Dorset Feather Stitchery
Note that this article was originally written in 1968 by Mrs P Reeks.
Information try the
website at "www.dorsetbuttons.co.uk".
Quite by chance one day, it was discovered that a
village resident, Mrs. Horwood, was not only a keen needle
woman and an authority on Dorset Feather Stitchery, but is
doing her utmost to revive buttony and lace-making. Mrs
Horwood is a Dane who has spent many years in India and came
to live in Verwood in 1950. She travels through many parts
of England exhibiting work and demonstrating how it is
achieved. Much of her time is spent working with the Dorset
Women's Institutes reviving "lost" crafts. She was
therefore delighted to teach a "member of the next
generation" how to work Dorset Feather Stitchery and
Dorset Buttons. As my interest in the work deepened, I felt
that I had to know how these crafts originated.
Apparently they were first made in Shaftesbury at
the close of the seventeenth century by Abraham Case, those
first buttons being called "high tops" and
"knobs". They were made on a disc of horn from the
Dorset Horned Sheep. The disc was covered with a piece of
linen, which was then worked all over with fine linen thread
to form a conical or knob shape depending on the type of
The high-tops were worn by gentlemen on their
From these small beginnings in Shaftesbury, buttony
became a village industry in Dorset at the beginning of the
eighteenth century, emplying thousands of people and
bringing in a revenue of twelve thousand pounds per annum.
Buttons were in great demand in Europe and America as well
as in this country and they were exported from Liverpool.
The wire-ring buttons were invented by Abraham
Case's grandson in the reign of George II. The wire was
brought to the area from Birmingham by Horse and Waggon in
one and a half ton loads. It was made into button rings by
being twisted on a spindle and the cut ends being dipped in
solder. Children were employed as "stringers".
They threaded the rings into gross bundles, whilst others
were at one time employed to polish the finished buttons
until it was found that this damaged the thread, when this
procedure then ceased.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century the
Cases had depots for the cottage workers all over
, the east
depots being Blandford, Bere Regis, Lychett Minster, Iwerne
Minster and Langton Matravers.
Buttons called "Blandford Cartwheels"
were mainly made in the Blandford area, which until the
beginning of the seventeenth century had been a centre for
the Huguenot lace-makers, Whcn lace lost its popularity, the
fine lace thread was used to make buttons. Linen shirt
buttons were also made at Blandford.
I was intrigued when I discovered that there had
been Huguenots in Bland-- ford at that period, as within
three miles of Verwood at Woodlands there is a building
called, "The Round House", reputedly a Huguenot
building. There are varying tales of its original use, some
think that it was used by weavers, others think that
spinners and lace makers worked there. |I am beginning to
think that the latter is possible as flax and hemp were
grown in the east Dorset area in Saxon times.
varying types of buttons were made including High tops and
Knobs, as previously mentioned and also those worked on a
sire ring. These latter were Blandford Cartwheels, Yarrels
with ten spokes, Basket-weave, Honeycomb with an odd number
of spokes, Crosswheel of spider web, Singleton made from a
linen covered padded ring, Jaml or Gem, Bird's eye a padded
ring with a hols in the centre, Mites and Spangles, These
last two types were very tiny and some buttons were
decorated with beadwork. .
Examples of Dorset Buttons can be seen in the
Dorset County, Christchurch, Poole, Shaftesbury and Victoria
and Albert Museums. I was extremely fortunate in being able
to purchase a few buttons from an enthusiast at the Dorset
Art and Craft Exhibition last summer and feel proud to own
part of Dorset's History. These I have included to
illustrate as many as possible of the types mentioned above.
The complete buttons mere mounted on cards for
sale. The first quality for export, were mounted on pink
cards, the seconds on dark blue cards and the third quality
were mounted on yellow cards, these last two qualities being
for sale in England. Any dirty buttons were boiled in a
linen bag before being mounted. It is said that expert
buttoners could make up to one gross a day for which they
were paid three shillings and six pence or three shilling
and nine pence if the buttons were perfect. The out workers
many on foot, took their buttons for sail to the
various depots on certain days called "Button
Days". Apparently they were not always paid in cash but
sometimes in good.
A bitter blow struck the buttoners in 1850 when
Ashton's patent button machine was exhibited at the Great
London Exhibition. in 1851 the cottage industry was at an
end bringing poverty and starvation to the families of the
buttoners. It is said that as the result of this some three
hundred and fifty families from Shaftesbury alone were
shipped to the colonies at the Government's expense, some to
and others to Australia
The Dowager Lady Lees fought to revive the industry
in Lychett Minster at the beginning of this century. She
succeeded in building up a small business which in 1908
produced parliamentary buttons; pale blue for the South
Dorset Conservatives and purple for the East Dorset
Conservatives. The advent of the 1914 to 1918 war brought
this revival to an end. In 1967 boxes of buttons were found
in an old cottage on Lady Lees' estate. Most of these she
sold to Americans to raise funds for her Religious films
projects, hut sadly she died a few months before she was
able to complete the recent project.
The secret of making high-tops and knobs has never
been solved, but the buttons made on wire rings are the
types which are being revived. To make one of these buttons,
the ring is held in the left hand and "casting"
done by button-holing closely all round the ring, sewing
over the loose end at the beginning. The button-holed ridge
is then turned inside by pushing with the thumb, this was
dune originally with a boned instrument called a
"slicker" until it was found that this weakened
the threads. When "laying" the spokes of the
wheel, the thread must be kept taut to hold the spokes in
place, these are secured by a cross-stitch at the hub
centre. The button can then be ''rounded" in many
designs e.g. cross-wheel; basket weave etc., I have been
told that it is useful to leave one or two threads at the
button back with which to sew the button onto the garment.
feather stitchery, is believed to have been
"borrowed" from the Welsh in the seventeenth
Century. It was worked on smock-frocks ( the usual outer
garment of the country labourers and craftsmen. These smocks
were worn by them over ordinary working clothes with
coloured neckerchief at their necks. They were made of
strong coarse linen and were embroidered on the collar,
shoulders and cuffs with the characteristic smocking across
the breast, back and upper and lower sleeves. Such smocks
were worn in many parts of England, the designs of the
embroidery being significant to the nature of the craft of
the workmen. The design of the feather stitchery on the
English farm labourer's smock on display in the Dorset
County Museum consists of scrolls and diamond shapes
worked in a variety of stitches, with diamond shapes being
predominant in the smocking.
The smock-frocks did not entirely die out of use
until the latter half of the nineteenth century.
The Dorset Women's Institutes are doing a great
deal to revive this craft, Mrs. Horwood being a well known
judge in this sphere. I feel that I am steadily becoming a
native of Verwood and therefore Dorset, after having lived
here for twenty years and I hope to be able to pass on to
the "younger generation" here two of the crafts of
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