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Sewing machine buttonhole troubleshooting

In this YouTube sewing tutorial, I want to talk about buttonholes. Not only to talk of course but to show you how to make perfect buttonholes using a buttonhole foot on a sewing machine. Well, maybe you have seen other YouTube videos on sewing buttonholes. I will try to be a little different and to show you mostly sewing machine buttonhole troubleshooting so no matter what fabric you use & how many buttonholes you want to make you will have a much greater chance of success.

How to make perfect buttonholes video sewing tutorial

A mistake at this step will probably ruin your almost finished project so it is very important to do it right the first time.

If you prefer to watch directly the video tutorial go to my YouTube channel here. 

Sewing machine buttonhole troubleshooting

As for me I really like to make buttonholes because I have so many beautiful buttons. I want to use them all. It’s even easy if you know what you are doing. I am going to give you some really useful tips and tricks so you can sew buttonholes right the first time, every time.

In this video I want to show you how to deal with the most common problem everybody has from time to time: suddenly fabric doesn’t move anymore under the buttonhole foot, the needle starts sewing in the same spot over and over and you have a big knotty mess on your fabric.

It seems you did everything right – checked your manual and verified all the necessary steps, checked your needle ( if it’s not bent), checked if the buttonhole level is down all the way, checked, checked, checked… And what is more confusing, the machine worked fine previously and started making the buttonhole alright but somehow stopped in the middle. What could possibly be wrong? Did it happen to you?

buttonhole troubleshooting

It’s very hard to unpick a buttonhole without damaging the fabric especially if you are sewing with silk or other lightweight fabric.  

For 30 years of sewing, I made more than 1000 buttonholes and I had to solve all kind of small and big problems.

Let me share my experience and show you how to solve the #1 problem when the buttonhole foot gets stuck and not moving anymore. 

1. First of all, check if there is anything interfering with the movement of the foot. Maybe you are touching the fabric under the buttonhole foot and the fabric is touching the toe of the foot when you are sewing? You don’t make buttonholes on a small piece of fabric. The whole project is behind your buttonhole foot as I have it in the video clip below. 

Maybe the fabric is touching the buttonhole lever? By the way, you have to check if you pulled the lever all the way down.

If you are not paying attention to this you may have the buttonhole foot not moving in the middle of the process. Feed the fabric carefully by hand while the buttonhole is sewn but make sure your hand (or the fabric you are feeding) doesn’t interfere with the movement of the foot.

Step 1 check

Note: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links. This means I will receive a commission if you order a product through one of my links. I only recommend products I believe in and use myself. 

By the way, I used many sewing machines with a 1-step buttonhole feature and by far my favorite machine that makes buttonholes better than others is Janome Memory Craft 6600 P. There are newer Janome models now so if you want to upgrade your machine consider one of Janome models.

My model of a sewing machine is now a number of years old. Technology evolves and it is unlikely that next month the offer for sewing machines will be the same as one month ago and perhaps newer versions will appear.

2. Keep the buttonhole foot level so the fabric can be moved by feed dogs from start to finish.

The buttonhole foot is different from any other sewing machine presser feet: it’s longer and wider. So it’s not easy to keep it completely flat while you are sewing a buttonhole, but it’s necessary so the feed dogs can have exactly the same amount of traction on the fabric throughout.

Very often, when we are sewing buttonholes we have uneven layers in seam allowances or we are sewing right near seam allowances and near the edge and that can tip the foot. As soon as it happens the feed dogs lose their traction which is why the fabric can’t be correctly fed. Then the fabric stops moving and the needle gets stuck in one spot making a ton of stitches.

So it’s a good idea to compensate for different layers in the fabric especially if you are working with thicker fabric.  For example, one part of the buttonhole has 2 layers of fabric and the other part has already 4 because of the seam allowances. You can put 2 pieces of fabric between the two layers of fabric to make it even. But these pieces shouldn’t move inside so glue them or use fusible web as interfacing.

