Mary Corbet

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I learned to embroider when I was a kid, when everyone was really into cross stitch (remember the '80s?). Eventually, I migrated to surface embroidery, teaching myself with whatever I could get my hands on...read more

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Buttonhole Stitch vs. Blanket Stitch: The Name Debate


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The buttonhole stitch is a super-versatile embroidery stitch. Perhaps because it isn’t a skinny line stitch and it isn’t a typical filling stitch, it doesn’t always get the attention it deserves.

But one area where the buttonhole stitch seems to garner some scrutiny is in a question of semantics – that is, in the area of definition or meaning.

I’ve recently heard from a few stitchers – some of them new to embroidery – who are a little confused about whether or not the stitch we call the buttonhole stitch really is the buttonhole stitch.

The question is basically this: Is buttonhole stitch, as it is most commonly known, actually the blanket stitch, while “true” buttonhole stitch is a completely different stitch altogether?

Every time I write about buttonhole stitch, I get a few emails with questions like this. I’ve heard from stitchers full of good intentions, encouraging me to be careful of causing confusion by calling the buttonhole stitch the buttonhole stitch. And I’ve heard from stitchers on a buttonhole crusade, who harshly reprimand – “you should know better” and “shame on you” for perpetuating this heinous misnomer.

Let’s chat about the stitch, discuss the name debate, and examine some clarifications and historical references, so that we can clear up any confusion over what’s what with the buttonhole stitch!

Buttonhole Stitch on a Flower - shaded filling

The photo above is a flower embroidered with buttonhole stitch, worked close together. The petals are filled with a layer of buttonhole stitch on the outside edge extending inward, and, on the inside, the “spikes” of the buttonhole stitch are split with straight stitches (with the same approach you’d take with long & short stitch shading), to shade the petal. The buttonhole stitch gives the outline of the petal a distinct, twisted edge.

You see that buttonhole stitch can be used quite well as a filling, especially if you want a twisted, neat edge on the design line.

Buttonhole Stitch flower leaves

The leaves in the photo above are also worked in buttonhole stitch (you can find the tutorial for buttonhole stitch leaves like these – with little flowers – here).

The stitches are spaced a little farther apart, to give the sense of leaf veins and some shaping to the leaves, and you can see the characteristic twist on the edge of the leaves, that define the design outline.

Buttonhole Stitch on a Flower - shaded filling

In the photo above, buttonhole stitch is worked over a padded filling, with the stitches (in the brick red) spaced about one stitch width apart. Once the buttonhole stitching is complete, the lighter stitches (just simple straight stitches) are worked between the buttonhole stitches, to create a striped effect.

So we can see that buttonhole stitch can be used effectively as a filling, to create a whole motif (like a leaf), or as a band stitch, in different ways. And there are many, many more ways that you can use buttonhole stitch and its variations in needlework. You can find lots of examples in my Stitch Fun! series.

But the Name Debate

Those who debate the name of the stitch usually assert that the stitch illustrated in the photos above is not buttonhole stitch, but rather, blanket stitch.

It’s true that the two stitches – buttonhole stitch and blanket stitch – are formed exactly the same way, but, historically, there is a slight distinction between the two stitches.

Most people who bring up the subject tend to think that the distinction is that “true” buttonhole stitch has a knotted edge to it – that in fact, the stitch we call buttonhole stitch is not buttonhole stitch at all, but blanket stitch, and that a “true” buttonhole stitch has a knotted edge.

But this, historically, is not the distinction between buttonhole stitch and blanket stitch. The distinction, if one is going to be made, is where the stitch is worked, not how the stitch is worked.

Will the Real Buttonhole Stitch Please Step Forward?

Buttonhole stitch as we commonly know it and call it – without any kind of extra knotting along the line – is really just buttonhole stitch.

Whether it is stitched on an edge of fabric, whether spaced farther apart, it is still buttonhole stitch, although, as many authors note, when worked on the edge of fabric to secure it, it is sometimes called blanket stitch. I’ll clarify this below.

What most name debaters assert is “true” buttonhole stitch is this stitch:

Tailor's Buttonhole stitched edge

If you look closely at the edge of the line there, you can see an extra loop or knot along the edge.

Tailor’s Buttonhole

This stitch, with the knotted edge, is the tailor’s buttonhole. The knotted edge gives a little more stability when the stitch is worked over the edge of fabrics to form (for example) button holes on coats and the like.

Tailor’s buttonhole isn’t a very well known stitch nor widely used, because plain old buttonhole stitch for most surface and decorative embroidery does the edge job just fine.

So whether you’re using buttonhole stitch in cutwork, in Hardanger, in regular surface work, in whitework, in crazy quilting – the plain twisted edge does what it’s supposed to do. The extra knotted edge ends up being merely decorative in most applications, and in fact, with some threads, the extra knotting can throw off the neat spacing that comes with buttonhole stitch.

Tailor’s Buttonhole – Different Stitch Movement

But the distinction goes further, because the tailor’s buttonhole stitch is not the buttonhole stitch. It is formed differently.

To work the tailor’s buttonhole easily, neatly, and consistently, the least complex way of doing it is actually a completely different stitch movement, compared to the buttonhole stitch.

