History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 December 2007

Button, button, who's got the button?

Ok, so maybe buttons aren't the most interesting topic in the world, unless you're a costume historian and you're making a reproduction item of apparel. As I mentioned in my last post, I'm going to be attending the 2008 Pyrate Con in New Orleans next April. I'll also be giving a workshop on the clothing of the Golden Age of Piracy, and simple methods to make off-the-rack pirate attire more authentic, original, and fun. We're going to call it The Devil is in the Details.

Since sometimes it's only the little things you can chance--and IMO the little things can make a HUGE difference--I've been giving the buttons for my coat and waistcoat a lot of thought. One of the cooler buttons I've seen used on extant garments from the time period is the thread-wrapped Death Head or Leek Button. There are sources out there to buy these from (at four-pounds each!). And the coat or waistcoat will take a least 45 buttons (roughly $800). Since I'm not a trustfund-brat or married to a Silicon Valley CEO, I'll be making these myself . . .

Luckily I came across Norman Fuss's book, which has really wonderful directions, as well as a concise history and pictures of many extant examples. The buttons are quite time consuming to make, but I think the effect will be worth it. It took a bit of doing to get the method down pat, and even with directions I had to invent my own step of waxing the wooden button mold before attempting to lay down the first wraps.

It took a few nights after work of solid toil, but very soon I had a large enough stash of these to complete my waistcoat. I'm still deciding about what to do for my coat buttons. I finally found just the right fabric (a soft pink cut velvet with a great Baroque pattern), and I'm thinking that I might totally lose my mind and make something with embroidery and spangles (aka sequins).

Clearly I've lost what was left of my mind, but what a wonderful way to go. As Captain Reynolds (the futuristic pirate captain from Joss Whedon's wonderful, and sadly short-lived, series Firefly) would say: I aim to misbehave.


Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wow, Kalen, you're awesome. I can't wait to see the pictures from the event!

5:21 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

I love buttons AND (the short lived) Firefly!

It's amazing that someone actually wrote a book on making a particular kind of button. How did you find it? And what do you know about the author?

One of my favorite stores in the world is Tender Buttons in NYC at 143 East 62nd -- an amazing place with the required intimidating sales staff but worth the chill to look at the collection of buttons mostly new but some antiques as well.

I want to see pictures of the buttons you made as well as the coatume...

9:58 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

So cool. You and Mal Reynolds.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Yes, Mal -- what a guy -- So if we all watched Firefly how come it didn't make it?

12:37 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

You are beyond clever,Kalen! I cannot wait to see the photos! Any chance those of us who cannot make PirateCon could get a peek at your notes for your presentation? Worth their weight in gold bullion to be sure!

7:51 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Oh my, Kalen! This is real dedication to getting things right.

(I've posted a link up to Candice Hern's site about it.)

8:24 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Kalen, how would a novice costumer like myself start a project like this...I have long wanted to have a ture Victorian riding habit made for myself (no kidding!) and I have the vintage catalog images, just not the seamstress knowhow. Any ssuggestions?

8:33 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

(ok, it's not quite on topic) but it was really Wash I was in love with on Firefly -- which the network sure didn't help by scheduling it so irregularly.

10:32 PM  
Blogger Candice Hern said...

I recently read Tracy Chevalier's BURNING BRIGHT, a lovely story featuring William Blake, set in the Lambeth area of London in the 1790s. A couple of the female characters make buttons. There are great details about the different kinds of buttons and how they are made. I loved that interesting bit of research.

12:41 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Kalen, I am sooooo impressed -- making your own buttons!

Mary, I don't know that button place on the East Side of NYC; all my favorite button places in the garment district went out of business or became beading places. There used to be a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop on Ave. of the Americas (Sixth Ave., still, to us native NYers) that was floor-to-ceiling boxes of buttons. Whatever you could imagine, at all price points, it was there.

There was a recent Sunday NY Times article about the disappearance of all these specialty notion stores in the garment district -- getting pushed out of business and, if they can get back on their feet at all, being compelled to move to somewhere where the rent was significantly lower, particularly in the outer boros, which was a pain in the butt for fashion designers who still manufacture their goods right here in the garment district rather than farming out the labor to developing nations. (Can you tell I belong to 3 unions and one guild? :) ) The designers said it's making it a lot harder for them to get their zippers, patterns cut, etc. all within a few blocks, which is ultimately costing them more to manufacture their garments.

Kalen, keep us posted on how long it takes you to wrap each button yourself. If that British concern can charge 4L per button (over $8 now), it must be a time consuming skill. It puts the little button makers we read about in deeper perspective.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What fun to come home to a blog that mentions Firefly! (I loved that show, and Mal Reynolds is such a great hero!). Fascinating about the buttons, Kalen. Can you do a Cinderella/Pygmalion type story where the heroine is a button maker???

6:07 PM  

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