Close set rows of buttons are a characteristic of 14thC clothing. We know that metal buttons were used. Other materials were also used, including walrus tooth(Greenland) and fabric. My work on these fabric buttons is mostly based on finds illustrated and described in the Museum of London book “Textiles and Clothing- Medieval finds from excavations in London”. This is a link to an image of the most complete sleeve fragment Some of the other button finds are more spherical, and it is these that my technique most closely resembles. I'd love to include a picture here but I don't think copyright allows. For those that have access to the book, see p169, fig144. In fact, if you are interested in this sort of thing, go buy the

The buttons are sewn on the edge of the garment opening. The attachment stitches are then wrapped to form a short stalk. Buttonholes are placed perpendicular to, and right next to the garment edge. This gives a firm closure with little or no overlap.

Reasons to use fabric buttons
If you make them out of garment fabric, they will jolly well match your frock.
They are very inexpensive compared to buying metal buttons, even in the modern world. In fact they are almost free, being made from scrap cloth and a bit of thread
They are perfectly functional and look great

Fabric choices:
The best is wool with some thickness and compressibility. Not too felted or tightly woven. However, one can make buttons out of almost any fabric.
For a linen frock, I will usually make buttons out of a coordinating scrap of wool.
For very fine wool, I use a second smaller round of slightly heavier wool to provide sufficient bulk, or use coordinating wool in a good weight.
For very heavy wool, one either ends up with rather large buttons, or one can use the single gather technique seen in the Greenland finds*. I've had a go at these but not yet used them on a garment. The flat pink button on the right in pics 3&4 below is an example. I find it harder to get a round end product, but they do work.

The best method I have found to make these buttons is a double gather technique. It leaves no raw edges, is fairly easy and gives a good round and very firm and functional button.

Here are a couple of pictures of one of my sleeves**. The buttons are 9-10mm in diameter, the same size as the ones in the MoL image linked above. The fabric is a light to mid weight wool twill.


Instructions for making the buttons:

You need circles of fabric the "right size". The thicker the fabric, the bigger the circle needs to be and the larger the button. The circle needs to be big enough to allow the second gather to close but small enough that you end up with a nice dense button. I usually have to make a few buttons before landing on the best size circle for the fabric in question. That tiny yellow button is slightly poxy leftover from the yellow sleeve project shown above. The large fuzzy yellow button is a leftover from the "Cheese balls of Death" robe.



I like to use thread reels as a form to draw circles. White chalk pencil is good for most fabrics. If you have pale fabric, you could use a soft graphite pencil (2B and up I suppose).

I then cut with reference to that line. On the line, inside or out, depending what size circle you decided on. This blue fabric is nice soft wool/cashmere coating.

The originals were sewn with silk thread, possibly linen sometimes. I confess I usually use a doubled length of standard polyester Gutermann thread. Don't use crappy thread, really, you need to use quite a bit of tension. Anchor your thread, then work a line of ~3mm running stitches a few mm in from the cut edge.


Draw that thread up to make the flattest object you can. Don't cut the thread. In fact, don't cut the thread until I tell you.

Then work another line of running stitches next to the folded edge. I like to use the first gathers as a guide, stitching in the valleys. Holding the proto button putting pressure on the middle like this is helpful.

Then press down in the middle with your thumb, push up on the sides with your fingers and pull the second gather up.

(I always handsew with a thimble. From this point in the process, a thimble is highly recommended. Quite high force is needed to push the needle through the increasingly dense fabric.)

Now take a stitch through each lobe tip, each time going to the opposite side. I'm amused that this time the little web formed a nice star, that doesn't always happen!. Then pull up on the thread again, while pushing in on the sides of the button with your fingers.


Then take one to several stitches all the way through the button from bottom to top and back again, while keeping it nice and closed. Pull firmly on the thread each stitch.

Anchor your thread, run it through the button to capture the end and clip off.

A button!

We also need to know how to sew the button onto a garment edge.

I like to use a thin straight grain strip of linen in the folded edge to give a nice firm edge to sew the button to, and to help the garment keep it's shape. I don't have evidence from 14thC for this, but it works. It's also invisible in the finished garment, especially if you stab stitch it in rather than using machine stitching as I have on this sample.


After deciding where the button should go (always work your buttonholes first!), run the thread into the garment to hide it, and take a few stitches to anchor.

This is the fiddliest bit of the whole process. Take one stitch in the button just below it's equator. Then pull the thread until the button sits about 4-5mm away from the edge. Then hold the button, and take more stitches through the edge and the button while keeping this gap. This is easier to demonstrate. You sort of push away on the edge with some of the left hand fingers while stitching.

I usually do about 6-8 stitches spread around the button, half done from the front of the edge, half from the back. End with the thread at the button end.

Then wrap the thread around the attachment stitches several times to form a stalk. I couldn't get a picture of how I do this, not enough hands available. I clasp the edge between the outer fingers and palm of my with my left hand while pushing up on the button with thumb and forefinger. Wrap with the right hand, sliding under the button. Then anchor your thread in the garment edge, run it into the garment to hide and clip off.


Recommended order of operation:
-make or otherwise aquire your buttons
-work out how long the buttonholes need to be
-make the sleeves, with facings wide enough for the buttonholes
-sew your buttonholes
-do the tablet edge, or not (can be done later, but not have buttons to catch on is a bonus)
-mark the button positions
-sew on the buttons.

*See "Woven into the Earth" by Else Ostergard, p170

**I shall blow my own trumpet and tell you that this sleeve was part of the ensemble with which I won a Laurels only costume competition at Rowany Festival back in 2004.



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