Sometimes you just can't find the perfect buttons to do justice to a handknit. As long as you have some yarn left over, that's not a problem, because you can make buttons to match your garment in whatever size you want.
You will need:
- one washer per button - see below
- about 0.5 - 2m (½ - 2 yds) yarn per button
- a darning needle to suit the yarn
The washer material needs to be non-tarnishing and able to withstand washing. It must also be reasonably strong, stiff and lightweight. Stainless steel washers are perfect, while tap (faucet) washers made from synthetic rubber make a suitable base for larger, chunkier buttons. You could also try small diameter brass curtain rings, although they may go green so are best used with dark coloured yarns. Plastic curtain rings would also work for small sizes. Buy curtain rings that are flattened, like washers, if at all possble, because the hole in the middle needs to be relatively small, especially for buttons made of finer yarns such as 4-ply (fingering) or 5-ply (sport).
The finished button will be larger than the outside diameter of whatever washer you use, so choose accordingly. For example, the camel-coloured and white buttons in the photos above measure 22mm (7/8") across and are made with the M8 Form A stainless steel washers shown, which have an outside diameter of 16mm (5/8").
If you already have some washers that might be suitable, then the best bet is to make the buttons before you knit the buttonhole band of your garment, so you can size the buttonholes accordingly. But if you are buying washers specially, then choose ones that are about 6mm (1/4") smaller than the button diameter you want for chunky/bulky or Aran/worsted yarn, less for finer yarns. The central hole should not be too big, but the thicker the yarn, the larger it will need to be. The M8 washers in the photo have an internal diameter of 8.4mm (5/16") and were suitable for both chunky yarn and Aran weight yarn (the camel and white buttons, repectively).
Step 1: Wrapping the Washer - First Round
Start by making an experimental button, to see how many rounds of yarn wraps you will need. Assuming you have plenty of yarn left over from your knitting project, measure off a length of that yarn - a yard or a metre should be plenty for thicker yarns, but you might need twice that or more for finer yarns or very large buttons. If you don't have a lot of yarn left, then make your test button from spare yarn of the same weight.
Unless the hole in the centre of the washer is quite small (which is the case for most tap washers), you will need to do an initial round of plain wrapping to cover the washer and help to fill in the hole. Thread the darning needle and work around the washer, taking the needle up through the centre, round the outside and repeat. Each wrap should lie next to the previous one. Work clockwise or anti-clockwise, whichever feels comfortable. Hold the tail of the yarn against the back of the washer for the first 2 or 3 rounds so that it is secured, then let it stick out and ignore it. (If you try to catch it under too many wraps, it will make that side of the button noticeably bulky. Instead, you can darn in any remaining tail later, if necessary.)
Continue until you get back to the starting point and the whole washer is covered in yarn. Try to keep an even tension, pulling the yarn tight enough for it to stay where it should without stretching it.
Now you need to decide whether one or more additional rounds are needed to fill in the central hole. This will depend on how fine the yarn is and how big that hole was to start with. The hole needs to be quite small after the final round (Step 2) in order for it to be possible to fill it in successfuly (Step 3). On the other hand, more rounds will make the button larger in diameter, thicker and generally bulkier, all of which will necessitate a larger buttonhole and might make the button "droop" when sewn on. This is why you are making a test button, so experiment. But if the central hole still seems quite big after an initial round of wraps, then work another before moving to the next step.
Step 2: Wrapping the Washer - Final Round
The final round of wraps is a more decorative one. Work it by going in the same direction as before and still bringing the yarn up through the centre. But this time, create a fancy edge to the button by taking the needle through the new loop of yarn before pulling tight, to make a small knot. Go through the loop in the same direction as you are working, ie right to left for anti-clockwise wrapping and vice versa.
When you get back to the start, finish off by taking the needle through the first knot in such a way as to match the others and make the join invisible.
There may still be a small hole in the centre of the button. That's OK, it will be filled in soon. But if the centre is already quite full, you may need to stitch through it to complete the final few wraps.
Step 3: Finishing
Turn the button over and make several long stitches across the back, over the central hole, to fill it in. These stitches also help to hold the wraps in place. Then take the yarn up through the middle of the button and make a few small, neat stitches to tidy up the centre and hold the long stitches in place.
Decide whether you like the look of this button or need to experiment further before making them for real. You can get a slightly different look by taking the yarn down through the centre of the washer when wrapping, or by working through the loop in the direction opposite to the direction of travel in the final round. You could even sew a small bead or pearl into the centre of the finished button to fill an overly large hole.
Once you have a method you are happy with, you need to work out how much yarn you'll need for each button, to avoid having to work with excessively long pieces or running out before you have finished.
If you plan to use the same yarn to sew the buttons onto your garment, allow sufficient extra for this. Otherwise, just add a few inches to allow for darning in the end. Then measure how much is left from the original length you measured out in Step 1 to work out what the requirement for each button should be. Cut a length for each button and then go and make them. Cut off the starting tail of yarn at the back of each button - it should be perfectly secure but darn it in first if there is any doubt - and darn in the ending tail too unless you are going to use it to sew on the button.
Step 4: Sewing On
Attach the buttons by sewing through the centre, remembering to create a shank as you do so, and taking stitches that are as large as they can be so that they are less likely to pull through.
It is better not to use sewing thread, especially for buttons made of pure wool, because it is much stronger than the yarn and could pull through it in time. Instead, try splitting the yarn into its constituent plies if it is too thick to be used as it is, or sew on the buttons with a finer, toning yarn.