Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Fabric Covered Buttons, a la Georgian

UPDATED 3-27-17 with photos using the correct materials.

In the Georgian period (which encompasses Regency), you often see fancy embroidered buttons on various garments--justaucorps, waistcoats, and breeches.  For those of us who prefer plainer garment, there are also plenty of examples of plain ones--especially towards the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th.  Obviously, these are embroidered on cloth...but how do you take the cloth and turn it into a flat button without visible stitches?  It's really not difficult, and how else are you going to have buttons covered in the same silk as your coat or waistcoat.

Mariner's Cuff on a Coat.  1785-1790

1800-1810 Silk Waistcoat in the Met. Yes, those offline stripes do make me twitch.

You only need a few things for them--fabric, fairly strong thread matching said fabric, a different fabric, and button blanks.  A couple different threads are recommended; a heavier one which you will eventually use to sew the button to the garment, and a lighter one which should match primary colour of the fabric you're covering the button in--silk is a good choice.  You also need a heavier, tightly woven fabric or two--at least one of them should be a heavily fulled wool (or felt); ideally, of a similar colour to the garment.  It doesn't have to be thick, just non-fraying.  The button blanks were typically made of wood or bone, and are a flat or convex disc with a single hole in the center--you can pick them up at Wm. Booth, Draper, or Burnley and Trowbridge.

When I originally wrote this tutorial, I didn't have the correct materials...since then, I purchased a couple of wooden button blanks, specifically to show how it should actually look
I should also probably add that if your covering fabric is a fulled wool, you shouldn't need to cover the raw edges with another disk--just pull it into a short shank and secure.  But better safe than sorry.

The pieces you need, right to left:
  • Tightly fulled wool or heavy canvas, cut slightly smaller than the blank--about 2/3-3/4 the diameter.
  • The wood or bone blank.  They are made of wood or bone, with a convex lens shape.  You can also use a plastic suit button.
  • Covering fabric, roughly double the diameter of the blank.  It should be just wide enough to wrap around and have the edges barely touch.
  • A small piece of tightly fulled fabric, roughly matching the fashion fabric in colour.  It should be only slightly smaller than the blank.  I actually used a heavy cotton flannel in this; it doesn't fray either.
You also need a needle threaded with your shank thread, and a basting needle loaded with a fairly strong thread.

Next, run a gathering stitch around the perimeter of the covering material, fairly close to the edge. Make the stitches moderate in length and fairly even.

Knot the shank thread, then run it through the center of your canvas.  Essentially, you are using the canvas as a washer.

Thread the needle through the center hole of your blank, with the knot on the outside of the blank, on the convex side.  Note that the knot should be only slightly smaller than the hole in your button form.

Center your blank on the cover, knot side down and leaving the tail hanging out.

Draw the gathers around your blank, making sure it is fully enclosed and centered, with the shank thread hanging out of the center.

To secure the gathered cloth, run your thread back and forth until the folds from the gathering are secure.  You will want to do this as close to the back face of the blank as possible, while keeping the stitches mostly concealed.

You can also whipstitch around the perimeter, catching every other fold or so for additional support.

It should look something like this after covering.  If your covering material is a fulled wool, you should be able to stop here, since the raw edges don't need to be protected.

Using the shank needle, pierce the center of the second wool circle and let the shank thread dangle--you can remove the needle now, unless you plan to sew the button on immediately.  This covering of wool (or similarly non-fraying material) covers and protects the raw edges of the covering material.

Whip the edges of the fulled backing circle down to the backside of the button, being careful that you don't pull it off center.  You should be able to use the same thread as for the gathering stitches.

This should show why it's important a non-fraying material be used to cover the back side of the button--there is no hem to support the edge and stop the stitches from being pulled loose...and since your shank stitches to secure the button to your garment go through this piece...it needs to be sturdy.

Button completed.  Make sure that that little wool circle is secure--don't skimp on the stitches.

If you do not have actual blanks, you can use a plain plastic suit button instead.  This has the additional benefit of being machine washable.  The process is the same, except you can do without the fabric washer, and just knot the shank thread through the buttonholes.

The blue buttons were made specifically for the tutorial, and the flat white buttons went on my 1860s body-sac coat.  I also made a video tutorial of the method--you will probably want to change the resolution, since it automatically goes to the lowest, even though I filmed it in much higher.  On the other hand, it might just be my connection.

As for how to put them on, they were typically attached just to the outer layers of fabric, so that no stitches showed through the lining.  To illustrate, I just stitched it to the knee of my banyan.

Something I like to do--especially if the fashion fabric is light--is to work the button through a supporting piece of canvas on the wrong side.

  Catch under the button, going through the fabric backing of the button.

 Keep stitching through the layers until you feel it is secure.  A trick to make sure you get some length to the shank thread is use a matchstick as a spacer.

Wrap the shank in a few half-hitches to support it.

https://prinnystaylor.wordpress.com/2011/09/30/stitches-as-used-by-tailors-in-1800/ A post describing the stitches used in 18th century tailoring, from a book (The Tailor) dating to 1801.  Cloth covered buttons are at the bottom.

http://zhozhofabart.blogspot.com/2011/08/fabric-covered-buttons.html.  Images of extant buttons made with a similar process (and history of fabric covered buttons in general).

http://thegoldenscissors.blogspot.com/2013/01/covering-button.html.  A blip on fabric covered buttons.

http://www.marquise.de/en/themes/howto/knoepfe.shtml.  Another blip of an article that doesn't actually tell you how to do it.

 p.s. Another option for make-due blanks might be to drill holes in coins (not that I'm sanctioning defacing currency); however, most of the proper button blanks have a convex surface, rather than flat.

p.p.s If you somehow found this page while looking for early styles of buttons--say 16th century thread wrapped, I have a tutorial on a basic style of them as well, which can be found HERE.

© John Frey, 2016/17. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.  Photographs of my work may not be duplicated.

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