Family history in buttons

This Thanksgiving, my mom made the mistake of giving me my grandmother’s button collection before we ate. I was pretty much oblivious to food and family for the next five hours as I sorted and matched buttons.

The buttons were living in three handmade boxes.

My dad’s family is Japanese-American, and the boxes were made by my male relatives when they were put into internment camps during World War II. They used old milk crates and scrap wood to build everything from small things, like these boxes, to full-sized furniture.

The handiwork and attention to detail on the box amazes me.

My dad also told me more about how diligently my grandma (who was a professional seamstress) and great aunts saved every button from old garments. Hearing this made me want to sort and match her collection even more and do her proud! Also, I have a tendency that borders on compulsion to sort things by color and shape.

In addition to the time I spent on Thanksgiving, I probably sorted for another 10 hours this weekend and finished last night.Β The result?

I kept what I thought I could use, saved some for my mom’s mending and picked out some treats for you, lovely readers! I couldn’t think of anybody I’d rather share this bounty with. And because I couldn’t stop myself from doing more sorting, I divided them into themes.

Set 1: Pastels

Set 2: Blacks and browns

Set 3: Big vintage

Set 4: Creams and tans

Set 5: Party time

Set 6: Brights

Please leave a comment on this post saying which of the six sets you would like, your email and maybe tell me about a cool hand-me-down or heirloom you’ve received by next Wednesday 12/11 at noon PST. I’ll ship anywhere!

Just a little coat update – in my last post, I said I was getting back to my muslin. Weell, I’ve been finishing up a queen-sized quilt (!!!) on my normal-sized Bernina and didn’t anticipate how much I’d have to change my sewing area around to finish it… as soon as I finish cramming it through my machine and get my sewing table back, coat toile-ing is back on!


42 thoughts on “Family history in buttons

  1. Oh my, memories! My mother, (who passed on about 3 years ago) was also an avid seamstress and left me her button collection. She also saved every button – including all of those from my father’s, (also passed) old Navy uniforms which i haven’t been brave enough to use yet. I’m thinking of making a Navy (colored) blazer and using the buttons there, including maybe 5 or six going up the cuff – it would be very, very special to have them close to me when i wear the garment. Thanks for sharing. The off-white and cream buttons would be a real treat to own!!! And the cases are almost as special as the buttons! What a truly memorable gift to be Thankful for!

  2. That’s so fun! I adore vintage buttons. I was recently given my dad’s mom’s button stash (or at least some of it) and did the same thing – spilled it all out on the floor and sat there for hours until I had every button matched! Of course mine were in jam jars and not such beautiful boxes as you have. What a wonderful heirloom to have.

    My favorite sewing related heirloom is a selection of my Grandmother’s handmade lace that I got at the same time as her buttons.

    Oh yeah, and I’d love the Party, Brights, or Big buttons!

  3. My grandmother recently gave me several quilts that are from all sides of the family. My favorite is a yo-yo quilt that I expressed love for when I was probably 12. My grandmother hid it for YEARS to make sure I got it (my aunt has a tendency to take things from their house), and it is just all the more special because of that.

    I love all of those buttons! I recently went through my mom’s button tin, many of which were her mother’s buttons first. I salvaged some moss green buttons (there were 9!) with black marbling on them that will probably go on a skirt.

    I think my favorites are the cream & tan buttons, but the big vintage and the brights are awesome too. Honestly, I think I’d love any of them!

  4. Wow, what wonderful heirlooms! I’m so sad to read about this part of your family’s history, but I bet your dad’s family would be happy to know that you have these special things in much happier circumstances. You can leave me out of the giveaway as I’ve already won something lovely from you, but I just wanted to pipe up as this post is so cool!

  5. how generous of you! I wanted to leave a comment but don’t include me in the giveaway. My mom has a friend who has a stall in an antique shop/warehouse. Since she goes to estate sales, etc. I asked my mom to ask her to keep an eye out for buttons. Although my mom doesn’t sew and was a bit boggled by my request, she went further and asked all of her friends. My girls and I have been very excited to receive a couple of packages in the mail recently. And there are more on their way πŸ™‚

  6. What a find! Those boxes are exquisite, you must be really happy to have them now. I know what you mean about sorting things. When I was little, I had a money box and I used to sort the coins in order of date on my bedroom floor. Sad, I know!

