Friday, May 15, 2009

My button habit

I had to rifle through my sewing supplies drawer this week, looking for some thread to sew up a hem. As I did so, I came across the button box.

The button box has been a permanent fixture with the sewing supplies for almost 20 years now. It is a small wooden, hinged box which I put any spare buttons into. Nowadays, the spare buttons usually come in a plastic bag or a paper envelope, attached to the garment. As I snip off the price tags, I put the buttons aside, and they eventually end up in the box.

Which is where they stay.


I don’t think I’ve ever taken a button out of that box and sewn it onto anything. The only time I ever sew buttons back onto clothing is when I catch them falling off and sew them on, then and there.

Anyway, I had a bit of a look through the spare buttons in the button box and it was like seeing my life flash before me. There were some gold and black buttons from a 1990s suit that I remember I changed over for ‘more tasteful’ entirely gold buttons. There was a set of buttons with logos for the corporate uniform items I was required to wear once a year at the company’s AGM. There was a spare fabric covered button from a winter jacket. A large pink square button was a mystery. I have no idea what that came with. A lovely translucent black button for a cardigan I bought in New York last year came with a spare press stud.

One plastic bag contained about 40 spare tiny iridescent sequins. Yeah, like I’m ever going to sew those on.

There was a multitude of delicate small buttons in a variety of colours, the type that may have been off blouses or shirts perhaps.

So many of the buttons originally belonged to garments that have long since disappeared into the depths of charity shop collection bins.

So then I started wondering, why do I have this habit of saving the buttons when I know I won’t do anything with them?

I think the answer lies way back before our time. For generations, every household has had a button box. In frugal times, before worn-out clothing was torn up to be used as cleaning rags (in a time when clothes were worn until they fell apart), buttons were cut off and put into the button box.

When clothing was homemade, you would search through the button box for appropriate buttons rather than buying new ones. It was also the place you went to replace a vital missing button to extend the life of garment. Recycling at its best.

As a child, I took great delight in scrabbling through my mother’s button box. I would sort them into colours, or shapes. I can remember some crystal-look buttons that I was particularly taken with as they were so jewel-like.

My Aunt’s button box was like a treasure-trove of buttons, all sorted according to colour.

Playing with the contents of a button box is a fundamental milestone in a child’s development.

In the early days of my daughter’s schooling she was required to bring to school a container with “50 small objects” in it for counting games. Remembering my own childhood experiences, I turned to my button box and extracted 50 of the most interesting.

I think I continue to save buttons to the button box, knowing that I will probably never use them, because it is part of my cultural heritage. It’s one of those habits, like saving elastic bands, that I’m never going to break.
I'm sure many other people however, save buttons and actually use them.

Do you have a button box? Do you ever use the buttons?

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Janet said...

I sure do have a button box! It even used to be very neat with all the buttons of the same sort organised into plastic bags - until a certain someone discovered how much fun they were to play with. I don't mind though, watching Grace play with "mummy's buttons" makes me feel all warm and connected with my childhood and my mother's childhood even.

I keep all the spare buttons too and sometimes use one to mend something (eg a button on a pair of pants) where only one button is needed.

Frogdancer said...

I have a button box full of old buttons that an old lady collected.... I inherited her sewing box when her house was cleaned out. Never looked at them till I needed big buttons for a bag I was making.
Voila! Antique buttons!

trashalou said...

of course I have a button box! Surely it is essential to daily life? Not using one obviously, simply possessing it.

I began one in the same way yours has grown as soon as I had a settled home (my early 20s). This was pre-kids and pre-(any real) crafting.

It has occurred to me in the past that my collection only exists b/c my mother had, not that I actually use the buttons. A cultural imperative perhaps???

Boy on a bike said...

Ooooooo, you so need this book:

The perfect way to consume lots of buttons and odd socks too!

The Old Dairy said...

I have a button tin and then lots of glass jars with them all in there seperate colours.......I have a button thing going..but I do use them though....Every-one should do a button post showing the ways they do/don't use there buttons.....that would be fun.

persiflage said...

Yes, I too have many buttons. So did many friends, and sometimes we'd go to special button shops and choose likely buttons, so that yukky buttons on a nice garment could immediately be replaced. I found lovely hand-made purple glass buttons for my wedding outfit (they chipped, of course) and have ONE lovely silver button waiting to be used.
Buttons in the past were often very beautiful and interesting, and now it is not at all easy to find their equal.

Melinda said...

I grew up in a house with a button jar and a rag "bag", which was actually a box, but was always called the rag bag.

