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Button Necklaces – the Evolution of My Handmade Jewellery Designs

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.

A very early button necklace in blue
One of my very early button necklace prototypes!

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.

Green wire button necklace with plastic (Teflon) coated wire
Green wire button necklace with plastic (Teflon) coated wire

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.

Double sided reversible button necklace
Reversible button necklace – was pretty good but I wanted something that would sit more flush against the neck

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.

When I’ve made one – I’ll stick an edit on this post and link to it. So make sure check this post EVERY DAY from now on if you want a medium sized button necklace.

Well. Or you could just email me and ask for one.

My current range of button necklaces is available for sale here.

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The Beginning

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.)