    My family heirloom has to be the green cardigan my Granny knitted. It’s the warmest thing I own and it’s seen me through many cold winters. Sadly my Granny died when she was only 57 and I was the only grandchild she never knew. I think we would have had a lot in common because she loved to sew and knit and so do I. When I wear the cardigan I feel closer to her.

    If I had to choose one of those button bundles it would have to be the lovely big vintage ones. I don’t know how you can part with them though! My email is

  7. Wow, that is quite a collection! My grandmother gave me the quilt that her mom made her before going off to college. I’ve been too afraid to use it ever since.

    Over Thanksgiving, I had my very first sewing conversation with my other grandmother, who is also professional seamstress. That was pretty special. I’d love to win the pastel buttons. I would use them on some dresses. renee.ryberg at gmail dot com

  8. What an amazing piece of family history. I have a thread box that was my grandmothers, and I once found a complete sewing stash dumped onto the sidewalk from someone cleaning out an apartment. The stash included buttons, scissors and even a letter from a bank giving the details of a paid-off mortgage! Obviously things that had been treasured and cared for, it was sort of heartbreaking to find them on the street corner. I love the party time assortment!

  9. I love your posts and I have only recently come upon all of these many sewing blogs that sometimes keep me up at night! Thank you for sharing your photos and sewing knowledge.

    My favorite set would have to be party time! I also love the bright set and blacks and browns!

    My favorite heirloom piece is a rhinestone brooch that my mother passed down to me from her mother who was an artist and had terrific taste!

    Happy holidays

  10. I completely understand the tendency to sort, organize, count, and inventory. I think the only things that’s stopped me from buying several pounds of miscellaneous buttons on eBay is the crippling decision about what kind of container(s) to put them all in. (My love of organizing is rivaled only by my love of boxes, bins, bags, jars, etc.)

    As for a favorite heirloom, I’m looking forward to eventually receiving my great-grandmother’s sewing chest. I’ve never seen it before, but my mom assures me it’s both a lovely, solidly built piece and much larger than the average sewing box you find in stores today. I look forward to carrying on the sewing tradition in my family and stashing all of my tools in a treasured chest.

    Although I don’t consider myself much of a vintage enthusiast, I find myself strangely attracted to the Big Vintage set. Maybe I’m finally stepping out of my comfort zone? Should I be lucky enough to win, you can find me at practicemakespretty [AT] gmail [DOT] com.

  11. I love the cream and tan buttons. So pretty. I have the dresser that was my grandmother’s, and every time I see it, I think of her.

  12. What a touching story. I don’t own any heirlooms 😦 I have a dress that I wore as a toddler, and a baby’s dress that I made as a teenager decades ago – maybe one day these will go to a baby in the family. I would love either ‘big vintage’ or ‘Brights’, if I win. Thank you.

  13. I find button sorting to be most therapeutic myself.

    In my last town, I would buy jars of buttons from the op shop for $2 and spend hours sorting them. Recently, a friend brought me back a jar of Liberty buttons from London…it was the most fun present I have had in a long time!

    The coolest buttons I have been give were little pearls on snaps that could be removed for dry cleaning.

    I like the big vintage ones.

    PS very cool button boxes!

  14. How special! The buttons and the boxes! I have a button “collection” but they are all pied in an old cookie tin. I have to dump them all out when I am looking for something to use – I love how these are threaded together and may need to make a project of organizing mine! Any of these buttons would be a great prize and prized by me- I especially love the blacks and browns… πŸ™‚

  15. What treasures – the boxes and the buttons. My great-grandfather was a tailor but unfortunately that side of my family are definite non-hoarders and we have virtually none of his stuff. On the other side I’m from generations of textile-obsessed globe-trotting hoarders, though! My great-grandmother wore a full sari every day of her life so I’ve been given some beautiful old lengths of fabric. I really like the turquoise buttons in the Brights set…

  16. What beautiful boxes of buttons! There’s something so magical about a button box… the feeling of the buttons are you dig through for just the right one! My mom recently started making and selling button necklaces for charity, and she’s also been loving sorting them into colour-and-size-coded boxes!
    I’ll throw my hat in the ring for the pastels… but really I’m just excited for you to inherit such a lovely treasure!

  17. This is such a cool post – no shame in loving the sorting and organizing – it can be so relaxing, yet you feel accomplished πŸ™‚ My favorite sewing heirloom is a vintage pattern from my grandma that was given to my mom and then to me, but it’s special b/c it has my name written on it in my grandma’s handwriting – she made me an apron/dress from that pattern when I was a teenager and it’s still intact!