Sorting, admiring, running your fingers through those buttons was a rite of passage. The different colors and textures, sizes and shapes still fascinate me to the point I cannot throw away my own rag tag collection of extra buttons. Though, like you, I will never use them for anything other than games and puppets.

Nanu said...

I have a button tin. They're threaded together in their groups but all in together I'm afraid so there's some untangling needed when looking. When clothes are put out (they're well past the charity shop by then) I always cut the buttons off and anything else that could come in useful – force of habit or is it 'cause our and previous generations were the original recyclers? When I was a child, my grandmother's button tin was used instead of money or tokens when playing cards os other games.

Marita said...

For Christmas last year my Mum gave my almost 4yo daughter a big tin of buttons. Best gift ever. Pictures here-

I put spare buttons into my sewing basket. Don't have that many though as I mostly buy t-shirts and jeans.

Megan said...

Oh yes, I have a button box. It contains the spare buttons from clothing I've bought and, lately, unnecessary button purchases from All Buttons Great and Small here in Sydney.

Jacqui said...

My grandma had a jar and I spent countless hours as a kid turning the contents out onto the bedroom floor, sorting them into colours and shapes and imagining where they had come from - especially the older ones. I've had a button jar for as long as I can remember - it's more like a box now. I do use them from time to time and now that I'm learning to sew I buy second hand ones and think of what they might get attached to one day, instead of me just getting attached to them. I love buttons!

Lesley said...

My grandmother gave my mum and me her button tin in the 1960s — imagine what was in it! It was an enormous rectangular Oxo tin, and I can still remember many of the military buttons and diamante ones that it held.
Sadly, it was one of the things that got left in England (ie, chucked out) when we migrated to Australia in 1970. I'd give my eye teeth to be able to look through it today!

Ronnie said...

I loved and still do my mother's (approprite useof the ' or not.)button box. It has had many uses over the years including helping my kids with adding up and subtracting homework. I don't have a box but a jar that I bought from the Op shop.

h&b said...

My buttons are all in a large glass jar ( debagged ) and sinmply look pretty, or come in handy for child-craft.


Rositta said...

Absolutely, I've always had one albeit not as neat as yours. I use two glass jars, one for white and one for colored. I often find buttons there for projects I'm doing although not today. I need three big beautiful buttons for a cardi I just knit but can't find anything. The one's you have though, would be perfect...ciao

rhubarbwhine said...

I love that second button box, it looks so decorative and is a statement all by itself (buttons included).

Stacey said...

I have two button boxes. One is similar to yours, with little envelopes of buttons still attached to the tags so I know what buttons go with what. I have long since disposed of many of the clothes, but kept the buttons.
My second one is my special, collected buttons that I use on my knits or just like to have.
I do like a good button.

Brigit said...

I managed a second hand for quite a few years and came across many button boxes or jars. Wonderful to go through. And you are right all children need to go through a button box in their lives. I also have marbles. A great big bowl of them. Some are very old, and kids love them.

le @ thirdontheright said...

my nana had a huge button box.Playing with the contents was always part of my wonderful trips to her home.

My boys play with buttons, thred buttons and glue them. The eldest, at six, has a button collection - all my spares from the jumpers, pants, jackets etc - juts like yours ...

A great thing indeed ... le

Brenda said...

I have quite a few also. Whenever I discard a clothing item that is too ragged to keep I always remove the buttons. Have you priced buttons lately? They are NOT cheap. I snatched a small little jar of my grandmothers when she passed away. I don't know who else took some. I am sure she had more. I only got one of her quilts, and I treasure it. I enjoyed this story and seeing all of your buttons.

Loz and Dinny said...

I have more than a button box - I have a certified, bonafide button addiction. I have the box with all the plastic envelopes of buttons from garments - but I buy vintage buttons like a mad woman, new buttons just aren't a patch on all the beautiful bone and bakelite beauties ... I know that it stems from the sheer delight I got from sorting through my Mum's button box - I agree ... every child must discover the pleasures of a button box - it's central to development, right?

Watershedd said...

Oh, the button box. My mother's was a cake tin, filled most amazing array of extraordinary buttons and clasps, dating back to the '40s. Recently, she told me she was going to discard them and I got upset. I made sure she was going to extract the really fabulous ones. Many are irreplaceable.

Mum also had an enormous box of fabric, given to me for playing with by a designer friend. Mum claimed some of more sizable, expensive pieces, but I made many items with off-cuts of fabric and remnants of lace. Buttons and fabric bits. Such fun for a child.