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Making Buttons

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 [1]. For further example, Arnold lists several included in the Stowe and Folger inventories for Queen Elizabeth [2]:

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.

Metal Buttons

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 [1], and I've seen artifacts for sale on various sites. Common shapes include sperical, mushroom, flat, trapeziodal and domed.

Late 16th c. button profiles

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:

Late 16th c. cast button

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

Glass Buttons

Glass Button

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.

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 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.

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. See the companion Pinterest page as well. It is by far the most common type of button pictured in Patterns of Fashion [1]. 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 [3].

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 [5]:

"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 [1], 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. You may need to use a round file to open up the hole a bit more.
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 [5].
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 [1], 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 [7] 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 [1] 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. 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 [1]. There is an entire chapter on this type of button in Gina Barrett's book [3], or get started with instructions for Turks Head knots and Monkey Fist knots.

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. Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, W.S.Maney & Sons LTD, London, UK, 1988.
3. Barrett, Gina, Buttons a passementerie workshop manual, Windy House Publishing, 2013.
4. Read, Brian, Metal buttons: c.900 BC - c.1700 AD, Portcullis Publishing, 2005.
5. Crowfoot, Pritchard, and Staniland, The Museum of London: Textiles and Clothing, 1150-1450, The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, UK, reprint 2001.
6. Morris, Richard, Headwear, Footwear and Trimmings, Stuart Press, Bristol, UK, 2001.
7. Nehring, Nancy, 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make, Taunton Press, Newton, CT, 2001.
8. Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth, UK
9. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK

Web Pages of Intertest:

This page created and maintained by Cathy Snell.