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Wooden Buttons (13th - 15th Century)

Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 1:06 pm
by Aginoth
Me and a mate were discussing costuming, specifically late 14th century.

We came aroud to buttons and thought it absolutely feasible and logical that the lower classes would have seen the use of wooden buttons / toggles as an eminently simple solution to fastening clothes...

problem is I can't seem to find any evidence to support the use ofwood as a button material.

So in the intererests of a good authenticity can anyone else point me to any evidence of the use of wood as button material?

Especially interested in Late 14th Century....

Help!!!

Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 1:13 pm
by sally
One potential difficulty is that wood only survives well in some archaeological situations, its entirely likely that all sorts of things were made of wood that only survive in bone or metal today.

Can't think of a specific wooden button citation except one in Textiles and Clothing (the MoL book) which has a cloth button where the wear on the edge suggests it may have had a wooden disc inside it (p172) and they say 'like later buttons' implying a general lack of wooden buttons at that date

Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 1:58 pm
by Alice the Huswyf
It is actually cheaper and possibly quicker to make fabric buttons from remnants - perhaps this is another reason why you are finding traces difficult?

Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 2:14 pm
by Tuppence
the only regular evidence of wooden buttons I'm, aware of is as a base for the passementerie buttons of the 16th / 17th century.

as alice says, it's far, far quicker and cheaper to make cloth ones from scraps.

Re: Wooden Buttons (13th - 15th Century)

Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 2:35 pm
by Karen Larsdatter
Much agreed with Tuppence; it looks like the cheapest buttons seen in archaeological finds (as well as what can be discerned from iconography) are the fabric buttons -- see http://www.sca.org.au/st_florians/unive ... uttons.htm or http://www.eleanorlebrun.com/closure.htm for some construction methods. Much cheaper & easier to just use scraps from what you've already got, than to go out and get (or make) wooden buttons.

There are a few examples of medieval wooden buttons, though -- see http://www.employees.org/~cathy/buttons.html for a photo.

For the 16th/17th century wood-based buttons that Tuppence mentions, see http://www.vertetsable.com/demos_buttons.htm

(I think at least some of the buttons on the Charles de Blois pouropint and Charles IV's arming coat are wood with a fabric covering -- but these are by no means examples of lower-class garments.)

Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 5:54 pm
by Aginoth
well one single example from C15 is better than nothing...but not enough for me to claim authenticity...unfortunately

I have a ready surce of cloth buttons, but i was hoping to find something that showed a little more status, as I portray a merchant cobbler, and as such would have a little more money to hand than the average peasant...

but for now it looks like cloth it is :)

Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 6:14 pm
by Karen Larsdatter
I'm not sure that buttons, in and of themselves, connoted status (except when dealing with the really high-end stuff -- gold buttons with inset gems, for example); the two examples of 14th century garments listed above both belonged to noblemen, and both have fabric buttons (at least on the top half of the garment; the buttons below the waist are fabric-covered wood).

It's like how modern garments will typically use a button that is made to coordinate with the fabric -- except in this case, instead of making (or painting) a button to match, you're making the button out of matching fabric.

I think, rather than focusing on the manufacture of the button, you may be more realistic in looking at the whole garment -- its fit, its length, etc. -- and whether that would be appropriate for someone who has a little more money than a peasant. The tailor in the Liber de Moribus hominum (BNF Fr. 1166, fol. 34) might be a good example of a late 14th century merchant tradesman, for example; he's clearly more fashionable and well-to-do than a peasant of the same era (though by no means a nobleman or wealthy man), but it's not just his buttons which tell us so.

Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 7:24 pm
by Alice the Huswyf
Good point: you would spend more on the amount of fabric to get the swanky modes fit and economise on the trimmings

Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 8:32 pm
by Aginoth
Karen Larsdatter wrote:I'm not sure that buttons, in and of themselves, connoted status (except when dealing with the really high-end stuff -- gold buttons with inset gems, for example); the two examples of 14th century garments listed above both belonged to noblemen, and both have fabric buttons (at least on the top half of the garment; the buttons below the waist are fabric-covered wood).

It's like how modern garments will typically use a button that is made to coordinate with the fabric -- except in this case, instead of making (or painting) a button to match, you're making the button out of matching fabric.

I think, rather than focusing on the manufacture of the button, you may be more realistic in looking at the whole garment -- its fit, its length, etc. -- and whether that would be appropriate for someone who has a little more money than a peasant. The tailor in the Liber de Moribus hominum (BNF Fr. 1166, fol. 34) might be a good example of a late 14th century merchant tradesman, for example; he's clearly more fashionable and well-to-do than a peasant of the same era (though by no means a nobleman or wealthy man), but it's not just his buttons which tell us so.
Already going down those lines this season, 3 colours in my tunic (incl. red) better shoes, pilgrimage badges, better tools, lanterns, etc etc.