Buttonhole stitch is formed this way: the needle comes up on the design line where the twisted edge will develop. It passes to the back of the fabric above the design line (where the tips of the “spikes” of the buttonhole would be), and emerges back on the design line next to where the stitch started and over the working thread. Pull the thread through, and that’s a buttonhole stitch. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can find a video for buttonhole stitch here.)

With tailor’s buttonhole, if you want to work it in the easiest way possible, the movement is the opposite – the needle goes down into the fabric where the twisted edge develops (on the design line) and comes up into the fabric at the tip of the spikes.

Additionally, the working thread passes behind the eye of the needle and behind the tip of the needle, in order for the knot to form on the edge. When the thread is pulled through and upwards away from the design line, the thread tightens, and then the stitch is finished by pulling the thread towards you (down towards the design line), situating the knotted edge on the design line.

Here’s what the set-up for a tailor’s buttonhole looks like, if you want to work it in the quickest and easiest way:

Tailor's Buttonhole stitch - set up

You can see that the working thread is behind the eye-end of the needle and behind the tip-end of the needle, and that the needle is pointing upwards, away from the edge formed by the stitch.

In some stitch dictionaries, tailor’s buttonhole is illustrated similarly to the buttonhole, only with an extra twisted loop over the tip of the needle. This method of forming the stitch doesn’t work up as quickly as the method illustrated above, and it’s not as easy to situate the knotted edge neatly and consistently.

Historically Speaking

You don’t see “blanket stitch” illustrated often in too many older stitch dictionaries. When you do find a reference to it, it’s usually as an aside, and not as its own classification or type of stitch. It is always mentioned in association with the buttonhole stitch, as we will see below.

Blanket stitch and buttonhole stitch are the same stitch, technically. They are formed exactly the same way.

The tailor’s buttonhole stitch is a completely different stitch altogether, as it is formed differently, and in no historical reference do we see “buttonhole stitch” illustrated with an extra knot. But we do see “tailor’s buttonhole” illustrated, separately from buttonhole stitch.

Lewis & Buckle on Buttonhole Stitch

In 1900, you’ll find buttonhole stitch (as we know it) elaborately detailed in Art in Needlework by Lewis Day and Mary Buckle, on page 56. When writing about buttonhole stitch (and mentioning blanket stitch), the authors state:

One need hardly describe Buttonhole Stitch. The simple form of it is worked (when you have brought your needle out) keeping the thread under your thumb to the right, whilst you put the needle in again at a higher point slightly to the right, and bring it out immediately below, close to where it came out before. This and other one-edged stitches of the kind are sometimes called “blanket stitch.”

Grace Christie on Buttonhole Stitch

In 1912, you’ll find the buttonhole stitch, illustrated in chapter five of Grace Christie’s book, Embroidery and Tapestry Weaving, where she makes the clear distinction between buttonhole stitch (which she refers to as the “common buttonhole stitch”) and tailor’s buttonhole stitch (with the knotted edge). In this book, the author indicates that buttonhole stitch…

is very useful also in embroidery… Owing to its construction, it is well-suited for the covering of raw edges, but it is also adaptable to a variety of other purposes such as are open or close fillings of leaves and flowers, cut work, and the outlining of applied work.

She then goes on to describe two distinct stitches: “There are two ways of forming the stitch, the common buttonhole and what is called tailor’s buttonhole.” Tailor’s buttonhole has the knotted edge.

But notice that in Christie’s description, she never uses the term “blanket stitch,” even though she talks about securing the edge.

In Christie’s book, the only reference to “blanket stitch” is actually to a completely different stitch altogether that’s used as a kind of pulled thread stitch and looks more like Algerian eye or something similar.

L. Higgins on Blanket Stitch

If we go back as far as 1880, you’ll find something very interesting in the Handbook of Embroidery by L. Higgins, published by authority of the Royal School of Art-Needlework. In this book, you actually find the “blanket stitch” illustrated and called “blanket stitch” – but notice the description:

Blanket Stitch is used for working the edges of table-covers, mantel valances, blankets, &c., or for edging any other material. It is simply a button-hole stitch [emphasis mine], and may be varied in many ways by sloping the stitches alternately to right and left; by working two or three together, and leaving a space between them and the next set; or by working a second row round the edge of the cloth over the first with a different shade of wool.

Higgins assumes the stitcher knows the buttonhole stitch. The distinction is that the blanket stitch is a buttonhole stitch used to edge. But nowhere in the entire book does the author illustrate how to work the buttonhole stitch. It is just assumed the stitcher knows how to work it, I presume because it was such a commonly known stitch, and known by the name of buttonhole stitch.

Higgins makes no mention of a buttonhole stitch that forms a knotted line at the base.

Mary Thomas on Buttonhole, Tailor’s Buttonhole, and Blanket Stitch

In Mary Thomas’s Embroidery Book (1935), which contains cross-references to her stitch dictionary, two sections of the book give insight to her use of the term “buttonhole stitch” and “tailor’s buttonhole.” The first is the section on Broderie Anglais, a form of whitework coupled with cutwork, in which buttonhole stitch plays a primary role in edging the areas that are cut away from the ground fabric.

