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buttons by Gina Barrett

Passementerie buttons are one of those small costume details which seem to strike fear into the hearts of many an otherwise adventurous costumier. And yet, unlike lacemaking, embroidery or other fine decorative techniques, a wide variety of passementerie buttons can be created without learning any special skills.

The deaths’ head (deathshead) button is one of these. It appears as though the design is created by a complicated weaving process, and yet it is simply worked by wrapping thread over a disc in a set sequence. If you can wind a bobbin, you can make a deaths’ head button. And even better, the design itself has a long history. Although most famous as a button for an 18th century gentleman’s coat, an early example in two colours can be seen on a doublet from 16101. Interwoven variations of the design have been found on buttons which date to the fifteenth century2, and the design was one of the first to be copied in moulded materials, from die stamped horn in the 19th century3 and later plastics, for the mass markets. Even today, clergy in England have buttons either with the same design, or, more rarely, real passementerie deaths’ heads for their vestments.

The deaths’ head, and all of its variations, are often called ‘Leek’ buttons. This is because, at the height of this type of button’s popularity, the centre of production in England was Leek, in Staffordshire4. However, their production was not limited to England; Diderot & d’Alembert, in their 18th century Encyclopedia, shows the passementerie button maker and illustrates the Deaths’ head and other variations. What about that name? There are many theories. It does seem that it is only English-speaking people who call it this (if it has a similar name in other languages, please let me know!), and the theories as to how it got its name are pretty varied. One is that the x shape resembles a sand timer, another that the x is the crossbones (as in “skull and crossbones”), another that the design resembles a coffin shape. I have a few other theories that I am currently working on.

Despite mass-production, passementerie and other one-off fabric buttons specially designed to match a garment perfectly have remained popular until very recently. Earlier Victorian styles tended to be small, delicate and lacy, while later Edwardian buttons were, on the whole, large and often made using gimps and braids. Even in the 1960s, couture houses were using hand-made passementerie buttons on coats. Alas, today, we tend to be stuck with plastic…

While the deaths’ head and other wrapped buttons were used on outer garments such as coats and waistcoats, under garments also used buttons. Ring buttons were most often used in these instances.

At their most basic, ring buttons are also very simple to produce, and only require knowledge of a blanket / buttonhole stitch. These buttons and their associated types are usually commonly known as Dorset buttons - again referring to the area in England that was the centre of their production.

Ring buttons are believed to date to around 1700, though knob buttons using similar techniques are earlier5. A painting dated 15866 shows what appear to be ‘Singleton’ ring buttons on a doublet (though the , implying that this type of button may have had an earlier life as decorative buttons, before larger scale production began. This is further strengthened by the recent YWU visit to the Fashion Museum in Bath, where a robe volante, circa 1730-1739 has a wonderful ring button holding up the sleeve7. At the height of their popularity however, the majority of this type of button was used on shirts, chemises, and other ‘whites’. Ring buttons also have a complicated mess of names. Almost all of the names seem interchangeable – crosswheels, cartwheels, Blandford, Singleton, and even then there seems to be slight variations in designs. And dating is difficult. Until very very recently one type of button design (which I refer to as ‘Continental’) had only appeared on cards dating from the late 19th and early 20th century, and usually made in Germany or Switzerland, and so never appears on lists of traditional ‘Dorset buttons’. It is assumed to only be made at the later date – and therefore primarily after the decline of the Dorset button industry. However, Amanda L Faulkner’s Regency Baby Gown,  clearly shows this type of button in use, and the previously mentioned robe volante in Bath is also a variation of this design.

So, the next time you make a garment that requires buttons, why not use passementerie ones?

(This article first appeared in Your Wardrobe Unlock'd)


1. Janet Arnold
Patterns of Fashion- The cut and construction of clothes for men and women, c1560-1620

2. Swales & Blatt
Tiny Textiles Hidden in Books: Towards a Categorization of Multiple-Strand Bookmarkers
Medieval Clothing and Textiles 3, The Boydell Press

And Beatrix Nutz, private correspondence

3. Primrose Peacock
Discovering Old Buttons, Shire Publications Ltd

4. Rachel Owen
Macclesfield Silk Buttons
Macclesfield Museum Trust 1998

5. Marion Howitt
Buttons, Buttons – The History of Handmade Buttons in Dorset

6. Portrait of Sir Henry Unton, c1586, Tate Gallery

7. Fashion Museum, Bath [Batmc i.09.2010] Robe Volante, circa 1730-1739]
image can be seen on the YWU Flicker site, image 100_3823 (no photographer name)

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About Us

Gina-B Silkworks designs and produces a variety of craft kits, books, DVDs and other items with an emphasis on handwork & passementerie (textile trimmings). We also stock a range of tools & materials for these crafts. Gina also makes bespoke items to commission. See About us for more