Saturday, 5 September 2020

Making Death's Head Buttons (Video)

One of my goals for 2020 was to make a video about death's head buttons, and here it is! It's only the second video I've ever made, so it's far from perfect, but youtube needed more death's head button making videos because including this one there are only 3.
I do 4 buttons in this video - a plain 4 sectioned dark green one, one of the 1.5" 2 colour 4 sectioned ones from my black & white coat, the 12mm 2 colour 4 sectioned ones on my brown & gold waistcoat, and a 1.5" 4 colour 6 sectioned one for a coat I haven't made yet.

I'll put the supply list from the video here:

  • Button moulds
  • Heavy thread or fine yarn
  • A second, stronger thread if your first one isn't strong enough to tie off the back (preferably linen)
  • Beeswax (specifically beeswax because it needs to be a bit sticky)
  • A pencil or waterproof pen
  • Small bits of paper (or thin cardboard)
  • A small pair of pliers
  • Scissors
  • A straight pin
  • A sharp needle
  • A blunt needle
  • A thimble
You can buy moulds specifically made for button making, but modern plastic buttons or small wooden discs work too, as long as you drill a hole in the middle. 

For the thread there are a lot of options, it just has to be something that will lie nicely, so nothing too thick, fuzzy, or bumpy.
Silk buttonhole twist is really good, but I don't have any because it's expensive and I'm poor, so I used DMC cotton pearl for two of the ones in the video. For the other two I used a fine linen yarn and a fine mercerized cotton yarn. Both were from my mother's stash of weaving supplies so I'm afraid I can't give any suggestions for where to buy them.

Ok, links!

Pinterest board with more death's head buttons.

Burnley & Trowbridge - the store I bought the instructional booklet from, and most of my button moulds. They also have some silk thread and beeswax.
I should note that the booklet is from 2005, so it's not the most up to date on everything. The author mentions not knowing of any examples of these buttons on women's clothing, but there are a number of examples online nowadays (linked a bit further down in this post). It also doesn't have anything about waxing the mould, I got that bit from Gina Barrett's video. But it does have good pictures and explanations of the techniques, and some pictures of the fronts and backs of extant buttons.

Gina B. Silkworks - A site all about passementerie buttons and similar things! She sells button moulds and threads and has books and courses about them too. I highly recommend checking out her youtube channel for more thread button videos.

SnugglyMonkey on etsy - This is where I got all my big 1.5" button moulds and I love them, they're perfect for 1780's-90's coat buttons. They're sold as plain wooden discs, but for death's head buttons you only need to drill a hole in the middle. (And for fabric buttons you don't need to change anything!)

Craft Supply House on etsy - More of the same, in various sizes, some domed and some flat. You can find some on other etsy shops too by searching for "unfinished wooden discs". They tend to be way cheaper than ones sold specifically for button making, and come in the really big sizes that most of the reproduction moulds don't. I suggest looking for the ones with rounded edges.

Wm. Booth Draper - Bone moulds, wood moulds, and silk thread.

Wooded Hamlet Designs also has some moulds.

There are a lot of other places online to buy threads/fine yarns too. A bit of googling should bring up lots of options if you can't get what you want from your local stores.

The intro of this video is pretty short and condensed, so there are a few things I'd like to elaborate on, which I will do here.

"They were very popular on men's clothing, and to a lesser extent on women's." I think the reason you see them less often on women's clothing is just because fewer women's garments had buttons in the 18th century. They did have buttons on some things but the majority of women's clothing closed with other methods, like pins or lacing, so overall a man's wardrobe would have a lot more buttons in it.

A few examples of death's head buttons on womenswear are this stomacher, this dress, this reddingote, this jacket, this riding coat, this dress, this dress, and this waistcoat.

"I don't know when exactly they first appeared, and there are a lot of different styles of thread button that came before them, but you see small ones made of metallic thread pretty early in the 18th century."
There are so many different passementerie buttons on pre-18th century things! I don't know how far back those go, and have never made any, but I know the 16th and 17th century have many delightful tiny round styles of thread button.

