Emmelyne's Cloth Buttons
I love making dozens and dozens of little buttons for 14th century clothing. I've met a lot of people who find making buttons frustrating, so over the years I've shared these pictures and instructions on mailing lists and in person. It seemed time to put them up in a more accessible place. I won't claim that this is how all medieval people always made their buttons, but it gets the job done.
The trick is to do the gathering in two passes, rather than trying to gather and stuff in the raw edges all at one time.
Cut out a circle of fabric. Don't worry about the size just yet, you'll see if/how to adjust it after you've made one. I trace around a spool of thread. Take some thread, and make a line of running stitches just around the edge of the circle - close, but not so close to the edge that they pull through the fabric.
Draw up the thread into a little pouch and flatten it out with your thumb so the opening is centered. Let the hole open up a bit so the fabric can lie a little flatter. Now you have a flat circle, made from two layers of fabric instead of one, and all the raw edges are in the center. The thread is still attached, and if you're like me, the starting/ending place didn't tuck in as nicely as the rest, and is probably sticking out a bit like the lip on a pitcher.
Holding the disk flat between your thumb and first fingers, take the thread between the two layers of fabric, straight across to the opposite side of the disk, and out the folded edge. This tucks that little lip in nicely. Turning the disk under your fingers, make another line of running stitches, through one layer of fabric, along the folded edge all the way around.
Using a finger to keep the raw edges inside, draw up the thread again, making another little pouch. (It reminds me of a raspberry.) If the first fabric circle was the right size, it should close up into a tight little ball, with all those raw edges tucked neatly inside. Too big, and your button is soft and squashy, too small and it can't be closed. There's still a range of sizes that make satisfactory feeling buttons, so you can make them bigger or smaller to a degree. You could even stuff them with extra fabric or fiber.
The thread is still attached, so use it to make some stitches back and forth to hold the ball shut. Tie a knot, and then poke the needle from the base of the button straight up and out the top. Trim the thread off, close to the top of the button, and give it a little squeeze to encourage the end to slip back inside the button. This way you have a bit of a tail left after the knot, to keep it from coming undone, yet the tail is discreetly hidden inside the button.
This makes a tidy take-along project if you cut out a bunch of fabric circles in advance and throw them into a baggie with a needle and thread. It only takes a minute or so per button, so you can get a lot done during odd moments.
Remember that buttons (at least in the 14th century) were sewn directly to the folded edge of the garment, and not a ways in from the edge as we do today.
Make a good knot, and hide it deep inside the button, bringing the thread out the side of the button. Go down, through the garment edge and back up the bottom of the button and out another side, down again, etc. The button will be held on by four or five of these thread "legs". Then take the thread and wrap in around the legs, between the button and the garment edge. Tie a knot to secure. Then bring the thread back into the garment and slide it along the fold, between the layers and out again where the next button will be placed. Many buttons can be attached before a new thread is needed.
Textiles and Clothing has very nice pictures showing how this looks, as well as extant buttons still attached to the garment.