In this section, Mary Thomas illustrates the buttonhole stitch as the buttonhole stitch as we know it.

In the back of the book, Thomas talks about tailor’s buttonhole, literally from the point of view of a tailor making a coat. The stitch illustrated in this section is the tailor’s buttonhole worked as I’ve illustrated above. The point is that she doesn’t call this stitch, which forms the knotted edge, “buttonhole stitch,” but rather “tailor’s buttonhole.”

In the reprint edition of Thomas’s stitch dictionary edited by Jan Eaton and published in 1998, the blanket stitch is explained thus:

Blanket Stitch: (Also known as open buttonhole stitch.) Blanket stitch is worked in the same way as buttonhole stitch… The only difference between them lies in the spacing of the stitches. Blanket stitch is used as an edging stitch for appliqué and as a surface stitch. The name probably devices from its traditional use as a finish for the edges of blankets….

Here, we see a stated distinction between buttonhole stitch and blanket stitch, based on spacing. While Higgins (in Handbook of Embroidery) classifies blanket stitch as a stitch used for edging, she doesn’t actually distinguish it from buttonhole based on spacing, but rather based on use.

In Thomas’s dictionary, tailor’s buttonhole is described as

…similar to ordinary buttonhole stitch…but it makes a strong, hardwearing edge which is particularly suitable for use on heavyweight fabric. Use it to finish raw edges and as a border stitch on either plain- or even-weave fabric.

Interestingly, the tailor’s buttonhole as illustrated in the reprint edition (1998) of Thomas’s stitch dictionary, is not the same as the tailor’s buttonhole illustrated in Mary Thomas’s Embroidery Book. Instead, the illustration is similar to Christie’s, except for the way the working thread overlaps itself on the loops for the set-up of the stitch.

Neither Christie’s nor Thomas’s approach is as quick as the set-up shown above for the tailor’s buttonhole, nor does it guarantee an easy, accurate placement for the knotted line. Eventually, they achieve a similar outcome, but the way I’ve illustrated it above – and the way Mary Thomas originally illustrates it in her Embroidery Book – is faster, easier, and more consistent in the placement of the knotted edge.

All that being said, the take-away from Thomas’s books is that tailor’s buttonhole is not buttonhole. But blanket stitch and buttonhole are technically the same stitch, distinguished by spacing.

In a Nutshell

So if you’re ever talking about the buttonhole stitch and the argument comes up that buttonhole stitch is really blanket stitch and that “proper” buttonhole stitch has a knotted edge to it, these are the points to keep in mind:

1. Buttonhole stitch, as we know it, has been around for a long time, and is called “buttonhole stitch” in significant historic needlework books.

2. In the commonly accessible embroidery books of old, and in most embroidery books today, buttonhole stitch is not illustrated with a knotted edge. If a knotted edge is involved, the distinction of names is always present – the knotted edge version is referred to as tailor’s buttonhole.

3. Buttonhole stitch and what is called “blanket stitch” are the same stitch. Blanket stitch usually implies that it’s worked on the edge of something, to secure the edge, and sometimes it implies that the stitches are spaced further apart. But even when worked over an edge, it can still be called buttonhole stitch, and the term used this way would not be incorrect, since the distinctions are distinctions of accident (spacing and place) rather than distinctions in form (they are the same stitch).

4. Tailor’s buttonhole, which forms a knotted edge, is a completely different stitch, producing a completely different result with a completely different stitch movement – either because it is worked in the manner shown above, or because it involves one more twisted loop on the needle before pulling the stitch through. It is distinguished from buttonhole stitch by its knotted edge and the different stitch movement to achieve that knotted edge. And in every well-known stitch dictionary, it is distinguished by its name: “tailor’s buttonhole.”

So What?

You’re right! It really doesn’t make that much of a difference. In either case, when it comes to blanket or buttonhole stitch, the stitch itself is exactly the same, and it doesn’t really matter what it’s called.

However, when it comes to implying that the “true” buttonhole stitch forms a knotted edge, this is actually incorrect, and advancing this notion will simply cause confusion, especially to newbies.

Questions? Comments? Suggestions? If you want to weigh in on the name debate, or you have any questions or comments on it, feel free to have your say below!


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(97) Comments

  1. I LOVE THIS POST! Language is my business and needlework my hobby, with an extra side dose of historical sleuthing and semantics nitpicking. Well reasoned and argued, Mary! Years from now, you’ll be the name that comes up in discussions about stitching authorities!

    1. Funny, Sarah! The difference is that today, we have a whole bunch of authorities in the field of stitching, and back then, there were fewer who were published and well-known (because publishing was a lot rarer than it is now!). Most experts today are more of an authority than I am, and certainly better trained. I just happen to be more of a Big Mouth! LOL!

  2. Well, my goodness! The people who are harsh towards such a devoted and generous font of information like you deserve to be reprimanded themselves! I am teaching a beginners class this semester and todays lesson is on buttonhole, so your oh so informative article is very well timed and I thank you! I often quote you and recommend your site to every stitcher I meet. Carry on, Mary!
    Durham NC

    1. Thanks a lot, Jo! I appreciate your spreading the word about Needle ‘n Thread, and I hope it comes in handy for your people!

