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Buying buttons for bespoke

6 January 2010

Buttons are a subtle way to add personality to a suit, odd jacket or even overcoat. But it pays to keep them subtle.

It’s easy enough to sew on a suit button, though I recommend experimenting with something inexpensive first. Just make sure you secure the thread firmly – I normally sew twice in one direction on the same spot, then once at a right angle – and leave some slack so you can create a decent stalk. And tip the button to one side to pierce the cloth underneath without going all the way through. (The only time you really need to go right through is with the jigger button on a double-breasted, or with very heavy materials.)

The first time I sewed on my own buttons was with a navy overcoat from Hackett a couple of years ago. While I liked the cut and the herringbone cloth from Loro Piana, it needed something to give it character. So I replaced the navy buttons with cream horn ones – plenty of texture, lots of punch for the coat.

Now I am having more things made bespoke, I am selecting buttons rather than replacing them. With my past two suits and overcoat from Graham Browne, I have gone with plain navy or brown horn from the stock selection. With the latest commission (the ‘fishy’ suit) I decided to source my own.

For this I went to the excellent Duttons for Buttons in York, where I had also bought the cream ones for my Hackett overcoat. I am up there every couple of months visiting my in-laws so it is pretty convenient, and the selection is impressive.

The suit is a smart, single-button navy with jetted pockets and high-waisted trousers. The buttons therefore had to be smart as well without being showy. And as I needed two precise sizes for the waist button and the cuffs (30 and 24 line, or 15 and 19 millimetres in diameter) the choice came down to about eight or nine sets.

After a good hour of indecision, I went with black iridescent buttons that looked rather like dark mother-of-pearl. That was a mistake. Over Christmas I tried the buttons against several navy suits and decided they were too shiny, too silvery and too like blazer buttons in natural light.

So on December 28th, when Duttons opened again after Christmas, I went back and spent another 30 minutes examining dark, matte buttons, eventually picking some made from Mussel shells (pictured above). They are deeper and less shiny than my first choice, but actually have more surface interest and subtle variation between them.

So my (probably rather obvious) lessons from this experience are:

- Go for natural materials, shell or horn, where you can. Manmade textures are rarely as attractive and they’ll last better.

- Take the cloth or jacket with you. I thought I could picture the buttons easily against it in my head. I couldn’t.

- Be subtle, particularly on a suit. Or, as an alternative guideline, be as subtle as the item and its pattern. Overcoats and sports jackets, checks and tweeds can take more adventurous buttons.