Buttons evolved to be a popular and decorative fastening by the 16th century 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 with no shank that are common today, as seen in illustrations from Patterns of Fashion . For further example, Arnold lists several included in the Stowe and Folger inventories for Queen Elizabeth :
I for one am very curious what is meant by some of these descriptions, but this underscores that buttons were very common and came in a wide variety. As a companion to this page, I maintain a Pinterest page with examples of well dated buttons from 1550-1650. The board is not indended to be all inclusive and focuses on button closeups readily available.
Many examples of metal cast buttons remain to us. Many have been found by mudlarking or detector finds and thus are not easily dated. Some are pictured in Patterns of Fashion , and I've seen artifacts for sale on various sites. Common shapes include sperical, mushroom, flat, trapeziodal and domed.
Various merchants also sell sets of reproduction cast buttons appropriate to the 16th century. While not the focus of this page, I recommend the following resources and sites:
Metal buttons were typically cast in a mold and sometimes resemble thread wrapped buttons. I suspect that they were cheaper to make and served as a "knock-off". There are some extant buttons that have some enamal or paint, so cast buttons could have been as colorful as their thread wrapped cousins. They sometimes have a long shank and there is some evidence that these were attached by poking the shank through the garment, then running a cord through all the shanks.
|Note the cord to attach button on this painting from c.1320||This is a close up of the inside of a leather jerkin from the Museum of London (assention # 36.237) showing a cord running through the button shanks|
More information has been coming out about these from finds at Jamestown, VA and Maine as well as Europe. Please see the article by Irene Davis for additional information and links to some more finds. 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.
A brilliant tailor / re-enactor (Dan Rosen) recommends searching for glass teddy bear eyes to find some modern peices that look surprisingly like a 16th c. glass button, complete with wire loop shank.
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 with holes like a modern button. Most wooden buttons from this period are domed or spherical. This find was available for sale (along with many 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.
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. See the companion Pinterest page as well. It is by far the most common type of button pictured in Patterns of Fashion . There are also many variations of worked buttons with most are made by working decoration in silk, metal or linen thread 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. I also highly recommend Gina Barrett's Book .
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.
"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.
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.
Embroidered decoration can take many forms including complex heraldic designs. Illustrated here are a few simple techniques.
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. Given it's size and shape, it may be the decorative end of a tassle or cord.
The second button is a simple leather weave. The manner of weave resembles the buttons in plate 162 of Patterns of Fashion . There is an entire chapter on this type of button in Gina Barrett's book , or get started with instructions for Turks Head knots and Monkey Fist knots.
|Plate 162||Plate 170||Plate 194||Plate 308|
Web Pages of Intertest: