Nobody throws away buttons

After the debacle of knitting the wrong size on that baby sweater, I ripped it back and re-did it.  I know that probably seems a little like madness, I was so close to done, but I had really wanted to use that ridiculously soft merino for a newborn sweater, and what the heck, I like knitting.  I didn’t take too long, really.

Yarn: Stash Merino – label long gone, which is a shame, since it’s wondrous stuff. Pattern: Norwegian Fir. (Newborn size.  Sigh.) Quite a good little pattern, but watch out for that size thing.  Needles: 3.5mm.

Now that it’s done and blocked, it just needed a button. As written, the pattern needs just a single one, up at the neck and this seemed fine to me. This baby will be a second baby, and one button is likely all Meg and Alex will have time to do up anyway.  Only needing one button, I headed straight for my button collection, and opened up one of two old cookie tins. Ages ago, when my Grammy died, I got her button box.  I’ve dipped into it for years, when I need a special touch for something, It’s full of a million (okay, hundreds) of fairly mundane buttons, mostly snipped off of clothing headed for the bin – a depression era practice of my Grams. When my mum died, I got her button bin as well – and hers is a little different.  My mum didn’t knit. I stress here “didn’t” rather than “couldn’t” because her not knitting was an active choice.  As insane as it may sound to us, she didn’t like it. She tried it, it didn’t work out, and she was good at other things. She was, for example, a wonderful seamstress. (As I type that I wonder if there’s a gender neutral term… sewer? Sewist?)

When I was young she sewed most of our clothes, and taught me too. I remember with great fondness a green top with cream coloured yoke and angel-wing sleeves, sprinkled with softer green stalks of wheat. She made it for me to wear on a trip out west with my grandparents, and at the time that I wore it I was maybe… seven years old, and quite sure it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever owned. It probably was.  Since mum sewed, her button box is a little different. It’s in a cookie tin like my Grammy’s (some strange family quirk, I suppose, since mine is too) and contains more leftovers than rescues.  It’s easy to find seven matching buttons in my Gram’s box, and near impossible in Mum’s. I only needed one, so in I went.

In five minutes of poking around, pulling out this one and that, I settled on this completely plain and ordinary button. I know it’s silly, since it’s not special in any way – not wooden or hand carved, or especially pretty, but perfect for this. This child, whoever they are, will be the first person born after the Era of Bonnie.  They will be the first child to never meet her or know her at all, except through our telling and pictures, and I thought that a button from her stash would be the perfect beginning for them. A connection, something to start them off right, the perfect prologue to a million stories that start with “One time, your Great Grammy….”

I think it is a sign of healing, or maybe just time passing that this idea makes me smile a little, rather than cry, and the minute I’m done writing this, I’m going to sew it on, fold the sweater into a wee pile, and it can be the first woollie my new grandbaby wears.  My mum wasn’t a sentimental or soft person, but I think she’d like that a lot. She’d sure hate it if I wasted a button.

110 thoughts on “Nobody throws away buttons

  1. Of course we had a button box! It was a cookie tin (I wonder if my mom still has it. I’ll bet she does), but we still called it “the button box.”

    • I also have an inherited cookie tin called The Button Box. I remember playing with the buttons in it when I was a child and we visited my Nana. There are buttons in there from WWII uniforms…

    • Yep, smiling but a little teary here too.
      Also, buttons stored in an old biscuit tin here as well. I wonder if it’s something to do with an inherent frugality in knitters that we re-purpose things like containers and buttons? (If you think knitters aren’t frugal, how often have you thought, “If I save money on ….., I’ll have more money for yarn”?)

  2. I have my buttons in Mason Jars, though I do have a string of special buttons of my Grandmother’s. I also can’t resist looking at button jars at a local thrift store. I love your idea with this very special button. Your mom would love it too.

  3. I inherited my grandmother’s cookie-tin button box, too. It makes me smile to know there are other tins.

    I knit my mom a winter hat, and decorated it with a band of her mother’s buttons.