      I don’t think folks mean to come across as harsh – it’s just that they have a fixed notion and are shocked that there are other notions out there besides their own! But – well, speaking for me, anyway – lots of people can come across that way! I tend to get a bit pedantic now and then (obviously!). 🙂

  3. Buttonhole stitch and Blanket Stitch have just one name in dutch: Festonsteek. So maybe this is ‘proof’ enough that it is the same stitch. It serves the same purpose on both buttonholes and blankets because it is done to prevend raveling of the fabric. But with a blanket the stitches are worked wider apart so there will be no hard edge.
    Another way to look at it is comparing it with machine stitches. The zig-zag stitch is the machine version of the blanket stitch. And the satin stitch (which is just a zig-zag stitch worked closer together) is the machine version of the buttonhole stitch.

    1. Thanks for this information, Gerda! I actually started a whole section in this article about “buttonhole stitch” in languages other than English, and how it is illustrated and worked. But the article was already so very long…..!!!

  4. I love it when you get all Stitch Geeky on us!

    My grandmother, a seamstress, would work hand-buttonholes using either tailors’ or plain-old buttonhole stitch. She also embroidered. When forming buttonholes she would work the stitching FIRST as surface stitches, then slice the button slit down the center of the newly outlined buttonhole. Once when we were using the same buttonhole stitch on the free edge of a blanket (as opposed to surface stitching), she told me that when worked off an edge, the same plain-old buttonhole stitch had another name – blanket stitch, especially when the stitches were worked in pairs, so that their legs met at the apex and formed a row of little triangles across the free edge.

    Now my grandmother isn’t a Noted Published Expert, and this is anecdotal, but her nomenclature supports your assertion – as a surface stitch, it’s buttonhole, off a free edge, it’s blanket stitch.

    Thanks again for the post!

    1. My understanding of the buttonhole stitch is the knotted part is on the outside edge of the fabric, ie like your flower. The blanket stitch is the opposite, the legs of the blanket stitch are on the outside edge of the fabric.

    2. Hi, Fran – I’ve never heard that distinction, myself. I think it would be difficult to use the “blanket” stitch that way, if you’re working over an edge, without ending up with a line inside the edge of the fabric. Normally, the twisted line falls on the edge of the fabric that’s being secured.

  5. You always make stitching fun, Mary! Even when you’re clarifying terms and settling disputes, you make me want to pick up my needle and thread! So now I’m off to work some buttonhole stitches on the little bottle cap pincushion that you started me on last week (and I think I’ll use some beads from the bead tray that you recommended some time back, which is indeed perfect)!

    1. Hi, Marty – Thanks! I think that’s a great idea – go stitch some buttonhole stitches….which is what it all comes down to, anyway: the stitching itself is The Thing, not really the debate over semantics! 🙂

    1. Hi, Beth! I’m glad you find the information handy for your EGA group. When printing out, please make sure attribution and the URL are also printed on the article. Thanks a bunch! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Marjorie! I agree! I’m not much interested in the whole debate, as I think it’s just a debate for the sake of debating. The only thing that concerns me is the confusion caused for newcomers in embroidery, who are instructed that “buttonhole stitch” isn’t buttonhole stitch – and then, when they go seeking the stitch, they are confounded by the various options. I prefer just to stick with the basics: this is the stitch as it is widely known, history establishes it as so, so why confuse people?

  6. Wow Mary! Your research is amazing and most appreciated! I am not involved in this controversy (nor did I know about it) but as a needlework history junkie I am always thrilled to have your clear explanations. Thank you so much!!

    1. Sure thing, Karen! All the books I quoted are very easily acquired today, either as old editions through used book sources, or even online for free through Project Gutenberg, Internet Archives, and similar sites, with the exception of Mary Thomas’s original stitch dictionary, which is harder to find.

  7. Thank you for this article! I always learn so much from you! I have always thought that blanket stitch & buttonhole stitch were the same, distinguished only by their spacing or purpose (edging a blanket or finishing a buttonhole). I had never heard of a tailor’s buttonhole, however, and am glad to know how it is different. I will try this stitch to understand how it is made differently.

  8. Hi Mary. I have referenced some of the same books when I started stitching many years ago and first heard of the debate, and agree that the evidence points to two distinct stitches based on formation. This argument will continue to be perpetuated regardless of the evidence. Same thing with the question of whether cross stitching is embroidery or not. That argument gets old and I have used the same historical evidence and process to determine the answer. Love your articles, by the way, and your lovely work. Best regards, Christina.

  9. I have to admit the naming convention confused me to start with; having learnt to sew clothes and stuff at school, rather than embroider, so I learnt the tailor’s buttonhole – although my RSN teacher never called it that, but just buttonhole stitch. But here’s the thing… it’s the word: BUTTONHOLE… that implies to me it goes round a hole where a button goes through, or maybe I’m being pedantic, I don’t know. I’ve got used to it now; realising everything is referring to the embroidery buttonhole stitch rather than the tailor one Maybe it should be called close blanket instead???!!!!! As buttonhole and blanket are exactly the same stitch apart from the spacing??? Please note I said CLOSE and not CLOSED which is yet another variation on a theme!! I’ve got to the stage where I’m not bothered any more as long as I know which one I am supposed to be doing!!

