I recently approached the staff at the Frontier Culture Museum, located in my hometown of Staunton, VA to ask permission to do a little behind the scenes research for this blog. The Frontier Culture Museum is a living history museum which tells the story of Old World immigrants to colonial America, complete with centuries old farmhouses and period-dressed interpreters. They grow crops, raise livestock, make tools, operate a smith, weave fabric and offer all kinds of events throughout the year.
The museum is one of my FAVORITE places to visit, and is absolutely full of inspiration on living a life “in the past.” Not to mention, my imagination runs completely amuck when I’m there (and that isn’t always just during Oktoberfest). The sites and sounds of the Museum fit my Outlander-goggles perfectly, and I’m THRILLED to have a little behind-the-scenes look.
The museum staff has been very kind to me, and I was given free rein to write about whatever it was that piqued my interest. So of ALL the topics the Frontier Culture had to offer, I decided to start at the basics. I wanted in the costume department, and I wanted to get my hands on one of those shirts.
Because for me, there’s just something about those big sleeved shirts. To put it mildly, I’m a bit of a sucker for historical dramas. And in those historical dramas, there always seems to be that penultimate moment where the normally straight-laced hero or heroine breaks free from the confines of a super structured and (literally) tight laced life, and we get a glimpse of them in their shirt or shift.
Maybe it’s a moment of vulnerability? Maybe it’s a moment where 21st century eyes find the clothing a bit more relatable? I don’t really know what that magic is, but whatever it is, I LIKE it.
And it’s just that kind of magic that people are completely absorbed by (especially people with imaginations like mine) when they visit the Frontier Culture Museum. Visiting the farm sites just would not be the same if you were greeted by someone in a t-shirt. Simply by walking into a farm site and being greeted by an interpreter in full costume – someone cooking at the hearth, tilling in the garden, or spinning wool – one is transported into another world in a very personal way. And that first bit of costume magic is just what I wanted to explore.
So, in order to learn more about the basic man’s shirt, I needed to meet the head of the costume department, Miss Julianne Herczeg. Although Julie no longer works at the museum, she’d worked there for eight years, and ran the costume shop from 2013-2016. She holds an MA from James Madison University, where she has also taught for several years. She also does film work through multiple Virginia-based companies, with credits in wardrobe, acting, hair/makeup, and more. Julie has studied historical clothing and its construction for over sixteen years, and has been sewing professionally since 2004.
In keeping with all of the other FCM staff with whom I’d spoken, Julie was also very accommodating when it came to my request to learn more. But don’t let me stop with accommodating – she is extremely knowledgeable, very kind, and has some mad skills with a needle and thread.
In the museum’s costume department, you’ll find racks of costumes in various states of readiness, sewn for a variety of roles, seasons, and work sites. There’s a library of references to learn from, and there is a definite commitment to make a completely authentic costume. Julie only begrudgingly used a sewing machine, but in the interests of time and resource management did so. The staff actually takes it as a great compliment when we notice things like hand-sewn sleeve cuffs, and there are similar attentions to fine detail everywhere you look.
When Julie and I first chatted about the shirts, she suggested that not only is there a whole lot to learn about the shirts themselves, but I could stand to learn a bit about the buttons that go on those shirts. Buttons, you say? Tell me more….
Clothing wasn’t typically made at home, but was instead purchased from a tailor. One would assume that a trip to the tailor for new clothing did not occur very often, and people tried to take great care of their garments in between shopping trips. Laundry washing techniques weren’t at all convenient and quite literally involved boiling, stirring, and mashing the soiled clothes. And in the interest of minimizing destruction of buttons delicately made of thin bone, horn, or metal in the stirring/mashing/boiling laundering process, tailors made buttons with thread. You read that right… thread.
A button made entirely of thread (known as a dorset button) can actually hold up to the wear and tear of historic laundry washing techniques, and Miss Julie was kind enough to teach ME how to make one.
We used the instructions for thread buttons found in one of Julie’s reference books, called the Tudor Tailor.
To begin making a thread button, one (obviously) needs thread but not just any thread. The thread should be of a heavier weight and thicker diameter than regular sewing thread and is typically referred to as buttonhole thread. This thread is most commonly used to reinforce the fabric surrounding a button hole or to attach a button to fabric. In this case, it was being used to make the button itself.
To make this strong thread even stronger, Julie showed me a simple way of strengthening the thread, and that’s by running a length of it over a piece of beeswax. The wax coats the thread which, in addition to strengthening, also makes the thread stiffer and easier to manipulate.
Next, you need a knitting needle roughly the size of a thick pencil. (The image on the reference book states a Size 6 or 7 knitting needle.)
Begin with a length of thread about 5’ long. Run the length of the thread over a piece of beeswax to coat. Begin by wrapping the thread around the needle once or twice, and neatly tucking the end of the thread around a loop or two. Keep wrapping until you get a stack of looped thread roughly half an inch in diameter (including the width of the needle).
Looping the thread around the needle is not as simple as it sounds. In order to make a nice little foundation for the button, you need to loop the thread so that it stacks on-top of itself, making a saucer-like shape. See the pics above? The top photo is my pathetic first attempt. The bottom is Miss Julie’s perfect little thread package. Julie suggests holding the knitting needle in such a way that as you’re looping the thread, it stacks up neatly against your thumbnail, which acts as a little wall for the thread loops to rest upon.
