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Buttons of yore : buttons are beautiful: their variety of theme, size, color and composition is seemingly endless. They're used as closures, objects of art or textural additions to fiber creations. But buttons can also be dangerous to your health! Some types are flammable, unstable and release noxious gas. Read on to learn what can harm you and your buttons.

What's a Celluloid Button?

Throughout history buttons have been crafted from many materials. Some materials used to make buttons are found in nature, such as shell, bone and wood, while others, such as glass, metals and plastics, require processing. The first attempt at true plastic, celluloid, was used in a variety of ways to produce buttons. Celluloid buttons . are one of the most popular types of L buttons seen in today's crafting and sewing and with good reason.

Celluloid buttons are relatively new and therefore plentiful and reasonably priced. They come in a variety of sizes from small to extra-large and have an art-deco feel that makes them the perfect accent to any project.


World War I prompted a creative surge like never before. Natural resources were in short supply and inventors were encouraged to find solutions that were more chemical in nature. Celluloid seemed the product For the job. Invented in the mid 1850s, celluloid (made from nitrocellulose and camphor) was versatile and could be pressed into thin sheets, molded or extruded. It could be colored to imitate myriad materials, such as ivory. marble, bone, gemstones or wood. Celluloid was originally used in its colorless form to imitate glass over tintype portraits on buttons and in lockets. Used commercially between the 1870s and 1930s, celluloid was a dream come true for manufacturers. All that was needed was to work out a few undesirable characteristics.


Celluloid is very brittle in some forms. It can crack, craze, crumble and release formaldehyde gas. When left in a closed jar or tin, this gas can cause nasty chemical reactions that destroy buttons of all types (1). For this reason, always store these buttons separate from other buttons and never in a closed container. Let them "breathe."

Many people are astonished to learn that most types of celluloid buttons are not safe for the washing machine. When celluloid sheets are molded over a wood or cardboard frame, the frame piece is left inside for stability. Sometimes, as is the case with "bubbles," a small metal cap is used in addition to a metal back that holds the sheet in place (2). When water enters the button through the shank or other openings used to attach the button, the inner components are soaked and hold water. If submerged in a washing machine, the button can rust from the inside out.

Celluloid buttons are also not safe for the dryer, as these buttons are highly flammable. Never touch them with an iron, stove, candle, clothes dryer, heat gun, hot glue gun or other heat source. If the button bursts into flames, you'll know for sure that it's a celluloid button.


It's easy to determine a celluloid button when recognizing its distinctive composition. -rum over the buttons and examine the shank. Celluloid buttons have a specitic shank type, called an. Omega shank, that's easy to recognize (3). A celluloid bubble button is wrapped to the back and crimped inside once the metal back is applied. The black finish is a lacquer application, called "japaning," that keeps the metal back from rusting. Their shank is reminiscent :of a railroad tunnel and is often incorporated after the button is made (4).

Perform the "tap test." Celluloid sheets are very thin arid hollow. Tap on the front of the button with your fingernail. If it sounds hollow, that's a sign of a celluloid button. Celluloid "wafers" look and sound like poker chips when, dropped on a table (5).. They're made of many thin layers of celluloid pressed together.


Celluloid buttons are acceptable for crafting and sewing, if you're carefiil and responsible. When using any celluloid (or antique) button in a creation, consider how the project will be used. Will it be washed, dried, ironed, worn or handled much of the time? If so, choose a different button.

Incorporate something to act as a base for the button. For example, sew the button onto a piece of felt, batting scrap, silk flower or other fabric to allow you to attach the fabric, not the button, to the project (6). As an important added bonus, the base preserves the button value. Fabric yo-yos are wonderful bases to attach a button. They give the button support and are attached to fabric without compromise. Whether the yo-yo shows or not is the designer's choice.

To use a celluloid button on a garment that requires washing, use a "backer button" to easily remove and reattach the button (7). Sew a smaller "backer" button to the larger celluloid button, and sew buttonholes the size of the smaller button to the project. The buttonholes are smaller and more stable and the larger button is removable for washing. Some buttons are detachable using specialty button safety pins, but celluloid buttons break too easily for this method.

Delicate or special buttons are best displayed on a photo mat. Position the buttons around the mat, mark the locations, and then poke a hole at each location using an awl, ice pick or corn-cob holder (8). Thread a coated wire through the button or button shank. Insert the wires through each hole and pull through. Twist the wire ends to secure (9). Use the mat to "frame a photo or other sentimental subject (10). A shadowbox frame works best, or no glass at all, to allow room for the button dimensions.

There are countless creative button applications from which to choose. Buttons add bling, texture, focal points and sentimental value to any garment, accessory or artwork. Remember that buttons are a part of the design process, not an afterthought. Just as you choose the correct fabric, thread and needle size, choose the button type best suited to the project. And let your imagination catch fire, not your buttons!


For more fascinating button facts, look to these books, all available from St. Johann Press:

* The Big Book of Buttons (2 Volumes) 2nd Edition, Elizabeth Hughes and Marion Lester: $395, pictured at right.

* All Because of a Button: Folklore, Fact and Fiction, Ellaraine Lockie: $24.50.

* The Button Industry in the United States, Edward Newberger: $15.

* 50-Year Index to the National Button Society Bulletins 7942-7997, Anne Flood: $34.50.
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Author:Gorski, Jill
Publication:Sew News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2014
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