    1. Hi, Jacqui – Good points!

      Buuuuut…. I’m thinking we probably don’t need to rename it, since it’s already got a name that’s been used for 100+ years, that clearly implies the stitch we know commonly as buttonhole stitch. 🙂

  10. It has always been my understanding that buttonhole stitch and blanket stitch are essentially the same stitch, worked in the same way, the only distinction being the use to which it is being put. Blanket stitch was originally used to secure the folded edge of wool blankets and was usually spaced about half an inch apart, as that was all that was required in order to do the job. Button hole stitch was, as the name implies, used to create buttonholes and was worked as closely as a satin stitch to secure the edges of buttonholes on finer weight fabrics (shirts etc). Heavier weight fabrics and more heavy duty outerwear would have used the Tailors (knotted) buttonhole stitch for added strength and durability. As the basic blanket/buttonhole stitch is the same stitch that most embroiderers know how to work, and can be used for both decorative and functional purposes, the term used can be interchangeable, as the process of working the stitch is generally understood, and the spacing of the stitch is adapted to the project being worked.

  11. Many years ago, I took some classes from Marion Scoular. She was adamant about calling “it” the Blanket Stitch. The Buttonhole Stitch was what you call the Tailor’s Buttonhole. After years of classes, I have come to the conclusion that people who went to the RSN, or who had classes from Marion or other RSN grads, are the ones who insist on the difference. Personally, I’ve gotten over it because almost everyone uses the same nomenclature that you do. I’m curious about whether the RSN still makes the distinction the same way. I have a lot of their books, but they’re at my other house and I can’t check, but I am curious. At this point, I feel that if you want to call it Blanket Stitch, feel free to do so, but if you’re trying to change what others call it, you’re spitting into the wind.

    1. There’s just no historical backing to the claim that the buttonhole stitch as we know it has a knotted edge or that it is “the blanket stitch” and not the buttonhole stitch. Every major stitch dictionary from the past calls it and illustrates as the same buttonhole stitch we use today. I’m guessing the confusion comes from that first book by Higgins, (which was essentially considered the first RSN handbook) but if you look closely at what Higgins says, she calls the blanket stitch “the button-hole stitch” – they are technically exactly the same. Thanks, Sally!

  12. Thank you for this clarification. I had also heard that true buttonhole stitch was worked with the knotted edge and did work one hardanger project with it. I would hope that needleworkers could be more tolerant of each other. Thank you for continuing to provide us with so much information in spite of the criticism!

  13. I always read your postings as soon as they show in my email. I particularly enjoyed your discussion today about buttonhole stitch, blanket stitch and tailor’s buttonhole. Thank you.

  14. I don’t suppose you can make a video of the Tailor’s Buttonhole stitch? I’d like to be able to use it but need to see it being done to figure it out.

  15. This explains why my elder aunt
    keeps correcting me when I use
    the term “buttonhole”.
    Thanks for the references. Enjoyed
    reading those.

  16. Dear Mary

    I didn’t know there was disagreement concerning the buttonhole stitch, I just use it because I love it, it’s easy and looks lovely when applied to fabric on any project. Great article you have done a lot of research into this and outlined perfectly the differences. Thanks for all your research and for explaining the different methods on the buttonhole stitch and thanks for sharing your views with us concerning the debate.

    Regards Anita Simmance

  17. Mary, I completely agree with you. As a professional tailor, I have to say that you have totally and truthfully stated all there is to say on the topic of the blanket /buttonhole stitch! Anyone challenging this posting of yours is probably misinformed, and would do themselves a service to re-read all that you wrote here.
    Some of the purpose of applying these stitches is either for a finishing touch or for stability and strength or both. What more is there to say(?): except that I, too, understand and appreciate the sticklers to tradition, a class to which I belong, so I can’t find fault when details are pointed out; some of us feel the weight of the importance of the “small stuff” that makes up historical accounting. Athough the scoldings and attempts at shaming are a bit extreme, clearly you have retained a sense of lighthearted humor over it.
    Thank you for such an in-depth article.

  18. I appreciate this lesson in terminology. To me the Tailor’s buttonhole stitch is to the more common buttonhole stitch, as the Type 1 (formerly called Juvenile) diabetic is to the more common Type 2 (formerly considered adult onset) diabetic. There are similarities yet there are obvious differences if anyone cares to look closely.

  19. I have always considered the difference between the two to be spacing!
    Blanket Stitch is spaced a bit apart so that you see the fabric between each stitch. Buttonhole Stitch has no space and you cannot see the cloth. TaDa!

    1. Hi, Valerie – you’re right, but at the same time, blanket and buttonhole are exactly the same stitch. The spacing is merely accidental. The stitch itself is the same, so blanket stitch can be called buttonhole stitch, and it’s not incorrect. Most people wouldn’t call buttonhole stitch that’s worked close “blanket stitch” though. So there’s kind of a reversed give-or-take, depending on how you look at it!

