The Creative Corner · Vintage Needlework

Projects Using Buttonhole Stitches

Last lesson we looked at buttonhole stitch embroidery. If you missed it, you can locate that lesson here. This time we’re going to look at projects using buttonhole stitches.

People rarely look at the buttonhole stitch and think Wow, I could create an entire project with that! Usually needleworkers use it as an edging. Let’s change that with our dive into Twenties projects using buttonhole stitches.

First, we have The Lonesome Pine pillow that was featured in the last lesson. You’ll find that the Lonesome Pine motif appears quite often in Twenties and Thirties needlework. The term appeared with the publication of a romance called The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in 1908. The book made quite a splash as a romance and it’s still in print.

The Lonesome Pine Pillow

A pillow made from heavy linen. On it is embroidered a pine tree on a hill. The hill and the tree area green. A sun sets in the distance. The sun is orange.

Here, in all its glory, is the Lonesome Pine Pillow. Isn’t it a beauty?

These pillows were often filled with balsam pine needles. It brought the fresh pine air into the room and smelled like the outdoors during months that those who lived among pine trees were stuck indoors.

You don’t have to fill your pillow with pine needles, though. You can use a pillow form or stuffing. That’s what I would do.

This pillow is made from a rough, relatively heavy fabric. The original instructions called for homespun, but you could use heavy linen, a drapery fabric in a neutral shade, or a heavy cotton.

Doing the embroidery

The article called for the pillow to be embroidered with yarn. By “yarn” they probably meant crewel wools, or wool yarn specifically spun and plied for hand embroidery. In the US, The Gentle Art’s Simply Wool is available from needlework shops. In the UK, you can’t go wrong with Appleton Wools. They’ve been around since William Morris was designing tapestries in the 1880s.

The entire 14 x 15-inch pillow is worked in simple buttonhole stitches. Although you can alter anything you like, this project means to be an easy introduction to using the buttonhole stitch as an art needlework stitch.

Use leaf-green for the pine tree and the grass, and two shades of tangerine orange for the setting sun: the darker shade for the two inner rows and the lighter shade for the two outer rows.

Work the sun first

The sun must be worked before the grass, because the grass covers the edge of the sun embroidery. For the grass use irregular long and short buttonhole stitches of varying length, from 1/4 to 1/2 inch, making each step 1/8 inch different from the one before or after. All the grass blades point straight up.

On the tree the needles hang down, with the purling of the buttonhole stitches resting on the upper end of the boughs. The bits of trunk which show are made with two or three vertical stitches.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Obtain a piece of fabric that measures 16 x 29 inches.
  2. Fold the fabric in half and transfer the design. It should be centered side to side and about 1 1/2 inches from the fold. The fold will be the bottom of your pillow.
  3. Embroider the design in buttonhole stitch using your green and orange threads.

When you’re finished, fold the fabric so the right side of the embroidery is on the inside and sew around the three sides, leaving a big enough gap that you can turn the pillow inside out. Use a 1/2-inch seam. Stuff with the pillow form or stuffing and sew the opening closed with a slip stitch. A 15 x 15 pillow form can be squeezed to fit into this cover, or you can shorten it an inch with the sewing machine and cut off the extra before stuffing it into the cover you embroidered.

If you don’t have a pillow form the right size, take an extra large 1 inch seam along the wider sides, making your pillow 14 x 14 inches.

The design

Here is the design for the pillow. Print the two single pages to fill an entire 8.5 x 11 inch page, then overlap to trace.

The work bag

A tote bag of heavy linen, embroidered with a multi colored bird with a long tail.

This work bag is a little more complicated than a pillow. It’s designed to carry a 1920s needlework magazine along with the materials you need for a project. Thus arrayed, you appear at the next sewing circle in style!

You can make the bag from the same fabric you used for the pillow. You need a piece of fabric that measures 14 x 34 inches. Cut one long 2 1/2 inch piece off the side, so your pieces now measure 2 1/2 x 34 and 11.5 x 34. The thin strip becomes your handles.

You will also need some kind of firmly woven cotton lining, a sateen or comparable fabric, cut 12 x 30. Choose a color to that harmonizes with your bag. Fold the fabric in half so you have a rectangle that measures 12 x 15, wrong sides together. Sew a 1/4 inch seam up each narrow side so the rectangle measures 11.5 x 15. Turn it right sides together, sew another 1/4 inch seam in the same place you did before (you’ve made French seams so they won’t fray). Leave it this way, with the right sides on the inside, and turn a 1/2 inch hem along the top. Press the hem and leave it until you need to insert it into the finished bag.

Handles first

Turn in 1/4-inch along each long side, and then fold in half lengthwise. You should have a strip 1 inch wide. Cut it in half so that you have two strips 1 inch x 17 inches.

Using a sewing machine, sew the strap together 1/8 inch from the long turned edges.

