Making buttons

When working for my Ceramics degree at Bristol my days were spent with clay and glazes and my evenings and weekends with fabric. A large silk patchwork travelled with me to my babysitting engagements, the rest of the time was spent making proggy rugs (I’d seen an inspirational exhibition at the Shipley Art Gallery years before) or multilayered fabric ‘tartan’ fragments made with fabric and paper. My textiles and ceramics were interrelated in that I explored design ideas in one medium (textiles) and then transferred this to the other. However, combining the two didn’t occur to me as an option and making stitched textiles became my creativity of choice once I left college.

Button prep
Clay buttons for bisque firing

Becoming involved with Oxcombe Pottery in recent years has meant that I have the freedom to play with ceramics once again. As a tutor my pleasure is in helping other people develop their interests and many of our regular attendees discover a niche on which to focus and develop their skill. For me, working around the edges of class-time, this was a slow process as I experimented with ideas but failed to find my feet. Until I made some buttons! Aware of the ‘button tie’ as a traditional technique for tying quilt layers together in place of quilt stitching, I decided to try this out as a means of connecting my new-found access to clay to my still-continuing textile practice. In the past couple of years I have been exploring scale and colour in earthenware and stoneware glazes, whilst also dealing with the technical challenges of applying relatively heavy clay objects to a vertical fabric surface.

Stoneware buttons – glazes with copper and rutile additions

My experiments have ranged from decorative white slip on large terracotta buttons and tin glaze with cobalt oxide (inspired by traditional delft) to current explorations in stoneware, making tiny buttons with mottled glazes reminiscent of lichens. The practice of making buttons is painstaking, with batch size restricted by the speed at which clay dries (too dry and piercing the button holes will crack it in two) and then the need to make sure that glaze is cleaned from the holes prior to second firing, otherwise the button will be fit for nothing. However, as a lover of repetitive tasks, my button-making days are amongst my favourites and my failed buttons are few.

Large buttons seeking more space…

I’m finding that difference in button-scale matters a lot. Large buttons need a larger surface in order to unite effectively across the piece. I have downsized my buttons to suit the work I am currently making (up to 50cm square) but I aspire to make much larger pieces, at which point my buttons can grow to match. My daily practice, either in the textile studio or pottery, consists of a series of experiments. Each piece of work is inching forward on new ground. Will this adjustment to button-making speed me up a bit (for such tiny objects they take a huge amount of time)? Can I find a way to tie buttons through a piece which is larger than my arms will reach? Learning through making is such an energising experience, although spending a week working on a new piece with no certainty about the finished result is also fairly teeth-gritting at times. One learns humility and to value very small glimmers of hope or realisation, “Hold on a minute, if I do X won’t Y then be possible? Ah, no…”

Working in two very different media has a feeling of syncopation, of working in counterpoint where one set of practices (wedging clay, setting a kiln) disrupts the habits of another (cutting fabric, pulling a needle and thread). I enjoy the headspace that this creates and the challenge of making work that combines the two. The bigger challenge is with staying the course and trusting that the work will develop some confident rhythms of its own. For now I just need to dig in, keep making and appreciate that this is how I spend my days.


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