For a ball button:
By Jennifer Carlson (Dunstana Talana the Violet, OL)

“To make a cloth button, cut a 1 ½” diameter circle, then sew a gathering stitch around it.  Gather the stitch to make a kind of purse; flatten the purse into a bulging disk, with the opening in the center of the top; then sew opposite points on the edge of the disk to each other to make the button.”
--  From Daily Life in Chaucer’s England, by Jeffrey L. Singman and Will McLean.  Westport, CT; Greenwood Press, 1995. 

Singman’s method works, but I do it a little differently.  The following button was cut from skirt-weight, tabby-woven wool, slightly fulled.  I used the end of a standard thread spool (appox. 1 ¼” dia.), and resulted in a button ½” in diameter.  The length of thread was about 30”. 

  1. Double your thread and pass both cut ends through the eye of your needle.  Anchor the thread in the fabric using a lark’s head knot.  Stitching only as close to the edge of the circle as you can without unraveling the fabric’s raw edge, sew a line of small, even gathering stitches around the edge of the circle. 

 

  1. Draw up the gathers to form a small pouch and flatten it out with the gathers in the center.  Make a small backstitch to anchor the gathers.  Quilters call this a “yo-yo.”

 

  1. Sew a second row of gathering stitches as close to the edge as possible, passing through both layers.  Make the stitches small and as even as you can, and right at the edge. 

Back side Front side
  1. Carefully draw up the gathers, pushing the raw edges inside as the disc pulls up into a ball.  If needed, stuff the ball with tiny scraps of fabric, or bits of thread. Pull the gathering thread tight to close the ball and make one small backstitch to make it hold its shape. 

  

  1. If your button looks a little lopsided, don’t worry.  Run through each of the tiny pleats with a straight stitch, and pull.  This will firm up the gathers.  Make a tiny backstitch to anchor the gathers.

 
Not a great picture – the button will have a circle of pleats around the opening. 

  1. You may need to repeat step 5 a few time.  You will find that, depending on where you place your needle, you can manipulate protruding pleats back into the ball, or pull out creases where pleats go too deep.
  2. Knot off the thread.

 
Finished button

Note:  you can, if you like, use a longer thread, and after making up the button, use the remaining thread to attach the button to the edge of the garment (see section on period methods of attaching buttons).  If you are going to use the ball as the foundation of a needleworked button, go ahead and knot off the thread now, burying the end inside the ball.

For a flat cloth button:

The example here is made from a 3” diameter circle of skirt-weight, tabby woven wool, slightly fulled.  The length of thread was about 60”.  The finished button is 1” in diameter.

  1. Double your thread and pass both cut ends through the eye of your needle.  Anchor the thread in the fabric using a lark’s head knot.  Stitching only as close to the edge of the circle as you can without unraveling the fabric’s raw edge, sew a line of small, even gathering stitches around the edge of the circle. 

  

  1. Draw up the gathers to form a small pouch (but not as tightly as for a ball button) and flatten it out, centering the gathers.  Make a tiny backstitch in the last gather to prevent the gathers from pulling back out.

  

  1. Make another row of gathering stitches as close to the folded edge as possible.
Back side Front side
  1. Draw up the gathers, but only enough to turn the edge in about halfway to the center.  It should look kind of like a bottlecap.  You should be able to see the raw edges of the fabric clearly through the center opening.  If the button is not thick enough for your preference (more likely if you’re working with a thin fabric), open the gathers and insert 1 or 2 discs of the same fabric, cut the size of the finished button, and draw up the gathers again.

  

  1. Make a tiny backstitch to anchor the gathers. Smooth the button flat.

  1. Turn the button top side up.  Make a row of stitches a little in from the edge, stabbing the needle straight up and down through all the layers in the button.  This will fasten the layers together as if you were quilting it.  Do not pull too tightly.  As you go, use your thumbnail to manipulate the pleats of the gathers into position so that the stab stitches lock them in place.  This will smooth out any lumps from uneven gathers.
  1. Make a second circle of stitches, this time closer to the center, to catch the edges of the gathers.  Again, use your thumbnail to manipulate the gathers into position for stitching.  Do not pull too tightly with your stitches, or your button will look rather like a donut.

 

  1. Knot off thread.

 Note:  you can, if you like, use a longer thread, and after making up the button, use the remaining thread to attached the button to the edge of the garment (see section on period methods of attaching buttons).  If you are going to use the disc as the foundation of a needleworked button, go ahead and knot off the thread now, burying the end inside the disc. 

To cover a disc foundation with cloth:

Your disc foundation can be of wood, rawhide, parchment, cardboard, bone, wood, or plastic the size of your finished button.  You can also use any flat button, or even a coin of the desired diameter.

The sample shown here is made of a disk of dress-weight linen, 1 ¼” diameter, worked over a flat wooden disc bead 7/16” in diameter.  The length of thread used is 30”.

  1. Use a wooden disc, a circle of rawhide or parchment, cardboard, bone, wood, or any flat button, or even a coin, of the desired diameter.
  1. Cut a circle of fabric a little more than twice as wide as the foundation.  You may need to make a practice sample or two until you find the correct size.  Thin fabrics can be cut smaller than thick fabrics.
  1. Mark or finger-press a hem 1/6” (1/4” if the fabric frays a lot) around the circle.
  1. Double your thread and pass both cut ends through the needle.  Anchor the thread in the fabric with a lark’s head knot.  Sew a gathering stitch as close as you can to the folded edge.

 

  1. Set your disc in the center of the circle and draw up the gathering stitches.  The fabric will close up around the disc.
Wooden disc centered Gathers drawn up and secured
  1. Make a tiny backstitch to set the gathers.
  1. Moving in about 1/6” from your stitches, baste through all the gathers to even them up and snug the fabric against the disk. 


Tiny stitches run through pleats to draw fabric snugly against the wooden form. 

  1. Knot off your thread.


Finished buttons, side and top views 

Note:  you can, if you like, use a longer thread, and after making up the button, use the remaining thread to attached the button to the edge of the garment (see section on period methods of attaching buttons).  If you are going to use the button as the foundation of a needleworked button, go ahead and knot off the thread now.