National Button Day is coming up Nov. 16, so today we have a guest post from button expert (aka buttonologist) Jill Gorski, proprietor of Jillions of Buttons, which carries unique and beautiful buttons of all kinds. Jill has also published books about buttons, including Busy with Buttons, which provides fun ideas for using your favorite buttons in your sewing projects.
I included Jillions of Buttons in the Cool Tools column of Sew News recently, and Jill sent us the most amazing button samples to feature in our photograph. Since we didn’t have room to showcase them all in Cool Tools, I asked her to share some information about each type, along with how her passion for buttons began. Jill has such a wealth of knowledge about buttons that we’ll actually be featuring her blog post in two parts. Enjoy Part 1 today!
When I was a young girl, learning to sew, my mother would tell me, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right!” I later learned that she was paraphrasing Charles Dickens. In the mid 1800′s Dickens wrote in a magazine called Household Words: ”There is surely something charming in seeing the smallest thing done so thoroughly, as if to remind the careless that whatever is worth doing is worth doing well.” What truly amazed me was finding out that Dickens was, at the time, referring to a button!
I was equally amazed when I found, through a series of encounters, that there are people out there who actually collect buttons. I mean, they seriously collect buttons! They have button clubs, State Button Societies and even (gasp), a National Button Society. Who would have thought? I was intrigued and went to their State Show in Colorado where they were having a button competition. How on earth can you compete with buttons? I envisioned people showing up with one button and somehow convincing judges that “My button’s better than her button”. I just had to know, so I attended the show. What I saw there did not just amaze me, it dumbfounded me! Mind you, I have been sewing since the age of 8 and I could make a beautiful hand bound buttonhole and attach buttons nicely by the age of 10. But I had never seen buttons like these!
I walked around the ballroom, my mouth gaping, until a nice lady named Sharon asked if she could show me around. Sharon showed me the “trays” of buttons and explained, briefly, the rule system in place for those who wished to compete. Many people, she told me, just loved to collect the buttons like little jewels, for the fun of it. Education was the biggest mission of the Society and they were giving free mini-workshops. She then invited me to attend one with her, and I did. By the time the workshop was over, perhaps 30 minutes, I was hooked. Button Collectors actually have a saying for it: I was “bitten by the Button Bug”.
I know that many of you out there played in your grandmothers’ button box, tin or jar. I was not so fortunate, even though my grandmothers both sewed beautifully. My exposure to buttons was that they were plastic and utilitarian. Why would you collect these? I have since learned that my problem was underexposure to a world of beauty, art, history, adventure and even mystery!
Buttons have been made of nearly every material conceivable. Many materials are familiar: Metals, Glass, Plastics and Wood to name a few. There were others that surprised me: tree gum, rubber, bone, nuts and even pine needles. Combined with a long list of techniques used to make buttons, even ordinary becomes unusual and all of this results in buttons being incredibly wonderful. Allow me to tell you about some of my treasures.
Metal of all kinds were used to make buttons. Brass picture buttons are very popular among collectors, but here I wanted to show you some Pewter buttons. Made for Centuries, pewter is a generic name for a group of tin alloys. Pewter is inexpensive and a good choice, chemically, for smaller buttons. In an effort to make pewter imitate more expensive steel buttons, a modification was made to the mix that made them stronger and brighter in color. The surfaces were tinted with beautiful colors and then stamped and cut with a design.
Pewter buttons contain lead, so if you rub the side of your button on white paper it will leave a faint “pencil” mark. A polishing cloth works well for cleaning, but here is a unique method you can also use: a cabbage leaf! Buff your pewter buttons with the outer leaf of a cabbage head, followed by a soft cloth and your buttons will shine.
Shell buttons are a very common find in button boxes. Trade with the Pacific Islanders brought a wealth of abalone and oyster shells back to England where they were carved and decorated to perfection. These are referred to as Mother of Pearl buttons. Around 1850, lathes and other machines were introduced, making some of the handwork unnecessary. It is also at this time that the United States became known for their shell buttons. Made from seven types of fresh water mussel shells harvested from local streams and rivers, entire towns were built around the industry.
Glass buttons are a wonderful place to begin a button collection! These gems are gorgeous and plentiful and they come in a giant variety of sizes, shape and manufacturing techniques. The buttons shown here are all Black Glass buttons! The “luster” or color tint on the top of the button makes these buttons appear to be metal in construction. One of my mantras is “turn your buttons over!” The back of any button is where the true story is told. Not only will you see the button’s true material, but other important clues are revealed on its underside. Glass buttons have weight to them and feel cool when touched to your cheek. You can also tap the button, gently, on your teeth. The resulting noise should be a bright “tick” sound, not a thunk or dull sound. Glass buttons can be cleaned with a soft cloth, being careful not to remove any decorative finishes, such as luster or paint.
Thanks so much to Jill for sharing these beautiful buttons and their fascinating history! Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow, when we’ll feature more eye candy from Jill’s collection!