ZW History & Musings

Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?

Vintage buttons from an estate sale trip!

Another sweet estate sale score: vintage buttons! And no, this isn’t a stock photo– I sorted these myself to use in making upcycled tree ornaments!

Ever wondered WHY there’re so many jars & bags of buttons at estate sales and vintage shops? Especially when most of our factory-made clothing today rarely comes with an extra button or two?

Most people don’t have a whole jar of buttons sitting around. If they do, it’s more likely they inherited them from Grandma than accumulated them from their own clothing purchases.

So why DID Grandma have so many??

1.) She was likely removing & saving ALL the buttons from worn-out clothes she then cut up and used for other household purposes and

2.) She was probably still in the habit of making some of her own clothing or crafts, and buying whole matching button sets for these sewing projects.

When’s the last time you cut up a shirt or an old pair of pants to use for cleaning rags in your house?

It’s a tradition we’ve become quite disconnected from as fast-fashion proliferated and disposable culture took over our cleaning habits, making every wipe and duster into something to be immediately thrown out instead of washed & reused.

The habit of reusing clothing for other purposes actually dates back to the 1800s, and further, when our household operated as much more closed-loop systems where resources were repeatedly kept in circulation.

Throughout the 19th century, before factory-made clothing went bananas, all households (rich & poor) saved and used clothing rags at home. Homemade clothing, valued for the labor it embodied, was mended and patched many times before it was discarded.

More than just sewing a button on, this extended to “making over” clothes, which included hemming, patching, darning, mending ripped seams, dyeing or treating worn fabrics, covering frayed cuffs and collars with handmade needlework, ripping, brushing, pressing, putting on new buttons, necks, collars, or wristbands–or completely taking apart a garment and using the pieces for something else.

Making over clothing was about economizing the materials in your home AND about staying in style.

Women who cared about fashion could just change out the collars, cuffs & trim, and alter their dresses toward the latest magazine trends. Silk and wool made over the most, due to how expensive they were and because they couldn’t be used well in household uses. Cotton and linen could became household rags eventually.

Sewing scraps, old clothes, sheets, etc. were thus reused for children’s clothing, patchwork quilts, rag rugs, pillowcases, napkins, bandages, sanitary napkins, dish towels, dusting cloths, and washrags.

Back then, PAPER was also made of RAGS! It required rags & scraps, and there were few industrial sources before factory-made clothing. So, traveling peddlers would come to households and barter for their scraps after all the life had been squeezed from the fabrics, and transport them to paper mills for paper production.

Crane Paper Company Old Stone Mill Rag Room. Photo credit: National Park Service.

They established systems for collecting rags from households and conveying them to the mills, and they propagandized households in an effort to get them to save rags.

This new zero-waste “unpaper” towel fad is actually about the oldest trick in the home-ec book! You don’t need to spend money to order fabric scraps online that somebody else cut up neatly into squares and packaged together!

Just cut up your oldest cotton tee or flannel shirt for cleaning & dusting rags and voila, you’ve made your own! Just remember to save the buttons!

For more ideas on button upcycling & button crafts, check out this post from The Spruce.

Strasser, S. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. Henry Holt & Company: New York, 1999.

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