  4. Button tins – you made me smile with fond memories with my Grandmom. (Gone 49 years and still miss her as much today as ever). I could play for hours stringing necklaces and bracelets before she taught me to knit – but could never take them home. Hers are long gone; the auctioneer is probably still scratching his head on the two cake tins with vintage (50’s/60’s) buttons I bid on several years back. They deserved a good home with respect.

    Button on new baby sweater – perfectly priceless connection. Your mum is smiling as the link lives on.

    Bonnie aka Knitsiam

  5. Beautiful sweater. Lucky baby. I have inherited my Grandmother, Mother and cousin’s buttons and love using them for the same reasons.

  6. When you say “cookie tin,” you mean the blue Danish butter cookie tin (or knock-off thereof)? I think that’s a mandatory sewing person thing, ‘cause that’s what I inherited from my husband’s grandma too! One of buttons, one of thread spools.

  7. My buttons are in a cookie tin, as were my mum’s. Maybe just an appropriate container available when emptied? It seems to be generational in my family too. My grandmother’s were also in a cookie tin. Love the baby sweater. It’s been in my queue for quite a while. Next time I need one I’ll give it a try!

  8. The cookie tin button box seems to be a universal. My mother kept hers in one as do I. Also that cutting buttons off of garments to be disposed of.

  9. Mom’s buttons in a Prince Albert tobacco tin, Grandma’s in a cookie tin, Mother in law’s in a cake tin. Mine in various tins, bottles and boxes and the drawer on a vintage treadle sewing machine. I inherited all the family tendency to keep stuff.
    Beautiful little sweater for a beautiful new life, precious memories to share.

  10. Marie Kondo never said anything about buttons. Mine are in a mayonnaise jar and a plastic ice cream tub, but I’m feels ngbthe urge to buy some danish butter cookies and pretend they’ve been there all along (though Prince Albert in a can has the charm of all straight lines.) Nice jib, toots.

  11. The other good thing about a cookie tin as a button box is that the lid is great for sorting through a handful of buttons as you’re choosing just the right one.

  12. I read the opening line as “after the decade of knitting the wrong size of baby sweater”, and I thought “that’s a little harsh, Stephanie.”

  13. My buttons – ancestral and otherwise – are in an old marmalade jar. This is clearly foolish (I have to empty the whole jar into my lap every time I want something) but now I have seen the light: this is the perfect use for the Sri Lanka-shaped tea tin.

    Oh, yes – I think people in the sewing community often refer to themselves as ‘sewists’. (Especially those who read Terry Pratchett.) Sewer works fine out loud but – well, English, amirite?

  14. Don’t feel bad about knitting the wrong size before — it would have fit the child eventually. The current version looks great, and that button was the perfect choice. Your mom would be pleased.

    As for a button tin, well….my grandmom had one, but my mom used a cigar box, and I use the large plastic jar from warehouse-club jellybeans! Whatever works, I guess.

  15. This sewist keeps her variously inherited button stash in several cookie tins; altho there is a small tackle box for the extra special and unique buttons.

    • Tackle boxes are perfect for collections of things that are various sizes! We used tackle boxes to hold my son’s large collection of Legos, putting the little pieces in the smaller compartments in the upper tray, and bigger pieces in the large bottom. I think he filled up 2-3 tackle boxes. Son is now 30-something, and I still have his Lego collection in case there may be grandchildren some day.

      • Keep that Lego! We kept a bin each of Lego and Duplo and my grandkids LOVE it. It doesn’t take up much space and provides hours of fun.

  16. My grandma kept her buttons in a great big jar. We would dump it out in the corner of the kitchen and sort them all sorts of special ways. Does anyone else remember when Alka Seltzer came in long glass tubes, with a screw-on lid? The tablets lined up in the tube. We had several of those, too, to sort buttons into. My favorite thing was to find buttons that were exactly the right size to stack up in the tube, like the Alka Seltzer did.

    • Oh, I have my Grandma’s Alka Seltzer jars holding her crochet hooks, all of which are for very fine thread. I don’t crochet.

      Those jars are just the right height for crochet hooks and are very heavy, thick glass.

