Making 18th Century Buttons!

Buttons in the 18th century were quite varied. Brass or other metals were used, and even Wedgwood made ceramic buttons, I gather, though I've not seen any myself. They also used a variety of stitched methods, such as Dorset buttons, as well as making buttons to match the embroidery on the garment concerned.

This is the method I've chosen, as it corresponds to the buttons on the Te Papa waistcoat made by Elizabeth. The button is formed round a disc of wood and gathered to form a shank. I need 12 buttons for the front of the waistcoat, plus possibly a couple for the pocket flap: these were ornamental rather than functional, but it was a common decorative feature on the waistcoats I've studied.

I started with a sample button, stitching on tapa cloth backed by linen. The size is actually based on a 5p piece, as this is a common size used, and makes a great little template to draw round! I picked out the flower from the design, with a line of green and silver tambouring round the edge. Didn't take long to stitch the design, so I made some more!

The next question was the wood formers. I considered buying wooden buttons and cutting the shanks off, but in the end found a much easier solution. Our wonderful friend Keith Griffin from Cardiff (Keith the Bricks!) is a carpenter/joiner/builder, and he is currently converting my garage into a studio for me. We had a discussion about things, and he dug out a drill he uses to cut out large holes in doors and such like. We checked, and the ring it produces is exactly the right size!

Keith worked out a system, drilling lots of holes into a piece of timber about a couple of inches deep. He then stuck gaffer tape on the edge of the board and cut it with his big saw, about 2-3 mm slices. The discs then came away stuck to the tape! He cut about ten slices before he ran out of the drilled circles. We lost some discs because the wood split, but I've ended up with over forty formers, like wooden polo mints! All I needed to do then was sand them smooth.

I trimmed the tapa cloth about 1/4 inch outside the embroidery and catch-stitched the edge, as I didn't want the shank too fat. Then gather-stitched the linen around the edge of the tapa, using strong linen thread, gathered it tightly around the former, and wound the linen thread around the gathers tightly to make the shank. A couple of stitches through the gathered fabric helps to hold the shank thread, and leaving a long end provides thread for stitching the button in place. Sorted: they work really well!

Keith says he'll keep me in formers for future work, as well, but the ones I've got will keep me going for quite a while. My grateful thanks to Keith the bricks! He specialises in restoring Victorian and Georgian properties: Keith Griffin, if anyone in Cardiff is looking for a good carpenter!