  20. I love the history in the stitches! It is funny that such a distinction has to be made. Great job explaining it.

  21. Wow, that was some impressive research, Mary. I love to see questions settled so completely and backed up with historical references! This was a pleasure to read.

  22. Thank you for this discussion. Doing embellished wool applique I get to play with wool shapes and do surface embroidery so I am in “pig heaven”! But there are a few tips I wish you could enlighten me with concerning blanket/buttonhole stitch. I struggle with 3 things in 2 situations. (1) starting and stopping to change threads, (2) turning corners, and (3) doing points, basically turning sharp corners. All of these when either (a) attaching a shape to the background or (b) working over the outside raw edges. I’ve seen some short discussions on how to do these and the tips just don’t work for me. Maybe I’m just not understanding what they’re telling me. If you could add solutions to these to your tips – or show me where they are on your site – I would be eternally grateful.

    1. If you can’t find what you want on the site, there is a booklet by another Mary(!) – Mary Hickmott, called Moving on in Hardanger. This has good illustrations of starting buttonhole stitch edging, turning corners, and how to fasten on new threads.

    2. You might look at some Hardanger embroidery references. Buttonhole stitch is used a lot there so the stopping of one thread and beginning of a new thread is covered in all basic Hardanger instructions, as well as turning corners. Not sure about points, but I would think it would be very close to turning a corner. Yvette Stanton (hope I spelled it right) has a wonderful book on Hardanger and Janice Love (if you can find them…they are older booklets) also has some very good instruction.

  23. But if you are doing a buttonhole stitch for a buttonhole and then subsequently cut the hole for the button, does that not the. Become a blanket stitch?

    1. It’s a good idea if you plan to cut the buttonhole after stitching – one traditional way – to use the tailors’ buttonhole; it’s easier to cut safely closer to the buttonhole.

  24. Thanks for this informative article. My mom used to talk about knotting every stitch when using buttonhole stitch and I could never quite figure out what she was talking about because mine will twist, but not knot. Now I realize she was using a tailor’s buttonhole stitch. Both of us use button hole stitch when we hem because it is more stable than the usual hem stitch. Stitched with sewing thread using a very small bite into the edge, it so fine that it almost looks like a straight line drawn around the edge of a skirt or coat. Funny, as much as a sew, I always make button holes by machine, but they would be beautifully decorative made out of embroidery thread on wool or silk. See, now I have more ideas to play with and it is all your fault that I have a huge pile of “round tuits”.

  25. Mary,
    Very interesting article about the buttonhole stitch! This is what I learned 30+ years ago. I enjoyed seeing all your historical references. Now I know for sure I have the correct concept.
    Dolores B in Washington

  26. I really enjoy reading this — love the history and clarification. Sometimes it can really be confusing when stitch names seem to change from the ones I have learned!

  27. Yup, you’re right: so what? I don’t give a fig what a stitch is called and if it’s similar to – or even the same as – another stitch, as long as it does the job it’s needed for!

    What *really* matters here, IMHO, is – again – how incredibly rude and officious some of your readers are about things like this! Bah!

    1. I’m not sure that people saying they don’t care what a stitch is called are really getting the point here? Normally I would agree, however there are two different stitches here and if you want to use one of them particularly, or find out which is best to use for purpose, it becomes very difficult when people call the same stitches by different names. Or different stitches by the same names.

      It isn’t just semantics, it has real application. I know how frustrating it has been for me trying to find out how to do tailors buttonhole – my preference for button holes and not finding it.

      Thanks for your clarification Mary, there is definitely practical application here!

  28. Please demonstrate the difference between the blanket stitch and the tailor’s buttonhole. Your last email note left me very confused!
    Thanks so much for your notes! I read ALL of them! You are amazing!!!

  29. Dear Mary,

    Thank you for this tutorial, which exceeds even your usual specific details. Look fwd to your email arriving every morning. You always show beautiful photos and tell me something new to put to good use.

    You have not mentioned your health in quite awhile. Certainly hope you are doing well.

    Best Wishes,

    P. A. O’Connor

  30. Love this article on “buttonhole stitch”!
    As a side note, when you come across a piece of needlelace and need to know if it is handmade or machine made, look at the “eyelets” and “edging” of motifs. If you see the buttonhole stitch then it’s handmade. Why? Lace Machines could not make the buttonhole stitch. Learned this from my grandmother many years ago!

  31. What it comes down to?..who really cares?
    If you have to be that picky you won’t have time to do what is important, embroidery!

  32. Hi Mary,

    Love this stitch, easy to teach little ones, useful for edges, appliqué, and button holes! I like to use the ‘tailor’s button hole stitch variation for eyelets.

  33. This was one of the best articles to break down the language barrier of the “buttonhole” vs the “blanket” stitch. Being a newbie I could not see the difference. Now I know there is no difference, it is all the same. I can also defend myself against the “proper” name for the knotted buttonhole stitch. Thank you

  34. I have always thought the buttonhole and blanket stitch to be the same stitch, differently spaced. This makes a lot of sense.