The buttons were just an extra accesory that came up in conversation :)

Posted: Mon May 14, 2007 9:22 pm
by Karen Larsdatter
Aginoth wrote:Already going down those lines this season, 3 colours in my tunic (incl. red) better shoes, pilgrimage badges, better tools, lanterns, etc etc.
That description reminds me of the Merchant in the Canterbury Tales --
  • A MARCHANT was ther with a forked berd,
    In mottelee, and hye on horse he sat;
    Upon his heed a Flaundryssh bever hat,
    His bootes clasped faire and fetisly.
The Ellesmere illustrator (c. 1410) imagines that he'd have looked like this. He's a bit fancier in dress than most of the tradesmen in the Canterbury Tales -- compare him to the Miller (in "a whit cote and a blew hood"), the Shipman ("in a gowne of faldyng to the knee"), or the Cook, for example.

Although, if your cobbler portrayal is sufficiently well-to-do that he can afford pilgrimage badges (not to mention having gone on the associated pilgrimages), couldn't he also afford pewter buttons? There are several good reproductions of 14th century pewter buttons out there -- check out Billy & Charlie and Gaukler Medieval Wares, although I think White Rose and/or Lionheart may have some, too.

Posted: Tue May 15, 2007 8:24 am
by Alice the Huswyf
You might also want to make a distinction: a cordwainer MADE shoes and had a guild. A cobbler MENDED them. I would suggest that you label yourself a cordwainer.

You do not need a selection of badges either: to have made one pilgrimage suggested either great penenace or spare money and time - in in the case of a merchant possibly even a security man or escort.

Look for the closest obvious site to you, then find the badge.

Posted: Tue May 15, 2007 9:14 am
by Aginoth
I wasn't clear...my bad...actaully I have one pilgrim badge...to canterbury, some times i wear a St.Michaels Mount badge, but never together.

I wear 2 other badges, one lancastrian S...a Gift from my lord from when I was raised from Villein to Yeoman, and an Archers badge, as I am also an archer for my lord.

I am most definitely a cobbler, yes I was aware of the difference between a cobbler and a cordwainer, although I do occasionally make shoes and other leather items, as well as making soap sometimes (with some great advice last year from Sally), I fletch arrows and set piles on them. I am part of a group of craftsmen following a military camp...where better to take the silver of the soldiers :) I repair armour, make sheaths and repair weapons. I can also do canvas repairs on tents and awnings and make clothes and bags, as well as repair them

I really am a jack of all trades and could not really be classed as anything other than a cobbler...every camp should have one :)

Posted: Tue May 15, 2007 2:23 pm
by Tuppence
another thing to note on the buttons that are fabric over a wooden base - those are usually flat, and in a position (eg at waist level) that would suggest they may be flat to allow things like belts to be worn over them without snagging the buttons.

Posted: Wed Feb 13, 2008 11:14 am
by Wiblick
I'm reviving this post to ask about flat buttons in the 'medieval' period. Shall we say 14th & 15th Centuries.

Found this site listing plenty of flat buttons mostly copper alloy
http://sccwww1.southampton.gov.uk/archa ... &start=100

anyone have any images of flat pewter buttons from the above periods?

I love ball and cloth buttons but was wondering about flat buttons.

Aoife

Posted: Fri Feb 15, 2008 2:27 am
by frances
That is a most interesting set of buttons Wiblik. Particularly this one :

http://sccwww1.southampton.gov.uk/archa ... 00.77.2887

as I have quite a few of these in bone and in a very light wood. I wondered why some people fell upon them as though they had been looking all their days! I assume that this is the base upon which fabric is then stretched. Can anyone describe how to fix the fabric on?

Posted: Fri Feb 15, 2008 9:16 am
by Dave B
Wiblick wrote:anyone have any images of flat pewter buttons from the above periods?
There are some in the MOL dress accessories book but I don't have time to sort out the scanner. They mostly are like the round ball type but just flattened front to back with and integral shank (whereas the latten ones have a seperate wire shank cast in)

in london late 14th, they were about 1/2 the frequency of latten. Of course I don't suppose you can compare the frequency of cloth buttons or wodd because these metals last so much better.

Posted: Fri Feb 15, 2008 10:12 am
by Wiblick
MOL dress accessories book
which I have... so I'll just go look in there, spend money on a book and I never think to consult it first! :oops:

Thanks

Aoife

Posted: Fri Feb 15, 2008 12:41 pm
by GinaB
Francis, to cover a flat button/mold, you use the same method as you would to create ball buttons - the difficulty is only in getting the fabric the correct size to cover the mold nicely. You can secure the back in one of two ways - either gathering up the excess fabric to create a shank (as with the ball buttons) or stretching the fabric (leaving a small gap) which is then covered by thread, pulling the whole tightly around. Later buttons covered in this way have beautiful backs, completely covered with silk thread so that none of the fabric can be seen.