Step 2 check

3.  Use stabilizers and interfacing

Feed dogs have to feed fabric evenly when you are making a buttonhole. But sometimes the upper level of fabric is moving slightly differently than the down level of the fabric and we have fabric layers shifting. It happens when you are working with stretchy fabric for example.

In this case, you will have some kind of jam under the buttonhole foot. Using stabilizers and interfacing can help solve this problem.

Attach interfacing to the back of stretch fabric to prevent it from stretching and to make the fabric stable. Use machine embroidery tear away stabilizer on the top or the bottom (or even both). 

Perhaps you should check my tutorials on how to use fusible interfacing.

In this youtube video tutorial you will learn how to fuse interfacing, which side of the interfacing is fusible, is fusible fleece the same as interfacing, how do you clean fusible interfacing from an iron.
In this fusible web applique tutorial I am showing how to use fusible interfacing for applique, what is the best fusible web for applique, how to machine applique with fusible web, what is paper backed fusible web for applique and how to use home cutting machine for cutting appliques

I noticed that it’s easier to make buttonholes when the fabric is stiffer. So it’s a really good idea to use interfacing and stabilizers on the area that needs buttonholes. Stabilizers also improve the quality of buttonholes.

Step 3 check

4.   Adjust the sewing machine settings.

Set your machine on slow speed. Chances are that if your buttonhole foot will be stuck your machine is not going to make lots of stitches in one place before you stop it because it will be sewing slower.

If the buttonhole foot is not moving and is stuck in one place try to see if your sewing machine can sew on the same fabric normal narrow and short zigzag stitches with a regular presser foot.

A buttonhole stitch is just a special type of zig zag stitching with more narrow zigzag width and a very short stitch length. So if you have the same problem with a regular zig zag stitch using a regular foot ( fabric is not moving under the presser foot ) I recommend to adjust the sewing machine settings so it would be able to sew a close zigzag stitch on the fabric: try to change the tension, try to change the foot pressure – make it suitable for your fabric, try to change the needle and the thread you are using. For example, don’t use a buttonhole thread –  this thread is very thick, maybe 3 times thicker than the regular sewing thread and it’s made for sewing buttonholes by hand, not by the machine.

Then use the same settings for the buttonhole with the buttonhole foot.

You can also change the stitch length for your buttonhole stitch – make it a little longer for example. Maybe your stitch length was too small for your particular fabric.

Step 4 check

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5.   The other thing you should check is your under the needle plate area and the bobbin holder. Is it clogged with some lint or dust or lose threads? Try to clean it and see if it solves the problem.

Step 5 check

I have a very nice vacuum cleaner for this job – Fuller Brush Mini Maid Handheld Vacuum cleaner. It’s small but powerful, and it goes to small areas easily. Mine is relatively old, not available anymore for purchase, and it has a cord; there are newer versions, cordless, which promise to work even better because they are easier to handle.

6.   Don’t pull the buttonhole foot with excessive force when sewing or attaching or removing the foot. You may slightly curve the foot and it will not work properly anymore. Resist also the temptation to pull the fabric while sewing a buttonhole.

7.    Test, test, and test.

But don’t test on a simple piece of fabric. Try to replicate the conditions. Interface it and fold it and make as many layers as the real garment has. Make sure you are using the same fabric for your test as your project fabric. I usually sew more than one buttonhole on my test fabric just to be sure that I got everything right.

8.    I had this big problem with buttonhole foot 15 years ago when I bought my first computerized Brother sewing machine. The machine was making 1 step buttonholes and I was so happy that I can do them so nice and fast… until it stopped making them. I don’t know what was the problem, I didn’t read sewing blogs then. I tried and tried and tried and it didn’t work. So I bought another sewing machine, more advanced, it was Brother also. To my surprise, I started to have the same problem pretty soon.

So, I decided that it’s not the machine at fault but something I was doing preparing my project for the buttonhole making and using the buttonhole foot. I have shown you what can be wrong in this case.

But it’s also possible that your machine needs professional adjustment. Find a sewing machine dealer near you and bring the machine for repair.

