Friday, May 07, 2021

Button Autopsy : The crochet ball


No video this week as we've been so busy packing after the shows last Friday, prepping for my Costume Skills Institute tomorrow, and actually writing some more of the book. I just didn't have time to do any filming. Well, filming isn't the hard part, it's the editing afterwards.

So, instead I thought I'd do another in my occasional series, Button Autopsy.

The crochet ball. So many of us who collect buttons have these. Lots of them. Some really discoloured too. Usually, like the ones here, they are white, sometimes black, and more rarely other colours.

Primrose Peacock, in her 1978 booklet "Discovering Old Buttons" has a small paragraph about crochet buttons -
"Machine and hand-worked crochet has been used as a button covering in many places, notably Ireland and France. The core may be either a wood mould or a soft substance such as kapok or wool, or in America cardboard. Hard ball-shaped buttons with loop shanks known as French knobs were popular with Edwardian Parisian prostitutes, which may account for their disfavour elsewhere!"

Nancy Nehring (50 Heritage Buttons to Make) adds a little more information - 
"Early this century, Parisian prostitutes hung pearl [meaning crocheted balls] buttons from their clothing so that the movement attracted attention as they walked. No respectable Parisian woman would have used them on her clothing!"

Recently, I saw this image on the internet 
Auteuil Racecourse, 1911

Those two women in the wonderful matching embroidered gowns - look closely, they are edged in little white balls! Crocheted? That's logical - pearl buttons or those with wood moulds would, I think pull down that fine fabric too much with the weight. Kapok filling would give far less stress.

OK, so not to speak ill of the dead... are we saying they are matching prostitutes?
hmmm. I guess I will have to see what else I can find about the crochet ball button in Paris!

So, on to the ones I've looked at.

They are approximately 13mm, so quite small. They average 6 rows of crochet. They are hard, but the filling will "give" if pressed hard enough.

When unravelling the crochet, you can see that the mould looks very smooth, and light coloured. The silk is a 'Z' twist, 3 ply for those who are interested in these things.

Now, this might be artificial silk. Cross, Bevan and Beadle patented their artificial silk in 1894 (, but I'm not quite sure how to successfully test this at the moment.

Removing all of the stitching revealed the mould -

Very smooth, fibre, well shaped and with a hole - but only at one end. The hole does not go all of the way through (about 7mm).

The fibre is actually rolled to create the shape, probably while the fibre was wet, although starch or something similar may have been used. Think of a cotton ball, and how you can unroll it. This is obviously much denser, but the principle is the same.

The best thing about this type of mould is that it can be gently washed. It often becomes harder and more dense I've found with some of my experiments using cotton (haven't tried kapok), as it shrinks a little. In fact, it is possible that these were made and perhaps plunged into boiling water. 

Today of course, we can use crocheted ball button without risk being classified, and a great substitution for this mould is those little felted wool balls you can get. 

Stay safe everyone!


  1. Thank you for doing this research. I've always wondered what these were used for.
    I love the photo of the women in those dresses!

  2. Hi, sweetie! Hope the class went off with the proper bang - it looked interesting and fun and a challenge (wrestling crinkle wire!). And I do hope it filled up!
    Love this autopsy -glad to know what the innards are. I think I'll use felt - easy to cut and control. I'm not really certain about the "Ladies" with dangly pearls - wonder if it might be one of those urban legends? I'll let you know if any of my sources turn up something.
    Stay safe and well! C in C xxx

    1. Oh thank you! I think it went well! Zoom is very different to in person.
      I agree with you. Those two how's being matching with such incredible embroidery, I wonder if instead they are models - wearing something from a couture house as advertising. We all know artist models were seen as lower, perhaps then so we're the first catwalk ones? Stay safe and well xxx

  3. Sarah R5:36 am

    This is fascinating. I'm curious about the statement that machine made crochet was used for these balls - as far as I know there has never been a machine that can replicate crochet, so I'd love to know if I'm wrong.

    1. Me too! I suspect that she was referring to lace not crochet. I've never been able to pin that down!

  4. Magazine project half way - all looked at, pages for copying set aside (with the rest of the magazine, of course), and the very few I want to keep back up in the cupboard - could not give up the 1916 Vogues! The most splendid colour automobile ads and the cutest line drawings of utterly fetching hats and such. Next step copying the wanted articles, and here is the core and the source of this binge - button stuff! Will share if I can manage it - some of the material looks good for the Facebook gang. And last, find a new home - my antique dealer buddy has downsized and has not the space for magazines so it will be etsy or ebay I guess. It has been fun though, and I've had hours of entertainment.
    Ooh - San Francisco Philharmonic gave its' first live concert last week! It must have been splendid, in spite of masks and distancing. I think Don and I need a week or so in the City when we can travel safely - I do miss the Bay area so much.
    Was very glad to see the posts from Yoko - she does such lovely work and she seems to have had a not-good-spell. It is hard to tell, since the Japanes/English translator leaves a lot to be desired, so if you are in communication please tender my thanks and appreciation to her. Thank you!
    Hope the writing is going along at a respectable pace, with not to many hitches.
    Hugs to M and T and you. Stay safe and well. C in C xxx

    1. Oh well done on the magazine project! Those are big jobs, but I can see why agreeable. A nice way to get lost for a few hours.
      Let's hope that things can continue to open up a bit more. I am looking forward to feeling brave enough to go to my favourite tea and cake place for lunch. It was always a treat - not a regular haunt - but it is very missed.
      Yes, Japanese / English can be very difficult. I have come to learn that "race" means "lace" and that everyone respected is a "Mr". But we get there.
      Toby's birthday today and he has eaten far too much of a rawhide chew. I think he'll be sleeping it off all evening!
      Stay safe and well both! xxx

    2. Oh! Merry Unbirthday to the great Toby pup! Give him a pat from his California "aunt", please.
      "race" took me a while also - at least the translation engine seems to be a little bit consistent ;) I wonder if Japanese is like Hungarian in not having 'she -he'? Gender is indicated by context, so it can be tricky to figure out for a one-syllable/word at a time using three dictionaries translator - one reason I've let that work slide.
      Here's to a nice lunch out soon! Stay safe and well. xxx