05 Aug 2017
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.
03 Aug 2017
I tried to think of a Plan. For ages. Something that would make it work like it used to, but wouldn’t involve compromise. Should I try to become Good at Social Media Marketing? I’d tried using social media for promotion before, but on top of me not being great at it, Facebook changed their algorithm too, so – surprise surprise – you had to pay for people who had “Liked” your page to be able to see your posts (unless they were “popular”, of course). I deleted my Facebook page. I wasn’t going to pay money to a company that was data-mining people for profit, even if it did increase my sales. (I consider data-mining more unethical than merely taking a financial cut; although we can’t boycott everything, there can at least be something of a hierarchy.)
I considered just giving it all up and getting a job. I flailed around at a few other ways to make money. But I didn’t completely stop making jewellery – after all, my website was sitting there, still selling the occasional necklace. It would seem silly to throw it out after all that time, work and embedded good luck that had allowed me to do it at all instead of working full time for someone else in a nine to five job.
In the end, the only thing I could think of was to go back to the beginning. Why did I start doing this at all? What did I like about it?
I would make things, individual little things, that I liked, photograph them, describe them, and list them on my website. Until there were lots of them, regardless of how efficient it wasn’t. I wouldn’t have any other plan than that.
There was something else I did. Alongside my website, I opened an Etsy shop. This sounds like a compromise – it is a compromise, but the whole thing down to the PayPal buttons is a compromise, and I have to accept that. In an ideal world we’d have a publicly owned/not-for-profit website payments system to do PayPal’s job. I’ve looked into alternatives for my website – they’re all too expensive for someone like me. Selling on a marketplace like Etsy is a compromise too, since they take a cut of the profits, but in the context of the way Google works now, Etsy does a lot of marketing and reaching customers that I simply can’t do on my own. So in effect I’m paying them for that service.
And the other side of platformisation is that I’ve been able to make part of my living from music again. I may know how to make a basic website with HTML, but I never learnt enough code to make a self-hosted online shop to sell digital downloads. I would have liked to, but it turns out that there isn’t time for me to do *everything*. And it also turns out that there’s another web-platform company, who are doing a decent job at being ethical and helpful and generally giving their money’s worth for the cut that they take from sales – and this one is for downloading music. They’re called Bandcamp, and they’re part of the reason I’ve been able to make jewellery in the (slightly inefficient) way that I want to again. Music sales mean that I can just about manage without having to go down the buying-new-shiny-buttons-in-bulk route, and Bandcamp not only provide the payment and downloading systems, but also deal with the difficult getting-into-Google-results stuff, plus have a nice discovery tool for people to find new music.
And here we are. Things are a lot better than they were, and I'm still trying all the time to improve them further.
01 Aug 2017
Other than an A-level in Drawing and Painting with History of Art, I don’t have any formal training in craft, design, or general making-of-things. At university I studied music, and I’ve been playing in bands since I was 16 and had my first gig in a ceilidh band and became hooked.
After university I spent several years muddling along, playing some gigs and working various slightly weird temping jobs (the best one of which was cleaning all of the overhead projectors in the university, under cover of darkness – a job opportunity brought to my attention by my housemate who worked in the audio-visual department). I also kind of accidentally fell into running music workshops with my friends. I say “running”. I did not do much of the running. My friends were all good at running workshops. I was not good at running workshops.
I went on several training courses in order to try to discover how to be good at running workshops, but I did not become good at it. I am a socially awkward, diffident, anxious introvert who is terrified of and terrible at public speaking, and while I know there are many people who fit that description who manage to overcome it all and be brilliant, I was not one of them. I didn’t even *like* running workshops – I was just doing it because my friends were, and letting them down in the process. It became abundantly clear that this sort of thing being my job was Not a Good Idea.
Eventually I made a clean break with it all and managed to get a part time job working in a shop that sold nasty mass-produced lace tablecloths and creepy porcelain dolls. Hardly anyone likes those, so most of the time there weren’t many customers and I just had to do things like dusting and stock-taking. It was such a relief. Also, I was in two bands! (But… not that good at getting gigs or talking on stage. I could only be in bands which contained other people who liked doing those parts.)
So when it turned out that it was possible for me to make a bit of money by making necklaces, photographing them, writing about them and posting it all on the internet on a website – using my natural skills, and doing things I enjoyed, rather than forcing myself into things I found very difficult – I was so pleased. I still didn’t really believe this was something I could do as a full time job, so I didn’t formulate an amazing business plan, quit everything else and go hell for leather on dominating the button jewellery industry – but I kept at it, slowly, and my button jewellery website tided me over financially through a turbulent few years.
“You know what?” said someone, at some point.
“What?” I said.
“If you made ten necklaces all the same, you wouldn’t have to keep taking photographs and putting them on the website all the time, and taking off the ones you’d sold. You’d only have to take one photo for a whole batch. It would be way more efficient.”
