I had a bad experience with the gardecorpes I made for my husband: one of the buttons tore off, tearing the fabric. I had to darn the hole, and the darn showed. Had I used the period method of sewing buttons onto the edge of the garment, the damage from losing a button would have been less serious, easier to fix, and easier to hide.
Examples from the 14th through 16th centuries show that normal practice was to sew buttons to the edge of the cuff or garment opening rather than setting them in from the edge, as is standard today. Sewing to the edge is more economical when fabric is precious, because it requires a smaller overlap. Also, if the button should be torn off, the tear is less likely to show and can easily be patched or darned. For heavily padded clothing, such as arming doublets or bombasted doublets, a button sewn parallel to the chest is more difficult to secure than one perched along the edge of the garment.
Buttons were generally attached by forming a “stalk” of loose stitches, which were then wrapped tightly together. This creates an exceptionally sturdy anchor for the button that does not wear through easily. Standard practice was not to break off the sewing thread after attaching each button, but to carry it down the placket and stitch the next button, taking upa fresh needlefull of thread only when the previous one was used up(Crowfoot, p. 170). I can bear witness that, when sewing twenty or more buttons down the front of a doublet or upa gown’s sleeve, this is a great timesaver.
Sometimes stitching the buttons exactly on the edge of the garment is not entirely practical: for instance, when attaching a largish, covered-disc button. Buttons of this style larger than ½” sit awkwardly if put on a stalk. They can be attached by stitching each little pleat on the button’s backside vertically to the garment, butting the base of the button directly to the garment. A pair of men’s 18th c. breeches in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg uses this method.
On leather garments, no method of stitching is practical, as the leather cannot be mended if the stitches tear out. Extremely thick leather garments, such as buff coats, were closed by points instead of buttons.
On less heavy leather, one solution was to punch eyelets through the leather, push the shank through, and use a sturdy thong on the back side to fasten the buttons in place. (Arnold, p.19, fig.114 and Crowfoot, p.167). I have also handled a reproduction of a 16th century, Dutch jerkin, from the collection of Al Saguto, on which the thong was not a straight run of leather strip, but elaborately plaited to minimize pulling and gapping when the garment is worn.
Detail from Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion, p. 19, fig. 114. Youth’s leather jerkin, c. 1560, English, from the Museum of London collection. Leather lacing strip holding metal buttons in place.
The modern solution is to place a small, flat button on the opposite side of the leather from the functional button, and stitch through the backing button. It acts like a washer and prevents the stitching from ripping through the leather when the closure is under stress.
The eyelets-and-lacing-strip attachment was probably used for most metal buttons in the London finds from the 14th century:
“Metal buttons made from tin, pewter, bronze and brass have been recovered from 13th- and 14th- century deposits in London . . . but, by contrast to cloth buttons, none now remain attached to any item of clothing. This is perhaps because they were attached in a different way; indeed, shanks at the back of the metal buttons suggest that they could have been moved from garment to garment by the simple expedient of setting the button shank through a worked eyelet hole and passing a lace down the back of the eyelets and through the shank, a technique well attested in surviving clothing of the 16 century and by earlier visual evidence. Indeed this may have been the purpose of the silk eyelets . . . and would explain why they show no stress-lines form tension. Like brooches before them, buttons in the 14th century became settings for precious jewels. In 1351, for instance, the Duke of Orleans had a set of 25 gold buttons each with a diamond surrounded by four pearls . . . and no doubt these were attached to his clothing by this method.” (Crowfoot, p.171-2.)
To attach a button on a stalk:
Your buttons should stand up like little mushrooms.
Cloth buttons on reproduction of Herjolfsnes No. 63 cotte. Ball buttons made of same worsted fabric as the cotte, sewn on with silk thread.
Needlework buttons on reproduction of c1550 man’s doublet. Crochet cotton buttons worked over wooden forms, attached with silk thread.
The same technique works for attaching metal shank buttons to a fabric edge. Linen man’s jerkin with pewter reproduction buttons sewn on with bookbinder’s linen.
Buttons on pair of Venetians (reproduction). Wool twill over wooden discs. The fabric was too thick to hem under when making the button, so I left the raw edges exposed and wrapped thread around the fabric gathers to create a thick stalk, which I then stitched directly to the edge of the fly opening. These buttons have held upquite well, with no sign of trying to come loose or unraveled.
When your flat button is too wide to attach to the folded edge:
Stitch button to garment through each tiny pleat on the button’s backside.
The button will sit like a tree stump on the garment.
Waistband and fall buttons on reproduction of 18th c. man’s breeches. Linen cloth over wooden discs.