Not only did Dorset buttons hold a wide array of garments together, these tiny works of needle art also helped to hold together many families in Dorsetshire, right through the decade of the Regency. Though this type of button originated almost four hundred years ago, and fell mostly out of fashion early in the last century, that same button type is still made and used today. In fact, many of you may have Dorset buttons on one or more of your own garments. Perhaps the needleworkers among you may even make your own Dorset buttons.
The buttons of Dorset through the Regency . . .
Buttons have an ancient history, for their use has been dated back at least five thousand years. However, the evidence suggests they were first used only as ornaments and that it took humans until the early Middle Ages to mate them with buttonholes in order to use them as fasteners for their clothing. Though this practice probably originated in the German states in the thirteenth century, it was widespread across most of Europe within a few decades, with the exception of England. Sources show that buttons were not made in England until the fifteenth century. Prior to that time, most English garments were fastened with laces or pins, so there was little need for buttons.
Though the documentary evidence is sparse, tradition holds that a young English soldier from the Cotswolds, Abraham Case, was part of a British force which was deployed to northern Europe in the early seventeenth century, during the Thirty Years War. One version of the story has young Abraham intriqued by how some of the European soldiers with whom he served replaced missing buttons on their garments by covering a small form with cloth and stitching it in place. Another version suggests that he was fascinated by the lace-work buttons being made in Brussels while he was stationed in that area. Regardless of how he got the idea, Abraham Case kept the concept of making similar buttons in mind when he returned to England.
Probably in 1622, Abraham Case married a young woman from Wardour, a small village in the county of Wiltshire, though her name is not known. The young couple settled near the town of Shaftsbury, just over the border in the county of Dorsetshire. The principle industry of Dorsetshire at that time was agriculture, in which Abraham Case had little interest, but he needed a reliable way to support his family. He remembered the buttons he had seen made during his military service and was determined to make his own living doing the same. Fortunately for the Case family, the Horned Dorset sheep was plentiful in the area, and in the seventeenth century, both the rams and the ewes had large, curved horns. Rings and discs cut from those horns were the first forms which Case and his wife used in the making of their buttons.
The very first buttons made in Dorset were known as "High Tops." A thin disc of sheep’s horn was covered with a piece of linen, twisted into a conical shape and then stitched in place with a fine web of thread using tiny stitches. A later, similar button form was known as "Dorset Knobs," and those were made in much the same way, with a small bit of linen stitched in place over the disc of horn. At about this same time, more and more garments were being made which required buttons and these sturdy Dorset-made buttons were in great demand. In fact, demand was so great that Case began contracting with others in the area to make even more buttons. He, and then his sons, and later his grandsons, became button distributors for a burgeoning cottage industry.
In 1699, an Act of Parliament was passed which imposed restrictions on the wool trade. That same Act also prohibited the making of buttons using most types of cloth. Although the Act was not repealed until 1867, it was largely ignored in Dorset and the button-making trade flourished there. In the early decades of the eighteenth century, there were some significant changes in the business. Abraham Case’s grandson, Peter, is believed to have developed a metal alloy from which rust-resistant wire could be made. This special wire was made in the Midlands and imported to Dorset in large rolls, by the wagonload. That rust-resistant wire was then cut and made into rings, to replace the much more expensive and dwindling supply of sheep’s horn. This change also expanded the opportunities for work within the button trade, though mostly for children. The wire had to be cut, shaped into rings and the joins in those rings soldered, before they could be used as the base of a button. "Twisters" cut the wire and formed the rings around wooden forms, "Dippers" dipped the shaped wire into solder to make solid rings and then "Stringers" tied up groups of finished rings on strings so they could be distributed to the buttoners.
