Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

Shirt with Dorset buttons

Buttons and Zips and All Things That Fasten


I’m been pondering about my makes for #1year1outfit and, beyond the fabric, there are other things that I’ll need to source. Top of this list are notions, particularly buttons and zips. How can I source these as locally and make sure that they are constructed from non-synthetic materials? I guess the easiest way to resolve this problem, would be just not to use any fasteners at all; over-the-head tops and wraps skirts could get around this. But where’s the challenge in that?

Anyway, below is my usual local history investigation. I like doing this research because I always uncover something unexpected that widens my choice.


Zips are generally made with either plastic or metal teeth on a fabric or synthetic tape.

Elias Howe, who also invented the sewing machine, filed a patent in 1851 f0r an “automatic, continuous clothing closure”. He did not try seriously to market it, and the first working zip, known then, as a “clasp locker” was developed by the American inventor, Whitcomb L. Judson. In 1893 Judson exhibited his new invention at the Chicago World’s Fair, but the “clasp-locker” met with little commercial success during Judson’s lifetime. In 1913 the zipper was re-designed and improved and by the Swedish-American engineer, Gideon Sundback.  The B.F. Goodrich company installed the new design “zippers” in their rubber galoshes in 1923 .

Patent for Zip

Clasp Locker Patent (1893)

I did manage with a little investigation to find zips which are based on cotton tapes with metal teeth and even zips made in the UK, but nothing that meets the stringent criteria for this challenge. If a zip was made with British linen with British brass teeth, perhaps that might meet the test, but such a zip, as far as I know doesn’t exist.

Would brass be classed as a natural product anyway? Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc and it is certainly a local commodity. Copper and zinc have been mined in the south-west for hundreds of years. The smelted ore was shipped up the Bristol Channel to the port of Bristol. Horse brasses, plaques used for the decoration of horse harness gear, originate from this area of England too. Cornish mining reached its zenith in the 19th century. Foreign competition, however, depressed the price of copper and today there is no mining activity at all in the area. The last tin mine closed in 1998.



I think I’m much more likely to find locally-sourced buttons, made from natural materials. Buttons are a far more ancient invention. They have been used since about 2000 BC in both China and Ancient Rome to adorn garments. Their use as fasteners rather than just ornaments appeared first in Germany in the 13th century and spread through Europe.

Materials that I could consider would be wood, porcelain, horn or even Dorset buttons.

Hand-worked Dorset buttons

Hand-worked Dorset buttons

Dorset buttons are made by repeatedly binding yarn over a disc or ring. Originally the disc would have been made of horn, from the Dorset Horn sheep local to the area, but wire was also used Dorset buttons were manufactured in Dorset from the 17th century and the buttons were used on mens’ waistcoats and womens’ dresses. By the turn of the 19th century there were over 4000 women and children, as young as six, producing these buttons, as a cottage industry. A silk waistcoat worn by King Charles I at his execution has Dorset buttons. It can be seen at Longleat House.

King Charles I silk waistcoat

King Charles I silk waistcoat


Natty Jakes Vintage and Retro Market

Wooden buttons crafted in Wiltshire.

Abbey Horn

Buttons and toggles crafted from antler (from Scotland) and horn (Cumbria). These aren’t particularly local, but I could craft my own too as they also supply the raw materials.

Melissa Ceramics

Porcelain buttons from Cornwall. As described in the Etsy shop: “Each button is individually handmade from porcelain clay and decorated with real foliage from Melissa’s Cornish Country garden before being fired and glazed”.

Poppy Ceramics

Porcelain buttons from Bristol. The website doesn’t have any photos of buttons, but Jo apparently does made them with her signature poppy motif.

 Marion Howitt’s Dorset buttons

This site has kits and instruction booklets on how to make Dorset buttons.

All this research does make me realise that this 1year1outfit challenge would have been a breeze in the 19th century when all my supplies would have been local and non-synthetic! Sadly, many of the local industries I’m researching have disappeared, and I suppose that is where the challenge lies – finding out how many still exist and how local people still want these skills to survive.


Author: steelyseamstress

Sewing a new wardrobe

3 thoughts on “Buttons and Zips and All Things That Fasten

  1. Your research is very impressive! I’m taking part in 1yr1outfit too, and as I’m in SW Australia we have even less locally sourced haberdashery products than the average 😦 It’s good that we can carve our own buttons, at least!
    I’m looking forward to seeing your outfit!

    • Hi. Thanks for dropping by – it’s great to make contact with a fellow 1year1outfitter! I must say that I am pretty fortunate here in the UK. In fact, my choice of fabrics and haberdashery so far has outstripped my expectations. Good luck with your outfit!

  2. Pingback: #1year1outfit – Threads | Steely Seamstress

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