Greetings my Dearies!
One of the biggest sources of shame I witness on a daily basis, besides the basic, garden variety forms of body shame, is around buttons. Why don’t people learn to sew on a button? I have yet to see a person come in to the shop to have a button re-sewn and plunk it down on the counter with an air of blithe confidence and cheery, self-respecting expectation. No, they cringe, they apologize, they confess, they twist in torment that they did not think to swipe a hotel sewing kit when they had the chance in Rio… (Whatever happened to having sewing kits at home?) Why don’t people know how to do this? They act like they should. (“I agree, they Should,” rants crabby inner Prudence Thimbleton. “What kind of Wasteful Slackers drive across town and pay the likes of you a whole Dollar to sew a button on? It’s disgraceful! No proper education is complete without knowledge of how to change a tire, how to make a simple meal, and how to sew on a button!)
I have told you not to expect any practical sewing information from this blog—as there are others out there who can do that so much better than I. However, in this case, for the sake of alleviating Shame from my fellow men and women, I will offer a brief tutorial: Firstly, a button needs to be what we call “shanked” if the button if it is to be used to actually close something. It needs to accommodate the buttonhole. If you sew it flat up against your pants, there will be no room for anything to go under it and the strain on the thread will just make it pop off again. All you do to shank a button is hold it away from the fabric as you sew it on—hold at a distance that equals the thickness of the fabric to go under it. For example, on a shirt, you might only hold it away the thickness of two pennies, for jeans, it might be as much as a quarter inch. It’s a little bit of a balancing act to hold the button away as you sew it but if you can drive a motor vehicle and operate a microwave (not at the same time, of course!), you’ve done harder things. Stop whining. If you really want training wheels for this part, you can simply place a toothpick or match-stick over or under the button then stitch down over it into an adjacent hole, but who has time for that? A button usually has two or four holes; stitch until each pair of holes has been bound five or six times. A little trick—use three pieces of thread at one time in your needle. Then only stitch twice. Or use six threads and only stitch once. (The math part of this is so fun.) However, a needle eye that can accommodate that number of threads at once is probably too big for your fabric. You should use smaller needles and lighter threads on lighter fabrics. Six threads per hole should be plenty to hold a button securely. To make the shank, hold the needle and thread between the fabric and the button, remove the toothpick, if you used one, lift up the button, and wrap the thread tightly around the exposed threads between the button and the fabric several times until the button is standing up on a perky little “stalk” or shank. Tie off the thread under the button. I don’t actually tie a knot—I just use my needle to make the thread disappear off into the fabric and cut it. There! Spread the word. I don’t regret the loss of income one damn bit!
I spend an inordinate amount of my time sewing buttons on things. Most of them, going four at a time on the outer sleeves of men’s sport coats, serve no purpose whatsoever, which vexes me. Life is short. What am I doing squandering my dwindling youth and strength and eyesight on vestigial buttons? In biological terms, their function has dwindled and been rendered meaningless by the evolution of the coat over time. They remain as useless decoration only.
The Germanic hordes that brought the Roman Empire to its knees, eventually became so civilized that by the 13th century, they were the first to use buttons to keep their clothes on. Those clever Germans! The idea gradually swept Europe and everyone has been buttoned up ever since. Sleeve buttons became a thing in the 18th century, when sleeves were tighter than they are now—supposedly buttons helped one pass his hand through the sleeve. Suit jackets followed masculine swagger of military uniform designs.
I’m not sure this story is true—I defer to my friends who are actual fashion historians to corroborate or deny this tale. If it is not true, at least it is a fun story—which is about all you can hope for in this wicked world. Supposedly a General—I’ve heard it was Frederick the Great, ruler of Prussia from 1740-1786; I’ve also heard it was Napoleon, liked nothing better than to ride out and survey his troops arranged in rows and neatly turned out in spotless uniforms. Marring the scene were these grubby soldiers who insisted on sweating, getting dirty, bleeding profusely, and—worst of all, in the days before Kleenex—wiping their snotty noses on their sleeves. In order to keep the lads looking snappy, he ordered buttons sewn in rows on the bottoms of their sleeves so as to scratch them when they tried to mop the blood, sweat, or snot off their faces, in the hopes that the threat of minor physical pain could supply what basic public decency could not. More likely, buttoned sleeves may have enabled surgeons to give urgent treatments to injuries near the hands during battles.
