One day in 2005, aged 24, I was walking into York railway station and a woman about the same age as me was walking out of York railway station at the same time, and inevitably we passed each other. The only thing I remember about this woman was that around her neck was a necklace made from buttons: little white four-hole buttons all tied together in a line. “I would like to wear a necklace made from buttons,” I thought.
There was nothing I could do about this immediately there and then, because I had to catch a train to Manchester, but when I got back I found some buttons in my house, and tied them together with some nice thick thread that I had, and made a necklace. After all, a button necklace was not something you could just pop into Topshop and buy – but even if you could, I probably wouldn’t have done that anyway, because I was brought up with the idea that if you wanted a thing, you either had a rummage around the jumble sale to see if there was one, or you made the thing out of things that were lying around the house, or you made the thing out of things you found rummaging at the jumble sale. You get the idea. These days, that process has a name: upcycling. In those days it didn’t have a name because it wasn’t cool yet, but we did it anyway.
That very first button necklace wasn’t quite the sort of necklace that I wanted because the buttons were purple and purple doesn’t suit me, but I phoned Jo and asked if she thought Jenny would wear something purple, because it was Jenny’s birthday soon. Jo replied in the affirmative, so the button necklace became Jenny’s birthday present, and she liked it and wore it a lot (although not at work, because she thought the people at work would think she was weird if she wore a button necklace because she worked with people who were very, very Normal and she was trying to keep a low profile. She doesn’t work there any more, though, so that’s all right.)
The button necklace that became mine was made when I visited my parents: my mum had a tin of old buttons, and my dad had an old reel of fuse wire. I picked out my favourite buttons and arranged them in a line on the kitchen table, and then strung them up on the fuse wire to make a necklace. I made a little clasp out of a piece of ribbon. The buttons were blue and brown and white.
Now, fuse wire and ribbon weren’t the best materials to make a necklace from, as it turned out: the wire would break from time to time, and the ribbon would fray and need replacing – but I wore the necklace anyway, and people always noticed it and lots of them gave me compliments. When it broke, I mended it with more wire and ribbon and wore it some more.
In the summer it was York Carnival. Some of my friends were helping to organise it, and they’d collected donations of materials from local businesses. One of the businesses was a button shop, which gave them a bag full of all the odds and ends of leftover buttons that they couldn’t sell. The Carnival had quite a low button requirement, as it turned out, so after it had finished, my organiser-friend re-donated the buttons to me.
With my newly acquired button supply, I started trying out different, better ways to make button necklaces, and soon I had a new way to make them that didn’t break every three months. Some of them became birthday presents. Then some people started suggesting that maybe I should see if some of the shops in York might sell them. I took a bit of convincing, because I was so used to “home-made” and “shop-bought” being a personal dichotomy and had the idea that anything I made myself couldn’t cross from one category to the other – but as it turned out, one of them did want to sell them. They wanted a York-monopoly, though – they’d only stock them as long as I didn’t supply them to any other shops in York, but that was all right, because it turned out that the shop’s customers liked them and they kept running out and ordering more and more. (Another good thing was that it meant that I didn’t have to go into any more shops and ask if they’d sell my jewellery please, because that was *terrifying*.)
Encouraged, I started buying bags of secondhand and vintage buttons and making more necklaces (and bracelets and earrings, because the jewellery shop owners said people liked to buy things in sets). If people were buying them in shops, I thought, why not try putting them on that buying-and-selling-things website called eBay? I’d never sold anything on eBay before, so I was pretty amazed and pleased when I put some necklaces up for sale and people bought them.
Shortly afterwards I found out that the internet-money-transferring-system-website called PayPal had invented something called a “Buy it Now” button, which you could place on your own website and people could click on it and transfer money to you. I had no idea whether this was likely to work for my necklaces, but I thought it was worth having a go. I already knew how to make a website because during my sixth form “study periods” in which you either Studied if you were a geek or Went to Smoke in the Park if you were a rebel, I learnt HTML (not on the syllabus in those days) on the library computer, like some kind of weird combination of the two.
So, as an experiment, I registered the domain buttonjewellery.co.uk and took photos of five necklaces and gave them all Buy it Now buttons provided by PayPal, and put them all on one web page with explanations in Times New Roman on a white background with no design or styling whatsoever because I didn’t really think it was going to work.
Four days later I got an email from PayPal saying someone had bought one and could I post it to them please and that here was some money. Which was unexpected and made me very, very happy – and spurred me on to make more jewellery and a proper website for it all to live on.
Of course, you couldn’t just do something like that now. That was back in the days when the internet was more like an innocent four week old kitten, rather than a seething mass of swamp-dwelling mutant snake-tigers like it is now. (I’m writing this in 2017.) But I digress. That’s how I started off doing this. It wasn’t through any particular cleverness or planning – time and circumstances just happened to align with the things I liked doing and was interested in.
But it hasn’t always been that easy – and I haven’t always done the right thing. (And you won’t believe what happened to the internet next.)