Silk-Wrapped Buttons in the 18th Century

Last updated: Nov 10, 2021

The garments and portraits on this linkspage provide examples of silk thread-wrapped buttons, including death’s head buttons and striped buttons. See the links in the Additional Resources inset at right for instructions to make your own buttons, as well as places where you can buy your own button molds to make your own buttons.

A letter published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1807 muses on 18th century buttons:

There were two ſorts of buttons known to the taylors, death’s head and baſkets; the former were covered with flos ſilk, diverging in quarters from the centre, like the ruſhes at the bottom of a chair; the latter were woven ſomething like baſket-work, and were not confined to black, but were indifferently of any colour to ſuit the cloth.

Silk twist buttons like these were made in Leek and Macclesfield in the 18th century. (Macclesfield was particularly known for its buttons in the 18th century, as noted in A description of the country from thirty to forty miles round Manchester, A concise history of the county and city of Chester, and even The young English scholar’s complete pocket companion. A history of Macclesfield has a particularly interesting description of the button-making trade and how it boosted the local economy.) The local trade continued in the area into the late 19th century.

A general description of all trades describes three trades involved with this process: the button-mould-makers (“The Mould of a Button is the Inſide, or the hidden Part, on which the Silk, Twiſt, Metal, &c. is wrought, and is the main Support of it. They are cut out of Wood and Horn, by a particular Hand-inſtrument, at once ſhaping them to any Size required, which differ as often as the Modles of Buttons”), the button-makers (“who cover the Moulds with divers ſorts of Twiſts, &c. in many curious Mixtures and Shapes, on which many Women work”), and the button-sellers (“These are Shop-keepers, who ſell all ſorts of Buttons, and what generally goes with them, viz. Twiſts for making the Button-holes, &c.”) See also The complete dictionary of arts and sciences for more on the making of buttons and button-molds.

In the 18th century, the “ſilk twiſt button, called death head” was also exported to America in addition to its spread in England and on the Continent.

Death’s Head Buttons (in solid colors)

Multicolored/Striped Thread-Wrapped Buttons

These striped buttons tend to appear more frequently later in the 18th century and coordinate with the color combination on the garment.