  17. My grandma’s buttons are in old tea tins, mum’s are in jars and so are mine. There are new buttons and old, some with the thread still attached. There are sets and singles. In grandma’s collection there is even one of the badges from grandpa’s World War One uniform. And a shark’s tooth – and I don’t know why and anyone that could have told me why is gone. Grandma’s button tin kept me occupied for hours when I was small. And buttons make great counters for board games too.

    Congrats on the forthcoming addition to the clan and also on the first woollie for the wee one.

  18. I love that you are using your mom’s button to honor her legacy in the newest grandchild.

    I inherited my Grandma’s yarn stash. My sister is expecting her first and this will be the first great grand since she passed away so I’m making her a stuffed animal out of the yarn as a way to connect this new kiddo to my grandma.

  19. We had cookie tins for a button box as well, although it spread to other containers, so you are not as strange as you think. Plus there is a lot to be said for using the same thing you see laying around all the while when growing up. (Just as our prevalence to purchase certain brands of things, because that’s what our mothers bought.)

    Lovely sweater, as always. I made this sweater once before (and it’s lovely), and am currently making this again in a different yarn. Somehow, my underarm – where changing from knit to purl to maintain garter in the round – is looking particularly wonky. Yours looks lovely. Any tips? I didn’t seem to have this problem the first go round. 🙁

    • I knit the sleeves flat on this instead – mattress stitch on garter stitch is actually quite pleasant! I also found an extra row or two of plain garter after the lace and before putting the sleeve stitches on hold helped for sewing up.

  20. I got into button saving 37 years ago, when my youngest daughter was born, I was staying with my mum and knitted the baby a beautiful cardi. Mum lived in a tiny village and the wool shop just did not have anything I liked, her neighbour pulled out 2 pots full of buttons, I have a choice of 3 sets, but I was hooked, I often buy buttons just because I like them, and always rescue buttons and good zips before discarding clothes.

  21. I was buying buttons in a quilt store one day and a lady asked me if I had a button box. Of course I did. Why was I buying buttons, then? Nothing in the cookie tin (I see a pattern here) was just right for this outfit. She asked me if she could have my button box when I died. Gobsmacked, I was! And I figured a] she had at least 10 years on me and b] she had the guts to ask for it. So now there is a note on my button boxtin with her name & phone number on it in case I get hit by a truck any time soon. And, although not a Depression child, I do clip interesting buttons off clothes before they go elsewhere.

  22. Sewist is very much the preferred word in the sewing community these days and the cookie tin the common button storage container. My mum kept hers in the glass jars her pregnancy vitamins came in and I use a mason jar for my very small collection.

  23. The button is perfect for baby’s first sweater, made by Grammy and button from Great Grammy. So much love and protection in that! I never knew a grandmother; they were all gone long before I arrived. I had an aunt who filled in that capacity. She taught me how to embroider and quilt and even some basics on the piano. Her friend owned a knitting shop and I loved her too. My mother’s button tin was an old red fruitcake tin. It was slightly taller than the cookie tins and was always full. I still have it and one of my own. I love the idea of a glass jar to keep the new ones in. Thanks Steph and the blog!

  24. I am a sentimental fool and this post got me right in the feels, Harlot. I cannot express how much I love this connection of the generations through that button. My hope is your family will tell this story for years. It’s a good one!

  25. Every household I knew as a child had a button tin, though being Brits we called them biscuit tins. Having eaten US-style biscuits for breakfast in a hotel in Washington DC I am aware things are a bit different on the other side of the Atlantic. There was a vogue for Danish butter biscuits/cookies here at one time too, though my Danish grandmother didn’t think there was much Danishness about them. Anyway, button saving is alive and well over here.

  26. I still dip into my mother’s button tin (caramel toffees originally) whenever I need a special button. And yes, I used to play with them when I was little.

  27. My mother had inherited button tins as well. She would allow us to explore the buttons if none went missing. I have no idea what happened to the tins. Her lovely children must have lost many of her buttons! The sweater is beautiful. I think I’ll knit one up, too, just for the heck of it.

