Thursday, November 12, 2009

Plastics: Miracle of the Future and Buttons

I have spent the last few weeks touring the last vestiges of the garment industry looking for parts. Toronto was a hub of garment manufacture. Fortunes were made in the garment industry in Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, New York and the entire great lakes basin. The clothing industry paralleled the industrial boom. For every new plane, train or automobile, new technologies in clothing had to follow. And where clothing is produced buttons and findings are needed. When the great "schmata" producers retired or went out of business because of competition overseas, the findings and buttons manufacturers followed suit. There were many many companies producing buttons right nearby where I live. Now I tour the few remaining companies that are like button archives mostly selling to the few specialty manufacturers left or providing various sundries to home sewers.

The period between 1870 and 1910 led to the discovery and manufacture of buttons made from new man made materials. First was nitrate cellulose discovered by the Hyatt brothers (looking for a pool ball replacement). Then cellulose acetate quickly replaced nitrate cellulose for industrial applications. The cellulose was too flammable to be moulded safely. In 1907, Leo Baekeland invented bakelite and the plastics revolution was born. Bakelite turned out to be an excellent material for making components with the exception that it darkened easily so light colored plastics could not be made. In the 1920s urea replaced bakelite as a preferred material. Part of my search for the perfect buttons has led me to caches of left over buttons made of urea compounds and melamine. These buttons mostly have the classic "cat eye" configuration (which in the button industry is referred to as the "fisheye" button). Modern plastic buttons can be dyed using specialty dyes depending on the material of the button. Nylon dye for nylon buttons and such. I have searched and found the best most original parts for my jackets. Some are purely stylistic, and most are absolutely original parts from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Check out the dyed buttons on the table.