How to stitch: Buttonhole stitch

Buttonhole stitch is a good one to learn as there are all sorts of fun ways you can use it to create different effects in your embroidery. You might also know it as blanket stitch.

Given the name, it’s obviously got some functional uses. I’ve come to realise it’s also got quite a lot of potential for using it creatively.

Let’s start with the basics of how to stitch it. Then I’ll cover some tips and ideas for using it.

How to stitch buttonhole stitch

When stitching buttonhole, one side of your stitching will look closed and the other open. Start by bringing your thread up at one end of the closed side.

Take your thread down onto the open side. Not directly below where you started, but a little way along, as if you’re stitching a slightly diagonal stitch. How far along you go will determine how open your buttonhole stitch is.

Starting the first stitch as if to work a shallow diagonal stitch.

Leave a loop of thread on the front of your work instead of pulling your thread all the way through.

Bring your thread back up on the closed side, directly above where your thread is sitting on the open side. Your needle should come up on the inside of your loop of thread.

Needle coming up on the inside of the thread loop for buttonhole stitch.

Pull your thread all the way through so that your loop forms an L shape that’s anchored in place by your working thread.

First buttonhole stitch complete, the working thread is being pulled to the side so that the stitch forms an L shape.

Keep working stitches in this way to complete your line of buttonhole stitch.

When you get to the end, work a straight stitch to secure your last stitch.

A completed line of buttonhole stitch worked in blue crewel wool.


Keep the distance between your stitches consistent for a nice looking finish.

If I want a neat edge on the open side of my stitches, I’ll create myself a temporary guideline to stitch towards. I usually do this by either stitching a line of running stitch with regular sewing thread that I then remove when I’m done. Or I’ll use a water erasable pen.

If my open edge is going to be outlined, this isn’t necessary as I can just use the design outline as my guide.

To assess my stitch alignment I find it helpful to hold my loop thread along my fabric at the desired angle. Then I can see where my needle needs to come up to complete the stitch.

Holding my thread along the fabric where I want my stitch to be, then bringing up my needle next to it.

Switching from buttonhole to stem stitch

You may have noticed that the closed edge of buttonhole stitch looks similar to stem stitch.

This means that you can smoothly switch between the two stitches.

Here’s where I use my trusty “follow the compass” rule again to make sure the slant of all my stitches is consistent. See my stem stitch tutorial for how I use the rule with that stitch.

As always, my stitching direction is North. Then for buttonhole stitch, like raised stem band, I start stitching on the East.

Diagram showing my follow the compass rule for buttonhole stitch. The stitching is being worked upwards (North), so it was started (and the solid line) is on the right (the East).

Here’s an example of stem stitch flowing to buttonhole stitch then back to stem stitch.

An S shape stitched in stem stitch at the ends and buttonhole stitch in the middle.

Buttonhole stitch examples

I used buttonhole stitch in these flowers in my RSN Certificate Jacobean crewelwork piece and switched to stem stitch to continue outlining them.

Purple crewel embroidery flowers worked in buttonhole and stem stitch.

My favourite use of buttonhole stitch so far is in the wings of my hummingbird pattern:

Crewel embroidery green and purple hummingbird.

Another, quite practical, use of buttonhole stitch is in stumpwork – to cover and attach the wire to your fabric. For this, you work a closed buttonhole. Meaning that your stitches are so close, there’s no fabric (or wire) visible between them.

Here’s an example of this from the lovely flamingo kit by Zina Kazban. This stitching was done with a single strand of cotton, so it took me a while!!

Close up of a stumpwork leaf worked in shades of green with a buttonhole stitch edge.

There are lots of other fun ways to stitch buttonhole stitch. From filling circular or curved shapes, to using it to depict grass on a hillock. Here’s a few examples to get your creative juices flowing.

Top - 2 lines of buttonhole stitch that are side by side and intersecting like zipper teeth. Middle - 2 circles of buttonhole stitch. Bottom - a curved line of uneven buttonhole stitch to simulate grass.

So what do you think of buttonhole stitch? Are there any other ways that you’ve used it?

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2 thoughts on “How to stitch: Buttonhole stitch

  1. Love your S. Thank you for your North/South stitching, it is so helpful. I never thought about using it for buttonhole stitch though. Looks great. Thank you for helping all of us. Happing stitching.

    1. Thanks Caroline! I must admit, I was quite pleased with how the S turned out 🙂 I’m so happy to hear that my method is helpful – I’m all for figuring out ways to minimise what I have to remember!

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