Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Button, button

I recently found a treasure trove of old buttons and buckles in an antique shop. I used to find them more often but in recent years people have begun to value buttons (rightly so) and so now I find them more in tiny baggies. I have a real weakness for buttons and buy them often, mostly at antique shops. I also have my grandmother's buttons and the valued collections from the mothers of some nonsewing friends.

As I went through my find, a plastic coffee can full, I realized I use a fairly standard procedure to sort, clean and add them to my collection and I decided to share that with you as a sort of tutorial. I'm not expert and I don't know anything about valuable collectible buttons, but I have learned a bit on the way about everyday buttons.

The first thing I do is pile them all onto a tray in my lap. I used an old jelly-roll pan (cookie sheet with sides) covered with an old tea towel. Then I just enjoy them while I sort through to see what I have. As I'm doing this I keep a seam ripper handy to remove any odd bits of thread and fabric. Do you remember cutting buttons off of clothing before giving them to the rag man?

This batch included all sorts of lovely buttons, including some hand painted buttons. I'm not good at telling ceramic from glass--some opaque glass ones will fool me--but mostly it's easy to tell them apart.

I generally find the buttons I get are plastic, mother-of-pearl, vegetable ivory, glass, china, or some early plastics. Sometimes you'll find one with a strong ammonia smell. That's one of the early plastics (maybe celluloid or Bakelite) that's begun to deteriorate. I haven't found any way to rescue them and they really can reek--just throw them away when you find them.

Tip: when you're considering buying a cache of buttons, give a sniff. If you smell a strong ammonia smell, see if you can identify the culprit(s) and decide for yourself-- if they're removed, are the remaining buttons worth the price? These stinkers are often large and dark and can be striking and what attracts you to the batch of buttons.

I separate out any cloth, braid, or metal buttons before washing the rest. I often dry brush the fabric buttons if I think they can stand it. If they're nasty, I just toss them.

I'm not big on metal buttons so don't get many unless they're in a large group. If they're solid, one-piece buttons I feel safe to wash and dry them. Many metal buttons, however, have a seam and I don't wash those. If they're really dirty, I'll wipe them with a damp cloth.

A recent delight are china buttons. If you look closely at the picture to the right, the buttons on the bottom, left are mostly china. Some have little painted rosebuds on them. A couple have an all-over dot pattern. I think these may be made with decals. I think they're really cool.

Then I take the buttons to the sink. I use dish soap and a gentle old toothbrush that I keep for cleaning jewelry. You don't want to soak the buttons at all. Many don't like it. But most of what I've acquired have been pretty dirty, so I figure the scrub is worth the possible loss of one or two. It really surprised me to learn that you really shouldn't soak mother-of-pearl buttons. The nacre is very delicate and is prone to chipping (hence the tea cloth on my tray) and soaking in water can damage them.

Some MOP buttons have dull spots. That's a sign of age and wear and I haven't found anything to remedy it. I think the dull spots and chips add to the character.

Tip: dull MOP buttons most likely are damaged and cannot be polished or shined up. Once the finish is gone, it's gone. If it bothers you, don't buy it.

I use a fine strainer to keep the buttons in the sink and not the drain. My favorite buttons are teeny tiny MOP ones and they disappear quite easily.

I rinse them quickly under running water and then fill a bowl with clean water. I make a little puddle of soap and dip my brush into it and gently scrub each button. China and MOP ones especially seem to collect dirt around the rims and holes. A quick brush will clean them. Then I drop them into the clear water.

After I've washed a few, I drain them into a small strainer (I just use a kitchen strainer for this since they're now washed; I wash it well when done) and place them onto a tray lined with a clean towel to dry.

Then I wash a few more. And more and more and more. As I lay them out to dry, I sort them to get a better idea of the group. I may not keep them sorted when dry but often I'll store them in loose groups. If I sort, it's by type (light MOP, dark MOP (none in this group), light-colored plastic, dark plastic, vegetable ivory, etc.).

This batch included buckles. Most are an off-white early plastic (look at all the shapes!). There's also a red one and a silver buckle with engraved initials. I've seen a buckle like these used to hold wide ribbons at the corner of a memory pillow--photos and ephemera can then be tucked behind the ribbon for display.

There's a purplish leaf shaped buckle, too. (It's in one of the photos further up the page.) It's a shoe buckle. It could be clipped to the edge of something or the buckle removed for a flat back. Not all buttons are round--and even the round ones can be really interesting--look at the sprocket shaped yellow button at the top of this photo. There are also square, trapezoid and bow-knots in the collection.

Often small round black buttons with metal loops are shoe buttons. I've read that buttons, often vegetable ivory, with large holes are underwear buttons. Other beads, pins, cuff links, and other bits often show up in button collections.

Do I know what I'm going to do with this treasure trove? Not a clue. But I'm always using buttons for this and that, so I'm sure I'll find uses for them.

This is a large button I beaded around several years ago for a brooch. I've seen instructions for this in books and magazines but couldn't find anything on-line.


Anonymous said...

What a treasure trove of button information. You are a delight. Never did I even think to research buttons. Now there is a whole new slant on buttons! I love it. thank you for opening my eyes and sharing this information!

Jane said...

I noticed on your pictures the other day how clean your buttons looked, now I see why. Mine are very dingy. Thank you for sharing your methods!

Lelia said...


tutorial on above link -- maybe I should e-mail it to you

Paula Hewitt said...

i enjoyed reading this, and i love your button brooch. i would love to be included in the giveaway (if i can comment here not there).
I will be popping a little something in the mail for you shortly - its taken me a while-too long - to finish it. xx.