In the early eighteenth century, there had been a small lace-making trade in the Dorset town of Blandford, but that industry collapsed after a major fire ravaged the town in 1731. Fortunately, many of the surviving lace-makers in the area had the necessary skills to ply their needles in the making buttons and thereby were able to continue to support themselves and their families. The needle-lace buttons which they produced came to be known as the "Blandford Cartwheel" or the "Dorset Wheel." These buttons were made primarily of white linen thread worked over a metal ring. They typically ranged in size from a half inch in diameter to barely an eighth of an inch in diameter. Such buttons were very popular for use on gentlemen’s shirts, ladies’ undergarments and children’s clothes, right through the decade of the Regency. Beau Brummell is known to have preferred tiny white "Dorset Wheel" buttons on his best shirts.
Another Dorset button type in high demand, from the eighteenth century right into the middle of the nineteenth, was the "Singleton." Many families in Dorset specialized in one type of button, and this type was a specialty of the Singleton family, hence its name. This button was more like the earliest Dorset buttons, since it was made by covering a wire ring with linen cloth, rather than thread. The center was padded with additional layers of cloth or other stuffing material and the entire button was then stitched together with tiny stitches using a fine linen thread. Many of the higher quality "Singleton" buttons were also embroidered in the center with French knots or other small embroidery stitches. "Singleton" buttons were made primarily in white, but they could easily be dyed to match the linen or cotton fabric used in nearly any garment of the time. However, "Singleton" buttons were one of the few buttons that were also made in black for use on mourning clothes.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, the button industry in Dorset was mainly in the hands of the extended Case family. By 1743, they had opened a London sales office and over the years, they opened several button depots across the county, where jobbers, manufactures and salesmen could purchase buttons in bulk. It was at these same button depots that out-workers would deliver their completed buttons, pick up more supplies and collect payment for their work. A number of these button depots were open for button intake only one day per week, designated as "button day." Another Peter Case, descendant of the Peter Case who developed the rust-resistant wire rings, set up a button depot in Milborne Stileham, in 1803. Button day there was on Friday, and it is said that the area looked liked a fair ground each Friday, because there were so many button out-workers who traveled there to deliver their buttons and collect their pay. Large quantities of Dorset buttons were sold in bulk at button depots which were intended for sale within Great Britain. However, by the second half of the eighteenth century, these unique buttons were in such high demand that they were also exported to the Continent, and even America, mostly through the Case warehouse located near the port of Liverpool.
To protect them from wear during transport and sale, most Dorset buttons were sorted, grouped and mounted on cards. The backing cards were colored to denote the quality of the buttons on each card. The finest quality buttons were mounted on pink cards. These buttons were intended for use on the very best quality garments, most of which would have been intended for wear by the nobility and the gentry. Dorset buttons mounted on dark blue cards were intended for more general consumption, and would be used on garments worn mostly by those of the middle classes. Seconds and the lowest quality Dorset buttons were mounted on yellow cards. Buttons on yellow cards were much less expensive and might be found on work garments and/or clothing worn by the lower classes. Dorset buttons which were not intended for export and were destined for sale within Great Britain were mounted on black cards. Any buttons that became soiled, whether during production, or in the sorting process, were boiled inside a linen bag before they were mounted on a card. This process usually removed the grime without damaging the button.
It is estimated that an experienced master buttoner could produce as many as six or seven dozen buttons each day, earning them an average income of between two to three shillings per day. Less experienced buttoners might earn somewhat less, but it was generally still more than the nine pence a day they could expect to earn by doing most farm work. However, it was not only the generous and reliable income which attracted many, especially women, to this cottage industry. If they were engaged in "buttony," women would be at home to mind their children and care for their families, yet still have a steady income. This was particularly important to women who had lost a male breadwinner. In addition, the ability to work indoors in inclement weather was an important advantage of buttony, yet the work was so portable that buttoners could also work outdoors in fine weather, if they wished. Indoor work also significantly reduced wear and tear on garments and shoes, when compared to field work. This had the advantage of saving both money and effort on the laundering and replacement costs of button out-workers’ clothing.
