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( Originally Published 1963 )
Anyone who is a button collector will find it hard to resist snipping the buttons off an old dress or Civil War uniform. This is a mistake, if the clothing looks as though it might be at all valuable either because of its age, style, or fabric. Sometimes a decision will have to be made between the buttons and the garment.
Buttons in themselves are valuable, and the interest in collecting them is nationwide. It is such an engrossing interest that there is a national button society as well as regional and local branches, all of which schedule regular meetings. The society has its own official publication. In addition, several other magazines frequently publish articles on button collecting and there are books on the subject. All in all, it is not difficult to obtain reliable information.
Buttons can be sold in bulk, or any that prove to be rare can be sold individually or in sets of four or more. To sell buttons in bulk, those which are found in old boxes tucked in various places around a house as well as those in a sewing table may simply be tossed into a bag or box. Of course a lot of the buttons will be ordinary ones.
Many materials and styles have been used for buttons since they became the practical means of fastening clothing, as early as the fifteenth century. China, glass, various kinds of metal including silver, copper, brass, and cut steel, wood, ivory, shell, horn, jet, motherof-pearl, and cloth all were popular during the nineteenth century. Buttons were enameled, hand-painted, inlaid, jeweled, carved, and embroidered to make them ornamental.
Carved jet buttons were popular with Victorian ladies. So were the china buttons called calicoes, which displayed a spotted or figured pattern similar to the cloth of that name. Hand-painted china buttons in various sizes were popular during the 1700's and 1800's and some of these are decidedly valuable. Delightful, and less common than carved jet and china calicoes, are millefiori buttons that resemble in miniature the varicolored glass paperweights.
Military buttons are a field in themselves. They usually were metal. Many pretty metal buttons, some quite small, were made for women's clothing. A half-inch one taken from a dress of the 1850's consists of a sparkling cutout leaf fastened to a shallow cup of brass.
Don't discard passementerie (the buttons and trimmings of braid or silk cord) or sets of studs. The latter consisted of two or three studs and possibly a matching pin of china, handpainted in a floral pattern or with a female profile or a head. They were used in the 1890's to fasten the starched pleated, ruffled, and fluted white shirtwaists, which had collars so high they covered the neck. Some collectors of buttons will be as much interested in stud sets and possibly belt buckles. Buckles of the same vintage as stud sets were large and fancy. They usually were metal with a decorative pattern and sometimes, in addition to the prongs to hold the material, had a pin across the back.
Because of the tremendous interest in buttons, it is not surprising that a good many museums feature displays of them. More surprising, perhaps, is the number of museums of fine artsnot just restorations and folk art collections-that include among their treasures various kinds of needlework. The fact that crocheted or knitted lace is no longer fashionable on clothing does not detract from its intrinsic beauty. Hooking rugs is almost as popular a pastime now as it was 200 years ago, but with a difference. Colonial women had to make rugs in order to have floor covering, and they used scraps of cloth from the rag bag and dyed them with colors obtained from plants, berries, and nuts. Then the cloth was cut into strips and fashioned into a rug on a backing from a West Indies sugar sack, with a hook whittled from wood, bone, or porcupine quill. Today, hooked rugs are a hobby to which manufacturers cater-with a machine-made hook, burlap backing stamped with a pattern, and cloth or yarn precut into ready-to-work lengths. Braided and woven rag rugs are much later than hooked rugs and not nearly as valuable.
Spinning and weaving, sewing, and all kinds of needlework were household arts for pioneer women. They made clothing and household linens as well as curtains and coverings for beds and chairs. Only wealthy families, even during the 1700's, could afford brocades, damasks, and velvets from Europe. All kinds of sewing and needlework continued to be an important part of the education of every girl throughout the nineteenth century. She started to learn as soon as she was able to hold a needle, and practiced at home and at school. The ability to monogram her own household linens and embroider doilies was one mark of a well-broughtup young lady until at least 1900.
Hooked rugs made during Colonial days were worn out long before museums and restorations thought of saving them. They continued to be made through the 1800's, even for sod houses on the prairies. Most of the needlework, too, that is still to be found will have been made during the nineteenth century. Although machine-made bedspreads and coverlets could be purchased fairly reasonably by about 1850, most women took pride in their own hand-knitted or candlewick bedspreads and in their hand-sewn quilts.
The patchwork quilt probably is the most truly American development in needlework. Not that American women originated either patchwork, which presumably was done as early as biblical times, or quilting, which dates back to at least the Middle Ages in Europe, when garments, bedspreads and coverlets, hangings and curtains, were quilted for warmth. In America, the quilt became a synonym for a bed covering. Actually, the quilt combined two different types of needlework: first, small pieces of cloth in various colors and shapes were stitched together in a pattern to make the quilt top; then the quilting itself consisted of the sewing together-by means of fine running stitches-of the fancy top layer and a bottom layer of plain material with a filling of wool, cotton, or down in between.
The English and Dutch settlers along the East Coast established the art of quilt-making in the Colonies; in truth, the cold winters made quilted things a necessity. However, the fact that American women, between the 1600's and the 1800's, developed a characteristic style of their own and invented more than 300 patterns as original as the names they gave them is evidence of the inherent artistic ability of these pioneer women. As families moved westward, the women continued to make their quilts and added many more patterns, which often were variations of an old one inspired by the new surroundings. Incidentally, the only regions where quilt-making was not common were the warmer areas settled by the Spanish. Quilting is by no means a lost art today, but unfortunately many contemporary quilts are machine-made.
The pieced or patchwork quilt started with small pieces of brightly colored material cut into the shapes necessary for some particular design or pattern. The requisite pieces were sewed together to form a square block, which was an integral part of the pattern.
When enough blocks had been completed, these in turn were sewed together in strips; finally, the strips were sewed together lengthwise to make the quilt "top."
Almost as old as pieced quilts are those with appliqued tops. Both types were made in Colonial times, and applique in this country became as distinctive as piecing and unlike similar work done elsewhere. For an appliqued quilt, small pieces of colored cloth were cut into the various shapes required for a pattern, but in this case the snippets were not sewed together but were stitched into place (appliqued) on blocks of background material, and the blocks then put together to form the over-all pattern of the quilt top.
Women took great pride in their patchwork and the patterns originated for it. Whatever their skill at the fine stitching preferred for the actual quilting, everyone was welcomed to the quilting "bees," which in the old days were the social events of the winter. Then all the women for miles around would gather at one home to quilt the coverlet whose top their hostess had pieced or appliqued during the preceding months. When the menfolk joined them in the evening, the quilting bee became a festive occasion. Those were the days, too, when a bride's chest was supposed to contain a baker's dozen of quilts. Twelve were for everyday use; the thirteenth or bride's quilt was more elaborate. While she was growing up, a girl worked at piecing quilt tops during her leisure time. When friends were invited to quilt a girl's tops, it was considered a sign of her approaching engagement. The bride's quilt, however, was not started until her engagement had been announced.
One of the all-time favorite motifs of quilt-makers was the star. No less than fifty-eight different named patterns were based on it. Most of them were for pieced quilts, but about 1835 Feather Star with Applique combined the two methods of quilt-making, and about 1850 Prince's Feather and Rising Star displayed appliqued feathers and pieced stars. (Two other names for this handsome pattern are Princess Feather, and Ostrich Plume and Rising Sun.)