This morning, getting ready to head out for my swim, I surprised myself by stepping on something hard on the carpet by my bed. It was a little pearl button, fallen from my nightdress. I put it aside and will sew it on later. Buttons have been on my mind lately as I revise and tidy the final version of a manuscript before trying to find a publisher for it. Buttons, because they figure in many of the individual essays in the collection I am calling Blue Portugal. I use buttons as embellishments on quilts and of course looking at them as I sew them, I am curious about their origins, both the buttons I am sewing as well as the concept of buttons in our culture(s). One of the essays is called “Anatomy of a Button” and here is a little extract:
After my visit to the optometrist, I come home thoughtful. I have seen my inner eye with its small scars, discs securing my retinas in place. I have a dark path of silk and linen and indigo cotton and I have a basket of akoya buttons that I run my thumb over as I shake a few into an oyster shell to see how I might use them on this quilt. I imagine the process of stamping the buttons out of shells and then seeing them sized and polished, drilled with holes (mine all have two holes, though I’ve seen them with four), left loose or sewn onto cards for distribution to stores.
Sinew, gut, veins, threaded through holes in needles made of bone or tied securely to one end, guided through hide and fur, 30,000 to 60,000 years ago, and possibly longer. Plant fibres, twisted and turned until a strong thread was ready to attach one thing to another, snares and nets and fasteners created to hold clothing to the body, tying the knot, using a well-knapped flint to cut the end. In Greek mythology, the Moirai or sisters of Fate spun the threads of our lives, measured them to determine the length of our lives, and cut them to end our time on earth. The threads of our past, our present, and our future spun, and measured, and cut with shears. We know something of this cycle in our own bodies: we are born, the cord connecting us to our mothers cut, our days measured out, our own children born out of our bodies, the cords cut and tied off to make them separate from us, the large artery of our heart distributing oxygenated blood until it can no longer keep us alive. Maybe we have sewn, maybe we have threaded needles, pushed them through cloth, gathered and smoothed and trimmed the threads, and we have sewn buttons, mended tears in our clothing or our children’s clothing, patched and layered, we have drawn cord through a seam and pulled the cord tight until the opening closed and whatever we had gathered in a bag was safe for now. Maybe we have put our mending aside and waited for a quieter moment, sunlight on our favourite chair. A clean oyster shell holding buttons, faces looking up, eyes luminous with life.