A History and How-To of Dorset Buttons

Josephine’s Journal
The Account of an Indentured Servant’s Adventures with the Crewe of the Archangel

June 19

During our most recent stop in London, while we were staying at the Hyde, I noticed a particular style of button on many of the waistcoats the men were wearing. I ask’d a friendly patron about the style and he inform’d me that they were known as Dorset Buttons, named for the area in which they were created. He offer’d to teach me how to make one style, and I took him up on that offer. I have since ask’d around and discover’d that the Dorset Buttons have quite a storied history:

Dorset buttons originated in Shaftsbury in Dorset, and were the design of one Abraham Case who, along with his wife, began the Dorset button industry around 1622. The High Top was the first design, follow’d by the Dorset Knobs; by 1658 about 31 different designs are believed to have exist’d. (1) The buttons gain’d popularity in Europe and also the new world, and eventually Abraham Case’s grandson, Peter Case, was sent to Liverpool “where he started a clearing house for the export side.” It was Peter who design’d an alloy to prevent the rusting of the metal rings used for the base of the buttons. (2) The buttons to be export’d were label’d according to their quality. The very best quality was reserv’d for export and was mount’d on pink paper. The buttons that were of good quality but were not to be exported were mounted on black paper. The remaining buttons, consider’d “third class” buttons, were mount’d on yellow paper and were of the poorest quality (although not necessarily of poor quality, they were not as perfect as those list’d previously). (3)

By the end of the 1700s, the Dorset Button industry employ’d around 4,000 women and children. However, this industry would soon fall into ruin with the advances made during the industrial revolution. In 1851, at the Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, a man by the name of John Ashton displayed a “button making machine” which was to bring about the end of the handmade Dorset button industry. (4) Many who were employ’d as button makers became seamstresses or lace-makers, or they left England all together to follow family to Canada or Austrailia. (5)

Having learned the crosswheel style Dorset button while in London, I now can make buttons for crewe members or others when necessary, as buttons lost during work aboard ship is a common occurrence. The necessary steps for making a Dorset button are not difficult, although they can be time consuming if many must be made at a time. The materials used include: a horn or metal ring of the desired diameter for the button size, embroidery thread of the desired color, a sturdy needle, and a pair of sewing scissors.

Once these materials have been gathered, the following steps will guide the reader through the process:

1)First, it is necessary to cut as much thread as will be requir’d to make the entire button. If the button is to have a half-inch diameter or smaller, 3 lengths of your arm should be enough to complete the button. If the diameter is to be larger than a half-inch, it may be necessary to take four lengths of your arm worth of thread. It is important to remember that the larger the button, the more thread you will need.

2)Thread the needle with the embroidery thread, only pulling about 3-4 inches through the needle. Do not tie off the thread, as it will be needed at the completion of the button.

3)Place the end of the thread, opposite the needle end, on the ring and hold it with your thumb. Using the needle, wrap the thread over the ring, through the ring, and then back under itself before pulling it tight. This is similar to a button-hole stitch, and will hold the thread in place after several rotations. Repeat this movement until the entire ring (including the loose end of the thread) is tightly covered by the thread. There will be a ridge along the outer surface of the ring. Do NOT tie off once this is complete.



4)Working around the ring, push the ridge on the outer edge into the inner edge. This may require going around the ring several times to move the ridge in steps.

5)Starting with the thread at the top of the button (now on the inside of the ring). Wrap the around the bottom of the ring and then loop it up the back to the top. Turn the ring slightly and repeat. Do this until there is the desir’d number of spokes in the ring (Typically, this is about 5 spokes but can be more or less). One side of the button will have the even spokes, the other will be uneven.

6) Keeping the thread pull’d tight, insert the needle and thread through the smallest opening on the side of the button where things are uneven. Bring the thread back through the opposite opening on the wheel and pull tight. This will create the “spoke” look on both sides of the button.

7) Maintain the tightness of the thread, either by pulling it tight or with a small stitch in the center to hold the spokes tight. Begin the weaving of the button by pulling the thread up through the hole to the left of the nearest spoke, and then taking it down through the right side of the same spoke in a counterclockwise motion. (6) Repeat this motion until the entire button has been filled in.

8) Once the entire button is complete, tie the thread off on the back of the button and trim it short. The button is now ready to be sewn onto a garment, simply by attaching the back of the button with thread to the desired garment.

Footnotes:
(1) Anna McDowell, “History of the Dorset Button Industry”, Henry’s Buttons, 5 October 2012, http://www.henrysbuttons.co.uk/dorsetbuttonshistory.html, accessed June 19, 2013.

(2) Mandacrafts, “The History of the Dorset Button,” http://www.mandacrafts.co.uk/Dorset%20Button%20History.pdf‎. accessed June 19, 2013.

(3) Mandacrafts, “The History of the Dorset Button,” http://www.mandacrafts.co.uk/Dorset%20Button%20History.pdf‎. accessed June 19, 2013.

(4) Anna McDowell, “History of the Dorset Button Industry”, Henry’s Buttons, 5 October 2012, http://www.henrysbuttons.co.uk/dorsetbuttonshistory.html, accessed June 19, 2013.

(5) Mandacrafts, “The History of the Dorset Button,” http://www.mandacrafts.co.uk/Dorset%20Button%20History.pdf‎. accessed June 19, 2013.

(6) Diane Gilleland, “How to Make Dorset Buttons,” The DIY Wedding. March 4th, 2011 , http://www.craftstylish.com/item/42688/how…uttons/page/all, accessed June 19, 2013

Copyright: November 11, 2013 J.Otte

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