  28. I too inherited button boxes or jars – from my mother (and some in it came from her mother) and from my mother-in- law. My daughter has most of my mother’s collections now. My mom was a knitter and seamstress (since Mom is a she – totally appropriate use!) any many of her buttons are on cards, or pieces of cards, cut off the original larger card. I see many memories of dresses she made for me and my girls when I look at some of those buttons I do appreciate the love that is being bestowed onto that sweater with that one button. And hooray for you redoing the wee sweater – we knew that you had to make it ‘right.’

  29. Another grandbaby – how exciting! I’m going to be a first time grandma in March also. I’m beside myself with excitement! I love the button idea (and the sweater pattern) and will go search my own inherited cookie tin full of buttons.

  30. I also have 2 button cookie tins….ur post drew me write in as usual. My mom and grandmom have told me so many stories about my great grandmothers. I loved hearing the stories and have learned so much about their lives, struggles. I’ve also learned a lot about how my family members lived and the influences that formed who I am. Pass along those stories, they are a treasure.

  31. If you want to go old-school, “sempster” was actually a word used before the gender-specific terms came into vogue. “Tailor” or “dressmaker” also work.

  32. This is beautiful. I have several stashes of buttons, each separated by who/where I got them from. One from a friends aunt, another from my great auntie, one from my grandmother, another a pile of vintage buttons I bought, and one from ones I find that I just like and buy.

    Baby stuff always gets buttons saved by loved ones, with the working theory that if the button was special enough to be saved for years or decades, that fondness just might be passed along to the wee one the handmade thing is intended for.

  33. Of course my grandmother and mother had button boxes, but my great-aunt used hers. She crocheted bracelets using elastic thread/yarn and (what might be considered garish) buttons. Big and small, the buttons fit together like a puzzle. I wish I still had one of those. they varied from about 1″ to probably 2 1/2″. My sister and I played in all the button boxes, made up collections for Aunt Marion’s bracelets, and all the other sorting/matching games little kids do.

  34. Yes, it’s now “sewist”. My sewing friend and I are pretty sure it’s because of Instagram. #sewist works while #sewer would tag all sorts of underground drains for sewage!

  35. It’s the perfect perfect button, Dear Steph, in many ways, most of which you already said. And “One time, your Great Grammy” is right on.

    And my mum and Grammy both had cookie tin buttons also.

  36. I do believe that I am achieving immortality here. Am I really the only person (who follows The Yarn Harlot) who is in possession of a genuine “antique” Crisco tin? In the early ’50s Crisco came packaged in embossed tins, beautifully colored, tight fitting lid complete with rounded knob. The only drawback is that there is a very small visual area unlike the cookie tins. But of course button collections were made to be dumped.

      • Yes! This just brought back a memory – my gramma would spill her button box and I would thread them on a string with a round tipped darning needle. HOURS of quiet…smart gramma. xo

  37. An old tin candy box (the lid is attached and flips up) from my Grandma stores some of my buttons. the overflow is in a large clear glass jar so I can spin it to view much of the collection
    I use the term stitcher to describe someone who makes the garment since it is gender neutral.

    • Some people think “stitcher” should be reserved for people who do cross stitch. Personally, I have no problem with a term that identifies the gender of a worker or crafts person.

  38. my old buttons are in antique mason jars….makes it easy to spot them before even opening the jar. I love love love looking through old buttons. Well done with the choice and the symbolic gesture. You’re a good Gramma, learned obviously from your mom.

  39. Personally, I have a jar of buttons. My grandmother had hers in a cookie tin (along with other sewing notions) in her sewing chest….my mom had some buttons and while she was a crocheter before I was born and she could sew, she just…..didn’t. But I have all those damn buttons. ::sigh::

  40. I Always keep the buttons when tossing any clothing item. Same for any “hardware” on bags, packs or similar items.
    I am now, in a “new” life, collecting jars of used buttons. Having some regrets about giving away my old collection when I made a cross country move. Some from my own grandmother’s box.
    On the other hand, hoping someone will find the perfect button for a sewing or knitting project and pass it along.
    It’s all time, kindness and love.

