(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.