The making of cloth and stitched buttons, the most famous of which is the Dorset button.
|Historic area of significance
|Dorset, Macclesfield, Leek
|Area currently practised
Some of the earliest accounts of silk buttons being made for sale in the country are from the Royal Wardrobe accounts, and include entries such as ‘a mantel lace of blue silk with botons of the same’ in 1480. At this time, passementerie items such as silk buttons were primarily made by women, known as silkwomen. London was a centre for silkwomen, some of whom worked together, but there was never a proper gild structure.
Passementerie thread and cloth buttons were, on the whole, cottage industries, with particular techniques associated with different places. Probably the most well-known of these is the Dorset button industry.
The Dorset industry is traditionally believed to have been started by Abraham Case in the seventeenth century. The first buttons produced in this area were high tops and knobs, with discs of sheep’s horn and linen moulded shapes, which were covered with needlework in fine linen threads. By the early eighteenth century, flat buttons began to be worked over fine wire rings, worked with threads only. There are many different designs for these ring buttons, with names such as Crosswheel, cartwheel, yarrel, basketweave, birdseye, mite, and singleton (this latter still retaining a fabric ground).
By the early eighteenth century the industry employed thousands of workers. The trade was known as buttony. As these buttons could withstand the washing process better than others, they were most often used on shirts, undergarments and other forms of linen garment. However, the cloth button making machine was invented in 1825, and so began the gradual decline.
Lady Lees of Lychett Minster attempted to revive the craft in 1904, having purchased the old stock, and learning from older makers who knew the designs. Sadly, the onset of the first world war ensured the enterprise did not survive.
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. The Dorset Arts and Craft Association still encourage buttony with a section in their annual exhibition for Dorset Crafts. Individuals buttoners run workshops to pass the buttony craft on to the next generation.
In Staffordshire and Cheshire, an entirely different type of button making was flourishing at the same time. These buttons were primarily made of silk, mohair, or other types of specialist fine threads, wrapped and woven over a wooden button mould. The earliest record of button making in Macclesfield is a entry of debt in the town accounts in 1574. By the middle of the seventeenth century Macclesfield was famous for its buttons, with the industry also employing workers to wind the silk thread. The majority of button makers were outworkers, supplied with the materials to create the button and paid for work completed. Defoe mentions Macclesfield buttons, “the buttons from Macclesfield in Cheshire” in The Complete English Tradesman of 1726.
The buttons from this area do not have as many names that are still known as with the Dorsets, however the Death’s Head button – a quartered thread wrapped design – is perhaps the most famous, and can be seen depicted on many portraits and survives on coats and waistcoats from the period. This button design is still officially a regulation for clergy and legal court dress, although machine made substitutes are usually used. By the latter part of the eighteenth century more of these buttons were made in workshops that combined other forms of passementerie under one roof and, as with the Dorset industry, advances in machinery to make cloth covered buttons saw the demand for thread buttons decline. These passementerie companies continue today in making some of the more basic buttons for use in upholstery and interiors, but not the complex designs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Independent makers now rely on research and sharing to create these buttons for costume, theatre and similar uses.
The Coventry ribbon weaving trade later made woven ribbons that were used as silk button coverings in machine covered buttons. Birmingham also made machine worked, cloth covered buttons, the main replacement for the Dorset styles.
Dorset buttons are celebrating 400 years of button history in 2022. Please go to Dorset Buttons 2022 to find out how you can join the celebrations!
Needlework techniques are the most common method for making this type of button. Threads are wrapped, wrapped and woven, or stitched to create the many varied designs.
Needlework techniques are the most common method for making this type of button. Threads are wrapped, wrapped and woven, or stitched to create the many varied designs. The yarn is repeatedly bound over a disc or a ring. The process follows casting, slicking, laying and rounding. Typically, Dorset buttons are embroidered with ornaments including wheels, high tops, Dorset knobs, birdseyes, mites and singletons – depending on the place, purpose and historical setting the particular kind of button emerged from.
An example of a local form could be the Singleton Dorset Buttons – with an added embroidered padding rather than wheels. It was designed and popularised by the Singleton family who made it fashionable in the 17th Century.
- Wire ring making
- Button mould making
- Thread spinning and winding
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, as buttons are cheaply mass-produced today
Perception: Dorset button making is often perceived to be fuddy-duddy or old-fashioned, and it is often not explored beyond the basics. Thread wrapped buttons are usually seen as highly complex, and not easy to create.
Market issues: It is impossible to make a living from solely making passementerie 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 how to make some traditional 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. Likewise, many people learn the Death’s Head, but the more intricate designs which require a higher skill level cannot be easily learnt. There is also an issue of materials – it is very difficult to find the threads that are spun and twisted to such a degree of fineness as can be seen on original buttons.
Training issues/Dilution of skills: Traditionally, instructions for making buttons were never written down. As buttons of this nature are no longer required commercially, there has been no need to pass on the skills.
Training issues: There is no standard for button making, with the exception of observing historic examples, so it is very hard for students to know what sort of teaching they are getting.
Craftspeople currently known
People who make a living from button making:
Jen Best, Beaker Buttons, Weyhill, Hampshire
Gina Barrett, Gina-B Silkworks, Grantham, Lincolnshire
Anna MacDowell, Henry’s Buttons, Shaftesbury, Dorset
- Ros Atkins
- Tania Ashton Jones
- Thelma Johns, The Old Button Shop, Lychett Minster, Dorset
Marion Howitt has recently retired.
Total number of craftspeople: Today, button making is almost exclusively a ‘hobby’ craft 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
- Brimelow, Elizabeth, (1993) Silk Button Manufacture in Macclesfield (dissertation)
- Barrett, Gina, (2013) Buttons: A Passementerie Workshop Manual and (2012) Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c. 450-1450, Passementerie entry (edited by Owen-Crocker, Coatsworth, and Hayward, Brill
- Howitt, Marion, The History of Handmade Buttons in Dorset
- Peacock, Primrose, (1978) Discovering Old Buttons