I thought about it. They were right. It took me longer to put a necklace for sale on my website than it did to make the necklace itself.
So I went through my box of vintage buttons and I sorted the buttons into piles of those that were all the same, and eventually I was able to come up with a few designs that I could replicate two or more times. I made the necklaces – and of course, yes, it was great – when one sold, instead of removing the old one from the website, making a new one, putting it on the website, I could just do nothing for a couple of iterations. *But* it took such a long time sorting through the box of buttons to find the ones that were the same. If only I could buy some that were all the same, pre-packaged in a bag together…
And this is where everything started to slide. In some ways you could say it was the opposite, and that was when it all took off – it was becoming more efficient and I was growing my business. I started buying bulk, brand new buttons, which all came in a packet together, and making the same design ten, twenty, a hundred times over. And since I was buying these new buttons, why not extend it all out into new-everything-else? New beads, new miniature-teapots, new safety pins – all unusual objects to make jewellery from.
But it wasn’t really what I started from. It was an impression of it. A fake version. But lots of people seemed to want it, and as it was more efficient I was making more stuff, selling more stuff, and, by the look of it, earning more money. It looked like it really could become my actual job.
I took a bit of a leap. I stopped doing most of my other jobs. I moved somewhere else. And then I took my eye off the ball.
Around this time, a few things were happening in the outside world that would have an effect on my tiny online business.
The internet was growing enormously. Some of the biggest and most forward-thinking internet companies realised that if they made it easy for people to sell their crafts online, they could take a cut of the profits and make even more money. Specialist “handmade marketplace” websites emerged, and they had business plans and spent a lot of money on marketing and easy-to-use websites and suddenly lots of people who didn’t know how to before could sell their crafts online.
Buying online became a Real Thing. Buying handmade stuff online became even more of a Thing. And for a brief couple of years, there was a tiny bubble in which my business was doing really well because everyone knew that you could buy crafts online and my website was easy to find in Google. I’d learnt how to make it show up at the top when people searched for “button necklace”, “button jewellery” and “button bracelet” – but the way Google worked in those days was that it just looked at what the website was about, and ranked them by relevance. Mine was unequivocally about button jewellery, so it showed up at the top without me having to do very much other than make sure all the right words were in the right places.
Then something else happened. Google, which was the main thing that sent traffic to my website, changed its search algorithm. Google doesn’t ever say exactly what its algorithm is, but since 2012 it has seemingly taken into account how popular things are, and how many fans something has on social media, and places more emphasis on these things than the content of the website itself. Or, alternatively, you can pay them some money in order to get in the search results. So for me, it was either: pay the money, or spend lots of time on marketing and social media and clickbaiting. Which is not something I’m good at. Not at all. You remember that stuff about being socially awkward? Doesn’t make a good marketer. And so much social media is just full of people being fake. Not to mention: I already thought that a lot of what I was now making, with my brand new buttons and specially-bought beads, was fake too. There was no way I could promote it when I didn’t even believe in it myself.
I looked at it all, and realised that the thing that had enabled me to start doing this as a job – those PayPal buttons you could put on a website – was the beginning of the thing that had turned both the internet and my own business into something horrible and corporate. Once it turned out that people could make money out of something, there were always going to be people who used it to become enormous and too powerful. The PayPal buttons themselves were that, right from the start. The thing that let me do this in the first place is the flipside of the thing that made it all go horribly wrong. And I don’t know what we do about that right now (that’s a whole different essay about the possibility of ethical web-payment systems, perhaps) but here we are.
It may have been the increased competition, it may have been the change to Google’s algorithm, it may have been that people started going straight to Etsy – or probably it was a bit of all three – but my website started losing traffic and sales. I didn’t have a copy of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to hand: so I panicked. Instead of coming up with a properly thought-out plan, I just stripped out all the jewellery I was making that seemed inauthentic – all the necklaces made in bulk with brand-new buttons, all the things made with anything I’d bought new for the purpose – I sold them off cheap, then made my website into what I thought to be a beautiful, minimalist, totally authentic little corner of the internet which only sold jewellery that was made from old vintage buttons and that I felt proud of.
Which was really stupid, because a) I didn’t have very many things left that fitted that description, and b) making jewellery in that individually-crafted, photograph-every-one kind of way is, as we established, less efficient and pretty time consuming, and c) my traffic kept falling and falling and nobody was looking at it. So I ended up with no money left! And then I panicked again, and bought some new brightly coloured buttons in bulk from China because I knew that people would buy those kinds of necklaces, they always sold well before! Except… now there was more competition and buttons weren’t so much in fashion any more (and did I mention my website was losing traffic?) and I was stuck with a load of stock that I thought was fake and against all of my principles… *AGAIN*. In other words, I made a complete mess of everything. GO ME.
It was time for a bit of rethink.
31 Jul 2017
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.)