Dorset Buttons

Ok I am back!  Been on holiday but now itching to get back to my journey round the British Isles and right now we are in lovely Dorset, looking at Dorset buttons.  The Dorset button industry started when a man called Abraham Case moved to Shaftesbury, Dorset.  (The other thing Shaftesbury is famous for is the Hovis advert, the one where the boy pushes his bike up the hill.  I always thought that advert was filmed in Yorkshire.  I was wrong, it was filmed in Shaftesbury by Ridley Scott no less).

Hovis boy pushing bike up Gold Hill in Shaftesbury

Anyway, back to buttons.  Abraham Case came to Shaftesbury after a career as a soldier, during which time he travelled in France and Belgium and admired the European Buttoner’s art.  After leaving the army, he found himself in need of employment.  It seems he was in the right place at the right time for button’s in the 17th century were very much a status symbol and there was a high demand for intricate and ornate buttons for gentlemen’s waistcoats.  Having seen the buttoner’s art in Europe and finding himself in an area where buttons were already made on a small scale,  Abraham Case saw the opportunity to develop a Buttony industry in Dorset.

image from This is Dorset 

The earliest buttons produced by Case were High Tops, conical in shape and Dorset Knobs, similar but flatter (the famous Dorset Knob biscuit is named after a button!).  Disc’s of horn from Dorset rams were covered with linen and worked over with fine linen thread forming the distinct cone.  It seems likely the technique he adopted combined the techniques he had seen on the Continent with the techniques which had existed in Dorset for centuries.

Abraham Case’s business quickly grew and by the early eighteenth century buttony had become a cottage industry employing thousands of people and bringing in a revenue of twelve thousand pounds per annum, which I must say was a great deal of money back then.  When Abraham Cash died, his sons Abraham Jr and Elias took over. Production grew and grew and the family managed to keep much of the business in their own hands by paying their workers in goods not money to stop them branching out on their own. By the beginning of the nineteenth century there were depots in many Dorset towns for the outworkers to collect the materials from and sell their finished buttons to.

image from 50 Heirloom Buttons to Make by Nancy Nehring

One of the most important developments in Dorset Buttony history occurred during the reign of George II (around 1750 for those of you who can’t remember your kings and queens).  Buttons based around a wire ring, rather than the disc of horn, were introduced and quickly developed into many different styles.  Blandford Cartwheels, Ten-Spoke Yarrels, Basket Weave Honeycomb Cross Wheel of Spiders Webs, Spangles, Birds Eye and Mites to name but a few. These wire based buttons are the ones that are now more well known than the original High Tops and Knobs.

image from Aquarius blog

Production of the Dorset Buttons continued apace.  It was a popular source of income among the rural poor of Dorset, a good Buttoner made between six and seven dozen buttons a day and could earn up to 3 shillings  as opposed to the 9d that could be earned as a farm worker and it had the advantage of being a home based activity, which was more attractive than being outside in all weathers.

Unfortunately all this ended abruptly in 1851, almost over night the Dorset button industry collapsed and the thousands who relied on the industry were suddenly penniless and on the brink of starvation.  All this happened because of a button making machine which made handmade buttons redundant – they just couldn’t compete.  The inventor was a man called Mr John Ashton and he exhibited his machine at The Great Exhibition.  And here is a funny thing, those of you following my blog will recall that a Trug maker from Sussex called Mr Thomas Smith had a very different experience of the Great Exhibition.  Queen Victoria brought his trugs at the Exhibition and he went home a very happy bunny.  Yet in Dorset an exhibit at the same exhibition caused misery and starvation, three hundred and fifty families from Shaftesbury alone were forced to emigrate to the Americas and Australia as a result.

image from downunderdale.blogspot.com

(I absolutely love this button, I have searched the web and decided – this is the best!)

So the Dorset Button industry ceased to exist.  It went through a brief revival at the beginning of the twentieth century initiated by Lady Lees but the outbreak of the First World War put paid to her attempts to put the buttons back into production.  Nowadays the tradition is kept alive by the Verwood branch of the WI and by the many courses being offered to teach the art of buttony.

I am very pleased to say, I shall be attending one of these courses myself.  Fibrefest in Devon is running a workshop on Dorset and Yorkshire buttons which I am very excited about.  I shall keep you posted on how I get on.  And I have decided I am going to develop a Dorset Button brooch for the Potter, Wright and Webb range.  By the way – the website is coming along nicely – still aiming to have all these lovely things available to buy from October!!



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9 Responses to Dorset Buttons

  1. robin wood says:

    fascinating, love the snipit about the Ridley Scott Hovis ad. I thought this was going to be about the turned shale buttons and bangles that were made in Dorset from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age and mistakenly called Kimmerage coal money.

    • Rachel Reynolds says:

      Thanks Robin! I have climbed Gold Hill and I can tell you it is very steep. I know nothing about turned shale bronze age buttons – will now need to go and look them up, needless to say I am finding Dorset buttons a bit addictive. I was going to make one or two as examples and now have a whole box full.

  2. Gary says:

    Nice post. My aunty and uncle live on Gold Hill, their house is in that shot. I’ve seen it literally everywhere – including Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and in the States. Always quite a conversation starter. I would recommend never attempting to walk down it when it’s a bit icy out, you’ll get to the bottom no problem, it’s just whether you’ll be able to walk again is the issue.

    • Rachel Reynolds says:

      Thank you. I discovered Gold Hill when we visited Shaftesbury on a family holiday. It certainly is steep, I know because I walked down it, which was easy and then I walked back up again, which was not!

  3. Congratulations on joining us Dorset Button makers. I have been making and teaching how to make these thread buttons for a number of years and still haven’t grown tired of this historical craft.

    • Rachel Reynolds says:

      Thanks for dropping by, it’s great they are still made. I keep think I will stop but then I think I will just make one more and try something slightly different. I haven’t progressed to High Tops yet though!

      • I ran my first High Top workshop in July. We had to to contemporary matrials but the session was very successful.

        • Rachel Reynolds says:

          Thanks Anna, Anyone who wants to find out more about Dorset Buttons should click on Anna’s name which will take you straight to Heny’s Buttons website. A treasure trove of Buttony information!

  4. Lovely post, I enjoyed reading it. I am a self-taught Dorset Button maker, and there are a growig band of us. I am so glad it is not a lost craft. SO thank you to those like you whot write about it, and those who teach it, and those who put tutorials in books and on the interent.

    Alix

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