Thread buttons, cloth buttons, deathhead buttons......in the 18th century, if you weren't able to get horn or bone buttons, you had a choice of what kind of button you could use for your jacket, waistcoat, and breeches.
If you needed buttons for a shirt or shift, you could have used thread buttons, small bone buttons, or in the case of shift cuffs, a set of cuff buttons (two buttons fastened together that connected the cuff ends) or a simple ribbon to tie the cuff ends together. That's not what we are going to cover in today's blog.
We are going to discuss the coveted deathhead button. Aren't they beautiful? I love the look of them. They can be found on men's suits, women's compere front jackets and stomachers, and even bonnets! They aren't really hard, just fiddly, especially if you're using small buttons or extra large ones. And there is a variety of designs that you can do. The four-section buttons are the most common, with the six-section buttons popping up, also. This is just a very small selection of the designs (the brown, red, and white ones are ones I made for a petite l'aire that I made last year.) and they are fun to spot in 18th century paintings.
What you need to make a deathhead button:
a wooden button mold - 3/4" to 1-1/8" is a good size. We have a late 18th century bonnet in our collection that has 3/8" deathhead buttons. They are adorable!
wax - used for the thread end and the button.
silk buttonhole twist - linen thread doesn't bend as nicely and wool wears through faster.
a needle with a larger eye that will accommodate the silk buttonhole twist.
a sturdy, long pin
scissors - I use little ones because they are little and easy to use. Plus the lady bugs are cute.
a marking pen or pencil
To make a deathhead button:
1. Mark your wooden mold in quarters.
I usually do this on my cutting mat because it has nice intersecting lines. I place the wooden button mold with the center hole over one of the intersections and mark the quarters using a water-soluble marker.
2. Next, rub wax all over the wooden mold. This will make the surface a little more grippy so the thread doesn't slip right off of the mold.
3. Thread your needle so you won't have to thread it later when your hands are full of a slippery button and all your fingers have turned into thumbs.
Note: See the video below for this part, but I will try explaining it, also. It's harder to read it than watching the video.
4. Start wrapping the threads around the marks you just made. Hold the button mold
between the thumb and index finger of the left hand (right if you are a lefty) and starting from the back, wrap the silk twist up the line, to the front of the button, down the front in the center of the button, to the back under the bottom of the button, and then repeat this wrap just to the right of the starting center thread. Do up to 3 wraps on the right side and switch the thread to the left side of the center thread. Wrap 3 times on the left side of the center thread.
Note: For a small button, you can usually do 3 threads on either side of the center thread. For larger buttons, you can wrap up to 5 threads on either side of the center thread.
Then, carefully turn the button mold 90 degrees counterclockwise so those threads are now horizontal. Repeat the thread wrapping along that marked line - 1 center thread and 3 threads on either side.
5. Turn the button over and stick the pin in the center of the threads on the back. Make sure it doesn't stick out very much on the front.
6. Now you start wrapping the corner to corner threads. Hold the button with the front facing you and the threads making an X. Bring the thread to the front from the bottom of the button around the corner of the horizontal threads and up to the corner on the vertical threads. Turn the button 90 degrees counter clockwise. Repeat this wrap four times around for one wrap.
7. Every few wraps, stop and adjust the threads if they need it. Do the 12" test - if you can't see it from 12" away, then no one else will notice it either. Continue wrapping the button and you will see that the space in the center gets smaller and smaller until you can't wrap any more threads. Wrap the last wrap twice around the button center.
8. Turn over the button and snip the thread, leaving a generous length for securing the threads on the back of the button. Your needle is already threaded on the silk twist. Secure the back threads by sewing in between the loops on the back. See the video for this! So much easier to see than explain!
9. If you want, make a tiny stitch on the front to secure the two final thread wraps that you made. They usually don't move, but it's a nice detail.
You're done! The generous length of thread can now be used to sew your button onto your garment.
Here's the video. Apologies for any issues - it was very hard to keep focusing on the tiny button!