In days gone by, everything from a garment was saved. After it had been passed down, altered and then turned into scrap for rugs, quilts or rags, each garment yielded buttons for reuse. From big, fat coat buttons to tiny cuff buttons, from mother of pearl to Bakelite or plastic, each button waited, in the tobacco or cookie tin it had been relegated to, for a new life.
Buttons are utilitarian items. Before the invention of the zipper they were the garment fastener of choice, perhaps along with pins such as fibulae. Most were wrought, forged, carved from wood, bone, shell or even gem stones. Many were miniature works of art. In the 1700s, the "Golden Age" of buttons, men's waistcoats and jackets showed off their wealth and status with the type and number of buttons used. Of course, the less wealthy tried to imitate this style with buttons of steel and porcelain until the Industrial Age ushered in advancements in mass production of buttons that changed the game. Button dies were jealously guarded by manufacturers. Women didn't wear buttons until the mid 1800s when Parisian fashion houses started using them on women's garments. Coloured glass and pearl buttons were mostly used on women's garments and the Victorian era ushered in the mania for jet or black glass buttons.
These days, most buttons are plastic and are designed for function and to disappear into the design of the garment. Many bead stores carry beautiful Czech glass reproduction buttons you can incorporate into jewellery or also use as a closure on a bracelet. Beadfx carries some beautiful glass buttons.
I inherited several old tins chock full of buttons from both my gramma and Aunt Jean. I love picking through them and finding pretty buttons to repurpose, whether it's to individualize a garment I own or to create a bead embroidered necklace, using these buttons in new ways connects me to the thrifty ladies who taught me so much.
Here's a compilation photo of my bead embroidered necklaces. Some are raku or coloured brass stampings but most are lovingly framed treasures from my family collection. As you can see from the box in the picture above, I still have many more buttons waiting for a new life.
Bead and Button magazine still devotes some time to the humble button both in its pages and at the yearly show in Milwaukee. I geeked out and took a lot of photos of the carded collections of beautiful old buttons. Here are a few pics I took.
Toronto has a button society that meets monthly in a different member's home each time. I haven't attended but I've heard that they take the care, preservation and display of buttons very seriously. What's your button story? Share it in the comments section.