The Straley Family




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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Drapery Board and the Button Tin

When my sisters and I were young, we would spend a couple of weeks each summer with my grandparents. It was the highlight of our summer vacation! They lived in a small, two bedroom house in Denver that smelled of lavender and homemade cookies (and Dove soap). Their basement was finished and this was where my grandmother, Louise Flaten Byberg, sewed custom draperies to help make ends meet. She started her day early and was usually hard at work by the time the three of us stumbled out of bed. In the heat of the summer, we would often retreat to the basement where it was cool (in more ways than one).

My grandfather, Roland Byberg, made her a drapery board from an uncut piece of plywood. Grammy covered it with an old blanket and a flat white sheet. She used pretty brass upholstery tacks to secure the fabric to the underside of the drapery board. It sat on two handmade, hinged sawhorses. During Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the drapery board was brought upstairs and placed on top of Grammy’s beautiful dining room table and was elegantly set with her lovely linen tablecloth and pretty china. Her dining room table was too small to seat her children and grandchildren, so she used the drapery board so everyone could sit around the same table during the holidays.

My sisters and I spent many hours underneath that drapery board while Grammy sewed away the afternoon on her old Singer. The luxurious fabric that hung over the drapery board created the imaginary home of our dreams. Grammy often joined us for lunch under the drapery board and taught us the magic of needle and thread. Grammy gave us her drapery scraps and we created our own draperies, doll quilts and linens for our little house. We sat cross-legged, giggled and hand sewed the bits and pieces of fabric from her scrap sack beneath the drapery board not knowing that this was the beginning of a life long passion for the three of us. She also allowed us to use buttons from her button tin to embellish our creations. Her button tin was one of her prized possessions and an object of fascination for the three of us girls.

The tin was black and round. Its lid was embossed with a beautiful rosemaled design in pretty reds, blues, greens, and yellows. Rosemaling (Norwegian rose painting) is a form of decorative flower painting that originated in the low-land areas of eastern Norway around 1750. Most of the decoration is based on scrolls and flowers. It was traditional for Norwegians to rosemale their furniture and homes to add color and beauty. The tin originally belonged to Alma Gresvig, my great grandmother. Alma was born in Norway and she brought the tin with her as a young girl to Menomonie, Wisconsin in 1881. It was filled with her childhood treasures from her homeland.

The tin held a “world of tactile imagination for a little girl allowed to mine its depths”. Many of the buttons were handmade. Some were made from shells, some were hand carved from wood, and others were cut from colored glass. Grammy said some of the buttons belonged to her grandmother, Nellie Andrine Andersdatter Gresvig. She had stories to tell about where many of the buttons came from which inevitably led to stories about her childhood in Wisconsin.

She often said that when clothing could no longer be mended, the buttons were removed and saved and strung on buttonhole thread. Grammy was a frugal woman as was her mother and grandmother. Perhaps this philosophy was born from economic necessity, but to her, the thought of tossing something out that was still useful was wasteful. She saved all sorts of little things “just in case” they were needed some day.

My sisters and I spent hours stringing (and unstringing) buttons together as a way of thanking our grandmother for letting us explore her treasured button tin. We must have sorted those buttons hundreds of different ways, by size, shape and color. We made up our own games using those buttons.

I have my own button tin now as well as Grammy’s. In my tin, there are buttons that I have snipped off clothing destined for the rag bag and buttons I’ve picked up at tag sales and thrift stores. These are the buttons that often end up in the primitive items I create and sell. Something deep inside my heart, however, keeps me from mixing my buttons with Grammy’s. I know that sounds silly, but there’s an emotional connection between that old Norwegian tin and my sweet grandmother. Every now and again, I’ll sit with that old tin on my lap. Each time I sift through them, I am transported back to those summers spent beneath the drapery board with my sisters. During these quiet moments, I feel connected to all of my grandmothers. Each button has a history and I often wonder what sort of garment it once adorned and who wore it.

I have a dear friend who inherited her grandmother’s button tin. She started a wonderful tradition that I would like to share. As each of her children marries, she gives each one their very own button jar. The jar contains a mixture of her grandmother’s buttons as well as some from her own button jar. She includes a story or two that tells her children where some of the buttons came from, who they belonged to and why they were saved. What a wonderful keepsake to pass down to future generations!

When I make primitives for my sisters, I try to incorporate a button or two from Grammy’s tin. For my sisters, it’s like a gift from me and our grandmothers. Somehow, I think they would approve.