Sunday, March 17, 2013

Dorset Buttonery (an introduction)
I first became aware of the existence of Dorset buttons while reading Tracy Chevalier's 2007 novel Burning Bright. The story opens in rural Dorset and follows the Kellaway family as they uproot from their rustic village and move to the frightening and foreign hurly-burly of late 18th century London. Woven throughout the narrative are descriptions of the industrious button-making of Mrs Kellaway and her daughter Maisie. The buttons, formed around a metal ring and laboriously worked with linen thread in traditional and time-honoured patterns, are easily pictured by the storyteller's words. Though humble is this work undertaken by the woman of the house, it becomes vital to the survival of the family as the cold, hard realities of life in London press upon the family.

The history of Dorset buttonery is thought to extend back into the 1600s, at which time rings were cross-cut from rams horn. The working of buttons was the province of cottage women, and they were sold in bundled lots at somewhere between eight pence and three shillings a dozen.
 The Blandford Cartwheel (above) is probably considered one of the most basic button designs, but there are many very intricate and beautiful patterns that have been handed down from generations past (more about that later). And now I come to what I want to say about a beautiful new yarn shop in Blackheath (at the top of the Mountains) called The House of Wool. I wandered in there once after they first opened last year, but as I don't get up the hill very often I've had to content myself with following their progress via facebook. They have started out in two or three rooms of an old house on a corner in the village. Their focus is mainly on stocking yarns from independent Australian producers, and they have a wonderfully eclectic range of hand-dyed and commercial yarns in all the colourways you could wish for. So today, apart from wanting to eyeball all that yarn, I joyfully entered the door ready to enjoy a blissful Sunday afternoon of Dorset button-making.

A hollow-core brass ring is worked in buttonhole stitch - Perle cotton

Since the time I read Chevalier's book my little ears have pricked up whenever the words "Dorset" and "button" are mentioned in the same breath. I often hanker for a life simpler than mine; I dream of replicating the bare-bones, self-sufficiency of bygone years, the waste-not-want-not and mend-and-make-do mentality. Having mastered the art of knitting my own socks, I felt excited at the prospect of being able to craft simple and beautiful buttons by hand.

Adding the spokes and beginning to weave
Mary Burns, from Two Emus Designs, ably explained and demonstrated each step; from winding the cotton to form spokes, to how to pull the centre together and start the process of weaving. There are tricks for starting and finishing a thread, but once mastered it is a snap to work different colours into the design.

From green to red and back to green
I didn't *quite* get mine finished in the allotted two hours. There was a bit of tongue-sticking-out-the-side-of-my-mouth happening as I worked away at my little wheel. Concern at the lop-sidedness of my button was waved away, and examples of similarly wonky buttons were found in the pages of Mary's sample books. I was relieved. Mine is not the only wonky Dorset button in the world.

Buttonery on the Train
I continued working at my button during the train trip home; a typical Sunday afternoon carriage bustling with weekend tourists with baggage and hiking boots and ruffled-looking young persons with very loud iPods. Hum-ho-hum you might say, but thanks to my basket overflowing with everything a woman might need while away from home and some very pointy knitting needles, nobody took the vacant seat by my side ...

Blandford Cartwheel No. 1
This evening I have finished my Dorset button (No 1.), accompanied by two very good cups of tea. Ta da! Yes, I know it is wonky, but these spokes are bespoke, and therefore unique. If ever I find myself in a tight spot and need a button I'll know what to do.

The lesson today was referenced by the book Buttons Buttons by Marion Howitt. I believe the book is available by contacting her through her website. Marion is acknowledged as an authority on Dorset Buttons in the UK. The Blandford Cartwheel button made today is a fairly basic design, but there are many others available. There is some beautiful Dorset button candy to be seen at The British Button Society and naturally, there are many and varied images available via the interwebs.

It has been a delightful day. A day of blue skies and sunshine, of crisp fresh mountain air; a day perfectly formed for sitting alongside like-minded souls rejoicing in something old made new again.


Evie xxx


  1. I love your wonky button has character, just like you! I don't mean that you are wonky though LOL

    1. Thank you Lois. Actually, I have decided that I don't mind wonky. If that makes me slightly irregular and not quite conventional then I will take it as a compliment. :)

  2. looks great. Lovely to meet you in the class. I am now addicted.

    1. Oh, hello Xena! It was lovely to meet you too. Yes, I think these little buttons may well be addictive. I'll be on the hunt for some slightly smaller rings so I can make some baby-sized ones. And now we have another handy diversion to shield us from the dreaded domestica ... have fun. :)

  3. It's lovely :) I was taught to make these as a child but haven't made one in years. Fiddly aren't they :)

    1. Oh, hello Annie :) Hm, yes, they are a bit fiddly, but ever so satisfying. Will look forward to making a few more and maybe trying some variations. Sadly, I found my Dorset button on the floor this morning, having been chewed by the marauding poodle. He is definitely in the dog house tonight. :(


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