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Saturday, 4 August 2012

Dorset Buttons

I've recently rediscovered how to make Dorset buttons. It seems strange now that I'd forgotten all about them, as I used to sit quite contentedly for hours producing button after button, although in those days, I didn't know they were called Dorset Buttons, and I used a few loops of yarn, or old key rings, rather than a curtain ring as my base. Making them certainly kept my hands busy although I never managed to produce the several dozen a day that a skilled Dorset button maker could produce. And I don't expect I ever will now that I've caught the button making bug again.

The rise and fall of Buttony

During the eighteenth, and up until the mid nineteenth century, the production of Dorset buttons was a thriving cottage industry. As the name suggests, this industry was based in Dorset, but the area soon became affectionately known as Buttony. Buttony flourished due to the entrepreneurship of the Case family who set up an import/export business for the buttons. Peter Case (grandson of Abraham, the company's founder) also developed a special rust-free metal alloy ring to use as the base for the buttons, which originally might have been formed around irregular bits of leather, or animal bone. Sadly, all good things come to an end, and after the launch of John Ashton's button making machine at the 1851 Great exhibition the cottage industry of Dorset buttons was virtually wiped out, leaving many starving and peniless.

Beautiful, any way you look at them

I think Dorset buttons can look just as lovely from the back as they do from the front. A Dorset button can have as many spokes as you like but it is when you turn them over you see their geometry, and whether they are based on pentagons, hexagons, heptagons and so on. They are also deceptively easy to make; I had intended to include a little tutorial for how to do so here, that is, until I found this far, far better one by Potter Wright and Webb.

I'm not sure what to do with all my Dorset buttons, perhaps I'll just keep making them and find a use for them later. I think they would add a lovely finishing touch to a Fair isle cardigan, if made in some of the left over yarn, although my skill at (and patience for) colourwork knitting only extends to cuffs around socks, beanies and the odd scarf. However, I do find the repetitive work involved in Dorset buttons rather addictive, so much so, that I've started to apply the technique to some drawn thread embroidery I've been experimenting with. You might just be able to see some of the little Dorset button-like wheels in the photo below.

I'm enjoying making a few samples and working on smaller projects now that my Star quilt is complete. I wonder how many, if any, of these little doodlings will make it into my next quilt?


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