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Volunteer Kaye Davies tells us about her personal history with buttons

As a new volunteer at The Silk Museum, I have been privileged to spend some time looking around the collections thinking about the history of Macclesfield. The town may be known for its silk, but it was built on buttons.

Button making was a cottage industry in Macclesfield in the eighteenth century. The buttons were made from the wood from Holly trees, which would have been sourced from places such as Hollins Wood, where, as the name suggests there was a supply of Holly.

The buttons were originally covered in mohair or linen but as fashions became more elaborate the buttons were wrapped in silk thread. The museum has a collection of Death’s Head buttons on display which are wrapped in silk thread. Whenever I see old paintings now, I always peer closely to see if I can spot a Macclesfield Death’s Head button on a jacket.

I spent many happy hours rummaging through my grandmother’s, and then my mother’s button boxes, both containing a treasure trove of glorious colours, materials, shapes, textures, and sizes of buttons. As a novice sewer, when I needed one button to fasten at the neck of a creation, there was always the perfect one to be found in the button box, usually right at the bottom. Even now, if I close my eyes, I can feel the glorious cascade of buttons running through my searching fingers, alongside the wonderful sound of each jewel as it clattered its way around the tin on its way to the bottom.

Later, when I was a student on my first ‘proper’ holiday job, I worked in a button factory, using a lathe-like machine to carve various patterns into each button. I am still amazed that I have all my fingers, because thrusting each disc into a spinning chuck two inches away from the cutting tool was not for the faint hearted.

I was very fortunate to be given a box of buttons, collected over two lifetimes of homemakers who saved them for around one hundred years (1880 – 1980). What joy to have these, if only they could speak! Some were clearly old shirt buttons, often with the bits of fabric still attached, cut off ready to replace lost ones. Others were very hard-wearing – metal, leather, thick plastic, cord and others were more decorative for a lady’s blouse, and some were tiny for a baby’s hand knitted cardigan. Of course, the intended use of these buttons was that they would be kept in the hope they would come in useful another day.

Now after some 100 years I have been able to use them to make repairs on the Victorian costumes used in the Museum’s education programme.

Buttons played a vital part in the industrial heritage of Macclesfield, and the skilled button workforce became the building blocks of silk throwing, weaving, printing and design.

You can read more about Macclesfield’s button history and can also visit The Silk Museum to see some of the early buttons that helped put Macclesfield on the map, still mounted on the cardboard sheets that were totted around by traders to sell to homemakers, who undoubtedly had their own button boxes.