As you have the MoL book Wiblick, I won't mention it! But, as you look up info about buttons generally through the medieval,Tudor & Elizabethan periods, it is worth bearing in mind that the word 'button' does not always mean what we think - ie something to fasten a garment. The word is often used for the ball shaped part of a tassel and probably for any ball-type decorations too.

For instance, there is a c14-15 relic purse which has flat, velvet covered discs as decoration - these are decorated with silk and metal threads (including fringe all around), and, if just the disc part were to have been found, we would probably describe it as a button.

Posted: Fri Feb 15, 2008 2:04 pm
by Colin Middleton
If you're looking for posh buttons, I'd go for metal (pewter for lower sorts upto gold for the top 'brass') or fabric buttons made of really expensive fabric (cloth of gold buttons anyone).

Be careful of what is correct for your status though. Some-one once sugested that I might want siver buckles for my boots (to play a knight), but a bit of research turned up silver buckles being worn by the KING! I think that puts them a bit out of my league.

Posted: Fri Feb 15, 2008 11:45 pm
by frances
So Gina, can I ask you, why is there a hole in the centre of the bone shape?

Posted: Mon Feb 18, 2008 10:41 am
by GinaB
The hole can be used to attach the button as well - Usually with the addition of a nice french knot on top. It is also used to hold the mold when working thread-covered buttons - its very important when doing the later leek style buttons for instance.

And of course, the button you highlighted above may have never been covered, and so would need a hole to attach it.

My inkling is that many button molds were made plain and with a hole. They could then be covered or not as needed - as opposed to the maker bothering making two different types. The hole is not detrimental in styles which don't require its use. (If I knew more about how button molds were made I might have a more grounded theory here of course...)

Posted: Mon Feb 18, 2008 11:41 am
by gregory23b
"pewter for lower sorts upto gold for the top 'brass')"

pewter was a premium metal was it not? worth more than latten or bronze?

Posted: Mon Feb 18, 2008 1:36 pm
by Colin Middleton
gregory23b wrote:"pewter for lower sorts upto gold for the top 'brass')"

pewter was a premium metal was it not? worth more than latten or bronze?
Was it? :shock:

I though that it was 'poor mans silver', in the same way that latten was 'poor mans gold', but I'm quite willing to be corrected.

Do bear in mind, however, my poor use of the 'lower sorts'. I am talking about lower sorts of people who wear posh buttons, rather than the scum in the gutter 'lower sorts', who obviously use fabric buttons as they're cheap.

Posted: Mon Feb 18, 2008 5:20 pm
by Dave B
OK, so here's my question.

Some of the wools used for outerwear were pretty thick, and realtively loose. they wouldn't have made good buttons. on the other hand an outdoors coat sounds an odd place to show of ones sartorial wealth.

What would have been used? other materials or non-matching cloth buttons.

Posted: Wed Feb 20, 2008 1:31 pm
by Colin Middleton
What do you mean by 'relatively loose' the fit of the garmet or the weave of the fabric?

Posted: Wed Feb 20, 2008 3:40 pm
by Dave B
The fabric.

I've a coat made from some of Stuart Peachy's authentiwool, and it is fabulous but you can only make buttons about the size of golf balls.

Posted: Thu Feb 21, 2008 10:16 am
by GinaB
[sorry for the delay in replying!]
What would have been used? other materials or non-matching cloth buttons.
For the medieval period, it does seem that most art which shows buttons, shows the buttons in the same colour as the garment, but the fact that there are finds of metal buttons and some other materials, makes deciding what type of button to have quite difficult. There's documentary evidence that silkwomen for instance created silk and gold thread buttons, but again, with the exception of one or two entries, these could mean tops of tassels, so it all get rather confusing for this period.

As to Wiblick's question to revive the post, images depicting flat buttons are also harder to interpret I think - I have seen a few woodcuts for instance which have basically larger circles for buttons - does this mean the button is flat, or simply big? It would be better to go with finds for any basis of use here probably.
Some of the wools used for outerwear were pretty thick, and realtively loose. they wouldn't have made good buttons
To use a loose or fine fabric to make buttons, you can try tacking it to a piece of tighter cloth, such as linen, and creating your button in this way. But, I could not say if this method was used or not. There are other options too - such as using the thread from the fabric, but again, I have no evidence, and just because it can be done now doesn't mean that was a method then. Perhaps in this instance Dave, you've got the perfect reason to go for metal buttons?