Spanish button ca. 1650-75 12mm

Button – In modern clothing and fashion design, a button is a small fastener, most commonly made of plastic, but also frequently of seashell, which secures two pieces of fabric together. In archaeology, a button can be a significant artifact. In the applied arts and in craft, a button can be an example of folk art, studio craft, or even a miniature work of art.

The button was originally used more as an ornament than as a fastening, the earliest known being found at Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley. It is made of a curved shell and about 5000 years old.

Functional buttons with buttonholes for fastening or closing clothes appeared first in Germany in the 13th century. They soon became widespread with the rise of snug-fitting garments in 13th- and 14th-century Europe.

Other fasteners

  • Velcro (video 2:31) – “hook and loop” fastener
  • zipper
  • buckle
  • snap fasteners

What’s the problem?
In a time before zippers and Velcro, people needed a way to keep their clothes in place while they were being worn. Clothing could be big enough to put on without an opening, but then it was too big to be comfortable. Close-fitting clothing had to have a slit or a space to get in, but then the opening needed to be closed and secured.

  • Ask – How could they keep the sides of an opening in the clothing together? It had to be small or light-weight. The clothing had to be functional, flexible and the fastening had to be able to be undone to take it off.
  • Imagine – What materials were available? How could the fastener be attached to the clothing? How would the fastener keep the opening closed but still be undone? Simple sewing with thread and needle was in common use. Earliest buttons were wood or shell. Later buttons were made from many different materials including metal or ceramics and eventually plastic.
  • Design, Build – Sew-through buttons are just flat objects with holes for sewing to one side of the opening. The button can be inserted into simple slit in the other side. With a bit of trial and error, the slit needs to be big enough to get the button through, but small enough so the button will hold the sides of the opening together in normal use.
    More complex buttons were also developed. Shank buttons often have decorative fronts and have stems with holes on the back side for attaching. Chinese “frogs” are a series of knots made from cord or fabric that serve the same function as a shank button.
  • Improve – Two holes in a flat sew-through button worked well, but for better durability, four holes are better.

That’s engineering

  • casting – for making decorative metal buttons
  • tension – The button can slip through the slit or buttonhole, and relies on strain or tension pulling out to the sides to keep it in place
  • moulding (or molding) – the shaping of raw material using a solid frame of a particular shape, called a pattern. It is a process used in manufacturing. A mould is a hollow container that will hold the liquid material until it turns solid. The liquid hardens or sets inside the mould, adopting its shape. Materials commonly used in moulding include plastic, metal, glass and ceramic.
  • artifact – something created or modified by humans usually for a practical purpose

Engineering ideas

  • materials, fabrication, process, harden, metal

Do It
Challenges for you to work on…

  • find some examples of interesting and unusual buttons. Because they are small and often made from hard material, buttons have been preserved throughout the world over hundreds of years. Most museums have buttons in their collections.

Learn more…

  • Button
  • Mohenjo-daro – an archeological site in the province of Sindh, Pakistan. Built around 2600 BCE, it was one of the largest settlements of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, and one of the world’s earliest major urban settlements.