Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Beautiful buttons

Charmed by an old man in Portobello Road Market, taken pity on by an old lady in Hythe and abandoned by my mother in London... who knew button collecting could be so eventful. 

Like many people who like fabric and sewing, I love buttons. I have a button addiction. I have been collecting antique and vintage buttons for quite a while now. In fact, about ten years ago I had to sit myself down in a quiet room and promise myself that I would no longer spend hundreds of pounds on bloody buttons. I had become addicted to buying them. I would go to an antique market, spend a small fortune, and come home with a tiny bag containing six small buttons. Thinking about it now, I've had to have similar talks with myself throughout my life. When I was eleven, I had to stop myself spending all my pocket money on ribbons; in my teens it was records; in my twenties - old cigarette tins; in my early thirties - buttons; in my late thirties - tea cups; and in my forties it will probably be sewing patterns, wooden boxes and fabric. 

I have benefitted from my buying obsessions though - I have a good record collection, a stash of beautiful tins to store bits and bobs in, and best of all a lovely lovely lovely collection of buttons. I used to keep my buttons in carefully organised drawers but, since having a child, they're now stashed in various boxes. Some are lost in the loft and some I have given away, but there are three boxes I keep safe. These boxes store my loveliest buttons. 

Colourful glass buttons are my favourite, and they're also the reason why I started collecting in the first place. There used to be a button stall at the Malthouse in Hythe run by two lovely old ladies. They used to give customers a tray to sort the buttons on, and if you didn't use a tray you'd get a telling off. I was always in trouble. I used to go every Friday in my lunch break and come back with a carrier bag full of lovely buttons. They were mainly plastic ones from the 50s, 60s and 70s, but sometimes when I got home I'd find that the old lady had popped some colourful glass buttons into my bag. She would say "there's a few in there you might like as well" and then charge me 50p. It was exciting sorting through them all. The treasures were the glass ones like these (pictured below). 

The black glass buttons (pictured below) also came from the Malthouse stall. These are Victorian imitation-jet buttons. Queen Victoria stared the trend for black buttons due to the fact she spent most of her life mourning for her husband. The rich wore jet buttons, whilst the poor used these black glass imitations. I love them, and love the old lady on the stall for giving them to me. 

As my button addiction took hold I started going to every antique fair going. Detling's Collectors Fair used to be the best one for buttons. I used to spend five hours searching every stall, and come home elated. These are some of my early finds - teeny tiny buttons, some enamel, some glass and some embroidered. I love tiny buttons. I think the embroidered ones are from garter belts for stockings*. 

The best stall at Detling was run by a really nice lady who sold everything to do with sewing. There were boxes filled with knitting needles, lace, bias binding, cotton, needles and sewing accessories. In the middle of the stall was a large table with boxes and boxes of buttons. She gradually got to recognise me, probably because I spent a fortune. She would tell me about her latest house clearing adventures, and bring out some amazing buttons which I couldn't afford. It was on this stall that I found, amongst other things, the lovely celluloid buttons, which are apparently highly flammable. I also found the plastic children's buttons, which include Muffin the Mule from 50s TV. 

The most expensive buttons I ever bought are the Japanese enamel and satsuma buttons (pictured below), and I'm not sure what the other one is but it looks old and also cost a fair bit. These were the buttons that made me quit collecting because it was getting expensive. I love them now, but I really regretted buying them at the time. I just couldn't help myself. I bought the one with cranes on at an antique fair at The Grand in Folkestone, and have avoided that stall holder at all costs since then. The others are from a tiny corner stall at Portobello Road Market in London. I think I was so charmed by the little old man who sold them that I was blinded by the moment and went mad. I only went to his stall once and the abiding memory I have of the stall is losing my mother in the huge crowds. I had spent so long at the old man's stall that she got bored and wandered off. I found her an hour later feeding her own addiction - jewellery shopping. When we go to Portobello Road Market now we have set rules - no wandering off, no loitering at a stall. 

As I made my way around every stall in the south east, I gradually built up my collection. Here are some of the many buttons I found... 

And here's a picture of my button collection when I didn't have anything else to think about. This picture was taken about eight years ago, and I still can't believe I organised them all like this. Cor blimey, I had so much time on my hands. 

My collection of buttons has meant that I never have to buy new buttons for any sewing projects. Unfortunately, I love them so much that it's quite a sacrifice to me to use them on a piece of clothing. I once sewed vintage glass buttons on a cardigan I bought. When the cardigan wore out, I threw it away and forgot about the buttons! Grrr... I still miss those lovely buttons. In fact all this talk of buttons makes me want to go to an antique fair... noooooo!

*I might be wrong on this point, let me know if I am. 

Have you got a passion for buttons? Do you have any of the buttons I have? Do you know the history of some of the buttons pictured. Let me know won't you, I really would love to hear from you.


  1. Hannah and I love your buttons and the beautiful boxes you are storing them in! I used to love looking through my Nanny's button box when I was little so can understand how you could get addicted to collecting these tiny works of art. Xx

    1. Thank you lovely Wendy and fabulous Hannah. Buttons are the best things ever!!!!!! If you ever need some let me know xxxxxxxx


I would love to hear your comments…