  41. I too learned to take the buttons off clothes before they went ‘away’. I think that we wore clothes to the nubs back in the day, and now I give the clothes to thrift store types, since I don’t wear them down like that anymore. My Mom’s buttons are still in a big glass jar with a silver screw top. (I think I need to research the jar.) Although, I did use some for baby things for my hubby’s grand babies….

  42. Of course, a cookie tin…a peanut butter jar, a heart-shaped candy tin, boxes (my mom’s were sorted), and various plastic storage containers. Can’t throw a button away and save them off old clothes.
    I prefer seamstress. Of course, I’m not very PC.

  43. I have my MorMor’s (Swedish for mother’s mother) button “box”. It’s a Christmas cookie tin. So, it’s not just your family.

  44. My mum had two button tins – white and coloured – which sounds a little racist in today’s politics but was really practical back then when adults wore white shirts or blouses more often than today.

    • nah, we know what you mean! White dress shirts- one tin; everything else, the other! And in tins! As are my collections. And when I moved into my first ever bought home, there was a cookie tin full of KEYS! To who knows what! And, the kitchen door has a lock, but no key. Not a one of those keys fit that lock. Ah, well. We keep the tin, and wonder. . .

  45. I think there will indeed be a million stories starting g with, “One time your Great Grammy….”. And I love that it made you smile.

  46. I seem to be the only one here whose Mom saved her buttons in a Whitman’s Sampler candy box. (She loved those candies, and my Dad gave her a box every Christmas.) But we were a military family and moved a lot, so the buttons seemed to have been discarded somewhere along the way. Sure wish I still had them, even if I never used them – I used to love playing with them when I was small.

  47. Sewer is the gender neutral of seamstress. Just say it So-er and not sew-er where runoff and toilets drain! Also, from this thread, button tins are the rage and also called boxes. After snagging some pretty fabulous buttons from a retiring quilter, I had to invest in plastic container boxes with dividers. I feel a bit like a button hoarder with tins, jars AND boxes.

  48. Cookie tins here too. One was from my great grandmother and some buttons are museum quality. I would have used one of her mother-of-pearl buttons on that sweet wee sweater. Beautiful!

  49. My nana passed away this year and, well, “She’d sure hate it if I wasted a button.” speaks truly about my family too. I’ve put my hand up to take any sewing bits that need a home, but the other thing I’ve done is mend up a baby cardigan either she or her mother made for her babies so that the next baby in our family can have that for their own stories of their great-nana. (What I’m trying to say is I think I get this, today.)

  50. My Grams had a button box AKA cookie tin filled with buttons from a variety of clothing discarded or worn out. It afforded mNy hours of story telling and playing as a child. I don’ t remember being told to snip buttons; but found it made sense. My original button box was still a tin. However, I switched to a glass head to hold them. It is a colorful way to see them and still entertains me. If I could figure out a way to attach a picture I would share it with you. I have been able to share buttons in blue mason jars with one of our daughters and a granddaughter. Time to close my reminiscing. I agree a button with a story will link generations in love and memories.

  51. Didn’t everyone’s gran have a biscuit tin full of buttons? mine sure did. I have a very haphazard pile, because I’m disorganized.

  52. This is the loveliest post, Stephanie. It brought all kinds of tears to my eyes – such a special connection one wee button can have. I have my mom’s button box – which is in a 1970’s era Quality Street chocolate tin. My gramma (who along with my mom taught me to knit) had a button box but I don’t know where it went when she passed away. I was little then – just 10 – I wish I had it in my possession now (age 51).

  53. I have a button jar. It’s an antique canning jar with my husbands grandmothers button collection. It doubles as a small lamp. I found a jar lid that is a light fixture. It sits in my messy messy craft room.

  54. I also have button containers. My mothers, my grandmothers and my great grandmothers. I had fabric in my stash that I has purchased when my daughter was born (33 yrs ago) and had not used it.
    For my 2 year old granddaughter, I decided to use it and made a wonderful little sundress. It too needed buttons and I found these floral green buttons in my great grandmother box. So these button are on my granddaughters dress and the buttons belong to her great, great, great grandmother. I hope my daughter never throws the little sundress out.

