Decorative buttons are far more than simple plastic circles to hold fabric together. With a wide variety of materials, designs, shapes, and sizes, novelty and designer buttons are a popular embellishment for dozens of different projects.
Buttons have been around for over 4,000 years. They were initially used as decorative elements for garments and weapons, often to distinguish a person's rank or affiliations. Today, buttons are still an important embellishment for clothing and crafts.
In addition to a nearly unlimited array of button designs, there are two basic categories of button construction:
- Sew-through buttons: Simple disks or flat shapes with two to six holes symmetrically centered for sewing the button to fabric
- Shank buttons: Buttons without holes that instead have a bar or loop on the back which can be sewn to a garment
Within these two classifications, there are thousands of variations of decorative and novelty buttons.
Types of Decorative Buttons
Buttons have long been a favorite decorative item because while they are embellishing a piece of clothing, they simultaneously keep the fabric together. Because of this functionality, buttons come in a tremendous range of designs.
Shapes and Sizes
Button sizes vary from barely 3/8 of an inch to over two inches in diameter. Smaller, more discreet sizes are preferred for functional work. Larger buttons are typically more elaborate and are favored for embellishments. Thickness also varies, but because of their attachment mechanism, sew-through buttons tend to be thinner than shank models.
By far the most common button shape is a simple circle, though ovals, squares, rectangles, stars, and hearts are also popular. Oblong buttons such as shafts and rods are common as well. More complex designs include miniature figural motifs and mechanical buttons--those with moving parts such as eyes, dangling legs, or coordinated accents such as a movable propeller on an airplane button or turning wheels on vehicle designs.
Buttons can be made out of nearly any material, though modern buttons are typically plastic, glass, or metal. Depending on the whims of fashion, decorative buttons may also be made from bone, horn, rubber, ivory, porcelain, gemstones, shells, pearls, and wood. Another variation is to cover a simple button with fabric, often to match or coordinate with the fabric used in a larger project. Do-it-yourself button cover kits are available from many craft and fabric stores.
Themes and Designs
Decorative buttons are available in an amazing assortment of themes and designs, including:
- Plain or rainbow colors in every shade imaginable
- Abstract patterns like stripes, polka dots, swirls, or faux textures (marble and wood)
- Holiday motifs from Easter baskets to carved pumpkins to party hats to nativities
- Animals, birds, and insects, both realistically and comically recreated
- Plant and flower designs, particularly painted on porcelain buttons
- Sports and hobbies of every persuasion from baseballs to paintbrushes
- Landscapes and other detailed scenes
- Trademarked themes such as Disney figures or other popular entertainment icons
The quality and detail of themed buttons varies greatly depending on the button size, motif, and manufacturer. Large, bright buttons are popular for fun children's themes, while more delicate workmanship characterizes elaborate designs in either silhouette or full-color miniature works of art.
Project Ideas for Decorative Buttons
With such a wide variety of buttons available, it is no surprise that there are just as many project ideas. Before simply choosing pretty buttons, however, consider the following tips:
- Be sure the button can be attached securely either by sewing or gluing.
- If the button is antique or delicate, consider using it in a non-functional capacity to avoid the stress of continual fastening and unfastening.
- Choose buttons that coordinate with the color and theme of the project without being overwhelmed. A very busy project may be best with plain buttons, while a simple project can highlight an elaborate button.
- Group small buttons together as accents to fill a larger space if necessary.
- Stack buttons or sew them with beads or sequins on the thread to add texture and visual interest.
Buttons can used for many different types of projects, including:
- Embellishing or adding details to embroidery or knitting
- As accents to quilts, pillow shams, and other bedding
- As functional decorations on costumes and doll clothing
- Embellishing furniture such as sofas or other upholstered pieces
- Decorating gift wrap, scrapbooks, cards, and other paper projects
- Embedded in candles for color and texture
- Accenting photograph frames and mirror edges
- Becoming stand-alone jewelry such as earrings, brooches, pins, or tie tacks
- Updating old clothing and accessories including jackets, blouses, or purses
By choosing the right type of button for the project, there is no limit to the personalization and embellishment decorative buttons can do.
Many grandmothers and great-grandmothers have saved buttons for generations because they could easily be reused as clothing wore out. This has led to an abundance of available designer and antique buttons, many of which can be found at individual hobby shops or through specialized websites such as Julia's Buttons and The Button Emporium. Buttons can also be found in more common locations, including:
- Thrift stores--both as a craft supply and attached to vintage clothing
- Craft and sewing stores such as Joann Crafts
- Sewing departments of discount stores
The cost of buttons varies widely based on the size, material, design, age, and intricacy. Plain, simple buttons may cost just a few cents each. More elaborate, antique designs range from a few dollars to well over $50 for a single button. Regardless of the cost, however, the true value of decorative buttons is in the distinction and novelty they bring to a craft project.