They are tiny, but they can speak loudly. Buttons are the punctuation of an outfit, bringing it life; think of, say, a black sweater with softly glowing pearl buttons, or a dress fastened at the neck with one jewel-like orb. They’ve been around for centuries, and long been coveted objects of beauty — for serious collectors, or for little kids enthralled by the rattling rainbow of a button jar.
In the realm of DIY fashion, few alterations are easier than switching out a garment’s buttons — and few can effect such a dramatic change. An example from my own closet: Years ago, I bought a black wool coat on sale. I loved its theatrical shape — high collar, fitted at the waist, flaring out into a long skirt — but hated the buttons, which were cheap-looking gold festooned with anchors and which made the coat, and me, look the very model of a modern major general. Off went the gold, on went a set of dark, vintage-looking buttons that sparkled like a nighttime sky — and goodbye major general, hello Dr. Zhivago. It’s still my go-to winter coat, and not one button has dropped off.
As Diana Epstein and Millicent Safro wrote in their beautiful coffee-table book “Buttons,” buttons “belong to the category of things that are always already there.” Objects similar to modern buttons, they write, have been found in excavations from ancient Persia, Greece and Egypt, and a coin dating from the eighth century shows a cloak held together at the neck by three buttons.
By the 18th century, an enormous variety of buttons had become popular: elaborate fabric-covered or embroidered buttons, precious-metal or jeweled buttons worn by the wealthy, buttons just as showy for those less well off, bedecked with paste, gilding or foil. The 19th century brought more mass production of buttons, with brass and porcelain becoming popular, but more elaborate buttons (intricate papier-mâché, delicately carved ivory, Victorian picture buttons) still thrived. The invention of the zipper in the 1890s made buttons a bit out of step in the early 20th century; they became simpler, and often made from synthetic plastics. But creativity still won out: art deco shapes carved from Bakelite, whimsical buttons displaying Disney characters, elegantly sculpted molded glass. Button collecting, inspired by Depression-era ingenuity, had its origins in the 1930s, with the National Button Society founded in 1938. (Its local chapter, which just had its annual show in Anacortes this weekend: washingtonstatebuttonsociety.org.)
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Epstein and Safro were the original proprietors of Tender Buttons, the New York City store — open since 1964 — that prides itself on being the only shop in America entirely devoted to the sale of buttons. But Seattle has troves as well, if you know where to look.
One of the city’s best button assemblages isn’t found at a chain fabric warehouse, but a longtime neighborhood fabric store. Drop by Nancy’s Sewing Basket on Queen Anne and head straight to the back — where you’ll find an eye-popping wall of buttons. Susan Pasco, who works in the adjacent Ribbon Room, described the buttons as “little pieces of art,” and listed just some of their materials: horn, bone, wood, shell, bamboo, coconut, glass, plastic. A button here can cost as little as 20 cents; others, such as a sparkling multifaceted rhinestone snowflake, can cost $16 or more.
Some of the buttons at Nancy’s, Pasco said, are vintage, brought by collectors around the world. Some are vintage-inspired, such as Susan Clark’s delicately lovely buttons, made from antique molds. And some couldn’t be more contemporary: the dark skull buttons, for example, or the cheerful row of white-china buttons painted with images of vegetables.
Pasco, who deplored the fact that contemporary manufacturers often don’t sew buttons on properly (many don’t bother to knot the thread, pretty much guaranteeing that the buttons will fall off), said that customers buy buttons for new hand-sewn garments, to freshen up older items, and often for children’s art projects — kids, she said, are mesmerized by the wall.
Yvonne Brecese, a staffer at Stitches on Capitol Hill (which also has a large button selection), confirmed that she’s seen many customers popping in to pick out buttons to update clothing, particularly thrift-store finds. She offered a tip for sewers attempting buttons for the first time: With flat buttons (i.e. those without a shank on the back), slide a toothpick between the button and the fabric while sewing, to ensure that it’s not too tight. (And I’d add, after my coat experience: If you’re sewing onto heavy fabric, invest in a thimble. Your thumb will thank you.)
Both Pasco and Brecese emphasized that it isn’t enough just to measure the old buttons on a garment — bring the whole thing in, so you can be certain that the new buttons will fit the holes properly. And come with an open mind; you never know which button might speak to you, softly or otherwise.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org