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Demonstrations>Trims and Embellishment>Buttons

By the time the late 16th and early 17th centuries rolled around, buttons had evolved to a fairly modern shape. The construction of buttons in this period was accomplished one of three ways; casting in metal, construction in metal, and construction from organic elements. The most common shape of this time period was a rounded or slightly flattened ball with a shank.

The evolution of buttons has some bearing on the resultant buttons from the above noted time period. Several sources, Dress Accessories; Medieval Finds from Excavations in London among them, show buttons to have been in common usage in England and Europe by the early 13th century. The buttons excavated from the London sites fall into the above mentioned three construction categories.

Specifically found have been cast buttons with integral shanks or embedded shanks, buttons constructed from various metal elements which have been stamped or embellished and then soldered together, and buttons made from cloth and thread. The size of the buttons from these excavations range between 8 and 15.5 mm diameter for metal ones and 4 - 6 mm for the round cloth ones.

There is also evidence to suggest that buttons occurred much earlier, even prior to the 9th century. Specifically, buttons have been found in Anglo-Saxon burial sites on tunics. In a site in Ireland, circa 8th century, a metal shank button with an enameled triskele design was found. In Northern Europe, cast shanked buttons have been found dating from the 9th and 10th centuries in excavations at Birka, Sweden. These particular buttons were found attached to men's coats. In Paris, in an exhibit of textiles found from a 14th century midden on the Ile de la Cite (the original site of the city of Paris), there exists a portion of a sleeve approximately eight inches long which is from a cotehardie. It contains about a dozen buttonholes worked in buttonhole stitch. No buttons were found but the existence of button holes and the subsequent wear patterns would indicate that they were used on the garment.

This demonstration is specifically concerned with the construction of buttons from textile and other organic elements. The reasons for this are twofold. First, most people do not have access to casting equipment but they do have access to thread, cloth and wooden beads. Second, by constructing the buttons for a particular piece of clothing out of thread or cloth, the button can match or contrast in color with the garment. One additional reason for making your own buttons is that you can make as many as you need and if you ever lose one, you can easily replace it. Constructed buttons are also much less expensive which becomes an issue when doublets of the period require thirty or more buttons.

During the early 16th century, button makers guilds sprang up like wildfire, and were often associated with the lace makers guilds of the area. One source states that, in order to be accepted into the button makers guild, a prospective student had to construct a dozen buttons as one of their show pieces. The first type of button construction shown is the thread wrapped wood core button. These are fairly typical of the period and can be found in several sources, Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion being the best.

To construct this type of button, you will need a wooden bead for the core. The bead can be drilled or not; which ever is easier to find and to work with. Step one involved the placement of the "spines" for the needleweaving. Cut a fairly long piece of thread (about 18" for a 12mm wood core - this looks long but you'll need it later - my student suggests a length between 24" and 36"). Tie a knot in the end of your thread and and pass it through the hole in the bead. Catch the thread just above the knot so that you have looped the thread around the bead and through the hole. This becomes your first spine. By going through the hole and wrapping the thread on the outside of the bead, you can then place the rest of your spines. Six, eight or more spines were common.

Once the spines are in place, you can then start the needleweaving process. Pass the needle back up through the hole in the bead until it looks like the illustration above. This denotes the top of your button. Gently and carefully pass the needle UNDER the first spine and pull the thread through, being careful not to let the thread roll into the hole. Pass the needle under the SAME spine again and pull it through, effectively wrapping the thread around the spine one time. The illustration to the right shows this particular step. Move to the next spine and repeat the process.

When you have gone around the bead once, simply continue to wrap the spines, spiraling down around the bead until all the spines are wrapped and the wooden bead is covered. There are many variations of this wrapping process. 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make and Patterns of Fashion give examples of a few. You can double the spines, placing two right next to each other and do an "in and out" wrap before proceeding on to the next set of spines. This gives the button surface a smoother, almost corded appearance. If the wood core is large enough, the spines can be made with soutache braid or other small braids.

