A box of buttons
January 3, 2012
A few months ago a delightful blogpost by Julia Parsons inspired me to embark upon possibly my silliest ever craft project. With the exception, arguably, of my 2002 scouring pad project, which will have to wait for another day.
Julia wrote with sparkling nostalgia about her love for her grandmother’s secret stash of buttons, beautifully evoking a child’s delight at the mysterious unfathomable magic always just beneath the surface of everyday life.
I don’t really have a button-memory like Julia’s, but I certainly found her tale powerfully evocative. There’s something about a whimsical collection of disparate and slightly absurd things that can’t fail to tug the imagination and draw up real or fanciful stories.
My own memory took me back nearly forty years to my grandfather’s wooden toolshed, in the middle of a seemingly immense garden teeming with exotic plants (such as runner beans and rhubarb), behind my grandparents’ council house in Garden Road, Dunstable.
The shed was potently perfumed with a mixture of wood, metal, rust, oil, and probably tobacco too. It was filled to the brim with incomprehensible apparatus utterly otherworldly in the context of my tidy home life. I remember trays of screws and nails of every size and all sorts of miscellaneous workmanlike detritus. Perhaps there were things for his famous scooter. Or football memorabilia. I’m not sure if anything was ever used, or it was just some kind of den … and of course, most of this is probably the product of my imagination.
But as an adult, as things have turned out, I’m much more a buttons person than a screws and nails person … so I decided to take Julia’s memory as a starting point and, knowing that in my household we have assiduously kept spare buttons, often years beyond their use-by date, see if I could come up with a project.
My idea was that an interesting texture could be created by combining real buttons with cut-out photos of buttons and oil-painted buttons. Combining these in relatively equal proportions against a black background on canvas should make a fun and colourful new object.
I got a 40x40cm canvas and, counting out a sample from the button box, I determined it would need about 600 to fill the space (i.e. 200 buttons, 200 photos, 200 painted). One of those moments when it hits you how much work is going to be involved with a project! Fortunately one of my strengths is carrying ideas through to completion … especially when utterly silly.
The household saved button stash was inadequate, so I bought some bagfuls from Blooming Felt and topped up with a few expensive specials from John Lewis and Liberty. Laying them all out, sorting and counting was of course the best part. I took the photos at that stage and applied various distortions to the colour and lighting, so that the cut-outs would have a range of visual interest to balance the textures of the real buttons. The hardest part for me was the painting, as I have no particular skill with oils. Once it was all put together I waited a fortnight before painting on the dots, and then another fortnight before placing it on the wall.
Looking at the finished object now, the texture has worked out just about as I hoped, and so far the glues I used are holding up. I enjoy the contrast between real textures and faux-textures, and the correspondences between the real buttons and the distorted versions seen in the photos. I’ve since made a second smaller version as a gift (30×30 cm – which means half the surface area and half the effort).
Even though there wasn’t much of personal significance in the materials used, I’m sure someone will occasionally spot a button and remember clothes, places and people. Scouring the surface I realise there are at least three brands visible: Ted Baker, PS (Paul Smith) and Nico Didonna. Everyone knows the first two, but Nico has had much more personal significance for me over the past decade. A superb designer-tailor and irresistible salesman, he’s responsible for many of my favourite things, including my three-piece purple velvet wedding suit. Nico undoubtedly deserves a blogpost of his own. And I’m very happy to have recylced a chunky metal Nico-branded stud-button that fell off my favourite dance trousers one night in 2009.