Sunday, October 7, 2012

Wrap It Up: One Amazing 18th c. Button

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Isabella reporting:

At first glance, the object, left, might appear to be an exotic piece of modern art, destined to dominate a large gallery wall. But the enlargement is deceiving. In fact, it's an 18th c. button, about an inch in diameter, and 250 years ago it (and twenty or so twins) likely decorated the front of a costly English or French gentleman's coat.

This button is an extreme example of a wrapped button (click on the image to enlarge for detail.) Sometimes called Leek buttons or death head buttons, wrapped buttons like this one are small masterpieces of patience, precision, and geometry.

Their construction is easy to explain, but difficult to do: threads are wrapped and woven around a wooden mold, with each successive wrap securing the one before. No glue is used. The silk or linen thread wraps of the most basic death head button form a simple but elegant cross-shaped pattern (like the button on the top of this hat.) The most elaborate examples, like this one using metallic thread over a colored foil backing, are so complicated that it would be almost impossible to replicate. Perhaps even more daunting is the back of the button, right, that shows how neatly all those metallic threads are secured with linen.

Many wrapped buttons were made as a cottage-industry, both in rural areas and in cities, and others could be made by tailors. A button like this one, however, was most likely made by a specialist craftsman. In our mass-produced modern world, it's hard to imagine devoting each work day to such painstaking – and beautiful – creation.

See here for another example of a beautiful 18th c. button.

This button was spotted on eBay by historical seamstress, scholar, and re-enactor Hallie Larkin. We're grateful to her for posting photographs of the button first on her blog – one of our favorites!


Ana said...

I saw this amongst your Breakfast Links and was amazed at once by the beauty and the craftsmanship.

Elli said...

My daughter makes temari balls - a Japanese art, and the detailing is similar although usually not on so small a scale.

Chris Woodyard said...

Gorgeous piece! Any idea how long it might have taken to produce one of these buttons? I know people still make deaths head buttons, although they are of a simpler pattern.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Ana, you're right - the button was in the Breakfast LInks a week or so ago, but I felt it deserved a blog post, too. :)

Elli, the wrapping is similar to temari balls. I'm also reminded of Mexican Ojo de Dios, which also rely on elaborate wrapping patterns:'s_eye

Chris, I have no idea how long it would have taken to make one of these. Practice does increase speed, but I have to think a button like this wouldn't have been easy, even for a practiced craftsman. But as I always have to remember, in the 18th c. time was cheap: it was the material, not the man/woman hours that set the price of an object....

nightsmusic said...

Beautiful button! I remember my paternal grandmother wearing buttons like that. She used to cut them off her cast offs and reuse them. I wish I knew what happened to my mother's button jar because there were at least a dozen in there, some from when my grandmother was a small girl in the mid 1800's. I have no idea if they'd been passed down to her from someone else.

Material Magician said...

Do you know where I can get button blanks to make my own covered buttons? I have a book that tells how to cover them.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Burnleigh & Trowbridge has historically accurate button moulds in wood, bone, or horn:

Good luck wrapping! :)

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