    The stitches take their names from their original sewing uses, before they were used for decorative embroidery.

    When stitching around a buttonhole one must place the stitches close together to keep the fabric from unraveling around the buttonhole.

    On the other hand, when one is using the the blanket stitch to hold the binding on the ends of a blanket to the blanket, they do not have to be stitched close together and are spaced apart. While many blankets today do not see to have this wide wide binding on the ends, it used to be common and was a way to deal with the ends of the warp from the weaving of the blanket cloth. The wide binding would cover the end of the warp threads and protect them, as opposed to leaving a fringe or having a thick hem edge on the ends of the blankets.

  35. Well that buttonholes the difference of opinion! You cannot argue with the historical proof you have researched Mary. Even a ‘modern’ Wiki entry agrees!:
    Buttonhole stitches ….. For buttonholes the stitches are tightly packed together and for blanket edges they are more spaced out. The properties of this stitch make it ideal for preventing raveling of woven fabric. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buttonhole_stitch
    Thank you Mary. I wish people would not argue about semantics of stitch names – look at all that time you could have been stitching!

  36. Good on you Mary for this wonderfully clear explanation of buttonhole stitch. There is nothing like going back to historical sources for definition.

  37. What a fascinating topic Mary.
    As an absolute novice embroiderer, the language of the craft can at times be confusing, so your explanation was timely and very interesting.
    Thank you for sharing.

  38. Today you touched on one of my favorite things: history of embroidery. 🙂 I think I’ve said before I belong to a historical recreation society, so this post hit two of my hobbies right on the head – thank you! I do like learning the etymology of terms and such – it’s often surprising what changes a word’s meaning has gone through. One of the ones that often comes up in the SCA is whether “cross-stitch” is period – it is, but the stitch now defined as the ‘common cross-stitch’ was a variant in the Middle Ages. Back then, the term ‘cross-stitch’ most commonly referred to the long-armed cross-stitch. Such tidbits are fascinating to me. Thanks again for a great article.

    -Monika in Mobile

  39. What a fun read. Funniest part (for me) was that I just learned this stitch this morning, before reading this! Using it (as “blanket stitch”) to go around the edge of a scissors-keeper I made (rather an ugly one, if I do say so, but it will serve for now.) 🙂 At any rate, I wish this was the caliber of all disagreements! Wouldn’t it be lovely if this was as “serious” as a disagreement got!
    Enjoyed the whole discussion Mary, thanks.

  40. Fantastic article. A pet dislike of mine is people who get their nickers in a twist over such simple things rather than using valuable time to stitch. One particular one is a French knot should only have a maximum of two twists. I feel a stitch should be used to gain the effect you wish to achieve and therefore not done according to someone’s rules. Stitches are always evolving. Some “rules” are meant to be broken.

  41. Thank you Mary! Very well argued and referenced, as well as interesting. I love the history and tradition behind needlework of every kind. It adds such depth.

  42. Mary – you may have a big mouth, but you are not alone. I have one too and my comment to those who engage in arguments about the stitch names is – stop fussing and get on with your needlework.

  43. I also have a big mouth.
    To those busy arguing about the names of the stitches, I say, stop fussing and get on with your needlework.

  44. I was taught ‘plain’ buttonhole and ‘dress’ (tailors) by my late 19th C Grandmere. Blanket stitch was worked similarly, but with a bit of an angle. I suspect there are some regional variations because to this day I see stitching that is identifiable as heritage Mormon work, and their cultural education system was intensive and highly homogeneous at least through the 1970s.

  45. Thanks Mary,
    Very interesting article. You have taught me a lot about those stitches that I was unaware of. I found the history part of your article particularly good. Don’t know how you find the time to cross reference in such detail. I appreciate the time you take to pass on your knowledge in a way newbies like me can enjoy and learn from.

  46. I’ve never learned to do tailors’ buttonhole – when I make hand-stitched buttonholes, I use blanket stitch!
    Thank you for this article, maybe now I’ll try tailors’ buttonhole on the next shirt I make (or jacket, I ought to be concentrating on a jacket)!

  47. Mary, thank you so much for clarifying! I so love etymologies, and REALLY love the buttonhole stitch in its many guises. (I do usually say blanket stitch for edging a fabric, like fleece baby blankets, and fail to blush for it. LOL)

  48. Thanks Mary. I this is very informative. I have done buttonhole stitches on garments by hand when I was younger and never knew about the tailor’s buttonhole. Most of what I have ever done was perfectly fine with the buttonhole/blanket stitch. But as I have read your article and all the replies I can happily say that you have inspired me. I like Hardanger embroidery very much, but sometimes get tired of the geometrical rigidness. But utilizing the buttonhole leaf that you show would really help to break that up and bring in more gentle lines. Now I need to get to work. I think I will try it out on a needle book project. You are the best source for inspiration. = )

  49. Thank you Mary for your very detailed comments on the buttonhole/blanket stitch saga. I have also been told in no uncertain terms the difference between the two. I knew that they were worked in the same way but when I tried to tell them it was the same stitch was told I was incorrect. Because I did not have the historical back up I quietly retreated. Now I have the evidence. Thank you so much.

