If I hadn’t spotted some button necklaces made by other people in 2005, when I was twenty-four years old, clueless, directionless and just sort of hanging around in the city where I went to university, I … well. I probably wouldn’t be making button necklaces now. I might not even be making any jewellery at all today, for all I know.
The button necklace was my first piece of handmade jewellery, made simply because I wanted to wear a button necklace, and, although I’ve explored many other avenues of jewellery making, this is the one I keep returning to, the thing I’ve probably put the most thought into, the one that’s undergone the greatest number of design changes and been re-engineered the most times.
The first one I made for myself was created using the contents of my mum’s button tin. I didn’t know how to join the buttons together, but we’d just been to an art gallery by the sea where I’d seen another artist’s button necklaces (the second example I’d seen of button necklaces in as many months, which is how I came to realise that button jewellery was officially A Thing). The button necklaces in the gallery by the sea were made of buttons joined together with lots of twisted, plastic-coated wires, like something from a kind of cyberpunk dystopia. That wasn’t exactly the look I was going for – although it seemed more achievable than the neatly woven button necklace I’d seen on a girl outside the station (a technique I’d already tried when I made a button necklace for a friend, and was a bit difficult to do, without the strings getting all twisted – but more on that later…). But wire seemed a good place to start.
I was in a house in rural Essex at the time, which my parents had moved to from another part of the country, just after I finished my A-levels. I was actually in Germany with the County Youth Orchestra when they moved house, which sounds awful (yeah, my parents moved house while I was out of the country), but they did tell me where the new house was when I got back so I wasn’t actually abandoned or anything like that. Anyway, the point is: I was in rural Essex, and thus it was not a case of popping out into the nearest craft shop, because there weren’t any. Any shops at all, actually. There were some sheep. The sheep were not entrepreneurs who had opened a craft shop, because they were sheep. However, there was one way that I thought I might be able to get wire, which was asking my dad if he had any wire.
My dad did indeed have some wire. It was quite old, wrapped around a piece of cardboard, and it was labeled ‘fuse wire’. It seemed quite a good consistency, was sort of flexible but also held its shape pretty well when you bent it around, and was the right sort of width to go through the holes in the buttons. I thought I’d give it a go.
And so I made my first button necklace out of a piece of fuse wire and a selection of buttons in blue, brown and white. It was just for me, so I didn’t really care that it was made with fuse wire, and that the clasp I improvised with a piece of ribbon was a little bit messy.
After I’d finished visiting my parents, I headed back to York, neck proudly encircled with buttons. (And fuse wire). And everyone was so impressed. They really were. Surprisingly excited to see the buttons around my neck. They were even more excited when they found out I’d made it. “Can you make one for me?” said some of them. So, of course, I did. I made necklaces for everyone who wanted them – it wasn’t like they cost me anything, it was fun, and it made my friends happy. What’s not to like? Although, of course, I quickly ran out of fuse wire.
To be completely honest, I hadn’t really been sure fuse wire was the best thing to be using anyway. I didn’t know what it was made of. I hope it didn’t have horrible chemicals in, leaching into all of our skins when we wore the necklaces. Urgh. Over a decade later, we’re all still healthy, so it can’t have been that bad. But even so, it was probably sensible of me to take a trip to the (much more accessible) craft shops in York at that point, and get some “craft wire” instead. The craft wire was silver plated, on top of a copper base, and became my staple jewellery making wire for the next few years.
The only problem with this early jewellery making wire was that, if people liked their necklaces so very much that they wore them a lot, eventually it tended to snap. I would re-make the necklaces for people if this happened (and lost count of the number of times I re-wired my own necklace) but, as I was at the beginning of starting to sell them commercially, I was on the look-out for something that could withstand repeated wear.
Eventually I was introduced to something my partner used in his electronics work, which was a kind of wire that was made of lots of tiny wires, all coated in a strong plastic outer sleeve. It was really, really strong and durable – it was made of Teflon, in fact, which is what they put on non-stick pans. The plastic was available in a variety of different colours, so although it was a shame not to be able to use the neutral silver I’d been using, I could use black, brown, grey or white wire, which was compatible with a wide variety of colour schemes. And so, for a few years, this Teflon coated wire because my main button necklace base.
The Teflon-coated wire was very much more successful than the single strand craft wire in terms of durability. I used it for a good many years, and would still be doing so today if weren’t for something I hadn’t considered when I started out. And that was the effect on the planet. I know I’m only one person making jewellery on a very tiny scale and don’t have a huge effect by myself, but the actions of lots of “only one person” people add up to a lot. And I came to realise that the jewellery I was making was not very environmentally friendly. The core of the necklaces was made of metal. Metals, although there are some that can be recycled, are mined at a high environmental cost and often using unethical labour. I didn’t know anything about the origins of the metal in my necklace wire. Then there was the Teflon sleeve that held the wires together. Teflon is very durable but eventually degrades, and when it does so, it breaks down into some pretty harmful substances. I wanted to get away from these things – metals are all very well when the thing they’re being made from needs to be made from metal, but I wasn’t convinced my jewellery had to be so metal-heavy. And I definitely no longer wanted any part in the Teflon. It might be needed and useful for electronics, but not for personal adornment.
And so I re-started trying to tackle the difficult area of making button necklaces with woven cord. I’d wanted to do this for ages, but always ended up with something that was unreliable. Because buttons are a disc shape, and people move around, there always seemed to be a problem of necklaces getting twisted and buttons flipping over.
My first idea was to make the necklaces double sided and reversible, so if one of the buttons got flipped, nobody would notice, and hey, the necklace could look a bit different every day. I made some like this and they were pretty cool, although they had two little problems – one was that they took absolutely AGES to make. It was like making two necklaces at once. They were also a bit tricky, with the cord and the double-sidedness and tangling and confusion. The other problem was that they were a little bit lumpy and didn’t sit nice and flat against the neck – which is all right if you’re used to wearing spherical beads, but I really wanted something a bit more two dimensional and sleek.
Back to the drawing board...
Eventually I figured out the knotting and weaving technique that I still use today: the necklaces only have the one side, and they sit flush against the neck, and it’s all just to do with thread thickness and tension, the number of knots, and just knowing how it should feel. Once I developed the knack, I could make reliable, non-twisty button necklaces that would sit nice and flat every time.
I make them in a tapered, chunky style, and also a delicate style using small buttons. These necklaces still use a little bit of metal – but I’ve moved to using solid stainless steel parts for the ends and clasps. Stainless steel is much more environmentally friendly than many jewellery metals, as it’s always got a high percentage of recycled material in it, and can be recycled again at the end of its life. (Recycled silver is also good, but I find it hard to find the parts I want made from this material unfortunately.)
Recently I’ve found a way to make longer length and adjustable length button necklaces which don’t use any metal at all, which is great.
And I’ve been trying to make sure the cords I use aren’t too damaging either. I’ve recently been using organic hemp cord, and also use some waxed cotton. Some of my earlier experiments used nylon cord, which is a plastic and so not so good for the environment as it’s not biodegradable. I’ve still got some of this left, so I’m using it up (rather than throwing it away, which would be even worse!) but I won’t replace it with more once it’s gone.
So the button necklace has been through many iterations. I’m not even sure I’m done with it yet. I’m thinking of making something medium-sized, in between the delicate ones and the chunky ones, because there seems to be a gap for that in my button necklace repertoire.
My current range of button necklaces is available for sale here.