Tutorial: Death’s Head Buttons

I have another button tutorial for you today! This is for Death’s Head Buttons, a lovely kind of thread-covered buttons that can be seen on clothes through the 18th and into the 19th century. They mostly appear on menswear, but I have also seen what look to be Deaths’ Heads on a woman’s spencer (the resolution on the photo isn’t perfect, so I can’t be 100% sure), most likely part of a riding habit. I particularly like them for waistcoats.

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A Death’s Head button on Brandon’s linen waistcoat.

These are a bit fiddly, so don’t give up if you have trouble the first few times. I have made plenty of these, and I still find myself starting over! Be patient, and you will be making your own thread-covered buttons in no time!

What you’ll need:

  • Thread–you’ll want an attractive thread on the heavier side. My example is made with silk quilting thread. Don’t try to use an all-purpose or fine thread, or you may be wrapping until the end of the universe!
  • Scissors
  • A needle
  • A pin
  • A bone, wood, or pasteboard button mold with a hole in the center. I buy mine from William Booth, Draper, or Burnley & Trowbridge.

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Step 1: Wrap the thread in an ‘X’ shape

Cut a piece of thread long enough to wrap your entire button. For my 3/4″ button, I used about 4 yards. You can actually cut it when you get close to done wrapping, but I find that I get more annoyed by the thread twisting because it is still attached to the spool than I am by the propect of running out of thread if I didn’t calculate well.

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Put the end of your thread through the hole in the center of the button. You want a couple of inches of tail at the back, and the rest of your long thread at the front.
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Wrap your thread three times around the button. You want the threads to sit neatly next to one another, not to overlap. Use one of the fingers of your left hand to hold the tail still at the back.
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Turn the button over, and rotate it so that the tail end and the main thread twist around each other like the ribbon on a present. Move slowly and carefully so that the wrapped thread remains in place.
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Turn your button carefully back to the front and wrap it three times in the other direction. Make sure that your button is divided into neat quarters. You want them to be as even as possible. You can use your fingers to carefully scooch the ends of your wraps in order to make the quarters more even. If your quarters are wonky now, they will only get worse from here!
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At the back of the button, tie the two thread ends together to keep everything still at the center back.

Step 2: Begin your wrapping.

This is the part of the process where it is easiest to drop things. Work slowly and carefully, and be patient. Try not to be frustrated if you have to start over a couple of times. Whenever possible, support the wraps with your fingers while rotating and wrapping.

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Hold your button so that the threads make a “+”. Bring your thread up below the threads on the right. (If you are left-handed, you will probably want to begin on the left instead.)
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Wrap the thread up and over the upper right hand quarter. You want to go very slowly, and keep careful tension in the thread. If you pull too hard, you will pull the wraps out of shape, but if you do not keep it taut enough, it will not stay in place.
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Rotate the button counter-clockwise and bring the thread up below the next arm of the X. Here I am holding the wrap from the previous step in place with my left pointer finger.
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Again, wrap the thread up and over the next quarter, and bring it down on the other side of the vertical arm.

Rotate and wrap the thread twice more, so that there is one wrap across each quarter of the button. Make sure that the threads on the edge of the button are sitting neatly next to one another, not overlapping.

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Continuing in the same pattern, wrap a second layer of threads.

Step 3: Place your pin.

DO NOT let go of your thread while you are doing this. Make sure you keep your tension.

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When you have two layers of thread wrapped, put your pin through the center hole so that it is sticking out at both sides.This will help keep things in place, and will make the threads at the back of the button stack up in a convenient shank.

Step 4: Continue Wrapping

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Continue wrapping in the same pattern. As you keep going, this will become easier, and you will begin to see the woven pattern building up. The triangular shapes at the corners will continue to grow. They are what will become the final thread pattern on the button.
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This is what you back should look like as you keep wrapping. you can see how the threads are piling up at the center to become a shank. Don’t mind the extra thread on the upper left. It is just the tail of the thread from the beginning. I really should have just trimmed it, but for some reason I didn’t until the end.
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Keep wrapping until your button is entirely covered. At the very center, the threads will pile up slightly around the pin. Don’t worry about this, you can smooth them out later when the pin is removed.

Step 5: Anchor the wraps at the back.

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Thread the rest of your thread onto your needle.
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Wrap the thread behind and around the thread leading from the edge of the button to the shank.

 

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Rotate the button and bring the needle under the next section of threads. Keep rotating and sewing around the threads until you have gone around several times, you want to make sure that the threads stay nice and still. Try to close up any gaps where the button mold shows through.

Once you are sure that things are anchored well, you can remove the pin.

Step 6: Anchor the final wraps at the front.

Because the final few wraps at the center front of the button didn’t get woven into the rest of the wraps like the earlier ones do, you need to anchor them in place at the center.

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Starting beside the shank (don’t try to go through the middle of it), bring the needle up through the center hole. You want the point of your needle to come up beside the final couple of thread wraps in the center of the button.

At this point, make sure that everything is laying nice and smooth,

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Bring your needle back down through the hole so that you have made a stitch across the center threads that were your final wraps back in Step 4.
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The needle isn’t doing anything in this photo, I’m just using it as a pointer to the stitch that we just made.

You can now tie your thread off at the back of the button, and you’re finished!

Remember: Be Patient, Move Slowly, and Don’t Give Up!

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