Death's head buttons seem to appear in the first few decades of the 18th century, but for all I know it could be earlier. I'm sure there are hundreds of garments from this era that haven't been photographed and posted on the internet, and even the photos that are out there are usually too low quality to get a good look at the buttons.

The booklet shows death's head buttons on a waistcoat from c. 1710, and here's an example from the 1720's with tiny little silver ones:
"Figurine for the house robe of August the Strong from 1727"
It seems like most of the thread buttons on early 18th century garments are metallic, but this could just be because most of the garments that survive from that period are the fancier, more expensive ones.

"By the middle of the century they're frequently seen on coats and waistcoats, either matching or contrasting with the fabric." Obviously not just on coats & waistcoats, a lot of other garments had them too. Banyans, jackets, breeches, etc.
When they're contrasting it's usually gold or silver, but that's not always the case. Here are some lovely contrasting green ones on a brown silk banyan:
Banyan, c. 1740-50, Manchester Art Gallery.
"In the 1780's and 90's coat buttons got a lot bigger and more exciting. Stripes became very popular and so did multicoloured buttons to match them." More exciting is a matter of opinion, but coat buttons did dramatically increase in size in the last 2 decades. Earlier buttons tend to be domed, but these big late 18th century ones are pretty flat.
The earliest multicoloured death's head buttons I've seen are from either the very late 1770's or early 80's. Stripes were hardly ever seen on menswear for most of the 18th century (with some exceptions, like wrapping gowns) but became hugely popular in the 80's and 90's, and big death's head buttons in thread colours that match your striped fabric look very good. There are more examples of this further down in the post.

Here are all the pictures I used in my intro, with source links:
Charles Pinfold by Thomas Hudson, 1756.

Woman's jacket, 1780's or 90's, French, The Met.
Waistcoat, 1750-70, Probably British, The Met.

And a closeup of the buttons.
Waistcoat, c. 1760, The Met.

François de Jullienne and his wife Marie Élisabeth de Séré de Rieux,
 Charles Antoine Coypel, 1743, The Met.
And a closeup of the buttons.
Silk coat, probably British, c. 1765, The Met.
And a closeup of the beautiful, perfect buttons.
Portrait of a man, Thomas Hudson, 1750.
Alderman Thomas Wilson, George Romney, 1761.

Waistcoat, 1786-90, The Met.
The next 5 pictures are of a c. 1780's coat and matching waistcoat from the collection of the Ross Thomson House and Store Museum in Nova Scotia, which were very kindly emailed to me by the curator.
Here's the artifact record information that goes with it:

Object ID: 74.54.20 A (Coat) and B (Waistcoat)
Description: Man's silk brocade coat with matching waistcoat, in the style of the 1780's, brown and gold with stripes of blue, pink and green. 10 thread-covered buttons down right side of front opening, 4 buttonholes near the top of the left, high collar, brass hook and eye at top of cuffs, square cut bottom in the back, flaps on either side of front opening. Waistcoat has 15 buttons (and buttonholes) at front opening, lined with natural linen, front and back.
History of use: From the Guilford, Connecticut area. [Cady's note: This was among several garments purchased from the same source for use at RTH. No specific provenance is known.]
I haven't seen this coat in person, but it's just one province away so I really want to go there someday!
The coat buttons have 6 sections, and the waistcoat ones have 4. The stripes are quite faded and the zigzag pattern worn away in a lot of places, but I imagine the fabric and buttons must have been a lot brighter when new.
 The buttons appear to have been done in 4 or perhaps 5 colours. We can see blue, white, and a bit of green, but most of the threads have faded to light brown and I don't know enough about natural dyes to make any guesses as to what they might have been originally.