OR, if you prefer, you can cut them in half to measure 17 inches in length. Then sew with a 1/4 inch seam allowance along the long edges of each strap. Turn right side out, and press.

Now the bag

The instructions for this suggest that embroidery decorates both sides of the bag, and they are identical.

Print the design to fill a whole 8.5 x 11 inch page. Transfer the bird and lines twice, extending the lines to 2 inches from the top and bottom edges of the fabric.

The first half circle is included. Duplicate the smaller three rings of the circle in the appropriate places on the fabric.

Colors you will need

The bag calls for the same type of crewel yarn as the pillow above. Pearl cotton might work well in lieu of wool if you can’t find any or don’t have wool. Use size 5 pearl cotton.

  • tan
  • turquoise blue
  • brilliant orange
  • pale yellow
  • deep yellow
  • medium orange
  • brown

How to work the embroidery

Work the long tail feathers of the bird with close (together) buttonhole stitch. Bring the stitches close to the central vein of the feather and place the purls on the edges. With the blue, back stitch over every two threads using the blue. Make the back stitches close to the purling.

Work the front part of the bird with the blue in Brussels net stitch. Catch the stitches into the material at each edge, and let the center stitches float. Make the loops at the back of the neck shorter while you allow those on the breast to be a bit longer. This will help give you the correct curve. Finish the outer edge of the bird’s head and body with close back stitches in blue. Use these to hide the ends of the buttonhole stitches.

For the eye, make one chain stitch in bright orange.

The back of the bird, beyond the spread wings, is made from four rows of buttonhole stitch. The outer row is pale yellow, then deep yellow, followed by medium orange and brilliant orange last, closest to the front part of the bird.

The lower edge of the wings are outlined with a row of chain stitching in tan. The top row of each wing is buttonholed in brilliant orange. The next row down is brown. Then two rows of tan. Work the second row of tan into the chain stitches all across the wings. Just outside the chain stitches, work a row of back stitches in blue.

The borders

Work the outer row of the half circles in tan, with blue back stitches across each two strands, just as you did for the tail feathers. The next row is brown, the next deep yellow. For the larger half circles that contain four rows, make the inner row light yellow. Work all the half circles before working the straight vertical lines.

The straight lines which run from bottom to top of the bag are worked in tan. You will continue these tan lines on the handles. Work both sets of lines in fish hook stitch with the hooks facing the insides, towards each other.

Finishing the bag

Before making up the bag you need to turn a 1/4 inch hem all the way around. For the first two inches from the corners and across both ends, turn the fabric to the RIGHT side. This portion will fold to the outside to make the decorative flaps. For the rest of the bag turn the hem to the WRONG side. You will cut a small slit, just shy of 1/4 inch, into the edge of the fabric where you want to turn from back to front and back again.

If you are using a heavy fabric, you don’t have to sew a hem. Simply turn the 1/4 inch, press it, and pin it. Finish the entire edge with a blanket stitch, making the stitches a bit short on the sides. In other words, they need to be closer together than they normally would in a true blanket stitch. Use the photo as a guide.

When you get to the corners, space the stitches around the curve enough that you can fit a back stitch of blue between the stitches later. Finish off the top two inches of each bag with the blue back stitches before continuing.

Fold the bag together, embroidery facing out, and fagot the sides of the bag with blue. At the top of the bag, fold the flap down, and make a small buttonhole loop joining the front and back flaps together at the fold. Repeat for the other side.

Now tack the flap down with a few blind stitches.

The handles

Remember the handles that you finished first and set aside? If you haven’t already, embroider two strips of fish hook buttonhole stitch on each handle, 1/2 inch apart, in tan.

Attach the handles to the bag so that the embroidery lines are continuous up one side of the bird, across the handle, and down the other side of the bird. You will want them sewn more than 1/2 inch below the fold on the inside so that the lining covers the join.

The lining

You probably finished the lining at the very beginning while you were gathering supplies. If you have it ready, sew it in now. It should fit just inside the bag and sit about 1/2 inch below the top fold line.

You did it!

Whew! That was a lot of work. Do you like it? It’s a bit amazing, isn’t it, that projects using buttonhole stitches can turn out this varied.

Vintage Needlework

Buttonhole Stitch Embroidery

1920s photo of an embroidered pillow. A pine tree stands on a hill while the sun sets. Text: The Lonesome Pine Pillow.
This vintage pillow is embroidered completely with buttonhole stitch variations.

If you’ve never explored buttonhole stitch embroidery, you are in for a treat. Use this one stitch movement in many different ways for various effects. This is Lesson Four in the Beginning Embroidery Lessons series from 1927-28. If this is your introduction to the series, after reading this you may want to start at the beginning with Lesson One.