  50. Very interesting article!

    Can I ask, in which project was the padded buttonhole stitch? I absolutely love the look of it, and it would work perfectly for an ongoing project I have. I would love to see more of it.
    Also, instead of doing straight stitches between the legs of the buttonhole in the contrasting colour, couldn’t you just do the padding in that colour and let it peek through? That was what I had thought you had done at first glance.

    1. It’s Late Harvest by Hazel Blomkamp – you can find it under Tips and Techniques in the main menu. Yes, you could do that, but the padding stitches go perpendicular to the top stitches, so the stitches would be going in the other direction and you wouldn’t get the smooth top finish. But if you were looking for more texture, yep, that would work!

  51. Good for you Mary! You have certainly taken away any confusion, and at the same time enlightened many of us who are still just starting to delve into this great subject of embriodery. Once again Thank You!
    Louise B.

  52. Thank you for this research. I’ve been on the receiving end of “experts” as well as you, but I’ve always thought that Blanket Stitch and Buttonhole Stitch were essentially the same thing. Now I can refer to this article and not worry about using the wrong term.

  53. Thank you so much for taking the time to research and illuminate! I appreciate having an answer to a long standing but unasked question. They always looked the same to me. I just assumed “buttonhole” was for exactly that. “Blanket stitch” was for edge trim. Good to have a better understanding. Again, thank you.

  54. Thank you for this lesson on “buttonhole stitch”. I too am interested in the history of words and things, so this was of interest to me. I will henceforth not correct other people about “blanket” or “buttonhole” stitch because that is not my nature, but I will still know in my heart of hearts that the name does not really matter, they are one and the same.

  55. actually yes, there is a severe difference between the two; a difference relatively few think about and has nowt to do with the edge (whether it’s twisted or knotted that is), nor is it a simple matter of semantics. the difference is stitch spacing. why? blanket stitch is open so as to see fabric between each stitch and had its start as a way to keep blanket edges from fraying, and thus became known as blanket stitch. buttonhole is closed and was originally used on the inside edges of trouser, coat or jacket button holes to make a tight, durable and well presented finish; which is why they called it buttonhole stitch.

    the stitching movements ARE the same, but the distinction is in the spacing. the difference is no different now than it was before it became used in embroidery; which is really the “johnny come lately” use for them in regards to the history of sewing. if it’s open, it’s blanket stitch. if it’s closed, it’s buttonhole.

  56. Dear Mary great reading and interesting reading quotes from the old sewing books. I have a few of my mums. I was sorry to read some times you get such negative responses but thats humane nature sadly some people jump before looking? Thank you for not letting them stop you from sharing your knowledge with us all who want to learn from you. Have not read how you are now for a long time. Hugs Glenda Australia.

  57. It’s a bit late to give my part in the debate but I’d like to speak of the technical part concerning “buttonhole stitch”. In my knowing there is three ways of doing this stitch and they are clearly named in french :
    first the “point de feston” : it corresponds exactly to Mary’s description in the post with the tread under the thumb ;
    second the “point de boutonnière” : I do not do it as Mary shows in the “taylor stitch”, the needle follows the same way as in the “point de feston” but the thread is twist before going under the needle. As a result, you can see a little “ v “ on the top of the stitch. This stitch is used in buttonholes for garments and also in a lace call « puncetto valsesiano» as you can see in the video :
    third way the « point de dentelle » : to give the stitch more texture the stitch is made the same way as the “buttonhole stitch” but the thread is turn one more time around the needle ; you can clearly see it in the video :
    That’s just for the technical point but for the semantic one I am off ! Hope that helps !

  58. I come away with a lot of useful info an having done a bit of research (not nearly as much as you). I find it interesting that you use the phrase ‘buttonhole as we know it’. That term is confusing because as you discuss we don’t all know it at all! In fact the one thing I am unclear about is if ‘buttonhole as we know it’, is the blanket stitch – as I know it rather than buttonhole (which to me has always been something different) or tailors button hole.

    I have long been muddled because books just didn’t match what they said when compared. I knew there were two stitches though. I think another layer of confusion is added when sometimes tailors buttonhole is just called buttonhole and sometimes it is not. I think just calling the one stitch blanket stitch and the other buttonhole serves as a good simple distinction between the two. Anything that helps with buttonhole and blanket stitch being morphed into one and where sometimes buttonhole stitch is blanket stitch and sometimes tailors blanket stitch.

    Anyway at least I have got the distinction. Unfortunately the muddle serves to impede the learning process for tailors buttonhole stitch as trying to find examples of this stitch is hard. I don’t find your illustration elucidates much on the ‘how to do’ the stitch although the description does. Do you have a video on tailors buttonhole? I would like to know if I do it like you do.

    Historically, ‘blanket’/buttonhole stitch was used for hand buttonholes which could be why the confusion started. I think tailors buttonhole is now largely recommended for making buttonholes and is what I prefer to use.

    Thank you for a thorough article as always.

  59. I love this article; I just like it when someone really delves into definitions. I have taken up hand sewing, realising that I never sew if I have to get a machine out and because it is relaxing.

    So, I am always investigating discussions on hand sewing.

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