Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Button, Button, I've Got the Buttons


For as long as I can remember I have been sorting buttons or watching my mother sort buttons. I have fond memories of individual buttons with personalities. The yellow and white striped block that reminds me of cheese is a favorite, and I remember the stories of buttons as I see them: The brown engraved quadrilateral  from my mother's old coat, the red dinosaurs from when cutesy animal shaped buttons were a thing.
When I was very young my mother had her deeply personal stash of buttons in a brown Currier and Ives tin with a sleighing scene on it. When we needed one we would shake out all the buttons and find something suitable. Then the buttons my great grandmothers and great-greats had saved through the Great Depression and earlier found their way south in glass jelly jars, strung on safety pins, and looped onto snarls of cotton from before the advent of polyester filament sewing threads. They were like proud but shabby refugees and political asylum seekers narrowly escaping estate sales and dumpsters.

Every button from every shirt had been saved alongside upholstery buttons popped off of sofas, wooden toggles from wool coats, heavy powdery handfuls of mother of pearl, and the royalty: timeless Czech glass, and elderly rhinestones working free of their glued settings.


The late 80s and early 90s not being a time to slum it in vintage, my mother also purchased bagged lots of bright plastic buttons and bells she crocheted onto the edges of crew socks she sold for extra cash.

We sorted and sorted.
We sorted those buttons by material: Wood, leather, horn, shell, and plastic.
We sorted them by color.
We sorted them by the number of their holes.
We sorted them into Ziplock bags.

In my tweens my family moved to a house with a laundry room full of drawers and cabinets. With joy we sorted the bags into drawers. Over time getting a button became a kind of smash and grab affair. The plastic bags, which had grown dusty and semi opaque, were no longer closed properly and the contents of the drawers started to mingle.

I moved away for college and started my own personal stash of buttons neatly threaded on tough nylon thread and kept in cotton wool lined vintage jewelry boxes and tins. Then one day it was time for my parents to turn over a new leaf and move. Did I want the buttons? Of course.

They came to me in their plastic bags stuffed into a box and liberally besprinkled with paillettes and seed beads. While I was pregnant with Thacia it seemed like a good idea to sort them so that I wouldn't have to do it later with an infant about. Ah, the naiveté of first time motherhood! I did get a great many of them sorted, but I swear the buttons multiply in the dark. Every time I think I have finally sorted the white buttons I find another huge bag to compare with the drawers of buttons already strung, and the happy congregation of singletons.


Since October I have been setting up my new studio space very slowly. I had a spot carved out in the basement and it was just too dark for me, so we played musical chairs with the house, combining the living room and dining room together to make a creative space in the former dining room. It is awesome, but that is a side note. As we brought another load of stuff out of the basement space this weekend I looked at the ranks of drawer sets and tackle boxes that hold my legacy of buttons in some semblance of order. I wonder if this is the year they will be conquered, and the last of the plastic bags emptied? As Daniel points out, I've never been closer!

I'm a little more organized in some respects than my mother, so my children probably won't spend as much time up to their elbows in buttons.
Will they have relationships with these buttons like I have, or will the buttons just be a utility for them? What new stories will we make together as we add my great grandmothers' buttons to our new creations?      

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