Buttonhole vs. Blanket Stitch

Probably the most asked about stitches are the blanket stitch and the buttonhole stitch. In fact, this newsletter may cause a flurry of emails as to what is correct. While many people interchange these names, the stitches are NOT the same. Their original use differs as well. Let us look at their historical uses and that may help to keep them separated in the future.

Wikipedia defines the blanket stitch is a stitch used to reinforce the edge of thick materials. Depending on circumstances, it may also be called a whip stitch or a crochet stitch. It is defined as “A decorative stitch used to finish an unhemmed blanket. The stitch can be seen on both sides of the blanket.” (reference link)

Tailors and seamstresses used the buttonhole stitch, which was the sturdiest stitch for hand-stitching buttonhole edges. This stitch is referred to as the tailored buttonhole stitch also. The way in which the stitch was created helped prevent fraying when the fabric was cut away. In addition, the knot formed at the top of the stitch made the thread less likely to unravel should it get broken. The same holds true today.

Here is an easy rule of thumb. If your needle goes out towards the edge of the project when you stitch, it is technically the blanket stitch. If your needle goes towards the center of the project, it is the buttonhole stitch. We get the stitches confused today because they are often used for the same job. For example, in Hardanger embroidery it is very important to have a secure stitched edge around your piece before you cut the threads to create the doily or runner shape. Either stitch would be appropriate for this job. So which stitch should be used when?

Even the experts can add to the confusion!

  • The Complete Needlepoint Guide (1873) references the buttonhole and blanket stitch as the same stitch.
  • It was interesting to note that in Carolyn Ambuter’s The Open Canvas (published in 1982) under the Hardanger section she recommends adding an outer buttonhole edge along the top of a finished buttonhole edge. It gives a scalloped look to edge. However, the stitch she shows as the foundation buttonhole edge is actually the blanket stitch because she shows the needle going towards the edge of the fabric. Please note, this book is an excellent resource if you can find a copy in a used book store!
  • Another great find in a used book store is the Good Housekeeping New Complete Book of Needlecraft by Vera P. Guild (published in 1959). The two stitches are shown correctly illustrated and labeled. However, in a section on adding picots to buttonhole stitches, it is the blanket stitch being used.
  • So I tried looking further back and found a reference in the Encyclopedia of Needlework by Therese de Dillmont (published in 1886)! In her book on page 76 she talks about blanket, or button-hole stitch! This classic reference book can be viewed on line in its entirety. If you go to the website and click on Chapter 5 – whitework, you can see the actual reference and photo on line! My copy has the DMC emblem on the inside book covers, so I wondered how she tied in with the company. I found that in the 19th century DMC established strong links with the famous embroiderer. The friendship between Therese and Jean Dollfus-Mieg (of DMC) led her to move close to the company. She founded her own embroidery school in close cooperation with DMC.

There are several authors trying to set the record straight.

So, after all that, which stitch should you use? If the purpose of the stitch is to reinforce the edge when the fabric is cut away, then it may depend upon your stitching style and the thread count of the fabric. In researching this topic, I came up with some general guidelines. If you are using a finer thread count, say 32 count, you should be able to do a blanket stitch. The stitches are small and close together. On a 25- or 28-count fabric you should be able to do a blanket stitch if you make them tight. If you have a loose stitch you may have better luck with the buttonhole stitch. On a 22-count or larger fabric, you are probably better off with the buttonhole stitch because the stitches just aren’t as close together.

HOW TO DO THE STITCH

I think most of us are familiar with the simple blanket stitch. There is a great series of charts on our Save Our Stitches site.

The buttonhole stitch is also shown on our site.

Here is another resource with instruction for both stitches. It comes from a website dealing with US history and this is a reference about these two stitches as they pertain to buttonholes in the 1800’s.

Here’s what the article says about the buttonhole stitch.

"You can sew the buttonhole stitch in any direction. Hold the thread along the top edge of the material, with the end pointing in the direction you are going to sew. Make a loop, with the top of the loop pointing upward. Inserting the needle through the loop, then into the fabric from the wrong side and then through the large loop left on the right side of the material. Tighten your stitch, keeping the purl on top by see-sawing the thread and using your fingernail. The additional stitches are created by arching the thread over the right side opening of the buttonhole in the direction you are sewing, then looping down and back around in the opposite direction your are sewing, through the loop at the top, then through the material from the wrong side about 1/16th of an inch from the last stitch, through the large loop on the right side and then tightening as before. Continue doing this all the way around the buttonhole until done."

I will be honest, before researching this newsletter, I did the blanket stitch for all the edges of my Hardanger embroidery pieces. I also have to admit that the edges did not hold up well in some projects because my stitches were more on the loose side. So, I did a quick project to see what difference the stitches would make to me. I used 22-count white Hardanger fabric (1008-001), Mary Arden Size 24 tapestry needles (7035A) and DMC Pearl Cotton Size 5 thread Color #602.

Here is my quick stitch up of the blanket stitch.

Here is my quick stitch up of the buttonhole stitch.

I had never done a buttonhole stitch before. So I was quite pleased when I got done with my test strips. It may be hard to tell from these photos, but the buttonhole stitch was much neater. Because of its construction, it naturally made the stitches tighter. When turning the corner, I found it much easier to see for my needle placement. The buttonhole stitch also took less thread!

If you have never used the buttonhole stitch, I recommend you try it out. You may find it a better alternative to your finished edges. I know I will be using it for my projects from now on!

HERE’S A TIP!

Prior to stitching, run your thread through a thread conditioner like Thread Heaven (6609). This will strengthen the thread and prevent twisting while sewing the edge whether you are doing a buttonhole or blanket stitch. See how Thread Heaven compares to other thread conditioning products.

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