Buttonhole stitch

Although we know this stitch as the Buttonhole Stitch, it isn’t the stitch we use to actually work buttonholes. Very close, but not the same. This stitch — which you are probably familiar with if you’ve done any embroidery at all — is worked left to right, with the finished edge closest to you. You hold the loop still with your left thumb while passing the needle over it, and pulling it tight you get a nice little purl along the edge.

Illustration of buttonhole stitch in embroidery

Made very close together and firm, this stitch serves well as a finished edge, with the rest of the fabric cut away (Hardanger embroidery and linen embroidery both use this technique). This way the finished edge doesn’t fray.

When you work the regular buttonhole over a turned hem, the stitches can be further apart. They still need to be even and regular.

Long and short buttonhole

Illustration of long and short buttonhole stitch in embroidery

Make this variation by alternating long stitches with short ones. If you like, you can change it further by taking two or three stepped stitches up to a long stitch and then two or three steps down. This creates more of a pyramid shape, and it goes in and out of popularity.

Blanket stitch

Illustration of blanket stitch in embroidery

This version of the buttonhole stitch got its name from its use for thick fabrics like blankets. Too thick to hem normally, the blanket stitch held everything in place.

For this stitch, make regularly spaced buttonholes whose length is about the same as the space between them. One variation of this stitch is shown below. Complete the blanket stitch first, and then insert back stitches between the stitches. You can use the same color for both passes, or different ones.

Illustration of buttonhole stitch with back stitches in between each stitch.

Grouped buttonhole stitches

This variation actually begins with a chain stitch. Work the chain stitch line first, on one side of the space to be embroidered. Then work the buttonhole stitches into the lower loop of the chain stitch and into the fabric below. Leaving a little space between every two or three stitches makes a lacy effect.

If you like, you can work back stitch over each group of stitches close to the purl. Done in one color, this emphasizes the texture of the stitch. Done in two colors, it emphasizes the color changes. Making the chains and back stitches in one color and the buttonhole stitches in another can be very effective.

Circular buttonhole stitch

When filling in a circle or working a flower, the buttonhole stitch is worked around a center point. Take almost all the stitches in the same place, letting the buttonholes surround the edge of the circle. When doing circular buttonhole stitch, occasionally take a short stitch as you move around the circle so the stitches don’t crowd one another and pile up in the center.

Cretan Stitch

Image of New England stitch, a modified buttonhole stitch that makes leaves.

This filling stitch is based on the buttonhole stitch, but the purl comes in the center rather than at the edge. It’s also sometimes called the New England Stitch. These leaves appear often in the blue and white Deerfield embroidery as well as folk embroidery from central Europe.

To make this stitch, the needle goes in at the line, first on one side and then the other, and it comes out beyond the center line on a slant. Taking a stitch to the right and then to the left makes both the leaf shape and the center purl.

Buttonhole loops

Image of buttonhole stitches worked over a loop.

While you may be familiar with these to hold buttons in place on the back of a dress, they also function to heighten interest within an art needlework piece.

Little buttonholed loops are a happy addition to a flower. They provide good filler for narrow spaces, one loop after the other.

To make it, carry two or three threads across the fabric and then covered closely with buttonhole stitches.

Fish hook stitch

Image of buttonhole stitches worked vertically to resemble fish hooks.

This stitch gets its name from its appearance. A vertical buttonhole stitch works well for thin lines and flower stems.

To make this stitch, put the needle into the fabric and bring it out on the line, keeping the thread always on one side. For a different effect, throw it first to the right and then to the left like the illustration below.

Image of buttonhole stitches worked vertically, alternating from left to right, to look like fish hooks.

Fagoting buttonhole stitches

Image of two rows of buttonhole stitches worked parallel. In between them a thread laces from bar to bar to create a looped stitch between the two rows.

For wide stems or lines, work two rows of blanket stitches close together. Then join them with a fagoting stitch, work from side to side, passing the needle under the loop between the blanket stitches to unite them. This is also good for filling long, narrow leaves. Edge the leaves with chain stitch first to give them a finished look.

Brussels net stitch

Buttonhole stitches worked in a pyramid to look like a net. This is loose from the fabric in the middle and called the Brussels net stitch.

Brussels net is also a variation of the buttonhole stitch. Made almost entirely on the surface of the fabric, work a row of stitches into those of the previous row. Work back and forth across the space, catching only the end stitches into the fabric.

This is actually a needle lace stitch rather than embroidery, but it’s useful for filling open spaces in embroidery.

Flower buttonholes

Buttonhole stitches worked in groups of three, with the long ends together to look like bells or flowers.

Here little groups of buttonholes gather like flowers. They sit completely detached from one another, sprinkled on the fabric.

Buttonhole stitches worked in groups of three along an edge. It looks like a row of flowers.

Or you can set them in a row for a dainty edging. This works well to cover a narrow hem with embroidery. Possible uses include handkerchiefs, dinner napkins, or underlinen like slips.

Next up

The next time I’ll give you a couple options for using these new stitches, drawn from the original article.