Out of the rubble, pt. 2

All very well, isn’t it, not writing anything down? You know — passing know-how down from generation to generation, by the medium only of spoken word? Learning by hard rote and by up-close experience of working alongside the master, rather than by the instruction manual? All the tacit skill and trade-craft absorbed along the way? Can’t beat it.

Question is — what happens when the generational chain is broken? Then you end up something like start-up button-maker in the Midlands. Over the past few months, it has procured almost everything: the premises, the power supply, the moulds, the galvanised metal tub upon tub of high-grade horn blanks, and, steadily, the right the contraptions.

But what the new button-maker didn’t have, when it arose phoenix-like from the still-warm ashes of the button-maker now defunct, is the tooling. That is: that which you need to make the type of buttons they used to make, at the old place, century on century, back in the day. Tooling tells you the exact width of a button profile, the diameter of the dent, and the thickness of the outer rim. Vital stuff. Without it, you must start from scratch — which is what the new button-maker has been doing. And remaking tooling really is hard going, requiring as it does the complete reverse-engineering of a button.

But, while button-makers these days are thin on the ground, the know-how is not: there are still many wise and learned heads ex of the button game — it’s just a question of finding them. There are also other trades with transferable aspects — not of horn buttons, precisely, but other types of button, and of other button-size objects. The goodwill and support and exchange of things animate and inanimate with these other makers, all over the country, has proven invaluable for the maker in these nascent days.

And, even with all your button-making ducks in a row, there will always be teething challenges with an out-of-time start-up like this. The precise composition of your polishing compounds, for instance, or the exact settings on your hydraulic press — not to mention the ins and outs of working with a marvellously irregular material like horn.

The evidence here, though, is starting to mount up. Horn buttons have been made, and are being made at a reassuringly increasing rate. The satisfying tactility of running a hand through thousands of newly-made buttons, with the different-but-same uniformity of natural horn — it’s no less a pleasure than first contact with hot-off-the-loom cloth.

It mightn’t be the same name above the door as the last place, then, but the distinctive chorus of button-making machinery, in full flight, heard from the street outside, tells you that things are going in the right direction. The first buttons are coming off the line now, and will wind up unheralded on every garment in here from the start of the New Year.