    And I would have to go for the blacks and browns set for sure! πŸ™‚

  18. I think it’s hard for non crafters/sewists to understand the absolute joy an old button collection can bring! I’m pretty set for buttons so don’t count my comment as an entry, but I just wanted you to know how much I understand your pleasure! I’ve just used a gorgeous jet button on a dress that belonged to my great grandmother. I know she was not a wealthy woman, and so these buttons would have been used and reused for many years on different garments, and I was so happy to reuse one of them!

  19. What a special collection of buttons and box.
    I would be happy with any of the sets. Receiving my grandparents’ kimonos is a valued heirloom I got a few years back.

  20. I am in love with sets 1, 3, and 6. haha. They are all so stunning. My grandma and my mom both have huge button boxes that I loves getting to sort through, play with, and match while I was growing up. It’s one of my very favorite moments. As soon as I was old enough to be trusted with my own set of unsupervised small items, I knew I wanted to start a button box of my own. It’s a tradition I hope carried on for many generations to come.
    My elderly neighbor once gave me a 1960s vintage coat with the most marvelous HUGE vintage buttons. I wear it out to special occasions sometimes, and the buttons are my favorite part.

  21. Hello. I really love the “big Vintage” buttons. There are two hand me downs that I love. My moms sewing machine, which my dad got her when I was a kid and I made my sisters wedding dress on it and my moms red measuring tape which is probably as old as the sewing machine.

  22. You’ll never want for buttons again! Even though I’m a failed sewing student, I do find a lot of uses for buttons and am always expanding and contracting my little box of them. I love ALL of your collections and would happily take any one off your hands, particularly 1-4.

    One Thanksgiving when I was 15 I was going through my grandma’s jewelry box and slipped on a small gold ring that fit perfectly. “Grandma, what’s this?” I asked. “Oh, you can have that.” “But where did it come from?” “That was my first wedding ring.” My grandpa had bought her the band and had it engraved with their initials and wedding date before he left to fight in WWII. A few years later he bought her a diamond, and the little gold ring sat in her jewelry box until I discovered it nearly 50 years later. I’ve worn it almost every day since. It’s my most precious possession.

  23. What a lovely post! My mom let me pick some buttons out of my great-grandmother’s collection a while back, and I came home with some really beautiful buttons. She (my great-grandmother) had been meticulous in saving them, they were all threaded together in sets. One thing I love about buttons is that I am never afraid to use them, as I can always take them off and save them again! I love the cream and tan group. Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

  24. Those boxes are beautifully made. It’s lovely to have things that connect you to your ancestors. I inherited all my Grandma’s sewing materials, as my mum does not sew (prefers knitting) – these include an old wooden sewing box on legs with a padded seat, divided in a very similar way to your wooden boxes, needles, pins (including hat pins!), threads on wooden spools, tape measures, scissors, you name it. I really must do a post on it one day. Now my things are mingled with hers and I use it every day (even if for ten minutes). It’s very kind of you to give away such lovely things. If I was to pick, I think I’d be the most likely to use the creams and tans. Good luck with getting that quilt finished! πŸ™‚

  25. Wow – what a great Thanksgiving present. Several years ago I my grandma passed away and I learned that she had left me the dresser that she kept in her sewing room. I was thrilled to get the dresser as I had always loved it when staying at her house. I was even more thrilled to find that the two bottom drawers were full – one with many many family pictures, some dating back to 1904, and the other with many of her sewing accoutrements. She had saved zippers, bra straps, buttons, there is silk bias tape on a wooden holder that must be from the 1930’s at least. It was a huge gift – her button jar was in there too, she had used an old peanut butter jar. I’ve used a couple of the buttons for gifts and it’s such a cool addition. I love vintage buttons – I’m very drawn to the party time set.

  26. That’s such a fantastic heirloom. My mom always tells me about her grandmother who was a seamstress. Apparently she had stacks and stacks of Vogue magazines everywhere and could pretty much sew up whatever you wanted. I don’t have any sewing heirlooms but my granny collected hankies, so I have a few really pretty embroidered ones. I used one of them, embroidered with a border of forget-me-nots, to wrap around my bouquet in my wedding.

    Thanks so much for sharing your fantastic familial collection with us – I think the pastel collection and the black/brown collection are my favorites!

