BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 18th December 1995 (p.5), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: THE BUTTON MAKERS

Buttons have survived the invention of modern day fastenings, even if they no longer serve any useful purpose on some items of clothing. A suit might have two or three buttons on the cuffs, whilst a tail-coat has two buttons right in the middle of its back. These details are anachronisms from the days when a man regularly travelled on horseback. He would be dressed in a long coat with flying tails, which flapped against the horse’s sides and got hairy and greasy. So he had two buttons put on the back of his coat and buttoned up his coat-tails behind him. He also wanted his arms as free as possible, especially when out hunting, so the ends of his sleeves were slit and buttons sewn along the cut. The sleeves could then be doubled back and buttoned down.

Our use of buttons as fastenings goes back no further than the 15th century in England. Buttons were originally merely decorative but gradually came to replace lacing, especially on clothing such as ladies’ bodices. Ivory was the earliest material to be used, whilst brass buttons were being produced by the latter part of the 17th century. Rapid growth in trade came with the Industrial Revolution. Around 1745, Matthew Boulton introduced a number of improvements in button manufacture and in 1767 his son established a works in Soho. He obviously numbered the gentry among his customers, for his top quality steel buttons with facets sold for almost a guinea each. Early buttons did not have holes, but a shank, or loop, enabling them to be sewn to the garment. A method came into use in the early 19th century whereby a filling of cloth or pasteboard was sandwiched between two metal discs which were then clamped together.

Only brief details survive of the manufacture of lead buttons on the top floor of the Manor House at Wetton, accessible to workers from an outside staircase.

Buttons were made in and around Flash on the Staffordshire moorlands well into the 1800s. Small round moulds of wood were dyed in mineral springs, then encased in silk, brocade etc. to suit their purpose. Covering buttons provided work for many women in their own homes, using skills passed down from mother to daughter. They put in long hours to earn as little as 8d (3.3p) per gross. This intricate work produced web-like designs from single gossamer strands of silk, so fine as to be almost invisible. Button merchants kept the women supplied with thread from the silk mills of Leek and Macclesfield, collecting the finished work for despatch to London, Bristol, Scotland and overseas. Some families seem to have worked independently, their menfolk hawking home-made buttons around the countryside.

Brass buttons were made in Hathersage on the top floors of a row of 3-storey cottages on Besom Lane and, from around 1720, at a mill on Dale Brook. The metal came from Sheffield, to where finished buttons were returned. Manufacture continued at Dale Mill until about 1824 when needle production took over.

Brass buttons could be mass-produced using stamping machinery, whereas other materials needed individual attention. Pierced buttons allowed a greater choice as they did not need a shank. Even porcelain was introduced in the mid-1800s, whilst a widely adopted new French process produced a suitable material from cattle hooves, softened by boiling. Horn had been in use since the previous century. Mother-of-pearl buttons enjoyed lasting popularity, made from pearl oyster shell cut into discs, polished and pierced. Oyster shell was imported from the colonies, and London became the centre of the world’s trade in mother-of-pearl buttons - and the kingdom of the famous Pearly Kings and Queens.

Nowadays we have press studs, zips and toggles, but buttons are still holding firm ... and whoever heard anyone say: ‘Oh, he’s got all his Velcro sewn on’?

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 18th December 1995;
Updated 17th January 2005.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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