Chapter 6: Calico and Gingham Buttons

Calico Buttons

The introductory article on calico buttons in Guidelines is written by Beatrice Lorah who explains “Calico buttons get their name from the word ‘calico’.  This was derived from the word ‘Calicut’ , which is the name of a city in western India.  It was there that cotton cloth with printed patterns was manufactured and exported to England.  Some of this cloth, we believe, was used in the making of covered buttons.”

She continues ” When we speak of calicoes today, we refer to china button with printed calico designs.  These designs are repeated over the entire surface, whereas on the stencil there is but one pattern.”

The text explains that the calico pattern was printed in ink on paper that was then laid on top of a tray of fired china buttons.  As the tray made a second trip through the kiln, heat transfered the inked pattern onto the surface of the button and the paper was burned away.

Wilfred Morgan began the process of identifying and drawing china calico button patterns.  In 1939 and 1940 he published three booklets illustrating the 293 patterns he had identified.  His original drawings were executed in 4″ diameter circles.   Beatrice and Lester Lorah continued his work, adding more patterns, and  compiled the catalog shown in Guidelines.  You may access the patterns here, at the National Button Society website. Also published on line is collector George Gauthier’s system for identifying calico patterns.

And just for fun, here is a photo of Mr. Morgan and a voided example of one his drawings.

Mr. Lorah provides information about calico colors, sizes and shapes, and draws body types.

Plate 75 above shows shapes (top row left to right) dish, inkwell, saucer and (bottom row left to right) smooth top oval eye, tire, what is referred to here as shape 6 but known as Shape 4 on Plate 37, and a pin shank example, considered to be the rarest.  The article also refers to calico jewels, not drawn, but does not mention other body types which are  shown below.

Missing from the collection above is a faux sew-thru gaiter type calico pattern button.  I’ve taken the image from the China Exchange website where you can see other examples of buttons not catalogued in Guidelines, and up close examples of some that are.

Jean-Felix Bapterosses in his factory at Briare, France, is credited with the introduction of colored china buttons in the mid 19th century.  Colors for the more common two hole body calicos with a white pattern are shown below.  Of those shown rarest are royal blue, teal green, dark gray, and orange.  The pink variation is less opaque appearing, suggesting its possibly glass-like ingredients.

Matthew Brown has reminded me that at the museum at the Bapterosses factory, in addition to the calico patterns on dark body smooth tops,, we also saw calico patterns on dark body whistles.  I’ve borrowed Deb Hanson’s photo posted at the China Exchange site–thank you Deb.

Other calico rarities, not listed in the order of their scarceness, include:

  • Patterns on colored 4-hole bodies
  • Two-color calico patterns
  • Patterns on fish eye bodies
  • Pin shank, gaiter, drum (gaiter in metal setting) bodies
  • Lozenge (much thicker than dish examples) body
  • Luster as body color either under or over calico pattern
  • Gold calico pattern
  • Square sewing well on dish type body
  • Fancy metal rimmed dish body
  • Metal rimmed size medium

Gingham Buttons

Ginghams and calicoes share two body types but differ in the type of pattern and method of pattern application.  From Guidelines:

“To distinguish the patterns by kind, one has only to look at the two textiles that the buttons copy. Cross-bars and plaids are typical of gingham.  Tiny repetitive details is characteristic of calico.”

“Gingham patterns are placed on buttons in this way: The button is dusted over with colored powder after the design has been drawn on  with a colorless sticky medium. The loose powder is blown off and the button fired.  When more than one color is wanted, each requires separate firing.”

“The ginghams contained in the Bapterosses sample case range in size from just under 1/2″ to 11/16″.  The five four-holers all have knob centers.  There are eleven basic patterns of line arrangement.  Coloring is usually carried out with horizontal lines of one color and vertical lines of another.  In a single instance, all lines are black.”

Courtesy of Millicent Safro of Tender Buttons, NYC, the sample case buttons may be seen at the China Exchange site.

Below are examples of the two body types exhibiting gingham patterns.  The 4-hole version always has a raised knob in the center of the sewing well, as do some calico buttons.  The 2-hole variety is a smooth top oval eye body.

Typically there are areas of confusion in distinguishing calico from gingham buttons.  In one case (the two buttons on the left below), the method of application clearly places the buttons in the calico category.  The black patterned button (third button from the left) is confusing because it is catalogued as a calico pattern, but appears to have been created using the gingham type method.  It is found in a blue color also.  The button far right is certainly a plaid, but the pattern appears to have been hand painted and this button is grouped with the oval eye button patterns on plate 38, chapter three.

On a personal note, I have been very fortunate to connect with friendly button dealers and other collectors who have facilitated my acquisitiveness–and it is my pleasure to share these delightful buttons with you in this blog.


Author: Frankie Winters

I'm a Designer, Maker, and Developer in Portland, Oregon. I have two little girls and keep a meticulously organized garage.

One thought on “Chapter 6: Calico and Gingham Buttons”

  1. Thank you very much for consolidating this information. I’ve been collecting calicos for over 15 years and am still finding more information. Your work is appreciated.

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