Schwalm Traditional Craftmanship

Unstitching a Schwalm Passementerie Button

I have in my collection a typical Schwalm passementerie button that is slightly damaged. Because it is not in pristine condition, I decided to unstitch it to see exactly how it was made and the materials that were used.
Photos were taken while re-working. They are now shown in the reverse order.
Needed for establishing such a button were:

  • A wooden disc that had a hole in the center
  • Silk threads in red and (formerly) green
  • 4 metallic threads in a length of 35 cm each
  • 1 metallic thread in a length of 90 cm
  • Black linen thread

The tape measure allows one to imagine the fineness of the threads.
The disc has a diameter of 1.8 cm. The wood is from the beech tree. The left image – the front of the disc – shows indentations on the edges caused by the tightening of the wrapped metal threads. I cannot see division marks on the front or the back sides.
To the naked eye a difference in the thicknesses of the metal threads is imperceptible, but a difference can be felt when the threads are held between two fingers. The thread for wrapping feels stiffer.
I found the difference when I untwisted the threads. Both metal threads had different twisted cores that were wrapped with a metal band. The metal band on the thread used for wrapping the disc (white core) was more closely wrapped around the core than on the thread used for the weaving stitches (yellow core).

So the threads used for wrapping were more stable (the top thread in the picture below).
Button making was a stand-alone trade at the time. It is chronicled that a Konrad Plannet, button maker master in Schwalmstadt-Treysa, in the middle of the 19th century needed 12–14 hours to work about twenty buttons. It is hardly surprising because he had to twist carefully and exactly all the necessary threads first.

The ends of four silver threads were knotted together with a black linen thread.
The knot was positioned at the back of the wooden disc, approximately in the middle between the center and the edge. The metal threads were laid around the disc so that all four threads lay densely parallel and beside the center hole.
The black thread is laid to the opposite edge of the disc and there, a small distance from the edge, laid across the metal threads. These were bent back
and laid again across the front of the disc, parallel to the first but this time on the opposite side of the center hole.
On the back the black thread held and tightened the metal threads (using the black thread in such a way also enabled the button maker to conserve precious metal threads). The steps were repeated two times, laying four parallel metal threads outward of the first wrapping and again laying four parallel metal threads outward of the second wrapping. (This image shows that the metal threads were originally silver wires.)
The disc was rotated 30° clockwise, and the steps were repeated once
and again after rotating 30° clockwise twice.
On the back all metal thread bundles were held in place and stretched with the black thread. It is clearly visible that the curve of the first two bundles is closer to the edge than the curve of the second two bundles. And the thread bundles leading from one section to the next were laid in a curve that nearly reaches the center. In this way bulky areas on the back of the button were avoided.
The thread ends were wrapped many times and then cut. The more flexible metal thread – in the picture it looks like gold wire (it makes sense that the yellow core thread was covered with gold wire, the white core thread was covered with silver wire) – got a knot at one end and was slid under one thread bundle on the back.
Emerging directly from the thread bundle, it was brought to the front side. (The red arrow marks the knot.)
On the front side, it was woven over the first bundle of metal threads, under the two crossing bundles, and over the fourth bundle.
Now the working thread is – seen clockwise – lying before a sixteen-thread bundle. On the back it is brought clockwise three sixteen-thread bundles away and now lies – seen clockwise – behind the third sixteen-thread bundle. Unfortunately the brittle thread spread out of place, so I marked the position with arrows. The blue arrow marks the ending of a weaving sequence, the green line marks the thread’s path along the back of the disc, and the red arrow marks the beginning of the next weaving sequence, which is parallel outward the previously laid threads.
Always in the same way the thread was woven and wrapped until a star with a four-thread edge was established.
On the back it looked like this:
Now a red silk thread was fastened with a knot and slid under a thread bundle in the back
to be brought up at the side of the bundle (see blue arrow) and slid under the laid threads (coming up one thread past the middle).
With Running stitches over the points of the established star and under the two middlemost threads of the first laid bundles, a circle pattern is created close to the bases of the star points.
Two more rounds are worked outward with the Running stitches (when they cross the star points) becoming shorter one thread each side and each round.
Here it is clearly visible that the Silk thread was twisted with two thick plies. (It is chronicled that the above mentioned button maker master took 6–8 ultra-fine silk plies for twisting the threads for the Running stitches and 10–15 ultra-fine silk plies for twisting the threads for the buttonhole stitches at the edges.)
After three rounds of Running stitches, the thread is brought to the back and secured.
Now a (formerly green) silk thread was taken up. Six Running stitches were worked in a round near the edge crossing always over fourteen of the sixteen-thread bundles.
Buttonhole stitches were worked on these threads. I count seven Buttonhole stitches in each section.
A second row of Buttonhole stitches was worked (unfortunately this is no longer completely intact)
to bring the stitches around the edge.
On the back the stitches were fastened by wrapping around previously worked threads.
Although considered one of the more simple button designs, a similar, but undamaged, button from the same garment shows the original beauty of these buttons.