By the end of the eighteenth century, scholars estimate that as many as five thousand buttoners and other workers were employed in the buttony trade throughout Dorsetshire. Buttony was the leading trade in the county at the turn of the nineteenth century, even ahead of agriculture, and employed mostly women and children, though there were men who also made buttons. In fact, there was such a demand for buttons that many children in orphanages were often put to work, making the wire rings and preparing the other materials which would be provided to buttoners when they delivered their finished buttons at a button depot. Children were also involved in sorting buttons and mounting them on cards for export. Some orphan children even learned to make buttons and were then able to support themselves in the trade for the rest of their lives. In times of very high demand, even prisoners were sometimes contracted to work in the buttony industry.
Great numbers of Dorset buttons were made by hand right through the Regency and into the middle of the nineteenth century. But then, mechanization decimated buttony. At the Great Exhibition, in 1851, a button making machine was demonstrated which was capable of rapidly making standardized cloth-covered buttons similar to those currently made by hand in Dorset. Within a decade, the Dorset button cottage industry collapsed as buttons were now being made much more cheaply by machine. Some buttoners were able to transition into glove-making or embroidery, but there were not enough positions for all of those displaced by button-making machines. Mechanization also had a significant impact on the only other major industry in Dorset, agriculture. Soon, many families in Dorset lost their once reliable incomes and it was not long before they were on the brink of starvation. Hundreds of them were forced to emigrate to the United States, Canada or Australia, since there was little demand in their home county for either button making or unskilled labor. It was even worse for the elderly who were unable or unwilling to emigrate. Many of them were forced into poverty and eventually into the workhouse. There was some attempt to restore a cottage industry for the making of Dorset buttons early in the twentieth century, but that nascent industry was a victim of the turmoil of World War I. However, much knowledge regarding the making of these remarkable buttons was preserved and many needleworkers and craftspeople today still make some version of the Dorset button.
During the Regency, it is believed that there were more than thirty different types of buttons made in Dorset. The best known of those button types would have been Dorset Wheels and Singletons. However, there were other types, known as Basket Weaves, Ten-Spoke Yarrels, Grindles, Honeycombs, Bird’s Eyes, Mites and Cross-wheels, among others, which were also being made in various areas of Dorset. Images of reproductions of some these buttons can be seen at the Bonkers for Buttons blog post, Searching for Dorset Buttons. Photos of both a Singleton and a High Top button can be seen at the Down my way — Dorset Buttons post at the Dorset Life blog. More images of modern but traditional versions of Dorset buttons can be seen at the Dorset Wheel post at the Blue Cat Buttonworks blog. Images of more artistic and modern Dorset buttons can be seen at the Dorset Button Gallery page at the Embroider’s Guild web site. Photos and details on the making of a reproduction Dorset Knob button, circa 1800, can be found in the A Dorset Knot — I mean Knob — Button post at the Two Threads Back blog.
Dear Regency Authors, might Dorset buttons, or the buttony industry in Dorset, have a place in an upcoming novel? Perhaps a very spoiled young lady throws a temper tantrum because her newly delivered undergarments do not have Dorset Wheel buttons, leaving her long-suffering governess, the heroine, of course, the task of calming her down. Or, will a French spy, trying to pass as a poor man, be exposed by the sharp-eyed hero, who notices the spy is wearing a fine linen shirt with tiny but costly Dorset Wheel buttons? Might a heroine be involved in buttony in Dorset, where she and her mother and/or siblings, all make buttons to support themselves after the death of their father? Mayhap the hero is driving through a town in Dorset, and unbeknownst to him, it is button day for the button depot there. Will the large crowd of buttoners impede the progress of his carriage, perhaps leading to his first encounter with the heroine? Then again, might the buttons themselves serve the plot of a story? Dorset Knob and even High Tops were still being made during the Regency, along with Singletons. All were types of cloth-covered, stuffed buttons, and anything might be stuffed inside one or more of them. Maybe a very secret message which must be carried safely across enemy lines or long distances is written on thin paper which is tightly folded and stuffed inside the buttons on the courier’s waistcoat or jacket. How else might Dorset buttons, or the trade of buttony, fasten together a Regency romance?