Buttonholes, pockets and zippers: a short history

Posted July 12, 2010, at 7:45 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:54 p.m.

When it comes to clothing, I take lots of things for granted, such as buttonholes, pockets and zippers. But there was a time when such clothing conveniences had never been heard of, weren’t available to the masses or existed in less than convenient versions.

If buttonhole history has been written down in detail, I have yet to discover it. But according to information posted at wikipedia.org I learned that buttonholes appeared in Germany in the 13th century. Ancient Persians are thought to have been the first to use buttonholes in clothing before their use spread throughout Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The buttonhole, it seems to me, is a rare and precious gift. I wish I knew who was the clever man or woman who figured out that if you snip a slit in a piece of cloth and attach a button opposite, you can fasten the fabric, around you — what a fashion statement that first buttonhole must have made.

Buttonholes in women’s clothing are made on the right-hand side of garments, and buttonholes on men’s clothing are made on the left. The story behind that, apparently, is that in the beginning, buttonholes for both sexes were on the left, but when the maidservants dressed their mistresses, facing them, everything was reversed and the maids got confused. Thus buttonholes on ladies’ clothing got moved to the right so as not to confuse the maids, according to Wikipedia. Charming story, but it doesn’t give the hardworking maids much credit for common sense.

Buttonholes are easy to make using modern-day sewing machines. The buttonhole is slit after the stitching is done. Or it can be left uncut to serve as decoration.

Buttonholes also can be made by hand using the utilitarian buttonhole stitch, well known to embroiderers, worked close together to bind the raw edges.

Bound buttonholes have the raw edges finished with fabric. I’ve made them a few times, but it’s a tricky undertaking and I never became expert at it.

The origin of the pocket also is lost in the great draperies of time. Humans always have had a need to carry stuff so perhaps the pocket as we know it today originated with pouches that tied around the waist or were slung over the shoulder.

The dress of women in Colonial America did not have sewn-in pockets, but their dresses had openings in the side seams for access to pockets worn tied around the waist. These pockets, worn singly or in pairs, might be plain or prettily embroidered in crewelwork. The pockets, made of wool or linen, were large enough to stow one’s knitting, a small book, letters, spectacles, a child’s toy, scissors, precious pins and needles, or other items.

In the 1980s I found a pattern for a Colonial lady’s pocket in an issue of Early American Life magazine. Before that, it never occurred to me that pockets had evolved over time. I tucked the pattern away in a looseleaf notebook along with similar patterns from a bygone era.

There are many different kinds of pockets with many uses — in-seam pockets, patch pockets, watch pockets, inside pockets and cargo pockets. Pockets can be placed at the sides, back or front of the hips, on the chest, on sleeves and on pants legs. They can be small enough to carry a watch or large enough to accommodate a book. They can be tailored especially for a cell phone or for a handkerchief. They can have flaps or bound edges. But no matter what they look like, pockets always enhances the usefulness of a garment.

Before zippers, clothing was held together with buttons and buttonholes or, as the case of women’s clothing in the 18th and 19th centuries, laced together at front or back — not exactly a convenient way to dress.

It took about 20 years for the zipper to evolve after Whitcomb L. Judson of Chicago applied for a patent for a sliding fastener in 1891, according to information at wikipedia.com. Early zipper designs had many flaws, and it wasn’t until 1914 when Gideon Sundback brought forth his version that the zipper became a reliable item clothing manufacturers could use in garments. Sundback was a Swedish-born electrical engineer and inventor who moved to the United States in 1905. His version of the zipper had interlocking teeth, the forerunner of the zippers we know today.

The zipper came into common use for children’s clothing and men’s trousers in the 1920s and 1930s, but it was not until World War II that the zipper was widely used in North America and Europe.

Pockets, zippers, buttons and buttonholes are definitely on my list of the Top 10 Very Good Clothing Inventions. To that list, I’d add darts, the bias cut, French seams, set-in sleeves, topstitching, belt loops and snap fasteners.

Snippets

The Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland will present a lecture on a unique aspect of the history of hooked rugs at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 21, in the Farnsworth auditorium. Collector and expert Paula Laverty will discuss the hooked mats of the Grenfell Mission, a medical mission founded in 1892 in Newfoundland and Labrador. At the peak of the mission’s production, 3,000 mats were being hooked annually using old tattered silk stockings and other undergarments donated to the mission’s cause.

The lecture will feature historic photographs and images of the mat designs that were being produced. Particular attention will be given to the women who did the work and their place in the history of the craft.

Laverty is a graduate of Syracuse University and has organized exhibitions featuring Grenfell mats at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City, the Shelburne Museum in Vermont and the Textile Museum of Canada.

A book signing will take place after the lecture. The signing also will include Mildred Peladeau, author of “Rug Hooking in Maine 1838-1940” and guest curator of the exhibition now on view at the Farnsworth, “Rug Hooking in Maine and Beyond,” Susie Stephenson, author of “Designing & Hooking Primitive Rugs.”

Admission to the lecture is $8 members, $10 others. To make a reservation, call 596-0949 or visit www.farnsworthmuseum.org\education.

The Rockland Farmers Market at Harbor Park will hold spinning demonstrations Thursday, July 15. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about how wool makes the transition from sheep’s fleece to cloth. For information about the market and special events, visit rocklandfarmersmarket.org.

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