  27. What a great collection! I love that you will be able to add some family history to so many makes by using these buttons.
    I would love the Brights set. Most of my fabric choices are on the mellow side (grey, brown, blue, green, more brown) so buttons are a great way to add a little bit of energy to my wardrobe.
    I haven’t gotten any heirlooms recently, but my grandmother just sent me my own birth announcement which I thought was pretty sweet!

  28. I love buttons so much, I love rummaging around in charity shops finding bags of old buttons and then when I get home I also have to sort them all out into groups too! I feel a bit sad that I don’t have any sewing heirlooms to mention here. I love hearing about other people’s stories though! My favourite sets are probably the pastels or the tan/cream ones!

  29. My grandmother was a seamstress and collected buttons too. She gave me some when I was a kid and I still have them. She also made me clothes. I loved your post about the history and memories of your grandmother’s buttons. I like pastels, but they are all pretty and I will be lucky to receive any of them.

  30. My favourite hand me down is an old cracked yellow teapot that my mom got from my grandmother. It reminds me of a big lemon (not that it looks like one) and I remember my mom using it when I was little. Button collections are the best! I remember sorting my mom’s collection when I was little and it was always fun to rearrange them, let alone the sound of the buttons clinking together as I sifted through them.
    I’d love the brown and black set, or the brights!

  31. What a great piece of family history and good to know that the collection has gone to someone in the family who appreciates it. I have china tea sets that belonged to my grandmother and always remember them being in the china cabinet when I was small. I love how you have sorted and threaded them all, I think if I was chosen I would like the black and brown set. Thanks for sharing, I love stories like this πŸ™‚

  32. These buttons are lovely. I can spend hours sorting little bits and pieces out. I find it so calming and relaxing. Lately it’s been the body parts of lego mini-figures rather than vintage buttons though.

  33. Oooh, I’d love the blacks and browns! This entire collection is an amazing find – I’m blown away by the button awesomeness. : )

    My grandmother was also a seamstress, and I inherited her sewing notebook from high school, which is now one of my most precious possessions. It contains all her hand-written notes on various seams and techniques, including fabric examples stapled to each page. What a treasure!

  34. What a special story. Those boxes are incredible and they carry so much history with them. Because I have moved so much and so far from my family, I don’t have very many heirlooms, but when my dad, who was a university prof, passed away two years ago I brought back with me his wooden book rest which is carved with his initials. I have fond memories of my dad at his desk prepping for class, reading from the book stand and writing class notes by hand. Now I prop knitting patterns and sewing books on it.

    Thanks for sharing a bit of your family history with us. I would love a chance at the the “brights” collection. And best of luck with that monster size quilt!

  35. How fun! Those look beautiful. I like the creams and tans best, followed by the pastels (which surprises me because I’m usually not a pale or ivory kind of girl! You never know about these things!) My mom gave me her button collection, which is pretty fun. I don’t have many heirlooms, though I do have the blanket my grandmother knit for me. I do have a handful of family stories that stretch back into China, though, which are just as precious – I’m a writer, and love hearing these stories to try and understand who my grandparents were and the world they came from.

    Blog is best way to reach me … I do have comments emailed to me :-).

  36. What an amazing gift! I am with you on the joy of sorting out buttons. And “family” buttons are the best – my mom’s button tin was one of my favorite things to play with when I was a kid!

    As for the giveaway – you’re so generous to part with these! The “big vintage” group is my favorite πŸ™‚

  37. Well, It’s a few hours past the deadline for the contest, but I love buttons, too! I realized you live in Seattle, and so do I. I’m just learning to sew and taking classes. I love your blog. Thanks for sharing!

  38. What a wonderful post! And all the comments are amazing! Soooo why do/did our children need toys? Seems to me a lot of us grew up playing with the buttons our mothers/grandmothers had. We sorted, counted, grouped and pretty much loved them. I mean we must have…. or we wouldn’t still be talking about them now. Thank you everyone for sharing your stories. I too counted my moms buttons, inherited my grandma’s buttons and now my mother in laws who had her mother in laws…. which I have now too. History is amazing. Hope we don’t forget to share it with family, friends or just blog acquaintances.

    1. There’s something very compelling about varied, colorful objects like buttons that still have a purpose. I’m always surprised by what captures my 4-year-old nephew’s fancy – he still loves toys, but he also loves watching my sewing machine and sifting through fabric scraps.

      You’re so lucky to be the recipient of your family’s buttons!

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