Yeah, I know I am a 14th Century Blogger, but these buttons are so darned Purty!
18th Century Embroidered Buttons
And how to make them
by Tina M Comroe ©2016
Since the inception of clothing, there has been a need to close the garment. Whether it was a wrap, tunic, dress or apron, some type of toggle or button has been needed to keep the outside world from seeing more flesh than fashionable. Functional buttons with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes as we know them, appeared first in Germany in the 13th century. They soon became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe. During the 18th century buttons could be found in many types of artistic medium: Glass, Mother of Pearl, Wood, Silver gilt, gold, brass, copper and my personal Favorite Embroidered to match the outfit. There are many a website or book and even articles that cover the history of buttons; This is NOT one of them. Everywhere I looked I found information on what the lovely embroidered buttons were made of after the fabric was embroidered or embellished..but not instructions on how to recreate them. To be fair, there are a great many who blogged about making the buttons, but had very few step by step from beginning to end instructions that I myself could follow. So I decided to create them using what I could find in my own home that was close enough to the materials used.
(When I asked a group of 18th Century Costumers if they would be interested in an article covering the how to aspect of button making it was a nearly Unanimous Yes (unanimous for me is more than 50 people)…So Here it is, my search and recovery of making 18th century Embroidered Buttons.)
What my buttons are made of: Button Blank, Cardboard core, thread and Felt to pad the embroidery.
Why cardboard for the core? Well, it’s what I had laying around the house, and in at least one source (#3 in bibliography) states that cardboard was the core for the buttons on a fancy waistcoat. At one point Capital Meats came by a few months back and sold us a freezer full of cheap meats..I kept the boxes as they were clean and would be nearly perfect for storing the dresses I make for dolls…well months later those boxes are still sitting on my wool covered folding table in the laundry room…so being of good sturdy cardboard I cut two of them apart and used them for button blanks and a button template.
You don’t need any special tools to make buttons, but having an essential tool like a button template sure does make the job faster. To make a button template draw a circle the size of the button you want to make and add a circle around it equal to the inner circles radius. In this example the circle is 1.5 inches with a .75 radius or ¾ in. Add the ¾ inch around it. Draw the template onto cardboard, cut out the center circle and you now have your button template.
Choose the design for your button. You will see that I have provided six different Historical Buttons to recreate for those that don’t think they have the skills in drawing (they do, they just won’t believe in themselves..but I won’t quibble). To make these buttons you need only the basic skills of sewing and embroidering..there are no fancy shmancy stitches to fumble over and I have provided common pictures further along to show you how easy they really are. Okay, once you choose which button, on which fabric you are going to use it’s time to put the fabric into the hoop and carefully draw, pounce or just plain old free hand embroider the design onto the fabric.
However, I would suggest using a very fine tear away stabilizer that would work just as well for tracing and embroidering, it’s designed to be used that way, made by Silky. Make it really Easy on yourself and use a sheet of it to trace your button designs and use the 18th century Chinese embroidery technique of embroidering the design down and tear the stabilizer away once done(#4 in the Bibliography). Remember to use your button template to trace the outer edge of the button leaving room between each button for cutting them out once they are embroidered.
Embroider the buttons using single strands of silk or cotton floss. It was hard to match exactly the colors used on those historic buttons, but I got close enough using DMC brand cotton floss. With the numbers off of the floss packaging, it should be easier to find which colors the silk companies have that compare well.
Okay, you have your buttons embroidered and your felt and button cores cut out, let’s get those buttons made.
Using your button template on the backside of your buttons center the embroidered area inside the template and trace around the outside edge with chalk. The examples in the pictures are done with ink to make it easier to see.
- Cut out the button blanks, and set them aside. Cut your button cores and felt rounds and for each button pair up a core and felt circle, stitch each pair together to stabilize the core.
- Thread your needle and put a running stitch around the edge of the button blank ¼ inch from the edge, no need to turn the edges in, we’re not making yo-yo’s or Suffolk puffs.
- Center a felt core felt side down to the back of the embroidered button blank.
- Pull the thread to gather the edges to the center, easing the raw edges together to close any gap. Use a square knot to secure the center.
- To make the button shank, create a thread bar by putting two loops over a shank bar aka a chopstick and use buttonhole stitches to create the bar. Secure the end with a good knot and you now have a button.
Pictures of the garments the Buttons came from
- Erica Wilson’s Embroidery Book: Wilson, Erica
Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973
ISBN 10: 0684106558 / ISBN 13: 9780684106557
- Arts and Designs Needlework Glossary of terms, where i got the images for the stitches: https://www.artsanddesigns.com/glossary/A
- 18th Century Embroidery Techniques
Guild of Master Craftsman Publications, Feb 16, 2012
- Chinese Embroidery: Traditional Techniques
Krause Publications, Jan 1, 2003
- Needlework School: A comprehensive guide to decorative embroidery by the Embroiderers Guild Practical Study Group. Chartwell Books, INC. 1984
Further Reading on Button History; please note that none of these pages cover the method of making the fabric buttons until the mid 19th century, overlooking entirely the fabric buttons of the 14th century and the embroidered buttons of the early through late 18th century. Good for Historians but not costumers with an eye to recreate the lovely embroidered buttons seen on many a fancy Waistcoat.