Grandmother’s button box was always kept on her sewing machine desk. It was more of a small canister, really, made of tin, with a terra cotta-colored plastic lid. The box was decorated with images of people from the Victorian era shopping for fabrics and notions. I do not remember a time without its presence. The button box was another constant thing in my day-to-day world, reassuring to see and comforting to touch, a delight to open and explore. A person’s experience with Grandmother’s button box would likely be the following.
The tin sits there with its old-timey pictures, full of mystery and promise, beckoning to you, young or old. Beneath the cover you find her timeless collection of buttons and other random treasures that inevitably make their way into boxes and tins throughout the sewing room—safety pins, snaps, and more. It is an archaeological dig site—artifacts of days gone by, treasures, and the wisdom of the ages lie within. All you need to do is dig in!
Giving in to anticipation, you plunge in your hand and scoop them out, sifting buttons through your fingers, falling back into the trove with the most satisfying jingles and clickety clacks from metal and plastic! In that moment, these ordinary bits and bobs are the most extraordinarily precious objects you’ve ever held in your hand. They exist to be studied, counted, sorted, and inspected again and again. The buttons are alluring and exciting and, on any given day, full of tiny fairy adventures with Tink, The Borrowers, Thumbelina, and perhaps even Ariel. The trinkets are exciting and mysterious, full of never-ending stories you make up each time the box is opened. It is a great privilege to open it and play with these magical jewels.
Later on, buttons were part of my first sewing lessons. So many things to learn about buttons in sewing! Button sewing taught me numerous things in needlecraft, too. Patience is one of those things. Buttons are a project’s final details, but they are often the most important and most noticed. Buttons taught me to closely examine the details, to be careful and make them secure, but neatly—one of Grandmother’s hallmark traits. And sew each stitch with love.
While sewing buttons, one has time for inner reflections and daydreams. Eventually, I began to consider the history of a particular button in the box. Grandmother told me stories of where many of them came from—whose clothes and in what season. Sometimes, she told a funny story about how the button came to be in the box or about the person who wore it. So, the button box was a treasure trove of family stories and history. There were buttons from Grandmother’s childhood clothes and one or two from Grandaddy’s time in the army. There were some from her mother-in-law, my great-grandmother, Estelle. Her buttons were always fancy and fashionable. She was an incredibly snappy dresser and gifted seamstress, too. Her button sewing taught me precision, as did her life. But those are other stories, for other days. Estelle’s buttons added to my fashion knowledge and enthusiasm.
Among the sparkly button treasures, amid the sorting, sewing, stories, and daydreams, wisdom was gained as well. Saving extra or found buttons is an obvious insight: You never know when you might need a button. Throwing them away would be wasteful. Many things are useful for more than their originally intended purpose, a lesson Grandmother taught me time and again, in many more ways than the button box.
Follow the trail of stories in your own box. Like breadcrumbs, they can lead you home. Listen to the lessons of patience and persistence. Care about the details in your life as well as those on your shirt. Make it secure, and do the job right the first time. You may be glad you did. A job worth doing is worth doing well. All these may be clichés, but they are old saws for a reason. Listen to the stories of your grandmothers and grandfathers. And remember that even the old, shabby-looking buttons are still useful, still beautiful, and they carry a wisdom of the ages.
Manderley Swain is an artist, blogger, “sewist,” and writer from East Tennessee. She was a costume designer with a sewing studio for over 10 years. Now, she lives the best creative life possible on her own terms. Her favorite medium is watercolor, but she dabbles in all sorts of creative pursuits. She is a creative catalyst who loves to inspire and teach others to find their inner artist. Artwork by Manderley and her partner, Zen, can be found on their website: Zenderley. The above story was first published on Manderley’s blog My Jumbled Journal: Creativity Conquers All.
**All images on “Grandmother’s Button Box” courtesy of Manderley Swain