhole should start. Now, divide your work into two parts: first, knit only over the stitches of the buttonhole band to the desired height of the buttonhole. Leave the working yarn aside and, with a new ball of yarn, knit the stitches of the remaining piece to the same height as the buttonhole band. Then, pick up the working yarn again and knit all the stitches together.

Tips and Tricks  

This is just a rough guide on how to add buttonholes to your knitting. Many variations and combinations are possible. For example, you can cast off stitches and then close the gap with yarn overs in the next row. Or you can knit up the necessary stitches to replace the cast-off ones. Over time, you'll develop a preference for a particular technique. However, it also depends on the design and yarn as to which buttonhole works best for a project.
You can also add buttonholes later on. If you're feeling adventurous, you can secure the stitches around the desired buttonhole location with tight, even stitches, then carefully cut the buttonhole, and finally, crochet around the edges.

For small buttonholes, you can incorporate them later into a button band by using a crochet hook to pull up two stitches (firmly), lift the inner one over the outer one, and secure the remaining loop on the back. On the other side of the resulting hole, do the same, and then sew the two loops together for reinforcement.

If buttonholes start stretching out over time, you can crochet around the edge with slip stitches to give them more stability and reduce their size.

Lastly, never place buttonholes too close to the edge of the front piece or button band – if the holes are too close to the edge, the knitting can distort and the edge may become wavy.

Happy knitting! 

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