  55. I may be biased but my grandmother had THE best button collection. It was many (8-10?) large glass jars of buttons sorted by color, one color per jar. It was beautiful and lived on her fireplace mantle. As children we were allowed to only dump out one jar at a time to look through the buttons so as not to mess up the color organization. My favorite jars were blue buttons and the multicolored buttons. If we were lucky we could pick out a favorite button and take it home. My mother still has some of the random one off buttons in her collection which I helped her sort a few years ago. I spent so many hours playing with buttons as a child and I still love them. This post brought back so many wonderful memories. Thank you!

  56. My father’s mother had a button collection in a Danish Butter Cookie tin ( I sense a theme here )
    I loved to dig through it, sort and play with the buttons when I visited her.She sewed, knit, embroidered and taught me each one, which I didn’t embrace until later in life. My mother disliked any handwork, but Grandma optimistically gave her a sewing box which I have. It is covered with “quilted” green vinyl with a sparkly plastic handle. Although I didn’t get Grandmas button tin when she passed away (someone threw it out ) there were buttons in the sewing box and some wooden spools of thread. My husband went to the antique/secondhand store and bought me a big tin of old buttons for Christmas last year. I sorted some into mason jars by color and keep them out where I can see them, they make me think of Grandma. I also snip buttons off clothes destined for the rag drawer so the collection is growing….love the story of your button which has touched on a common thread for many of us!

  57. My maternal grandmother was an expert seamstress; that’s how she met my grandfather! She answered an ad for someone to sew wedding trousseau clothes and fell in love with the family’s younger son. She could sew a beautiful item without a pattern. So my mom had custom-made clothes throughout school, but longed for “bought” clothes like everyone else. Typical!

    She couldn’t cook, though. I used to dread Sunday dinner with Grandma Ida. So my mom took over the cooking when she was nine years old.

  58. My family’s button boxes all seem to be food related.
    I have my great grandma’s button jar that still has a faint pickle smell to it. My mom has her grandma’s box which was originally a fancy chocolate box. Dad’s mom has a cookie tin. I have a tin that originally held dum-dum suckers at my childhood neighbor’s home. She gave it to me when we moved away and I immediately started throwing button memories into it. Because really, they are all memories. GMa Ruth’s rhinestone buttons from her fancy dresses became the buttons for my first sweater. Buttons from one of my mom’s 1980s shirts went onto a bib I knit for a cousin’s baby (and were recognized!). Every button in my box seems to have a story and I love it that way.

  59. I love your generation sharing and your wee sweater for the new addition. I too inherited button collection in a cookie tin from my grandmother. Plus a large group inside a vintage wood sewing box my husband bought for me. I’ve just finished sorting them all by color and they’re going to be stored in an old electrician’s bin box that has the little slide out clear plastic bins. My dear husband spray painted it a blue that matches the blue in the wallpaper design he papered my craft room with, and the wallpaper came from my grandmother too!

  60. My button collection is in a pickle jar . . . as is my mom’s. (She’s still around, at 90, so I don’t have access to it.) But a former boss gave me *his* mother’s button collection, which *is* in a cookie tin. I have not taken a look at it, but I’m sure there are a lot of antique treasures in it!

  61. My sister passed away almost 20 years ago. Last month her son had his first baby – her first grandchild. My sister had made all three of my children crocheted afghans. Two of them were loved to death, but the third one survived. I found it, washed it, fluffed it up a bit, and gave it to my nephew at the baby shower, for the same reasons you put that button on your sweater. They brought the baby home in that afghan, wrapped up in a grandmother’s love.

  62. We kept our cookies in button tins. 🙂
    I think button tins became “the thing” because if it was dropped or knocked off the table….the lid usually stayed on….and there would not be quadzillion button pickup that day.
    And all the children would be able to sit down.

  63. I don’t have a button box from others but I do have a button box of my collections. I am slowly acquiring button from some surprising places along the way.

    What a loving tribute.

  64. I liked your little sweater and since my first grandbaby is arriving in February, I made one too with a sweet little Purl Soho garter earflap hat. Thanks for the recommendation. Picture on my project page janealive

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