Vintage Button Seller


Vintage button seller Dixie is in her fifties and lives in a Georgian Square in London’s Camberwell, she is married with a teenage  daughter.

Ten years ago I was ready for a change from journalism

I used to write features about  houses. Much of it I enjoyed.  I was working for myself which suited me, but after ten years  I was in danger of re-treading known turf and wanted to do something new.

I changed direction overnight with absolutely no planning

In fact the decision took me by surprise. Years before I had inherited a vast quantity of handmade vintage glass buttons. It was the stock  left when my father finally closed his button making business. He had handmade each one and even in their day they were exceptional and were used by the top London couture houses such as Hartnell, Amies, Cavanagh, Paterson, and Mattli.

The buttons  followed me round – a decade in the cellar of a Lincolnshire  rectory  and another in a Surrey stable, I couldn’t throw them away but nor did I open the rotting boxes. Now I needed a business it was obvious that these could be it.

The problem was there were very few quantities of the same button and I couldn’t replenish the stock. But I realised that that’s what made them magical, they could be  like the Nanking Cargo. People would want some because they were unique, their strength was that they were  recognisable, with a romantic story and very finite.

All this activity was pretty much a waste of time.

For the first few years  I thought I should make things with them so I ran though all kinds of cottage industry projects: there were  drawer handles; embellished candles; greeting  cards, display plates, beaded jewellery. I wrote, or got magazine articles written, about them and took a stall on Greenwich market every week.

Essentially the buttons were utterly unique so it was stupid to make them into something with a limited sale price. Also to make anything I had to invest in other materials with money I had not yet earnt. The breakthrough came through editorial in Interiors magazine all sorts of interesting options emerged including Pringle who became a major customer. What people wanted was the buttons as buttons I had been trying to be too clever.

Do what you can’t

As a journalist I had been forced into using computers, technical stuff is not me, but I gradually got edged towards building a website. It was the most difficult and frustrating thing I have ever tried to do, hours of going down into the dark and coming up with a tiny glimmer of advance, it drove me mad; but it also gave me a business.

Now I have a decent enough website I put five collections of buttons from my stock onto it each year and that generates a steady income.

Do what you hate

To keep the website supplied with visitors and to allow  customers to see  the buttons in the flesh I do a couple of specialist fairs. These I find a complete roller coaster. They don’t seem to obey any logic.  Sometimes you make good money, sometimes you scarcely cover costs. They are completely exhausting. You say the same thing  all day, that with  the early starts, finding the venue and lugging the stuff makes them pretty much  a misery but I fear also a necessity.

Balance Sheet

It has given me freedom.  The buttons are an excellent base, I have learnt not to hurry them, now they will comfortably make their money year after year.  They will also take a little neglect without harm.

I love my absolute control; what I have never settled to is that awful social question “And what do you do?” It takes so much explanation and wreaks of housewife with a hobby, or so it seems to me. Being a journalist carried status, I am not sure this does, but maybe that is still the child in me who was embarrassed by a father who wasn’t a doctor or an accountant.

I also have a sneaking feeling my friends are more grown up than me, they are out there working long hours earning serious amounts of money. I work when I want or need to. I do all the household chores myself, it’s a choice and its a valid one,  but as I get older a tiny bit of me feels marginalised, the rest feels pleased with what I have managed to wrangle


Try, at least to start with, to do everything yourself

Don’t spend money until you are forced to. That means no playing at setting up office or workspace; do that when things are selling and you can’t work at the kitchen table anymore

Talk to the tax office before you start, they will give you sensible guidance about what your tax position will be

Don’t  advertise. You are new so you are a legitimate news story, exploit editorial mentions

Understand your goal. A handmade life doesn’t make you rich, you are doing well if you can make a modest living from it.

Making mistakes really doesn’t matter, what is important is to learn from them quickly.

Don’t under price. There is no sense in selling twice as many at half the price, you are simply working harder for the same money

There is a lot to be said for life in the slow lane

– Works 10 hours a week – Income £9,000 a year –

6 thoughts on “Vintage Button Seller

  1. Shannon says:

    So interesting reading your story…it echos mine a little
    I hand paint buttons in Johannesburg and my three grown up children are all involved in our business…there will be a lot of handmade buttons left for them!! …and it is lovely to see how much joy your dads buttons have brought you….! He would be proud…was it his full time profession…as it is mine?
    Warm greeting from sunny south africa

  2. Kath Baker says:

    Dixie, it’s lovely to get to know a bit more about you and the practicalities of a Handmade Life.

    I love your father’s buttons and buy when I can – and each new is a delight as I savour the webpages. Many many return visits!

    I do a lot of my own knitting and dressmaking and transfer the buttons from piece to piece as ideas develop.

  3. Cathy Abbott says:

    After several years of buying your wonderful buttons, it’s fascinating to read this insight into your life, especially about the perception of status. It sounds like a dream job to me, and I look forward to reading all the profiles on here.

  4. L.Laura Ramsay says:

    I love your comment about absolute control and I believe I know exactly what you mean. How very lucky you were to have such a wonderful treasure trove of your father’s buttons to work with and it has obviously been a business opportunity waiting to happen.They really are fabulous little works of art. (I’m also a button collector.)
    As an ex art teacher of many years – more than I’d like to think about – I took the plunge too and went into business when I was 50. It satisfied all my creative needs for eleven years. I absolutely loved it and during that time I discovered all sorts of things about myself I didn’t know I possessed…a head for figures, an ability to communicate, drive and enthusiasm. Didn’t matter how many hours I had to work and it didn’t make me a millionaire, but it gave me creative freedom and allowed me to be me.
    Does it really matter if people ask what you do or indeed what they think? Who cares? Doesn’t matter a bit if you love it!
    Good luck to you! And I just LOVE the buttons! And, by the way, the website is really great – clear, easy to follow and informative.

    • Dixie Nichols says:

      Its funny about the “treasure trove” you are right, that is exactly what it was, but I didn’t realise. For years the roomful of boxes felt more like an albatross which I didn’t know what to do with and could never dump.
      On “Does it matter what people think” actually its what I fear they think, not what they probably are thinking.
      You are so right that running your own world means you get to understand and believe in your strengths. When you work for someone else you meekly accept that you have the skill set your boss says you have and there can be all sorts of murky distortions to do with work politics

      • L.Laura Ramsay says:

        The ‘meekly’ bit is so very important and reveals such a lot….you can spend so very many years going through the motions ie.doing absolutely what is expected of you and much,much more;feeling emptied out,drained completely and worst of all,a bit of a non-person.
        Being in control of your own working life and more importantly, shaping and developing your own small business is creative,liberating and exhilarating all at the same time, don’t you think?
        I was smiling to myself about your very truthful admission that, as a child, you were embarrassed that your father was an artist instead of a doctor or an accountant. My father was, would you believe, a journalist and I, as a child, used to wish he did what other fathers did.( Such a conflict, because, secretly, I was proud, too, of our alternative lifestyle!) Why did he and my mother spend so much time banging on about literature, music and theatre? Why couldn’t he have been a lawyer,teacher,doctor or dentist…well, it was just too artistic, odd and different for me to deal with at twelve or so, although by the time I was 17, I understood a great deal more.
        Working life is too short actually. My advice is enjoy what you are doing – before you know where you are, it’s time to retire – for whatever reason that might be and you might, just MIGHT, be like me and have to be dragged out, kicking and screaming! I sincerely hope not.
        By the way, your rules are the seven golden rules. I couldn’t agree more!

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