Dorset Buttons

In researching other narratives and objects closely associated with Dorset, I began to look at the Dorset Button.  A covered button, wound, embroidered, soft, hand-made, like a tiny cartwheel, a spider’s web, something very ancient about them, as if they can spin through time with their crossing weaves and threads.

It’s often the individuating names that take me in: Bird’s Eye, Yarrell, Crosswheel, High Top, Honeycomb, Mite, Blandford Cartwheel. As well as the terms for the processes: casting, slicking, laying, rounding.

And instructions like: ‘A very long thread MUST be used as you cannot join more thread in the middle of the ring’. And you can feel the weight of these words counted out in the number of hands that have been disappointed at the wrong judgement of necessary thread, having to start all over again.

At the same time, I was researching the Dorset Pilgrims and looking out far beyond the West Dorset Jurassic Coast to America.  Absorbed by the stories of the journeys across the sea, the adventure and the terrible complexities of the settlements in New England during the 17th century, I wondered about Dorset buttons being made and worn by those Pilgrims in America.

I found a good looking ‘Unusual Avocado Green’ button on ebay from Barb’s store, and bought it, liking the idea of an ‘old’ (not that old) Dorset Button being shipped back to West Dorset all the way from the USA.

Dorset Button cartwheel

Dorset button ebay transactionHi Sue – I think the history of Dorset button making is fascinating, especially as it was a cottage industry. And to see that people are making them again is wonderful. I recently bought a couple from someone in the UK over the internet, and they were multi-color examples. I don’t have a great many myself, and I don’t have the skill to make them myself, but they are certainly charming. Good luck with your studies/collecting!  Barb.

Button making had been a part of Dorset life for centuries, but the industry really grew in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“Initially the buttons were made from a disc of the horn of Dorset Sheep … Portland sheep provided a plentiful source. The disk was covered with a piece of cloth and then overworked with a fine tracery of linen thread. The diameter of the buttons ranging from half an inch down to an unbelievable eighth of an inch.

There was a revolution in the button making industry when Abraham Case’s grandson started importing metal rings from Birmingham to use as the base for the buttons instead of horn. They were far easier to work with – and cheaper. Combined with the ready supply of labour, the industry spread out in all directions….

Cloth covered buttons were sold at between eight-pence and three shillings a dozen, while the women workers averaged about two shillings a day for making approximately six or seven dozen buttons, compared with the nine-pence a day they might expect from farm-work, the only real alternative for these women.

Although it was a major factor, it wasn’t just the money that attracted so many women to this cottage based industry. There were many other advantages. Working indoors was always preferable to being out in the fields in all weathers. It enabled women to be at home to look after the family whilst still retaining an income. Apart from the direct benefits, there was at least one indirect benefit that was very important when money was tight. Their clothes and particularly their shoes, didn’t wear out at anything like the rate they did when worn in the fields in all weathers. It was therefore no surprise that poorer women flocked to join in this new cottage industry.”

(Extract from the Dorset Page)

More localised information includes: Marion Jowett’s website distributing lots of information, Anna McDowell’s shop in Shaftesbury Henry’s Buttons, and various embroidery groups in Dorset and the British Button Society‘s page.

I wanted to meet and talk with an embroiderer, and while discussing our project with my uncle (who has lived and worked for most of his life in West Dorset), he mentioned a friend of his, Betty Tett, an embroiderer and needleworker, and a member of the Dorset Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.

A visit to Betty for conversation and to see her amazing needlework – patchworks, quilts, handknitted shawls made from wool she had spun and dyed herself, complete with matching homemade Dorset Buttons.

Betty Tett's Dorset Button

And to my joy and wonder, Betty had specially made a collection of Dorset Buttons for me, for our project, including some ‘Sea Urchin’ earrings that she had hand embroidered.

Thank you Betty!

Selection of Dorset ButtonsAnd the back of the card

“Buttons for export were sewn onto pink paper, seconds on navy blue and third quality onto yellow, and these last two were sold in the home market.”  So I’m hoping this emerald green card has been specially selected for appreciative fans and supporters of button makers.

So to complete the historical context:

“The industry thrived throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, run primarily by the Fisher family of Blandford. Many families lived in relative comfort, and were able to survive the loss of the male breadwinner, something that had been very difficult in previous times.

Nothing could last forever, and at the Great Exhibition of 1851, a Mr. John Ashton demonstrated a button making machine. It was a disaster for the cottage industry of Dorset, buttons could now be made at a fraction of the cost and at a far more rapid and reliable rate, all identical.

Near starvation hit most families, especially those with widowed breadwinners who had depended totally on their earnings from button making. Combined with the introduction of more mechanization on farms, which was happening at the same time meant that there was little requirement for unskilled labour.

Many hundreds of families were forced to emigrate to America or Australia, whilst for others, especially the elderly, it was the workhouse, a sad end to the lives these women who had known better days with the button-making industry.”

It’s an extraordinary history – resonant and powerful – and of course I am struck by how women and families were so affected by the industrialisation, by the sudden economic change brought about.

In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the home made, a renewed respect for handmaking skill, particularly from urban contexts where the ‘rural’ seems particularly popular in the city.

And the narrative of the Dorset Button leads me back to migration and movement, to change driven by economics, and to other connected landscapes and people.


February 15 2012