9.   I also saw some interesting new gadget called a Buttonhole Stabilizer Plate made by Janome and some other brands.  I don’t have it and didn’t use it myself because I am always able to sew perfect buttonholes on my machines.

Buttonhole stabilizer plate

But this gadget is made especially for this case when you have problems with the buttonhole foot not moving and stuck in one place. They say that “it provides a clever way to feed the fabric evenly when you are dealing with thick or difficult fabrics”

There are some other buttonhole problems you may have, for example, what to do if the button doesn’t fit in the buttonhole foot, or how to easily mark buttonholes on your fabric, how to choose a correct buttonhole stitch, what sewing machine makes the best buttonholes. I will leave these for the future.

other buttonhole problems

Another interesting article you may want to read is “How to sew a buttonhole by hand“. This is very useful in situations where you can not use the sewing machine, either because it doesn’t have the function, it is temporarily out of order or simply the buttonhole is irregular and needs special attention.

Did you find this tutorial helpful? If so, save this pin (see below) on your sewing board so you can come to this tutorial later when you are ready to make perfect buttonholes, and follow me on Pinterest for more tips, tutorials, and inspiration!

Buttonhole troubleshooting sewing tutorial

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Sunday 12th of December 2021

Thanks. Your buttonhole troubleshooting helped me solve my problem. It also helped to know you tried two machines and encountered the same trouble. My problem was that my foot correctly guided the down-and-back straight stitching that is the first step, but when it should have retraced that stitching with a zigzag, the fabric didn't move, leaving a lump on the back. You pointed out that the foot must remain level. My solution was to keep a light upward pressure on the very back of the foot, keeping it from drooping. That solved the problem and the machine proceeded to sew both columns of zigzag plus the end bars. Thank you.

Olga Balasa

Tuesday 14th of December 2021

I am glad my article helped. Isn't technology wonderful? When it works, that is? And so frustrating, when it should, but doesn't!


Sunday 15th of August 2021

My singer sc220 only sewing button hole stiches and normal stiches are not working ..got stuck in button hole mode..pls help Posted by Thambirajah... on Aug 15, 2021

Olga Balasa

Sunday 15th of August 2021

I am sorry but remote diagnostic for a computerized machine is really not possible; I do suggest make sure the machine is clean and there is no lint inside, and if the manufacturer recommends oiling, make sure those points are lightly oiled. Apart from that, I doubt anyone can tell more. However in my article on the Singer Steam Press I have a link to a Singer dealer in Flint, MI and you can try contacting them directly, perhaps they have some advice.

Tchibila sudi

Saturday 3rd of July 2021

Dear I would like to know about sewing machine maintenance. Thanks

Olga Balasa

Saturday 10th of July 2021

The maintenance depends on the type of sewing machine you have and can probably not be made general. The manufacturer will have in the manual a special chapter for this. However general rules are: clean the lint, thread ends and dust (and dead insects, probably), oil in the points where the manufacturer indicates (and ONLY if the manufacturer indicates), with special sewing machine oil (or fine mechanisms oil), make sure you use sharp needles.


Wednesday 23rd of September 2020

This was very helpful! Thank you!

Olga Balasa

Saturday 26th of September 2020

I am glad you found it helpful! Thanks for your feedback!

Olga Milner

Saturday 23rd of May 2020

For large buttons you use mode 3 program 15 on my Janome 6600p. The manual says that the reverse button should be pressed twice (at top of the hole and at the bottom of the hole) but I have seen a Janome video that says for the final bar tack the button should be pressed a third time. Which is correct as I am having problems as shown in your video.

Olga Balasa

Saturday 23rd of May 2020

Olga, my machine is the same, Janome 6600p, and yes, you have to press the reverse button 3 times. When you press it the first time it will not make any tacks, you press first to stop the machine at the required length of the buttonhole. Then the machine will sew straight stitches down on the right side of the buttonhole and when you press the reverse button it will make tacks at the beginning of the buttonhole and continue to sew the right side. Then you stop it again and press the reverse button to make tacks at the end. I hope it helps. If you have other questions send me an email to [email protected]

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