20 July 2017
Competing with the little old ladies.
By Chin Chin
My father’s generation were more Gothic than mine and I remember him telling me that, when he was very young, he was told by an aunt that if he did not behave: “I will cut off your head and sew a button on instead”. Goodness knows what threats like that would do to the psyche of a modern child but, even at second-hand, they certainly had an effect upon me. Button sewing was the art of the dominant female. Anxious to assert myself in a world where the sexes compete in every field, the art of sewing on buttons I would master. After all, it could not be that difficult.
So I thought, anyway, on Saturday morning when I put on a shirt to discover that it was short by a button at the front. Actually that should not have come as a surprise. The shirt had been missing a button since Christmas but I had ignored the fact for as long as possible by wearing it under a sweater. That was all very fine until about April, when one could keep down the temperature of the house by turning off the central heating system, but by the end of May I was obviously too hot and had to explain my sweater to friends by saying that I had a slight injury to my back which the doctor had suggested that I keep warm. By mid June the sweater sent me the colour of a cooked lobster and, to look natural, I had to dust my face down with talcum powder, rather like Elizabeth I – although I believe she did it for quite different reasons. Anyway, July temperatures and high humidity made the sweater insupportable. The only answer was to sew on the button.
It is surprising how many actions are involved in sewing a button onto a shirt. The first, of course, is to find an appropriate button, and most shirt manufacturers help you here by putting a spare one at the bottom in the middle. No doubt that is intended kindly but actually it poses a problem because it adds a preliminary step. How do you get that button off the shirt so that it can be sewn back on further up? Bearing in mind how frequently other buttons come off, you would have thought that would be simple. In fact it is nothing of the sort and, to complicate things further, there is a bewildering array of approaches. Can you scratch through the thread with your thumbnail? No, it is too tough for that. What about having a go with a corner of your razor? No, the centre of the button is indented so the blade will not meet the thread. What about using a dinner knife? The blade is rounded and, like the razor, cannot get down far enough. Burning one’s way through the thread with a match? Better not, remember trying to burn your way into that parcel which turned out to contain an aerosol? The fire brigade might be impatient if they were called out again.
No, something more lateral is required, more Alexander at Gordium, if you know what I mean. I know, attack the button from behind, sliding the scissor blades between it and the fabric. I suppose that if the scissors had been very sharp that might have worked but unfortunately the whole thing slipped at the crucial moment, and although I ended up with the button there was fabric attached to it and a corresponding hole in the bottom of the shirt. Never mind, there is a classic answer to that. Put sticking plaster on the shirt and tuck it in well below the waist line. Thank goodness the manufacturers put the spare button so far down.
Anyway, now to business. Cut away the spare threads with the scissors and it will be time to get sewing. Actually, though, not quite time. Before you can sew you have to thread the needle. It always amazes me that elderly ladies wearing thick glasses will thread a needle in seconds whereas the task is baffling to the average man. Perhaps it is a question of pheromones. These are supposed to be the reason why women catch more fish than men. Threading needles is a bit like catching fish when you come to think of it.
An hour or two later the needle is threaded; and now the first big strategic decision has to be made. Is it better to tie the two ends of the cotton together, which not only enables you to sew with a double thread but enables you to underpin your work by putting the threads through the loop that is created behind the fabric, or should one do it “knowledgeable old lady style” where you just remember not to pull too hard on the first few strokes? I always go for the double thread myself, but the risk is that one side of the cotton gets out of kilter with the other. Then you discover that a large bird’s nest of cotton has formed behind the fabric and that your efforts to put that right with a couple of decisive strokes merely result in some of the thread going over the edge of the button rather than through it. In these circumstances you will not be able to do up the button without aligning it very very carefully with the button hole. It doesn’t look too good either.
There is a point in the Scottish play where Macbeth says “Returning were as tedious as go o’er”. Now I am unlikely ever to reach the rank of King of Scotland, so it is with some diffidence that I reject his advice. Still, it only takes a little longer to do a job like this properly so I think that it is worth the extra work to put the matter right. Where did I leave those scissors? Bother, I must have put them somewhere. You see I need them to cut off the button which I have just sewn on.
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