I mentioned in the video that as far as I've seen, the wraps on the big flat ones are usually done at least 2 at a time. Some of them just have the entire colour laid down at once, like these ones do.
I wanted to put more colourful coat buttons in the video, but couldn't find any public domain ones. I don't think museums are likely to come after me for copyright violation, but I'd rather err on the side of caution with videos.
Coat, 1785-90, V&A.

Suit, c. 1790, Kyoto Costume Institute.

Man’s suit, c. 1790- 95, Bunka Gakuen Costume Museum.
I LOVE how they've matched these to both the striped fabric and the piping.

Silk velvet coat with silk plush lining c. 1789, Villa Rosemaine.
  Attributed to Aleksander Kucharski, Monsieur Barbot, 1793.

Dress, c. 1770, LACMA.
Unknown gentleman by George Engleheart.
(The portrait I copied my coat from.)
And this lovely reddingote has the same buttons but with the colours reversed!
Juliane Gottliebe Elis, Joseph Friedrich, c. 1786.
These death's head buttons are just the tip of a huge passementerie button iceberg. There are variations with extra wraps added on top, ones with threads woven through around the sides, ones with detached buttonhole stitch around the edge, and a whole lot of similar ones, like basket weave buttons!

I haven't tried any of these yet, but they're very interesting and I'd like to learn how to do them! I'm sure most of them probably have specific names that I don't know. (And I'm sure Gina Barrett knows exactly how to make all of them, I know I've seen her post reproductions of at least 3 of the ones here. I am not at all an expert on this, but she is.)
Silk waistcoat, c. 1740's.
These buttons have a little bit of extra thread woven in on the sides, making neat little textured bits.
Silk waistcoat, c. 1760's.
These adorable buttons have extra thread woven in too, but in contrasting colours to match the woven floral pattern of the fabric!
Livery, 1820-35, The Met.
A bit later than 18th century, but still neat! These appear to be a plain cream coloured button with a lot of contrasting wraps added on top.
Button, probably late 18th century, The Met.
Wow, this one has 12 sections. And has detached buttonhole stitch around the edges. I haven't tried this on death's head buttons but I did try it on a few shirt buttons once.
Wool twill coat, French, c. 1790. LACMA.
Some nice 8 sectioned ones with even more detached buttonhole stitch.
Livery, Italian, Early 19th century The Met.
Another neat one with a star shaped pattern of wraps on top, which I don't think is a death's head button but it's definitely closely related. I like that there's a back view of this one.
Back view.

Coat, 1790's, French. The Met.
I like how these ones look like little pies with lattices. Again, not death's head buttons, but they look like they're made in a very similar way, only with the wraps done in a different order.
Coat, c. 1795.

Coat, 1787-92, French. The Met.

Coat, 1790-95, French. The Met.
I find this one very strange, especially since it would have looked pretty close to the same if they'd just covered the buttons in the striped coat fabric. 

Ok, I think that's all the extra button pictures and links I have. I hope this post was helpful!


  1. You look just like George Engleheart. I never knew that those types of buttons were called death's head buttons. Then there is so much I don't know from the world of fashion of long ago. All I know is that you do some excellent work that takes a lot of patience. You video was excellent.
    Hugs, Mamoo

    1. Thank you Mamoo! The buttons do take some patience but they get pretty fast with practice. The small ones only take about 5 minutes, and the bigger ones less than 20 each.

  2. Thank you so much for the video. Macclesfield, which is near my home, was known for its silk buttons from the 17th century onwards. I bought a single button kit from the museum shop years ago, but unfortunately I couldn't make any sense of the instuctions. This makes it all far clearer.

    1. Ooh, lovely. Thank you for that link, those are some wonderful extant buttons I hadn't seen.

      Glad I could help make sense of the button kit! I've seen some modern instructions out there that are not very good, and some that tell you to cut off enough thread to finish the button when the wraps start to slip, and to pass it under the threads at the back with every wrap, which is silly because wrapping it around a pin work so much better and faster.