What are the Different Types of Buttons?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Fasteners are used to create permanent and semi-permanent bonds between materials, as well as joints that can be opened and closed, and purely decorative additions. Buttons are one of the oldest and most widely used types of fastener, consisting of a disk, ball, or dome-shaped fastener attached to one piece of fabric and joined to another piece of fabric by being drawn through a hole or loop. Their use can be dated from the Bronze Age, and they arose in the Middle East, China, and Rome.

Buttons come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
Buttons come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Buttons were first primarily used for ornamentation. They became important in late Medieval/early Renaissance Europe when they were brought back from the Crusades, at which point they were available in materials such as silver, ivory, bone, and mother-of-pearl, but clothes fastenings were still primarily laces or hooks. When buttonholes were invented in the Renaissance, buttons became functional, and 1830-1850 is considered the Golden Age of Buttons. Today, people can also find ones made of glass, stone, horn, leather, papier-mache, ceramic, Bakelite, wood, plastic, and polymer clay. There is also a more recent kind of button that serves a very particular need: shirt collar expander buttons widen a tight shirt collar by creating a bridge between the fastener and the hole that is concealed behind a necktie.

Decorative shaft buttons.
Decorative shaft buttons.

There are two basic types of buton, depending on how they are attached to a piece of material. Sew-through ones have holes in them, often two or four, and thread is passed through the holes and the material to bind the button in place, either using a sewing machine with a special foot or by hand. Shaft buttons have a connector on the back that is attached to the material with thread.

Sew-through buttons often have two or four holes.
Sew-through buttons often have two or four holes.

Shaft buttons offer a variety of interesting opportunities for decoration. They may be covered in fabric over a base called a ring or covered in leather placed over a base called a form. Another kind of button is actually an elaborate knot made of cord or braid, sometimes called a Chinese ball button.

A person sewing a button on a garment.
A person sewing a button on a garment.

Both button loops and holes may be found singly and in sets. Loops extend beyond the edge of the fabric, while buttonholes are cut in the fabric itself. There are three standard shapes of holes: rectangular, oval, and keyhole; and they may be bound or overcast. Bound ones are created by adding extra fabric to the area and are often found in tailored garments. Overcast buttonholes, made by machine or by hand, use stitching to keep the cut edge of fabric around the area from unraveling. Usually, there is an exact match of the number of holes and the number of buttons, but shirt cuffs often feature several holes so the wearer can choose the one that gives the best fit.

The dimension given for a button's size is its diameter. In general sewing instructions for US sewers, on store-bought sewing patterns for example, the number and size needed is specified by inches in the notions section. People should be aware, however, that the international standard for measurement is called the ligne and there are 40 English ligne in an inch. Sewers will often find ligne listed along with inches and/or millimeters when shopping for notions outside the US.

Buttonhole size is determined, of course, by the size of the buttons. The basic formula states that the length of the hole should equal the diameter of the button plus its height, with an extra 1/8 inch added for an overcast buttonhole.

Abalone shells with mother of pearl, which is often used to make buttons.
Abalone shells with mother of pearl, which is often used to make buttons.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments


I got some free buttons years ago in my home economics class. I used them to hone my sewing skills.

When you have a button with four holes, there are a variety of ways you can sew them on. You can do parallel stitches and just have the two rows of threads side by side, with the option of making them run either vertically or horizontally. Also, you can choose to make an X-shape with the thread, which I think holds up better to wear.

Buttons that I sewed with the parallel stitching came loose more frequently than the kind with X-shaped stitching. The only time I would use parallel stitching is if I had to sew a button back onto a garment that already had the buttons attached with this type of stitching.


I think that mother of pearl buttons are so pretty. I've seen them on cowboy shirts, and even though you wouldn't think that the iridescent surface would go with plaid, it fits in surprisingly well.

Mother of pearl buttons also look great on pastel colored blouses. Sea-green, light blue, purple, and pink are all good colors to wear with these buttons.


@Perdido – If the button is raised enough so that a loop could fit over it, you could work with that. This is what I did when my pants became too tight.

I took a pony tail elastic, cut it to size, and sewed it onto the flap just right of the buttonhole. This gave me an extra couple of inches of expansion because of the elasticity.

As long as I wasn't wearing a short shirt, it didn't matter that the gap made a little bit of my underwear show. This is a great way to get around buying new pants.


What can you do with a piece of clothing when the buttons have been moved all the way out to the edge and still you can't button the garment? My favorite pair of pants have become too tight, and though I've been gradually cutting, moving, and sewing the button over farther to the right, I have finally run out of space. I don't think I could find any material to match these pants, so I can't extend the fabric where the button is attached.


find buttons that are a little unusual is to skim thrift stores, yard sales, and flea markets. Or "novelty" buttons shaped like flags, et cetera, find great vintage buttons made our, things like clay or ivory if you look around a little.


If you want to recycle used buttons, rather than buying new, consider going to a thrift store and getting an old sweater. I had a friend who would call this "cannibalizing", in which you take the sweater apart for its buttons or even its yarn. Many old sweaters in thrift stores no longer look nice, or are out of style, and are generally unlikely to be worn again, but the buttons are still in great shape. The same can also be said for things like button up shirts or vests.


One good way to find buttons that are a little unusual is to skim thrift stores, yard sales, and flea markets. While a lot of fabric stores thave mostly things like plastic buttons or "novelty" buttons shaped like animals, flags, et cetera, you can find great vintage buttons made our of wood, metal, or even things like clay or ivory if you look around a little.

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