Sunday, 30 October 2011

Elephant No. 28: Buttonwork

A few weeks ago, I visited something called "Buttonmania" at a textile festival in a nearby town. It was something of an eyeopener for me. I didn't realize how serious people can be about buttons, nor how specialized button-collecting can be.

I've had my own stash of buttons for years—some inherited from my mother and grandmother—but mine are just sorted into tackle boxes by colour. I've always liked the idea of having a big jar full of pretty buttons, but that's never seemed very practical to me. However, in a bow to the idea of a jumbled grouping of buttons, today I thought I'd try to draw an elephant by sewing buttons to fabric.

Button-like objects have been discovered as far back as the middle of the Indus Valley Civilization (ca. 2800–2600 B.C.), as well as in Bronze Age China (ca. 2000–1500 B.C.), and in Ancient Rome. These early objects were used more for decoration, or even as seals, rather than being put to work as clothing fasteners.

By about 2000 B.C., buttons made of seashell were being produced by the Indus Valley Civilization. These had holes in them, and were sometimes carved into geometric shapes, but were still used more for ornamentation than anything else.

It wasn't until the thirteenth century A.D. in Germany that buttons with buttonholes appeared. With the increased popularity of form-fitting clothing in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe, the use of buttons as fasteners finally became firmly established.

Interestingly, because buttons can be made from virtually anything, the composition of buttons reflects humankind's development of materials and technologies. Early ornamental buttons, for example, were made from bone, shell, stone and pottery. As metalworking developed, buttons were produced in bronze, silver, gold and various alloys. With growing understanding of the artistic uses of glass, buttons with delicate enamelling began to appear. And, with the rise of synthetics, plastics, and mass-production, buttons could now be made by the millions.

Today, the most common materials for buttons are plastics, wood, shell, and metals such as brass, steel and aluminum. Art buttons are still being made by today's artisans, however—usually either as art objects, or for high-end clothing.

Japanese Satsuma button, ca. 1930–1950

There are several types of button, categorized by the way they are attached.

Shank buttons have a pierced protrusion on the back. Button shanks can be made from the same material as the front of the button, or can be added later. When the shank is moulded directly into the back of the button, it is known as a "self-shank" button.

Flat or sew-through buttons are buttons with holes in the middle, and are the most common type of button. When used with heavy fabrics, a thread shank is often added.

Stud buttons are buttons that come in two pieces, pressed together to attach to heavier fabrics. These are the type of buttons most commonly found on jeans.

Button art seems to be a popular form of personal expression. Nowhere is this more evident than among London's pearly kings and queens. The wearing of black clothes heavily decorated with pearl buttons originated in the city during the nineteenth century. The style is usually credited to an orphan street sweeper named Henry Croft. At the time, London's street traders wore pearl buttons on the seams of their trousers, but Croft took it one step further, covering his entire outfit with pearl-button designs in order to draw attention to himself. By 1911 the first "pearly" society had been organized, and today there are three pearly organizations in London, all involved in charitable activities.

Pearly king and queen

Buttons are also used to create images ranging simple outlines of butterflies and flowers, to three-dimensional forms created by textile artists. The simple outline thing is definitely more my speed, so for today's elephant, I decided to create a two-dimensional elephant picture on fabric.

Although it was hard for me to disorganize my buttons (knowing I wouldn't be able to resist reorganizing them later), I emptied out a random selection of buttons and decided I would work from these.

I used black rayon velveteen as the backing, and put it on an embroidery hoop to keep it from flopping around while I tried to sew buttons to it. I thought I would be able to add buttons without drawing anything first, but I realized after the first three buttons that not drawing anything was a bad idea. In the first photo below, you can just make out the faint chalk lines of my sketch.

Once I had a general idea of the shape, I simply started adding buttons. The whole process took much longer than I thought it would. It's surprisingly difficult to work with buttons of all shapes and sizes when you're trying to "draw" with them. If I were to try this again, I think I'd start with a greater variety of sizes (particularly a good selection of smaller buttons), and perhaps stick to a specific colour palette, or even one colour.

I don't dislike the final result as much I thought I would while working on it, but I won't be doing this again anytime soon. On the other hand, I might make this into a small pillow at some point, which could perhaps convince me to like it a little more.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Old Bet was the first or second elephant brought to the United States, likely arriving in 1796. The earliest references to Old Bet occur in 1804, when she is mentioned as part of a menagerie in Boston. In 1808, she was purchased for $1,000 by Hachaliah Bailey—whose family would later help found the Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Bailey had originally planned to use Old Bet as a draft animal on his farm. She attracted so much attention, however, that he decided to found a travelling menagerie instead. Starting out with Old Bet, a horse-drawn wagonload of hay, and an assistant, Bailey charged families an admission fee of either a two-gallon (7.5-litre) jug of rum, or a coin. He later sold shares in the endeavour, giving two other men the right to display Old Bet.

Tragically, Old Bet was killed while on tour near Alfred, Maine on July 24, 1816. Believing it was wrong for people to spend their money to view an animal, a farmer shot her. He was later convicted of the crime.

In 1821, Barnum's American Museum in New York announced that they had bought Old Bet's bones and hide, and mounted her remains for display at the Museum. Old Bet was also memorialized in 1825 with a statue at the Elephant Hotel, built in her memory in Somers, New York. The hotel still exists today, and in 1922 the circus elephant John L. Sullivan walked 53 miles to lay a wreath at the hotel in memory of Old Bet. Local children were given a holiday, and sang The Star-Spangled Banner at the ceremony.

The Elephant Hotel and statue of Old Bet—a National Historical Landmark
in Somers, New York
Photograph: Daniel Case

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home

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