Making Buttons

Buttons evolved to be a popular and decorative fastening by late period and were made from many materials including wood, cloth, leather, cast metal, glass and bone. Buttons in the 16th century usually had an attatched shank and were rarely the flat disks that are common today. Common shapes include pear shaped, sperical, mushroom or half domed and sloped cylider or trapeziodal.

Cast Buttons

Late 16th c. cast button

Several example of cast buttons remain to us. Some are pictured in Patterns of Fashion, and I've even seen artifacts for sale. A few merchants also sell sets of cast buttons appropriate to the 16th century. (See The Tudor Shoppe for some resonable reproductions)

See the Spanish Conquest page and the Portable Antiquities Finds Database (do a quick search for "button") for several examples of cast buttons.

Glass Buttons

Glass Button

Not much information about these exists. However, the one example that I am aware of is pictured on the Spanish Conquest page.

From period glassworking techniques, it is my guess that these were made in molds of graphite or wood with a metal shaft inserted in the back. Doing a web seach for 'marble making' will turn up several modern descriptions for glass working which can be applied to buttons.

Wood Buttons

Wooden Button

Here is an example of a 15th century wooden button found in Holland. It's shape is unique as it is the only example I have seen for this date that is flat like a modern button. Most wooden buttons are domed or spherical. You can buy this and others at Talbot's Fine Accessories.

It is possible that all wooden buttons were worked (as described below), but I think it's resonable that lower classes might have used uncovered wood for buttons as well.

Cloth and Worked Buttons

From a number of finds in London dated to the 13th and 14th centuries, cloth buttons appear to have been fairly common on earlier period clothing. While not as common on remaining 16th century garments, it is reasonable to believe that cloth buttons were still in use for atleast middle and lower class garments. It is a wonderful use of cabbage (fabric scraps).

Examples of worked buttons are easy to come by. It is by far the most common type of button pictured in Patterns of Fashion. There are also many variations of worked buttons, but most are made by working decoration in silk, metal thread or linen over a wooden core.

The buttons described below are those made or decorated by the fiber arts. Common button cores include: wood, cloth, leather, and felt/stuffing. Cloth buttons are fairly simple to make and are an excellent use of cabbage (fabric scraps). Wood core buttons were typically wrapped or worked over, but could also be covered by fabric. Leather buttons include knots tied in leather cord and series of stacked leather washers covered and worked. There are many forms of decoration that can be worked over or on a basic button. These include variations of wrapping and weaving and various embroidery techniques.

To Make Cloth Buttons:

There are at least three variations for making cloth buttons: self-stuffed, stuffed, and felted.

Start with a small circle of fabric approximately 1.5-2 inches in diameter.

Run a loose gathering stitch about half way between the edge and the center of the circle.
Using the gathering stitches as a fold line, fold the edges in to the center.
Pull the gathering stitches to form a ball with the edges on the inside.
Stitch tightly closed and knot to finish.

Start with a small circle of fabric as described above.

Run a loose gathering stitch about ¾ of the to the edges from the center (forming a larger circle of stitches than is shown).
Start to gather the button closed and add scrap fabric or yarn to stuff.
Stitch the edges firmly closed by wrapping with a button hole stitch to finish.

From Clothing and Textiles:

"The cloth buttons from London fall into a number of groups. Many are simply circles of well-fulled cloth manipulated to form well-condensed domes. They were probably gathered by one of several running-stitches close to the outside edge and tightly gathered up underneath. The whole was then strengthened by concentric rings of stitches stabbed vertically throught all thicknesses. It is possible that at this stage further solidity may have been achieved by an additional fulling or shrinking process, for some buttons are immensely compact."

To Make Wrapped Buttons:

The basic wrapped button is simple to make. More ornate examples of this type are seen in Patterns of Fashion, plates 194 and 148.

Any bead can be wrapped. Pony beads or hair braiding beads have a larger hole in relation to the bead diameter and are easier to wrap with heavier fibers.
Begin wrapping by tying a slip knot through the center hole or just holding the tail.
A completed wrapped button.
A completed button with a knot on top to fill in the remainder of the hole.

Decorations Based on the Buttonhole Stitch:

The buttonhole stitch is a looped stitch with a reinforced edge. For an illustrated guide for how to do it, see the Embroiderer’s Guild web page.

The all-over or solid look covers the entire button with consistently sized stitches and can be worked over (floating) or on (partially stitched through) a button. This is seen on a button in the V&A collection.
The pinwheel look is one large row of stitches and simulates the look of a ribbed button.
The spiral look comes from working the stitch over a ground and through bottom of the stitch above and varying the width of the stitch as the core widens and narrows.
The ladder look is also worked over a ground but is worked through the crossing of the stitch above instead of the bottom of the stitch above. This effect was seen on a bead on the end of a purse string in the V&A.

Embroidered Decorations:

Embroidered decoration can take many forms including complex heraldic designs. Illustrated here are a few simple techniques.

A French knot is a simple way to finish the top of a button.
The seed stitch is commonly used in late period embroidery such as blackwork and can be used on buttons as well. As illustrated in Textiles and Clothing.
A simple cross or combination of 'X' stitches to achieve an effect.

Woven Decorations:

Ribs in: As seen in the V&A collection, this button is made by first forming a series of evenly spaced ribs wrapped around the core. The ribs are then woven around to form a complete covering. To weave around the ribs, go over a rib, then back under and around to wrap it. Continue to the next rib, coming over the top and back under as before. Repeat around. When the weave is complete, wrap an outer set of ribs over the weaving and between the first set of ribs. The outer ribs should pull the weaving taught and cause the first set of ribs to stand out.
Ribs out: Derived from Patterns of Fashion, plate 308, this button is similar to 5a. To weave, go under a rib and then back over and under it to wrap it. Continue to the next rib, going under it to wrap. Repeat around to cover the button.
Knotted Ribs: Another derivation of plate 308, wrap around each rib twice to form a small 'X' on the rib. Continue to the next rib by stitching under the button covering. Continue with the wrappings evenly spaced to create an effect.
Death's Head Leek Button: Leek buttons are a type of button common through the 19th c. The name comes for the town of Leek, England which had become famous for producing buttons by the 1660s, but this type dates back earlier. An example can be seen in Patterns of Fashion, plate 170. For complete instructions, see 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make or instructions at Wooded Hamlet.
Even-weave: Based on the buttons as described on the youth's doublet in plate 132 of Patterns of Fashion and those on a waistcoat worn by Charles the I now at Longleat, this button is easiest made by creating a closely spaced circle of pins and weaving a small circle of fabric. Run a thread around the edge through the pinholes and gather the circle around a button core.

Bonus Buttons:
The first button is from the Mary Rose. It is worked in red silk over a series of leather washers. I believe it is a multi-strand braid done in the round, but I have not been successful in braiding around a button. I welcome someone to come up with a method for this.
The second button is a simple leather weave. The manner of weave resembles the buttons in plate 162 of Patterns of Fashion. I haven't had a chance to try this one yet.

References and Bibliography:
Details of plates from Patterns of Fashion:
Plate 162Plate 170Plate 194Plate 308
1. Arnold, Janet, Patterns of Fashion, c1560-1620, Macmillon General Books, London, UK, 1985.
2. Crowfoot, Pritchard, and Staniland, The Museum of London: Textiles and Clothing, 1150-1450, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, UK, reprint 2001.
3. Morris, Richard, Headwear, Footwear and Trimmings, Stuart Press, Bristol, UK, 2001.
4. Nehring, Nancy, 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make, Taunton Press, Newton, CT, 2001.
5. Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth, UK
6. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

This page created and maintained by Cathy Snell.