Today I learned to make Dorset buttons. I was quite pleased with the results. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to use them as buttons, but I can see them working as earrings or pendants. I have a few curtain rings spare so I might have a play with some rainbow embroidery threads and see how that works.
They are quite simple really, blanket stitch around the ring until it’s completely covered, then wrap threads across to form spokes and weave more thread over them to fill the circle or make patterns. The trailing thread is kept so you can use it to sew the button on.
The craft dates back to the 17th century. Buttons had been made throughout England ever since they were first thought of ( – ) but there was no organised trade until around 1600 when the doublet when out of fashion and coats started to be worn. Buttons became larger, more prominent and became a specialist item made by button-makers, rather than tailors.
Dorset buttons used the same threads as was used to weave the fabric with rams horn for the rim. They could be dyed to perfectly match the clothes they were attached to.
Button making became a thriving cottage industry with some full time button makers and some farm workers working farmland during daylight hours, and button making in the evenings or in Winter.
A good buttoner could make around six dozen (72) buttons a day which would earn them up to 3 shillings depending on how good their work was. Buttons sold for between eight pence and three shillings a dozen. At that time most farm workers would earn around 9 pence a day.
By the end of the 17th century, Buttony was a very important industry, By 1720 new forms of button began to appear including wire frames for the Dorset buttons – with these new rings the more decorative and colourful versions of Dorset buttons started to appear. At one time ‘Buttony’ employed 4,000 people with a turnover of £14,000.
Over time Dorset Button were slowly replaced with machine made buttons. The first cloth and thread button machine was invented in 1825. This was followed in 1841 by the button press which could cut buttons from thin metal. The mechanised processes were faster and cheaper and soon the cottage industry was completely replaced by factories.
The collapse of button-making in rural Dorset resulted in terrible hardship for the button makers, many became destitute and were either forced to emigrate to Australia, Canada or the USA or driven into the workhouse.
Today very few Dorset buttons are made, but they are still a very pretty and practical way of making sure that buttons perfectly match hand knitted garments.