07 March 2012

Stitching Demo: Eyelet Engineering

Today, we're going to poke some holes in fabric and then we're going to reinforce the holes so that you can poke a bit of ribbon or cord through the hole repeatedly without tearing up the fabric.  There's a trick to this that makes it very similar to making button holes but also vastly different.

The difference is engineering.  

Yes, engineering. Go with me on this one.

The similarity is the stitch we're going to use. Depending upon whom you rely, this is either called the buttonhole stitch or the blanket stitch. The only difference between the two is whether the knot is at the top (away from the edge) or the bottom (on the edge). Call it by whatever name pleases you.

Since we're trying to make a hole and keep it open and fairly large, we're going to opt to not have the knot in the opening.

If you go to this website: The Wonderful Microworld you will find some beautiful pictures of various fabrics placed under a microscope. Most fabrics, at their basic structure, form a grid pattern, which is why I usually use plastic canvas for stitching demos.  The longitudinal threads are called 'warp' threads and the latitudinal threads are the 'weft'.

Because this demo will require me to move threads out the way, plastic canvas won't do it, so we're going to dig into the kitchen cupboard for some cheesecloth.  Cheesecloth is fantastic for this because it looks like a blown-up picture of a piece of fabric, so you will be able to see what's going on to a degree that a more densely-woven fabric would hide from you.

It also acts quite a bit differently than a more densely-woven fabri in many ways. It stretches and pulls and snags and otherwise fails to keep its shape without a bit of help.  You certainly wouldn't want to sew a doublet out of it. For the purposes of this demonstration, however, it will perform on a large scale just as a denser fabric will.

For making eyelets, the toolbox is pretty basic. You just need a long pointy thing like an awl. I got mine at the hardware store.  (Actually that's a lie; my wife bought it at the hardware store and I swiped it out of her sewing box. Don't tell her.) If you don't have an awl handy, just about anything will do: a knitting needle, a pencil, a chopstick, a sharpened dowel... you get the idea.

The reason we're going to study how to make them is because men's clothing in the 16th century required a lot of eyelets. And they have to be made strong and made correctly because they're going to be keeping your pants from falling down.

You're going to be making a lot of them, so get used to the idea.  Honestly, they're a lot simpler than button holes, but you'll be making a lot of those too.  If it makes you feel better, you can use the machine for the buttonholes if you feel the need.

I've never had much luck with machine-stitched eyelets. I advocate doing them by hand.

NOTE: We're going to be poking holes, not cutting them. Put away the hole punch and grab out the pointy things.

Why not use a holepunch? We cut buttonholes, after all. It would be a lot easier to make them whatever size I want if I can just cut a hole and sew around it. For an explanation, take a look at the professional, no expense spared, professional illustrations below.
A punched hole is surrounded on all sides by broken threads. 
Even metal reinforcement (grommets) will eventually pull out.
An eyelet can be pulled in any direction, unlike a buttonhole.
In a button hole, cutting the fabric will not compromise the integrity 
of the fabric.  When the fabric pulls left, the button (the red circle in the 
image above) holds fast and the stresses are borne by the uncut threads
perpendicular to the cut (highlighted in yellow).

See? I told you this was about engineering. Like anything you build, you want as many support structures intact as possible when you are done and as few as you can get away with.  In other words: thread good, grommets bad.

STEP ONE: Poke a hole
When poking your hole, work carefully, slowly, and breaking as few threads as possible.  The idea is to push the threads aside as best you can. Use steady pressure and twist as little as possible.

What you're striving for is what you see below: A hole with very few broken threads, where the threads have been pushed aside to make a very dense ring of compressed fabric around your hole. 

This reinforces the eyelet and makes it as strong as possible.

Remember that eyelets might be stressed in any direction, so you need them reinforced on all sides.

STEP TWO: Sewing
You're going to be making a buttonhole stitch just like we did the other day, only this time with the knot drawn away from the hole.
Begin by passing the needle through your hole and up through the fabric.  The point of the needle will always point away from the hole. 

Loop the thread over the needle and let it trail away, drawing the needle through the fabric so that the trailing thread makes a loop around your sewing thread.

Let the trailing thread form the loop.

Repeat this stitch all around the hole (these are exaggerated as always for the sake of clear photography) turning as you go, always drawing the thread out and away from the hole.

The finished product should look something like this.  

The knot is away from the hole, so it's not narrowing the aperture. The stitches are holding the warp and weft threads away without breaking them, so it's strong.


  1. I must have looked at 6 tutorials on how to do this- and am a pretty experience seamstress and yet your made more sense than any of them.

    Thanks for the clear images and great descriptions- I think i should have learned to sew from an engineering perspective. It makes so much more sense!

  2. I refer back to this every time I have to do eyelets. Guess what I'm doing today. :)