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Short history of buttons

A Brief History of Buttons

by Folksy

A short history of the humble button by button maker Lucy from MatildaBelle

Have you ever given much thought to the little round discs, pierced with holes and tethered with thread, connecting your cardi? Lucy from MatildaBelle Ceramics has. In fact, it was the humble button that led her to a career as a maker:

“My beautiful mum was a fabulous knitter and sewer. When I had my daughter she would knit her the most beautiful little cardigans and jackets, but finish them with generic plastic buttons. It just didn’t feel right that they were created with such love, yet the final component was mass-produced and pretty ugly. So I decided I would have a go at making ceramic buttons. I was determined Mum’s beautiful makes would be adorned with my equally beautiful hand-crafted buttons. Oh, I was so naive! It wasn’t quite as easy as that. But over time I made them and they got better and that’s how MatildaBelle was born.”

Brief history of buttons
One of Lucy’s mum’s knits, finished with MatildaBelle handmade beach hut buttons

As a self-confessed button lover – and maker! – we turned to Lucy for a potted history of her passion. Here’s her condensed chronicle of the evolution of buttons through time…

A Short History of Buttons

By button maker Lucy from MatildaBelle Ceramics

The history of the button is naturally tied to the history of the buttonhole, so let’s start there. Before to the invention of the reinforced buttonhole in the mid-13th century, buttons were considered more ornamental than functional. If you were living in Ancient Rome, for example, and needed to hold your garments together, you would be just as likely to use laces, clasps and brooches as you would a button, and these would usually be lavishly decorated.

history of buttons
Hand-painted buttons featuring abstract country scenes made by Tamara Pascall from ButtonMad

Fast forward to the Middle Ages and buttons had become so popular among the rich as a signifier of wealth – who paraded their status by adorning themselves in buttons made of precious metals and ivory – that a law was actually passed to restrict buttons being worn in excess. Can you believe that people were limited to how many buttons they could use? Fabulous!

Personally I don’t think I would have been using the elaborate jewelled buttons of the day. I probably would have fallen into the wood and bone, category along with my fellow working class folk.

history of buttons
Toggle buttons made from driftwood collected on the Isle of Wight by Jo from LilliputWight

By the 1800s, the whole world was button mad. Ceramic and glass buttons were becoming popular. France ‘glazed’ the trail with porcelain buttons, the Czech Republic was the place to go for glass buttons, and in China people used papier-mâché to add elaborate decoration to wooden buttons.

However, by the time the 20th century arrived, bringing with it mechanisation and plastic, cheap materials had won out over time-honoured craftsmanship. Buttons had lost their prized status as jewel-like objects to be treasured, and instead become functional fasteners. Of course, the zip has a lot to answer for here too!

history of buttons
One-of-a-kind stoneware ceramic buttons, featuring botanical thyme and fennel reliefs by CherryhillStudio

That brings us right up to date in this whirlwind history of the humble button. And, interestingly, if you look around today, you’ll find more and more button makers coming on to the scene, bringing back buttons that are not only practical but incredibly beautiful too. We are now seeing makers creating stunning ceramic buttons and glass buttons, and reviving heritage crafts like threaded Dorset buttons. Buttons are, once again, making their mark and so they should.

dorset button - history of the button
Dorset Crosswheel Button, Daisy Pattern, handmade by Rosalind Atkins

I love the humble button, particularly ones that have been handmade with skill and care, and which can be passed from garment to garment, breathing new life into a beautiful hand-knitted cardigan or embellishing a favourite cushion. 

We need to cherish those buttons that lie asleep in the button tin until the next generation sees their beauty and remembers the story of them, before bringing them back to life. 

Every humble button has a story to tell.

history of buttons
Buttons made from leftover fabric by The Tipsy Moth

We need to cherish those buttons that lie asleep in the button tin until the next generation sees their beauty and remembers the story of them, before bringing them back to life. 

Lucy, MatildaBelle Ceramics

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