According to the closest dictionary on my shelf, a button is “a small disk, knob, or the like for sewing or otherwise attaching to an article, as of clothing, serving as a fastening when passed through a buttonhole or loop.”
As you probably already know, buttons come in all shapes and sizes. I’m just going to review what the general classifications are, so when you’re looking for a button online or in the stores, you’ll know what terms you need to narrow your search.
Start with the shape. Shape terms include: round, square, oval, toggle, flat, domed, half-ball and ball or sphere.
If the button you seen is shaped like a flower or a cartoon character or something non-traditional like that, it’ll be referred to as a “novelty” button.
How is the button attached to the garment? If it’s pierced with holes which you sew through, it’s a “flat” button. There will be at least two holes, sometimes four. You’ll see these buttons on shirts, blouses and coats for both functional and decorative purposes.
Another ubiquitous attachment method is the “shank”. A shank button is attached via a bar or loop on the back. These buttons are popular on military uniforms and coats.
A third attachment type is the “stud”. Think of the fly button on your jeans, or on some coats. Folks sometimes call this a “rivet” button as it has two parts that are attached to each other, with the fabric sandwiched in between. Snaps are a type of stud button, too.
Then there’s the material from which they’re made. Buttons can be made from pretty much anything: plastic, glass, wood, bone, horn, shell, and metals of all kinds. The type of material used can seriously impact the cost of the button.
You can also find buttons that have been covered in fabric, or worked over with a thread. These are usually just called “fabric” buttons, even if the core is something else. You can even buy kits where you cover a metal cover with the fabric of your choosing – providing it isn’t too thick. I’ve found these very useful when I’ve had to make a costume with matching piping and buttons. It’s fiddly, but easy enough to get the hang of with practice.
Finally, there’s the size of the button. The industry measures buttons using a French system called lignes – there are 40 lignes to an inch. A button that’s three quarters of an inch wide is thirty lignes. An inch and a half wide button is sixty lignes. Most commercially-produced buttons will also include an everyday measurement in inches or centimeters, but be prepared to do conversions on the fly when you’re out shopping.
The most appropriate material choice depends on the function of the button and on your budget. A hand-made art-glass button is going to look gorgeous on that one-of-a-kind couture coat you’re making, but it’s total overkill on a work blouse.
You can attach flat sew-through buttons with your sewing machine, by dropping the feed dogs and using a zig zag stitch.
Shank and stud buttons must be attached by hand. The good news is that the button can hide all kinds of messiness from your hand stitching when you’re attaching a shank-style button – at least, it does for me.
Stud buttons often require a special tool or setter, so look into that when you’re assembling your materials. Usually, these setters are very simple, only costing a couple of dollars and requiring a hammer or rubber mallet. Make sure you get the right size setter for your snaps or studs.
The composition of the button will impact whether or not it can be cleaned easily. Most plastic buttons are going to go through the wash just fine, but glass and shell buttons can chip, wood buttons might warp – if they’re not sealed with varnish – and so on. And it really stinks when that ONE costume you’ve got that can go through the wash has suddenly become hand-wash only because you decided to use real mother-of-pearl buttons instead of a plastic imitation, so keep the materials in mind when making your selection. For every fancy material out there, there’s usually a pretty good imitation in something that’s half the cost and more durable to boot.