Once the entire wood core is covered, your needle is again at the base of the button. Pass the needle and thread up through the hole again. At this point, you are ready to put the button on to the garment. If your thread is shorter than about seven or eight inches, you will need to lengthen it at some convenient point in the shanking process. This can be done before attaching to the garment by cutting the thread and attaching the longer thread and then hiding the knot inside the hole of the button or it can be done after the first few shank threads are already placed in the garment.

Before threading the needle back down into the bead hole, be sure to catch one or more of the spines. Pull the needle through (you may need pliers at this point if the hole has been filled up with threads). Pull the needle and thread through the garment and pull until there is about a quarter to an eighth of an inch of space between your button and the garment. Pass the needle back through the garment and again through the bead hole. Catch one or more spines on the way back down through the bead hole and into the garment. Depending on how thick your thread is and how much space your bead hole allows, between six and eight passes is usually the best for wear.

On the last pass through the bead hole, do not continue on through the garment. Take the last remaining tail of thread and wrap it around the shank threads and then pass the needle through the garment and anchor the thread down. When you are done, your button should look something like the illustration above. Often, as an added embellishment, during the last pas through the hole of the bead, a smaller, more expensive bead was threaded through and seated on top of the hole of the button bead. Examples of this can be found in Patterns of Fashion and Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd.

Whew!!! Now make twenty-nine more of these little guys!

Another, easier and much simpler way of making buttons can be accomplished as follows...

Cut a round disc of fabric. This can be a contrasting fabric, a matching fabric or the same fabric as your garment. Depending on how thick the fabric is, you may need to cut two to three discs per button. Place running stitches around the perimeter of the disc or discs as seen in the illustration to the left. The stitches should not be too close or too far away from the edge. Some experimentation is necessary to get this right, especially if you are going to be using wood cores or stuffing the button, as described below.

After the running stitches are placed, gently pull the stitches until you have forced the disc into the shape of a little cap. At this point you may either insert a wood core, stuff with stuffing or, if the fabric is thick (as in wool or velvet), simply leave the button unstuffed. Take some time to arrange the tiny pleats so that they are all even and will lay evenly. Laying them all the same direction will help with this.

If you are using a wood core or stuffing the button, do not use too big a wood core or stuff the button too much. Leave a little bit of room in order to be able to pull the opening entirely closed and to tuck the edges of the disc up into the opening prior to closing it. If you are using thick fabric, the edges will function as stuffing, especially if you have cut the discs a bit larger and placed the running stitches further away from the edge. After you've tucked and fussed, your button should look something like the illustration to the left.

Alternatively, if you are having trouble getting those edges into the interior of the cap and keeping them nice, my student suggests the following method. Place the first row of running stitches as described but place them fairly close to the edge. Pull the disc into a shallow cap and flatten the disc so that it looks like the illustration to the right. At this point, place another row of running stitches to the outside of the first row, right along the folded edge. This has the benefit of forcing the edge to stay in place while you pull the opening closed.

Which ever method you choose, once you've gotten the fabric formed into a ball, you are now ready to shank the button to your garment. If you've used unfulled wool to make your buttons, you can take the button balls and full them in hot water prior to attaching them to the garment. This fulling step makes wool button balls tighten up into hard little buttons.

To shank the button ball to the garment, first pass the needle through the garment and pull until the button is about a quarter to an eighth of an inch away from the garment surface (sound familiar?). Pass the needle back up through the garment and catch a couple of the tiny pleats before passing back through the garment. Do this a number of times until the button is fully anchored. Wrap the shank as with the needle woven button above and anchor the thread.

This type of covered button went on to become a standard in the 17th and 18th centuries. Often, in later periods, the cores for these buttons were broad, flat discs of wood or other hard material. Some buttons have been found with heavy cardboard discs.

Happy button making!!!

Basket woven example
Needle looped example
"Over-under" example
Tabby woven example


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