Like a number of heritage crafts and skills, information was passed down from generation to generation. The Dorset Button industry was no exception. What we do know is that this cottage industry affected the lives of hundreds of families in east Dorset for 200 years.
The story goes that Abraham Case, a native of the Cotswolds and a professional soldier, spent time in Europe where a religious war between Catholics and Protestants had started in 1618. Whilst in Europe, Abraham is supposed to have seen how soldiers replaced buttons on their uniforms by twisting a piece of fabric over a form and fastening it with thread. Another train of thought is that he was influenced by the lace work buttons in Brussels lace.
On his return, he married a local girl from Wardour, in Wiltshire, around 1622. They set up home in or near Shaftesbury and started the Dorset Button industry. This is largely hearsay as records of Abraham’s birth, marriage, death and other details about his life still remain a mystery. With the wealth of local resources in the Dorset area where the Dorset Horn sheep roamed the Downs, Abraham set up his business in Shaftesbury.
Buttons were made from fabric, sheep’s horn and thread. The ‘High Tops’ were said to be the first buttons. These were made from a thin disc of sheep’s horn as their base with a piece of linen pulled and twisted to form a firm conical shape. This shape was then embroidered over with a very fine stitch. A flatter version of these buttons called the ‘Dorset Knobs’ followed and were made in the same way.
Not much is known about the development of the business in the 1600’s. However, in 1698, an Act was passed to prevent making or selling buttons “made of cloth, serge, drugget, or other stuffs”. This helped to protect buttoners who worked in silk, mohair, gimp and thread buttons worked with a needle.
Abraham’s grandson Peter took over the business in the first half of the 1730’s and the business continued to grow. It is thought Peter introduced the metal rings. Peter brought in John Clayton, a businessman from York, to manage the business. John was instrumental in arranging for buttoners, mainly women, to work from home. Materials were distributed by local agents and it was at this point that the wire rings were introduced. The wire was brought from Birmingham. and the worked buttons brought back to depots throughout east Dorset where they were washed graded according to quality and carded.
In the early part of the 1700s it is said that 700 women and children worked for the firm. By the end of the century, around 4,000 were employed making buttons around Shaftesbury and 3,000 in the Blandford area. At its peak, the business had an average turnover of around £12,000.
This cottage industry was to become another casualty of the Industrial Revolution.
The earliest known fabric-covered machined buttons had metal shanks. The shanks were later replaced by a piece of tufted canvas by which the button could be sewn to a garment. Thus was created the flexible shank button. Three key people were involved in the development of the button machine. Benjamin Saunders started making machined buttons from his workshop in London. He took out a patent for his fabric buttons, made using dies and pressure, in 1813. He moved to Bromsgrove and opened his factory making buttons, taking out a further Patent in 1825 for the manufacture of cloth covered buttons with a soft, flexible shank.
Benjamin Aingworth who developed and patented his machine in 1832 and finally, there was John Aston’s machine. In his book “Buttons: a Collectors Guide”, Victor Houart says that John Aston patented the button machine invented by Humphrey Jefferies in 1841, ten years before the Great Exhibition.
“........ a button formed of a linen covering and ring of metal so put together that both sides and centre are completely covered with separate pieces of linen, and thus produced quite flat. This being an excessively neat and convenient button was, and is, largely patronised by housewives for all underclothing, having superseded the old thread button of Dorsetshire ...”
Description of the button made by Mr John Aston’s button machine of 1841 from The Resources, Products and Industrial History of Birmingham and the Midland Hardware District. 1866.
The decline of the Dorset Button Industry was gradual. Handmade buttons were replaced by the introduction of pearl, bone and cloth buttons made cheaper by machine.
During the early 1800s unemployment in Dorset was high, especially amongst the agricultural workforce. The average farm labourer was one of the poorest paid in the country. The combination of lack of work, poor pay and the demise of the button industry resulted in many families emigrating to America and Australia. Assisted emigration schemes were set up by individuals, charities and local communities to finance families wishing to start a new life overseas. Buttoners were no longer needed and the skill of buttony was in threat of being lost. By the middle of the 1850’s, many had moved to alternative occupations such as needlewomen and glovers.
William Hillier Case, the last member of the Case family connected to the button industry, died in 1912.
In the early 1900s, Florence, the Dowager Lady Lees, was responsible for saving the art of making Dorset Buttons. She visited farms and cottages all over Dorset to discover how these buttons were made and sought to revive the industry at Lytchett Minster. She set up a small business specialising in the production of “Parliamentary” buttons for Dorset MPs in their respective constituency colours. In 1908, these buttons were in full production. This revival was brought to an end by the outbreak of the First World War.
Today, Dorset Buttons are a heritage craft and the skill of buttony continues. Many people still make these thread and fabric buttons for their own enjoyment. Artists are now using the technique of buttony in their works of art, generating new interest in the industry, and consequently in the lives of the original craftspeople who made them.
Mervyn Bright mentions this date in his booklet “Buttony The Dorset Heritage” printed in 1971. Abraham Case moved to Shaftesbury and started the Dorset Button industry.