In any case, until recently, men’s suit coats all came with working buttons and button holes on their sleeves. Not that long ago, in the days before casual or “button-down Fridays” turned into “no buttons, ever, everyday” and swiftly devolved into the current garb of the modern Wallmart Shopper, men wore jackets all the time, not just for business. A man’s shirt was considered his underwear. Even farmers and day laborers and shopkeepers (ancestors of Wallmart employees) wore suit jackets. When exerting himself and getting hampered by his clothing, a man would roll up his sleeves, rather than remove his jacket. Taking off his jacket would be akin to stripping to his underwear—or a somewhat deranged 21st century woman painting the exterior of a three-storey house in her bikini (wait, that’s another story…)
Clothing was serious body protection from the elements and people, even men, wore aprons while working to protect it. Clothing represented a much higher percentage of a person’s personal budget and was highly valued. One of my favorite pastimes (right up there with eating homemade peach ice cream from Rota Spring Farm) is trolling the Old Bailey accounts online to read stories of “criminals” accused of stealing clothing in the 18th century. Fascinating stuff! This is a great way to learn about what people were wearing and how it was valued in society and in the courts—the descriptions are sometimes hilarious.
All this to say that the buttonholes were cut (that means they worked—they weren’t pretend), the suits were individually made to spec and the sleeves could be rolled up. Form followed function. Modern bespoke and high-end (i.e. expensive) suit buttons still work. This is a chance for dapper dudes to wear one button undone so they can show off that it is a really good quality suit. But most jackets today are not bespoke (made to order). Off the rack jackets no longer have functional buttons or buttonholes—this is to facilitate tailoring them, i.e. make my job that much easier, so that I can cut the buttons off and lengthen or shorten the sleeves to suit either a man with the wing-span of a T-rex or a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. Manufacturers, in trying to accommodate everyone, have designed suits that fit no one. Buttons on those suits are purely decorative.
One can only surmise that these conspicuously useless (often made of plastic, yuck) buttons stay there for the same reason men wear ties--#1 it’s always been like that, #2 it looks vaguely natty, #3 most men are so baffled by matters sartorial that it never dawns on them to agitate for change, #4 they are too busy tapering their trousers into tourniquets from the knee down to notice.
In college, I used to eat lunch occasionally with one of my favorite philosophy professors. She was about 8 years older than my roommate and I, which seemed like a lot back then, but she seemed to enjoy our company. I asked her what made her want to study philosophy. She said that she started graduate school as a biochemistry student but when she found herself on a research project that involved stroking the backs of centipedes until they peed into little vials, she knew that she needed to find something less pointless to do, hence Nietzsche and Goethe. Personally, I saw her life up close and I am not certain that lecturing to hung-over undergraduates about the contributions of Heraclitis and Aristotle to western thought was any less pointless. I observed her youth and idealism and how it was being squandered on exhausted people more interested in discovering the ancient Greek principles of Brotherhood out behind Lambda Chi Alpha and I thought there must be much more exciting things to do in this world.
Um, yeah… like sewing on buttons. Thirty years later, here I sit, on my buttons, sewing... Buttons that don’t even close anything. I might as well be stroking centipedes.
We all have these meaningless little tasks involved in our work. Sometimes the work is exciting—you get a big project, like your version of a wedding gown, and there is all this drama and pressure… You spend four whole days removing lace that has been attached microscopically with fishing line and you are over budget before you even begin to hem the gown… The mother of the Bride comes in, glaring at the bride and bellowing about how she has just been charged $600 for the rental of linens for the reception, and it’s not a good time to mention that the gown is taking a lot more time than anticipated… And time is money… well, not in this case, since no one will have the courage to tell this Mother of the Bride, so we will do the rest of the work for free… So Time is just time in this case… Time you now spend thinking about buttons and how sometimes having little boring things to do, mundane and simple chores with some anecdotal link back to the snot of Prussian soldiers, is not so bad.
Be Well, my dearies, and do Good Work!