How many hours, how much patience, and how much craftsmanship were put into making a single
small button! And the garments of a Schwalm woman needed many buttons.

Schwalm Passementerie Buttons

The buttons for the Schwalm women’s waistcoats and other items of dress were passementerie buttons. The Huguenots brought this button-making technique to the Schwalm from France at the beginning of the 18th century. Materials used were gold and silver wires and silk threads in red, green, lilac, and black (matching the festive costume ); white and yellow silk threads were also used, but only rarely. Sometimes only metallic threads were used, and sometimes only silk threads. One will see silk-only buttons mostly in the black buttons on mourning garments and in children’s buttons. Most common, however, was a combination of both materials.
Threads were wrapped radially around a wooden disc that had a hole in the center. They were held in place with weaving and Running stitches.

Usually the buttons got a needlelace edging, serving as both an additional decoration and to protect the edges.
I found two different ways of wrapping the threads. All wrappings create a six-pointed star pattern on top of the button.

The most common method for establishing a star was to lay threads in two wide parallel stripes left and right of the center and to continue laying similar stripes two more times by rotating the piece 60° and 120°.
The stripes were held in place with weaving and Running stitches of different lengths.
The other method used to create the star was to rotate the button 60° after every two wrappings.
This star was also held in place with Running stitches of different lengths.
The metal threads tarnished over the years. But they can be polished with a special cleaning cloth for silver.

Buttons with a diameter of about 1.8 cm were most common. However, the size of the button changed according to the size of the garment. So, children’s garments had small buttons, and women’s garments had slightly larger buttons.
A damaged button shows the inner disc (image above) and the image below shows a similar, but undamaged, button. It is part of a child’s waistcoat.

Traditional Craftsmanship – The Buckle Maker

The Schwalm buckle shoes were closed with …buckles. They could be bought from a buckle maker.
The buckle maker got the brass blanks from yellow metal foundries in Kassel or Berlin.
Schnallen Rohling
The buckle maker had two tasks. First, he had to make the blanks usable by giving them a “heart”
Herz der Schuhschnalle
and a “tongue” from black plate.
Zunge der Schuhschnalle
These components were movable, fastened around a pin.
festgenieteter Stift zur Befestigung_von Herz und Zunge
Sometimes the buckle maker added a year or a sign of his workshop.
Second, the buckle maker had to embellish the festive buckles for holidays with additional decoration. He soldered pieces of copper sheet or copper rivets in bored holes.
Kupferblättchen und Kupfernieten
Often the face of the copper sheets were finely engraved
ziselierte Kupferblättchen
or the area surrounding the rivets were decorated with chiseled marks.
Ziselierung um die Nieten
In the end the buckles were brought to a mirror finish using mineral spirits and chalk.
polierte Schnalle

Traditional Craftsmanship – The Colour Embroiderer

As already mentioned in the article about the template maker, in Schwalm templates were used as inserts for the colour embroidery.
Also needed:

  • a piece of fabric for the basic foundation – primarily linen was used, but later solid cotton fabric was also used
  • a piece of silk fabric in the main colour of the planned embroidery
  • silk threads in the vibrant colours red, green, purple and yellow, as well as black and white sewing thread in matching colours
  • Chenille needles
  • sometimes, added embellishments
  • gold and silver thread
  • gold and silver bullion
  • gold, silver and coloured sequins
  • narrow coloured flowers or stars of metal.

silk threads in different vibrant colours

Seidengarn besteht aus 3 x 2 Einzelfäden;gestickt wird mit 2 x 2 Einzelfäden

Silk thread is made with 3 X 2 strands;
used for the embroidery are 2 X 2 strands

The silk fabric is placed on the linen or coton fabric, and the template is placed on top of the silk. It is secured with some stitches through both layers.

securing the template on the fabric 1securing the template on the fabric 2the backside

The backside is shown in the picture above.

embroidering the templates with silk - front
embroidering the templates with silk - backside

The templates were embroidered by traditional patterns. The stitching is dense; the thread moves through both fabric layers and around template sections, as the above pictures from front and backside show.

rotating frame for template embroidery 1
rotating frame for template embroidery 2

To make the work easier, the template maker, Ludwig Schmerer, constructed a special rotating frame for his wife, Christine. The special frame enabled her to use both hands to embroider. She worked the colour embroidery up to her death some years ago.