Resist the urge to wind the thread too tightly around the needle. Because in the next step, you’re going to have to slide the thread bundle OFF the knitting needle.
But before I slid the looped threads entirely off the knitting needle, I threaded a regular embroidery needle onto the working end of the remaining thread. I pushed the thread loops up the length of the knitting needle until they reached the tapered end, and I stitched one button hole stitch around the thread loop to secure. (One could theoretically skip this step, but I envisioned a thread-loop-explosion the moment the loops left the needle, so I added a stitch.)
Now that you’ve got your thread loops secure and off the needle, begin stitching buttonhole stitches around the circumference of the loops. Take your time and place each stitch directly beside the other as you move around the circle. (If you’re not familiar with a button stitch, you might want to check online for tutorials.)
Next, work the buttonhole stitches around the circumference of the thread loops until you’ve completely covered the circle. The picture below is half finished.
If you’re planning on somehow turning this thread-looped Cheerio into a functioning button, you’re going to need a way to affix the button onto the fabric. That little connection is the button post and you’ll need to create it as well. Choose a bottom side to your button. If you’re going for cosmetic appeal, choose the uglier side, and begin sewing the post as follows:
Using a clock face as a reference, let’s say your buttonhole stitch ended at 6:00. Move your thread counterclockwise, and insert your needle from right-to-left near the 12:00 position. Then reinsert your threaded needle at the 6:00 position again, this time from left-to-right. You’ll need two or three rounds of thread to begin creating the post.
Now begin covering those loops of thread with the buttonhole stitch again – I worked from right to left – until the length of the post is covered.
Insert a knot or two in there, and voilà…a dorset button. (Isn’t he cute?!)
How about another tough-enough-for-18th-century-laundry button? Julie also showed me how to make a rather simple button from a scrap of fabric. In this case, wool, and also following the directions outlined in the Tudor Tailor.
Please see the collage below for images. You start with a square of fabric, a needle, and about an arm’s length of thread. Using a simple running stitch, sew the boundary of a circle in the center of your fabric scrap. You may choose to knot your thread, but it’s not essential. You should however hold on to the end of your thread in the next step, knotted or no.
If you’ve sewn your running stitch correctly, you should be able to gently tug on the thread and start to make a tiny purse-like shape.
Next, start tucking in the corners of the fabric which will then become the stuffing for the button.
Once you’ve got the fabric edges tucked inside your button, stitch up the back of the button to secure the fabric edges. Since this will become the back of your button, you can be as elaborate (or not) with your final stitches. As you can see below, I chose the “not too fancy” route.
You could employ the same technique for a button post here as well if you’d like. Fabric buttons could also be stuffed with small coins or discs to give a harder or flatter feel. At this point you could also create a button post like the one used in the dorset button.
I hope you enjoyed reading about these tiny and super utilitarian historical gems as much as I enjoyed learning how to make them. I am truly thankful for having the opportunity to learn a bit more about these pieces of living history, and happily share my sewing lessons with you.
While I only described two types of buttons here, I need to add that there are many other types of historically accurate buttons used at the museum. (Heck, I didn’t even touch on the thread-covered wooden bead!) Sadly, I am not the person to provide sufficient detail about the other types. Instead, I suggest diving in and doing some research into colonial costuming, or visiting a place like the Frontier Culture Museum or another like them. They can teach you – or better yet show you – examples of a variety of Pointed Stars, Death’s Head, or other dorset buttons.
The craftsmanship and detail behind such everyday items is amazing, and I’m so happy I learned just a bit more about these little gems. And I know I won’t be the only fan keeping my eyes wide open for tiny details like these on the costumes when Season 2 premieres.
This post was made possible with the kind help, knowledge and research by Julie Herczeg, acting site manager of Historic Stagville. I can’t thank her enough for her help!
To learn more about the exhibits at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA click here!
February 18, 2016 at 4:37 pm
Fascinating post. I never thought about how one would ‘make a button’. Goes to show you just how ‘spoiled by convenience’ we all are in this 21st century. I suspect if we all went back to making buttons of this type to sell, each one would cost approximately $100 each! Gives one a whole new appreciation of the craftsmanship and work that went into ‘vintage’ clothing.
February 18, 2016 at 11:49 pm
The “button post” is actually a loop you’ve created on the back of the button, then you sew the button post loop to the shirt/garment?
Another question: when reading historical fiction novels, I think we’ve all seen something about unbuttoning of shirts, but weren’t most shirts pullover, not button-up, garments until later times (maybe 19th century), when buttonholes and buttons became easier to use via innovations at the time of the Industrial Revolution?
February 22, 2016 at 6:20 pm
Yes, you’d use the botton post to attach the button to the shirt. And as far as the pullover vs. buttoned shirt, I can only answer that the shirts I viewed at the museum (18th century variety) had opened collars down until about the breastbone area, and would be pullovers. But they did in fact have a couple of buttons sewn on as well, and the collar would be worn closed, most likely with some type of neck tie/cravat worn.
March 25, 2020 at 2:46 am