Dorset Buttons – Little Bits of History

(Post updated 6/6/13)

Burning Bright, by Tracy Chevalier, is the book I’m currently listening to as I knit. Chevalier’s historical novels involve ordinary characters who’s lives entwine with that of a famous creative individual, in this case, poet and artist William Blake. At the center of this book is the Kellaway family, and one of the points of interest that snagged by curiosity is the “Dorset buttons” that Mrs. Kellaway and her daughter Maisie make with rings and colorful thread. A search on the WWW has turned up lots of information about this once flourishing cottage industry.


Dorset householders had made buttons for generations, using tiny disks of sheep horn as the button foundation. During the early 1700’s, the introduction of metal rings, which were cheaper and quicker to use, transformed the custom into a small industry. In 1731, Blandford draper Robert Fisher opened a button “depot” at his shop, providing the cottagers with a central place to market their buttons, and other businessmen who needed buttons for their products could buy them in bulk. The buttons were sold at between eight-pence and three shillings a dozen, while the women workers averaged about two shillings a day for making six or seven dozen buttons. This seems grossly unfair today, but the only income generating alternative for these women was the more rigorous work of farm hands.

There were other advantages to becoming a button maker. The women could work at home while tending to the needs of their families, and weather was not a factor as they could work indoors. Wear and tear on clothing and shoes, and less physical fatigue, were other factors.

The cottage industry thrived until the introduction of a commercial button making machine in 1851.

Fortunately, there are still a few Dorset button makers among us, and some of them have posted good tutorials. Here’s one of them with some good photos.

20 thoughts on “Dorset Buttons – Little Bits of History

  1. Kathy says:

    I too am reading ‘Burning Bright’, and I was interested in seeing the buttons Anne
    Kellaway was making. I did not realize they used buttons made of rings and thread. Your little article here was very informative. Thank you!


  2. Maureen James says:

    I’m due to teach our local handicrafters Dorset buttons in 2 weeks tiem and am deligted with the ideas I have got foorm your page.



  3. katknit says:

    Maureen, that’s great! Wish I could take that class. If you click on the third photo in the Flickr box on the sidebar, there’s a photo of some Dorset-style buttons i found on Ebay.
    Thanks for your comment.


  4. A Japanese reader of "Burning Bright" says:

    I, a Japanese middle-aged woman, too read “Burning Bright” and got interested in Dorset buttons. Looking at the photos of the buttons, I remember my mother knit my cardigan with buttons similar to a sort of Dorset button. I was wondering if her knitting class teacher taught her such buttons.


  5. Karen says:

    The book “Burning Bright” has a lot to answer for it seems. Now I’ve seen photos on this site I’m itching to have a go at making Dorset buttons


  6. Pam Beeching says:

    I live on the Dorset border and became fascinated by these buttons after watching a lady at our spining group sewing these to put onto her newly knitted aran jacket in her own homespun yarn. Sadly, the lady who taught her had died and she was left with just the one pattern. After a web-hunt, I discovered that Marion Howitt of Swanage has written an inexpensive and very instructive booklet on Dorset Buttons with extremely clear and inspirational illustrations for many types of button. I don’t want to quote her website address without asking first – it doesn’t seem very ‘mannerly’ but please let me know if you want it.


    • Hello Pam, I would love to know how to contact Marion Howitt of Swanage to inquire about her booklet creating Dorset Buttons. I have been interested in making these buttons for some time and would love to have an instructional booklet. Thanks You can email me at Thanks Judy Grant


      • katknit says:

        Judy, I’m afraid I don’t have that info. There are some sites on the net, however, with instructions for some of the easier patterns.


    • Barbara says:


      I am very interested in learning more about the booklet on Dorset Buttons. If you are able to share information on how to acquire the booklet written by Marion Howitt of Swanage I would be grateful.
      Thank you.


  7. woolcat says:

    Wow, I have JUST last night finished listening to that book! So this is great timing – I was curious about the buttons too. Thank you!


  8. Hello Pam:
    I have been researching for an article about Dorset Buttons for a column I am writing with Indie Smiles. I would like your permission to use some of the pictures from your article to add to mine. I can’t believe how much history and information I have gained over the internet and your pictures are the best by far.

    Thank you


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