Every year, thousands of Shaftesbury visitors view and buy Anna McDowell’s Dorset buttons from the Cygnet Gallery in Swan’s Yard. And soon, millions of moviegoers will see Anna’s authentic reproductions of traditional buttons from 17th century Shaftesbury.
Disney’s agents have commissioned Anna to create buttons for the costume of one of the world’s best-known movie stars. “I do a lot of film work. They usually want authentic buttons. I can’t replicate them exactly because you can’t source the original threads so I get something as close to that as possible. I do get my rings handmade to the same gauge as the original rings used,” said Anna.
It is impressive that film companies go to so much effort in order to be authentic, especially these days, when computer graphics can be used. But Anna’s worked with the industry for years and you’ll have seen her buttons featured in some big box office hits. “The best one was ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’,” said Anna. “When you see Carey Mulligan’s work dresses, I made all of the Dorset buttons on them.”
Recently Anna has been busy making more buttons for the sequel to the Walt Disney film ‘Maleficent’, starring Angelina Jolie. But you’ll have to wait a while before you see Anna’s work – the film isn’t released until May 2020.
So how do filmmakers hear about Anna’s work here in Shaftesbury? “Apparently I am on a list with one or two of the film costume makers in London for making good quality Dorset buttons,” Anna said.
Life in Shaftesbury is generally relaxed and is a world away from the fast-paced world of moviemakers. Anna says the crew can be quite demanding. “I do get people saying that they need them in two weeks time. For that Disney film, I had to make 220 buttons in a very short space of time.”
Anna is recognised as the UK authority on Dorset buttons, learning about them during her time as Chairman of Gold Hill Museum. There are many original buttons in the museum collection and she says she became enchanted by their intricate detail and unique design, so she decided that she needed to make one. “I’ve always been good with a needle,” Anna said. “I got a kit and made my first, which wasn’t too bad. And that’s how I got hooked.”
Anna became fascinated with the role that Dorset button-making played in Shaftesbury’s social history and also the status of the buttons in the world of wealthy and style-conscious members of Georgian society. She even found a book that connected the arbiter of men’s fashion in Regency England to Dorset buttons. “Beau Brummel used to put on a shirt every morning, done up with tiny Dorset buttons. They went right from this little place in Dorset to high-fashion.”
Anna says that the Dorset button making industry, which once thrived in the east of the county, can be traced back to one key individual. “All the records say that Abraham Case, a soldier and a mercenary in Europe, came to the area. Some references say that he moved to Donhead St Andrew. Others say it was Wardour. Apparently he fell in love with a local girl and moved into Shaftesbury and started the business.”
Anna says that European buttons of the period appeared very similar to Dorset buttons. “Did he get the idea whilst over in Europe? Did he think there was a need for it and start the business? This would have been around the 1620s but I have no documented evidence to back this up,” explained Anna. “But most of the articles and references that I have uncovered credit Abraham Case for launching this industry.”
Eventually, many parts of England started producing their own buttons. “I would have thought that virtually every county had its button industry. Later on, in the 1600s, there was legislation that showed that a lot of other counties had buttons, like Yorkshire and London. They made buttons in Macclesfield too.”
Anna says that a robust business model helped Dorset Button making grow. “Abraham Case’s grandson, Peter Case, brought in a business manager. He organised and streamlined the business so was probably good at business management.”
And Shaftesbury’s position, at the junction of a number of cross-country routes, would have encouraged the trade. “We had five major roads that came into Shaftesbury. Somebody contacted me some time ago who asked why there were so many peddlers here. That was a good way to distribute your goods, through people taking them from town to town,” said Anna.
At one time, Dorset button making was a major source of employment in Shaftesbury and the east of Dorset. “In Shaftesbury alone, 4,000 people worked in the industry. There would have been the people making them, the agents collecting them as well as the dippers making the wire rings. They were usually small boys with fine fingers. Child labour was in the forefront in those days. There were also washers, because the buttons would have been filthy when they came into the depots. And there will be people separating the buttons into three grades.”
Anna says that if she was presented with a range of traditional buttons from this period she could easily identify the one made locally. “Dorset buttons were unique. If you look at a Yorkshire button or a Macclesfield button you can definitely tell the difference,” she said.
The Dorset button designs were used across the east of Dorset. There wasn’t a special pattern or style synonymous with our town. “There’s no actual Shaftesbury button as such. But as they were being produced commercially you had to have standards. There were effectively four types of Dorset button and there were variations within those types. There were Hightops and Dorset Knobs in one category. Then you have the Birds Eye and Mites in another category. You have the Singleton button, which was a cloth-covered button. And you have the Blandford Cross Wheel, which is a thread button around a wire ring. Like all good businesses, they were standardised.”
So how authentic are Anna’s buttons? Does she replicate original designs or are the patterns her own creations? “I do both,” Anna responded. “I have studied buttons in museums around the country. The London Museum has a wonderful collection of original items of clothing with Dorset buttons on.”
Anna also features Dorset buttons in a way in which they can be easily worn. “I do brooches and anything with the Dorset button on it that I think might look attractive. I also try and persuade people to have a go at making them themselves. I sell kits. I’ve also written a book explaining how to make the complete, original range. I’ve incorporated some modern day techniques. What I try to do is take the old way of making a Dorset button and use contemporary threads,” Anna said.
Anna doesn’t have an overall bestselling button because she says certain pieces prove more popular according to the season. “As you come up to Christmas, I will sell a lot of small items that can be sent abroad. They are so unique to Dorset that people buy them as presents for friends.”
Anna’s creativity has once again been formally recognised. She has recently been presented with an award for her button making. “The Dorset Arts and Crafts Association have an annual exhibition. I try and enter something every year. I did another collage picture of Dorset buttons called ‘The Knitting Bee’ and got awarded the ‘best in that show’,” said Anna.
As well as writing a book about Dorset buttons, Anna has developed a loyal online following through her blog updates and her regular newsletter, which is all about Dorset buttons. “There are four pages of news – things that people have done as well as what I am doing,” said Anna. “People send me their snippets and tell me how they got interested. Currently, just over 700 people from all over the world subscribe to my newsletter. I’ve got followers in France, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Sweden and Italy. I get a lot of people in America contact me too with information about re-enactments and living history.”
So Anna is helping to put Shaftesbury on the map. “In a small way, perhaps, but yes,” Anna said, before she gave a recent example of how her unique art is encouraging visitors to our town. “Two ladies from Australia had seen my website. They came to Dorchester and they asked about me at the Dorchester Museum. They then made a trip up to Shaftesbury to see my stand at the Cygnet Gallery.”
Anna hopes to extend her range in the future, once she has completed her new workspace. “I’m building a studio at home. Then I will be able to spread out and get on with what I love doing the most – larger pieces, which I call ‘textile wall art’. Everything is based on the Dorset button and how they are made. It’s just using different textiles and yarns and having fun.”
You can follow Anna’s developments, buy her buttons and follow her blog if you visit a website, which is named in honour of her dog – at HenrysButtons.co.uk.