a circle, pierced

I’m sewing shell buttons onto a salmon quilt-in-progress, figuring out pattern as I go alone. I have several sizes of these beautiful buttons and am using three small ones along the side of each batiked salmon and I intend to “strew” buttons of varying sizes among the stones I’ve batiked along each of two long panels. I am also thinking of trying to imply water by sewing lines of spaced buttons through the deep indigo background of the panels.


Sewing buttons has me wondering about their origins. How the leap was made from toggle to pierced circle of (I’m surmising) animal bone and, of course, shell. Many cultures have used something like a button to fasten clothing and many have used them decoratively – though one purpose does not preclude the other. I think of them as elements of containment and also revelation. One opened button – how much more enticing, in some contexts, than full exposure!

Buttons and beads have been used for clothing for the dead, too. Those elaborate Egyptian burials come to mind. And I remember reading about an excavation in a British quarry which revealed a woman of some importance who had been buried with gold beads, more like toggles to my eye, and pierced amber buttons, thought to have been part of a jacket. When does a button become a bead? Or a bead a button? Does it matter?

Over the past few years, there’s been active archaeological work in shíshálh First Nation territory not far from where I live on the Sechelt Peninsula. Over 350,000 beads have been found in a 4000 years old burial site. I believe some of these are stone and some are shell, with varying bore sizes, and that they are the remains of a woven robe or blanket wrapped around an important person. Think of the hours spent making those beads and then the hours spent creating the robe.

I’ve always loved the Northwest Coast button blankets and dance capes and I think that the first use of shell on them was not exactly in the form of buttons but wedges of abalone shell, placed at corners and intended to reflect firelight as the dancer moved in the darkness of the winter ceremonials. Someone realized the potential of extending the possibility of such reflection and began to outline crests with shell buttons, dentalium, and later the pearl buttons brought by Europeans, beauty and utility travelling the centuries at the end of a needle.