embroidering the templates with metal threads - front
embroidering the templates with metal threads - backside

When silk thread was precious and valuable, it was used on the front side only. For the back a cheaper thread was used. This thread couched the silk thread at the edges. This couching method, shown in the pictures above, is also used today for securing metal threads. (Metal threads are too inelastic. They would break by a sharp turn.)

filling the remaining sections

Small remaining parts between the template sections were filled with Satin stitches. Sometimes these were also covered with gold or silver threads, gold or silver bullion, gold, silver and coloured sequins or narrow coloured flowers or metal stars. In the end the fabric was trimmed to the edge and the edges were covered. With further steps the silk embroidered pieces were brought to their respective use.

tiny embroidered templates at the edge

The most superior pieces, such as this very old top of a cap, have additional decoration of tiny embroidered templates at the edge.

silk bands, formed to the desired shape

Special costume components, such as this “board” (Brett) are embroidered directly on to a silk band that has been formed to the desired shape.

finished embroidered part of the board, a special costume component
As always, I welcome your comments.

Traditional Craftsmanship – The Template Maker

The Schwalm traditional costume has many components that are eye-catching. These components are so striking due to the vibrant colours, and the captivatingly and precisely worked colour embroidery done with silk.
top of a capHow is it possible that the embroidery, on the bottoms of the caps, on the bands of the caps (Kappenschnüre), on the decorative squares of aprons (Tanzecken), on garters, on the shoulder strap of the men’s gowns, on the breast stomachers (Bruststecker) and others, is so effectively splendid, so precisely worked and appears so embossed?
It is because a special paperboard was inserted wherever the fine silk threads are embroidered.
paperboard template of the bands of a cap
part of a cap-band 2
part of a cap-band 1There is a veritable treasure trove of different shapes. I have to look carefully in my considerable collection of traditional costume accessories to find a paperboard template and a matching embroidered piece. In the end I found two that are very old and a little bit faded and worn; one was worked mainly with green silk and the other with red threads.

So that the embroidery can be precisely worked, the first step is to create an absolutely exact template insert. This is the job of a template maker.
Ludwig Schmerer from Seigertshausen, a small village in the Schwalm region, is the last surviving craftsman creating these inserts. Amiably and comprehensively, he introduced me to the secrets of this old handcraft.
First a paperboard is needed. Back in the day, a special paraffined cardboard, known as “Glanzpappe”, was used. This is a very tough paperboard with an especially smooth surface.
Ludwig Schmerer uses a trick; he takes thin, smooth paperboard which was the package material maybe of food (Corn Flakes or others). This he brushes generously with watered-down glue. After drying he gets a product which is well suited for making templates.
paperboard template of a garterFront- and backside of a paperboard template of Ludwig Schmerer, suitable for making a garter.

Also needed is an awl, a sharp pointed tool for punching holes and scoring internal lines of the design on to the paperboard for easy embroidering, and chisels in different widths. A board underneath works as a pad. In former times, basswood (Am.) / limewood (Br.) was used.
Hardwoods, such as beech or oak, are unsuitable because the tools would blunt too quickly on the hard material. Conifer wood, like spruce, is also unsuitable because soft and hard parts in the wood do not enable even pricking. So, Mr. Schmerer takes “Limba” (Terminalia superba) because it stands the test of time over many years of cutting templates.
paperboard template of a chest stomacher on a pad boardLudwig Schmerer’s pad – a “Limba” board can be seen in the image above. The many and various marks attest to the fact that many templates have been made on this board. On the board is a finished template for a “Bruststecker” (chest stomacher).
templates and paper boards on the pad boardWith strong thumbtacks Mr. Schmerer fastens the paperboard and the templates to the pad board.
Because he sometimes takes 2 layers of paperboard (please see the pictures above), he uses an awl to pre-prick the holes for the thumbtacks. For models, he takes pattern templates that he himself has made based on historical designs. The same pattern templates are used over, and over again thus making all templates exactly equal.
cutting using a chisel 1Using a chisel he cuts, using a gently downward pressure, right along the pattern template until the paperboard is severed.
cutting using a chisel 2The next cut is made next to the previous cut, and so, step by step, the whole pattern template is cut.
For tips and curves he uses especially small tools, for straight lines he can use a wider chisel edge.
cutted linesHere, in the pictures directly above, he cuts small single templates only. When making larger templates (see the design on the “Limba” board) one must be especially careful to leave enough contact so that the templates cannot fall into single parts. The contact points also need to be narrow enough to allow the embroidering later on.


Luzine Happel
Am Schindeleich 43
37269 Eschwege
Telefon: 05651-32233


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