The making of cloth and stitched buttons, the most famous of which is the Dorset button.
|Historic area of significance||Dorset|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||17th century|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople|
|Current total no. of craftspeople|
There are numerous types of cloth and stitched buttons, of which the Dorset button is the most famous. These buttons are traditionally associated with the county of Dorset, hence the name. Abraham Case started the Dorset button industry, known as ‘buttony’, in the seventeenth century. At the time, buttons were a status symbol and Case saw a gap in the market and began producing buttons. The earliest buttons produced were High Tops and Dorset Knobs. These were made of discs of sheep’s horn, which were covered with linen and worked over with fine stitches to form the distinctive cone.
About 1750, buttons woven on a wire ring, rather than the disc of horn, were introduced and quickly developed into many different styles. Blandford Cartwheels, Ten-Spoke Yarrels, Basket Weave Honeycomb Cross Wheel of Spiders Webs, Spangles, Birds Eye and Mites to name a few. These types of buttons are now better known than the original High Tops and Knobs.
Case’s business grew quickly and by the early eighteenth century the Dorset buttony industry employed thousands of people. It was a popular source of income among the rural poor, a good Buttoner made between six and seven dozen buttons a day and could earn up to 3 shillings.
Unfortunately all this ended abruptly in 1851, when a button making machine was invented, which made handmade buttons redundant. The industry collapsed and the thousands employed were suddenly penniless and on the brink of starvation. Three hundred and fifty families from Shaftesbury alone were forced to emigrate to America and Australia.
Luckily, the art of the buttoner did not completely die out. The technique has been passed from generation to generation of knitters and stitchers. Nowadays it is also recognized as part of the local heritage of Dorset and has its place in local museums, which run workshops to pass the buttony craft on to the next generation. (Text taken from the HCA, 2013).
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Lack of awareness: The biggest issue is that many people have never heard of button making as a craft and it is not mainstream
Perception: Button making is often perceived to be fuddy-duddy or old-fashioned, and it is often not explored beyond the basics.
Market issues: It is impossible to make a living from making buttons and nobody has done for over a century. Those who earn a living from buttons supplement their income by teaching, writing, researching etc.
Dilution of skills: Many people know who to make buttons, but not necessarily to a very high standard and not necessarily using the traditional methods.
Dilution of skills: There are four types of Dorset button (high tops and knobs, singletons, birds eye and wheels) with numerous variations within each, but almost everyone only learns how to make wheel. Very few people know how to make high tops and knobs.
Training issues/Dilution of skills: Traditionally, instructions for making buttons were never written down and somewhere along the line something has gone wrong in the recording, so that the traditional method of making buttons is rarely taught, and the less traditional method is handed down from maker to maker.
Training issues: There is no standard for button making, so it is very hard for students to know what sort of teaching they are getting.
People who make a living from button making:
Jen Best (Beaker Buttons) – based in Weyhill, Hampshire
Gina Barrett (Gina-B Silkworks)
Thelma Johns (The Old Button Shop) – based in Lychett Minster, Dorset
Anna MacDowell (Henry’s Buttons) – based in Shaftesbury, Dorset
Craftspeople currently known
Total number of craftspeople: Today, button making is almost exclusively a ‘hobby’ craft (along the lines of knitting and crochet) with almost no one making a living from it. Those who do make a living from the craft rely on teaching, selling kits and undertaking commissions. There are plenty of hobby makers.
Johns, Thelma. (2012). Dorset Buttons, Handstitched in Dorset for Over 300 Years.