Death’s Head Buttons


When I was on the Isle of Lewis, I stumbled upon a local arts & crafts workshop called Blue Pig. The lady had a number of beautiful silk-wrapped buttons for sale. I loved them – especially the red, white, and blue ones that looked like Union Jacks – but, despite their low cost and diminutive size, I was traveling lightly and in that moment couldn’t justify the expense.

This morning I ran across a photo somewhere in my research and they were the same as those I saw on Lewis. They were were used on men’s coats and waistcoats throughout the 18th and into the early 19th century. They were used on everyday business attire not for best dress.

“The Deaths Head button is a common type of Leek button. Leek buttons are named for Leek, England, where as early as the 1600’s it became a center of the button industry. It is a mystery why they were called Deaths Head. This type of button is found on numerous garments dating from the early 1700’s and on through the 19th century. A bone, horn, or, wooden button form was wrapped with thread. Silk Buttonhole thread works best, but linen and mohair was also used.” – I cannot tell you how delighted I am to learn that a man who wrote a whole book (well maybe booklet would be more accurate – his thoughts span but 23 pages) about the fiddly bits of fancy people’s clothing is named Norman Fuss.

Note: I ran across a photo of one of these buttons on Pinterest today, and it looked exactly like the ones I’d seen at a little arts and crafts shop and studio on the Isle of Lewis this past September. The lady there made many of the items for sale (soaps, cards, prints, bookmarks, framed multimedia art pieces and sea-oriented watercolors), including these. I nearly bought one of them, it was red, white, and blue – with a single yellow thread, too, I think – that reminded me of a Union Jack. I should have bought it. But I feared it would only be momentarily admired and then tucked away in my jewelry box…forever.

And then today, I saw this photo, and realized they were the same kind of buttons as this woman made, and furthermore that they were of a style from the mid-1700s to early 1800s. How could I not want to learn more? Maybe even make some?


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