Sewing relations: communing through the medium of buttons

Some of my gran’s button boxes

For the sewing type, sorting through a button tin brings an absurd amount of joy. To be fair, we’d take anyone’s button tin – but if the tin belongs to someone we love and admire, then all the better.

Most of us have fond memories of pawing through our mother or grandmother’s button collection. The container du jour being an extremely old biscuit or sweet tin, the rustier the better.

My mum’s buttons were in such a tin: a large round affair that had once, in its biscuit heyday, been red, but had since been scratched to metallic base. I spent many happy hours perusing and coveting her collection – gloriously unsorted as it was. You would be lucky to find so much as a pair, but this never detracted from its wonder.

Recently I asked after the tin; my mum doesn’t know where it went. It’s not like any of us were stuck for buttons, so its disappearance was never much mourned – until now, that is, when a recent flurry of button chat created a sudden and desperate urge to feel it in my hands and look upon its magical contents once again.

Button boon

Last week, perhaps prompted by my tin enquiry, my mum mentioned she had a few surplus sewing notions for me – if I was interested. Well, ask a silly question. I told her I would happily take them, whatever they might be, and thought no more about it.

A few days later my husband returned home from a routine family delivery round with a bag. A sack, to be precise. It was stuffed with ribbons, braids and boxes upon boxes of buttons.

Saturday afternoon with the Love to Sew podcast, strong tea, and a good old sort out (my spot is the bald patch, top left)

I may have alluded in the past to my handsome button collection. But now, I think it’s fair to say, I will not have to buy another button for the rest of my life. Financial independence in button-form – now I can retire!

OK, maybe not. Although, if you have heard of FIRE, then might I suggest we mere mortals start a sewing equivalent? I’ve coined it, rather snazzily, BIRN: Button Independence = Retire? Never!

I’ve seen enough ‘haul’ videos on YouTube to know that flaunting my fortunately-acquired wares could be misinterpreted as gloating. So, as chuffed as I am with my bits and bobs, I wanted to talk about something a little more wonderful than simply LOOK AT ALL THIS WOT I GOT! Although, do look: it’s a rather lovely miscellany.

Vintage button boxes from an old fashioned haberdashery shop are stacked up on top of each other on a wooden shelf. Each box has a button sellotaped to the front to identify contents. Below are sewing patterns.
A pretty birdseye view of a whole lot of tangle

Memories and meaning

Buttons and braids, in simple terms, fulfil a need in garment sewing. Making a shirt will require some buttons, and the desire to get jazzy will always be satisfied by some form of superfluous embellishment.

Yet these sewing notions, as lovely as they are, mean a lot more to me than their eventual point of use: they are the physical embodiment of memories stretching back to childhood. They form a bridge between ourselves and the generations that went before.

These new additions belonged to my grandmother: a woman I loved dearly – who I still love dearly – even though she is no longer with us.

Some of my gran’s beauties, neatly coiled

Gran, as we affectionately called her, ran a haberdashery and wool shop in Westhoughton. She was a prolific knitter and also a prolific smoker. I remember visiting her in the shop in the 1980s. She must have been in her sixties by then. You would find her behind the counter, knitted blanket slung over the knees, in alarming proximity to an electric bar heater.

She’d have a flask of builder’s tea at her side, a crumpled copy of Woman’s Own on her lap, some knitting on the go and – always – a cigarette hanging from the side of her mouth. Health and safety be damned!

Gran lived under the Manchester airport flightpath. After the shop closed she kept her remaining stock in the attic of the council house she’d lived in since the late-1940s. She worked the Bolton markets for years on her super-stash, a beaten-up white Ford Transit her sole mode of transport.

My aunty used to joke that if a plane fell from the sky, it would bounce off Gran’s roof. Of course the thick layer of wool doubled as an effective form of insulation and, at the same time, a cause for the rest of the family to worry; her penchant for a smoke while knitting was risky, but she never came a cropper, thankfully.

A brew, some telly, and a touch of unravelling. Just look how fast the man’s working!

Ever the contrarian, in her 80s – around the time she was embarking on her first university degree – she decided she might stop smoking after all.

These memories, and many more besides (some of them a little too colourful to share here) came flooding back to me as I began sorting through the odds and ends on Saturday afternoon.

Shaking dust out of boxes and cleaning up the contents, I found matchsticks, cigarette ash, petrified rubber bands and endless rusted pins. An earring tangled with thread, yellowed sellotape, tallies scrawled on the back of old button cards.

I enlisted my husband to help me untangle the knot of braids and ribbons. Saturday night was a travel doc marathon (lockdown, eh? I’ve never lived so vicariously) accompanied by chain tea drinking (Gran would be proud), an excess of Aldi Moser Roth and a whole lot of unravelling. Life begins at 40, folks!

In the spirit of my thrifty Gran, we wound the braids and ribbons around cardboard oblongs cut from the cornflakes box. The sack slowly reduced to nothing, and the neatly coiled notions found a new home in amongst my existing stash.

Little nuggets of memory, nestled for the rest of my sewing days. I feel very lucky to have known my gran, and even luckier that I have things to remember her by in my work and my play.

Do you have a button collection that reminds you of loved ones? Or do you manage to avoid getting sentimental about bits and bobs? Do you hold onto things knowing you may never use them because of the bond they form with previous generations? Or are you a truly minimalist sewist with no secret stashes? Let me know in the comments!



3 thoughts on “Sewing relations: communing through the medium of buttons

  1. What an incredibly moving article. I don’t as yet own my grandma’s button stash. My mum has all of my grandma’s things still. However I do have a few of her precious ancient threads which I use for tacking occasionally.

    Liked by 1 person

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