I haven’t done the math, but I’d say that easily more than half of the cardigans that I have knit for myself have featured buttons that I have also crafted. In most cases, I like buttons that fade somewhat into the background and let the focus be on the sweater itself.
With that in mind, I’ve come up with this process for making very simple buttons and coordinating them to my knitwear.
Read on to learn how to make buttons to match your sweater out of polymer clay!
You don’t need to have polymer clay experience or an arsenal of tools at hand. If you’re starting from scratch, that’s ok! But I strongly recommend you take a look at the first installment of the Beginner Button Class so that you are familiar with some important polymer clay basics.
Here’s two-minute video that shows how I made the green buttons. After you watch it, scroll down for a materials list, and some written instructions.
Materials and Tools
Remember, any tools from the kitchen that you use with polymer clay will no longer be appropriate for use with food, and should become permanent items in your craft toolkit.
- A strong polymer clay, like Sculpey Premo, in appropriate color(s) – you may be able to find a good color right out of the package, but chances are you will have to mix a few colors if you want to match your knitwear exactly. Choose a main color that’s as close as possible, and then another few colors that you can mix in to get closer. More on this later.
- Chalk pastels – You’ll only need two or three colors. I like to pick one lighter than the clay and one darker, just to give the button some depth.
- A rigid clay blade or other tool for cutting up the clay and shaving powder off of the pastels
- A lucite roller, a pasta machine, or some other tool for rolling out flat sheets
- An old toothbrush or other tool for texturizing the raw clay
- A circle cutter in the appropriate size for your buttons
- Needle tool or toothpick for poking button holes
- A drill bit for standardizing the poked holes
- 400-grit wet/dry sandpaper for smoothing rough edges
Make Buttons to Match Your Sweater
If you’re a polymer expert, chances are the video and the materials list is enough to get you on your way. For everyone else, though, here are some written thoughts on the project.
Mix the Appropriate Color
Color mixing is one of those things that is second nature to some people and a complete mystery to others. I’ll confess that I tend to be one of those people who just seems to know what colors to mix together, but I’ll do my best to help you get there, too.
For this video, I have a green sweater. I started with the closest packaged green I could find, compared it to the sweater and asked myself, “What is the difference between these two greens?”
The answer: “The sweater is darker and bluer.”
So I took a small amount of dark blue, mixed it thoroughly with the green, and compared to the sweater again.
This time, they were closer, but still the sweater was darker and bluer. So, I added more dark blue to the mix and compared again.
It took a few tries, but eventually, I got the perfect green. (In certain light, the clay is still lighter than the yarn, but that wasn’t as important to me as getting the correct amount of blueness to the green, so I let it go.)
To mix your own color, you will need to look carefully at the clay and then the yarn. Ask yourself, how, exactly, are they different?
- Is the sweater a warmer hue than the clay? Try adding yellow.
- Is it cooler? Try adding blue.
- Is it lighter or darker? Try some white or black.
- Is your sweater red? Reds are sometimes tricky. Maybe your clay needs more orange, or maybe it needs more magenta.
There is likely to be some trial and error here, but you’ll get there eventually.
And if you really, really don’t think you can do it, then why not choose a color that isn’t meant to match at all? Go with a neutral like brown or black, or have some fun with fluorescents or glow-in-the-dark colors! Just pick something to match the mood of the cardigan, and you’re good to go.
Make a Textured Slab
Once your perfect color is mixed, roll it out to a sheet that is between 1/8″ and 1/4″ in thickness. If you’re using a pasta machine, roll it out on the thickest setting, and then fold in half to make a double layer.
Texture the sheet with the old toothbrush, tapping all across the slab, as shown in the video.
Next, pick out a couple of pastels, use the blade to shave off some powder from the edges, dip your finger in the powder, and apply randomly to the textured sheet.
For my green sweater and my red sweater, I picked out pastels that were a few shades darker and lighter than the clay. This, along with the texture, gives the buttons kind of a lived-in look that I like.
For my light blue sweater shown to the left in the image above, I went a different way, and chose pastels in colors that coordinated with the tweedy bits in the yarn. (You may also notice that the clay of the button is actually the same hue as the sweater, but a darker shade – this was a conscious choice in this case.)
Once you’ve decorated the sheet with all the color you wish to add, give it another pass with the old toothbrush.
TIP: If you’re not really feeling the whole toothbrush-and-pastel thing, you can actually use any surface treatment you like for the slab. Millefiori cane slices or small sculptural elements work fine, as do other kinds of powders like iridescent mica powders or embossing powder, and other types of textures like rubber stamps.
No matter how you choose to decorate your slab, the instructions for forming buttons from it are the same.
With the circle cutter, cut the appropriate number of buttons for your cardigan. If the slab is big enough, cut a few more for good measure. I actually like to cut out as many as I can fit on the sheet. That way, I can choose the absolute nicest-looking ones for my project and save the others for something else.
Use the needle tool to poke two holes in each button.
TIP: If you find yourself making a lot of buttons, you might want to create a button-hole spacer tool like this one that I made about 15 years ago. I still use it to make sure that my holes are always consistently spaced.
To make the tool, I used a plastic graph sheet, traced around the cookie cutters I regularly used for buttons, and then poked holes in the plastic with my needle tool. The edges of the poked holes are rough on the other side of the plastic, and can leave a light impression on the clay. To use the tool, I center the positioner over my raw button, using the traced shape as a guide. I press down on the holes gently with my finger, and lift away the positioner. The button now has two impressions where the holes should be, and I can use a knitting needle or my needle tool to poke them through.
Baking time and temperature varies between polymer clay brands. Be sure to follow the directions on the package for your clay.
Once they cool, the buttons are ready to use right away. Still, if you want to, you can make a few little improvements:
- Use a drill bit to make the holes more uniform
- Wet sand the back and the edges of the buttons to remove any rough spots.
Use the Buttons
Sew the buttons onto your sweater and enjoy!
I often use yarn from the sweater itself to sew the buttons on, but you can use thread instead. Once you know how to make the exact style of buttons you want for your handknits, you will find it hard to go back to store bought!
By the way, there are Amazon links peppered throughout this tutorial. The usual disclaimers apply.
If you’re interested in knitting one of these sweaters, the light blue one is a short-sleeved Fireside Cardigan, the green one is a long-sleeved Fireside Cardigan, and the red one is Carol Feller’s Traveller’s End.