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Down my way – Dorset Buttons

Nick Churchill on the industry which spread across half the county

 

A button made from Harris Tweed and felt

 

Blandford cartwheels, bird’s eyes, singletons, old dorsets… they could easily be real ales, rare insects, or even Morris dances. In fact, they’re different types of Dorset Button.
As with much of its history, the origins of Dorset Buttonry are shrouded in myth, but the industry flourished from the early 17th century until the mid-19th century. There’s no formal record, but its genesis is widely attributed to one Abraham Case and his wife who moved from Wiltshire to Shaftesbury in 1622 and started making buttons by wrapping fabric around a disc of horn from a Dorset Horn sheep.
The horn was later replaced by wire and plain linen thread was built up to construct the distinctive conical High Tops that were dyed to match the dresses they were used on. The only coloured button was a black singleton – for widows.

A button known as a singleton

By the early 18th century, a network of home workers served depots at Bere Regis, Milborne St Andrew, Sixpenny Handley, Sherborne, Wool, Piddletrenthide, Tarrant Keynston, Langton, Iwerne Minster, Blandford Forum and Lytchett Minster, which appointed weekly Button Days to collect finished product and distribute raw materials.
According to his biographer Ian Kelly, quintessential Regency dandy Beau Brummell wore shirts fastened with tiny Dorset buttons. Considering a fashion-conscious gent of the day would have had up to 24 shirts a week and each shirt would have provided two days’ work for the average buttoner, the industry was very labour intensive and consequently a vital part of the local economy until the Industrial Revolution.
‘In general, button making provided a supplementary income to agricultural wages and in the absence of proper records it is very difficult to say how many people were employed in the industry. Although, a figure that is commonly used is that there were 4000 buttoners in Shaftesbury and its neighbourhood in the late 1700s,’ says researcher Anna McDowell, who started Henry’s Buttons in 2011 to preserve the heritage craft of Dorset Buttony.

The rather more ornate high top button

The last direct descendant of Abraham Case died in 1908, shortly before Lady Florence Lees of Lytchett Manor bought the entire remaining stock of buttons enlisting the Lytchett Minster Christian Mission to lead a spirited revival before the intervention of World War 1.
In the mid-1950s Lady Madeline Lees sold Dorset Buttons to help finance religious films and interest has ebbed and flowed ever since. The remaining historic stock can be seen at The Old Button Shop in Lytchett Minster, owned by Thelma Johns since 1970, and there are displays at Blandford Fashion Museum and Gold Hill Museum in Shaftesbury. ◗
❱ Further information:
Henry’s Buttons, Donhead St Mary, 01747 829010, www.henrysbuttons.co.uk
The Old Button Shop, Lytchett Minster, 01202 622169
Dorset Buttons: Hand Stitched in Dorset for over 300 Years – Thelma Johns (Natula, £12.95).

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