To skip the talkity-talk below and go right to the tutorial, click here. But I recommend you read on anyway.
Buttonholes… the mere thought of them strikes cold fear into the hearts of European 14th century clothing enthusiasts. The 14th century was probably the most insanely over-buttoned century ever. We few, we committed few, will hand-sew upwards of fifty of them on one garment with grim determination. Our fingers grow sore, the tedium reduces us to hunched lumps on our sofas, staring at the fabric and thread before us, repeating a mantra in our minds that goes something like this: “Only 27 more to go… Only 26 more to go…. Just do two more and finish this side tonight…” You find yourself enjoying your masochism on a detached plane of awareness, noting that when it is all done, it will be your garment with the most badass buttons on it, and that will be reward enough for your suffering. And, if you are going to put yourself through all of that, shouldn’t your buttonholes look righteously medieval?
I am partial to what I call the “boxy buttonhole”, because it’s the most documented style of medieval buttonhole from my favorite time period. It is a simple design— a row of buttonhole stitches placed close together to create a long, thin rectangle of stitching on one side of the buttonhole’s opening, following by a mirrored row of stitches on the other side. The result is a neat, rectangular shape.
In France, this buttonhole style can be found today on the extant pourpoints attributed to Charles de Blois and to Charles VI. In England, fragments found in London are much the same. For more reading on the topic and to see English examples, check out the Museum of London’s Textiles and Clothing, 1150–1450.
To make a proper boxy buttonhole which will look just like the originals, correct material choices are important. In addition, you must understand how your fabric will behave when you slit it open and encase it with thread to make the buttonhole.
I recommend only ever using silk embroidery floss on buttonholes because silk is strong and documented as a preferred fiber for such tasks. A less-twisted option like Soie d’Alger or Soie Cristale will work, but a more tightly twisted floss such as Elegance or the thicker Grandeur works better.
There’s a brand of Japanese silk thread I rather like, called Fujix Tire, whose Buttonhole Silk #16 is gorgeous. It is what I used to recreate the buttonholes on my reproduction of the pourpoint attributed to Charles VI.
I would avoid super-slippery silks such as Trebizond, as well as thin sewing thread like Au Ver a Soie 100/3. Mind you, Trebizond is fun to fingerloop and Soie 100/3 is the only silk thread I use for regular sewing.
You may be tempted to use the full set of strands in thicker-wound floss in order to cover ground faster, but don’t give in to this temptation, because your resulting buttonholes will bulge and buckle in an awkward manner and the opening may shrink too small from the thick thread crowding it. Instead, I recommend splitting thickly-wound floss in half (or close to half, if the number of strands is uneven).
Elegance floss is a good thickness to use whole, without unraveling the strands, as is the Fugix Tire Buttonhole #16. Elegance is my go-to workhorse floss for buttonholes and eyelets for this reason. Grandeur is what I use when I’m in a hurry and I am willing to cheat on the time involved. Admittedly, the buttonholes are slightly more bulky than I think they should be.
As for fabric, the biggest annoyance factor will be its tendency to fray where you have slit it open for the buttonhole. With this in mind, the easiest fabrics to put buttonholes on will be wools, especially fulled wools. Silk fabric runs the gamut from relatively easy to control fray-wise to nightmarishly hard to control, and linen will pretty much always be somewhat of a pain, but do-able. Many of us line our clothes in linen. Keep this in mind when lining an area where buttonholes will go — sometimes it’s better to self-line with the outside fabric (as long as it is not linen) to avoid the frustration of dealing with the frayed bits poking out visibly through the front of the buttonhole and between stitches.
For those familiar with modern machined buttonholes only, the approach taken for finishing a medieval buttonhole is quite different. With a machine, you sew tight zigzag stitches back and forth, sometimes in a thin teardrop shape, sometimes rectangular, with a strong, reinforcing bar tack at both ends, etc.. When finished sewing, you slit the inside open, making the actual hole appear.
For medieval buttons, you cut the opening first, and then you encase that opening with buttonhole stitches. The result is a much stronger, long-lasting buttonhole which, if you are neat and diligent, will not suffer from frayed threads even over time and use.
Judging from the limited 14th century extant buttonhole samples, they did not routinely come with bar tacks for reinforcing each edge. Instead, the stitches appear to abruptly end at each edge, often with a crisp, rectangular shape (hence my descriptor, “boxy”). So, how was each end of the slit reinforced to prevent tearing from tension and use?
I have a method for achieving a strong buttonhole without bar tacks which looks like the original extant examples. In wearing garments with buttonholes sewn in this style, I have found that bar tacks are not strictly necessary as long as the overall quality of the buttonhole is sturdy and tight. I’ve created a tutorial that walks you through the steps for creating a handsome medieval buttonhole in the boxy style.
I recommend you try this out in practice form before committing it to your good garment fabric. You will need fabric, embroidery floss, a needle with a big enough eye for the floss, and snips. If the snips are sharp-pointed, you can use them to cut the opening for the buttonhole by folding the fabric and cutting a slit into it. Otherwise you can use a straight edge tool (pressing down flat on the fabric, against a self-healing mat, for instance), or a seam ripper (be careful with this tool or you will find yourself mending an extra-long tear!).