Living in Cardiff (or, strictly speaking, just outside it), I am continually impressed by the amount of arty, crafty and creative things going on here. Even though I am slightly circumscribed at the moment (toting a wheel-obsessed toddler everywhere does somewhat limit the amount of places you can visit, as art-filled bars and galleries wouldn’t necessarily take kindly to a small person charging about), Eoin and I have managed to locate and enjoy all sorts of fascinating places. We have hunted down fabrics and haberdashery on City Road, petted the hand-dyed yarns at Calon, and, in Eoin’s case, tried to abduct a spinning wheel from the St Fagans woollen mill. Until the little chap is a bit older and calmer, though, I am gradually fitting in visits to some of the other crafty venues while he is on his weekly visit to the childminder, which means I am able to enjoy myself without worrying about loud expressions of boredom or, heaven forbid, breakages.
In my post on the Tempest cardigan, I promised to talk about the wonderful Claire Grove Buttons, in the Castle Arcade. This is, at the moment, the sort of place I have to visit sans Eoin. It’s not that they aren’t child-friendly (the lady in the shop was very nice to Eoin when I did take him in once), but rather that it is so crammed with tempting buttons, all colourful, sparkly and tactile, that I’d be worried about him pulling down displays, shoving buttons in his pockets or eating them like Smarties if I ever took my eye off him for a second. I emphatically don’t want to be that sort of customer, so, until Eoin is better able to control himself around the shinies, my button-cravings are satisfied all on my own.
The shop is at the Castle end of the Castle Arcade, one of the numerous historic covered shopping streets which criss-cross the centre of the city. These arcades are one of my favourite things about Cardiff, as they house a plethora of independent shops and cafés, with something to suit almost any taste. On your way to Buttonopolis, then, you can admire the life-size dalek outside the fancy dress shop, browse through the second-hand and antiquarian delights on offer in Troutmark Books (just seen at the left of the rather ropey photo, above), or relax with a hot drink and a home-made cake at Barkers or Madame Fromage (the cupcakes at the latter are utterly obscene, but in a good, jaffa-cakes-and-haribo-on-top-of-a-bun sort of a way).
Behind its cheerful yellow-painted façade, Claire Grove is a veritable treasure-trove of haberdashery-based goodness: every surface is covered jars, tubes, glasses, bowls and trays of buttons. Ranging in price from a few pence each to a few pounds, in almost any colour and material you can think of, there’s a button for every eventuality, from trimming your knitwear to making an original piece of jewellery. There are even some rather fine crystal buttons, safely stored in a glass case by the till (bottom right, below). There’s even a healthy stock of beads, if your taste runs that way (I have been known to dabble).
I could easily have spent the whole of my free morning browsing the shelves, but I was worried that my entire grocery budget for the month could easily have been blown on the pretties. I did allow myself a little splurge, though, after I had found the pewter buttons for my Tempest. Firstly, I chose these unusual matte metal buttons depicting a rural scene featuring a small man and what appears to be a giant goat. They’re a little odd, but I think they’re lovely. I actually really wanted to use these for the aforementioned cardigan, but I needed 20 buttons for that (yes, 20 – there are an awful lot packed into that cinched waist section), but these were the only man-and-goat buttons left in stock. Although I have a notoriously poor record at haberdashery-based forward planning, I’m sure that nine buttons should be enough to work with some pattern, somewhere.
I also bought three individual china buttons with the intention that they could be used either as a detail on a garment, or perhaps in a brooch or a similar piece of jewellery.
I managed to resist everything else until I got to the till, and I realised that there was a box full of vintage button cards just next to it, all priced at £2 a card. Who could say no at that price? Certainly not me: I snapped up two cards of a dozen each, one black, one olive-grey and both satisfyingly deco-ish looking (though I suspect that they are probably post-war, given the fact that there were several of each card).
I admit that I really don’t have a clear plan for these, but at £2 for twelve, they were just too good to turn down. In fact, they look so lovely, neatly attached to their cards with bright red thread, that I am almost tempted to leave them as they are and use them as decoration.
There are a few famous button shops in the UK: Duttons (branches in Harrogate, York and Ilkley) and The Button Queen in London are probably two of the best known. I’m sorry to say that, before moving to Cardiff, I had never heard of Claire Grove, despite the fact that the shop has been around since the 1980s, making it almost as old as I am. A few visits later, and I’m a complete convert. If you are of a crafty turn of mind, and you find yourself in Cardiff, do make a bee-line for the Castle Arcade. If you’re overwhelmed by choice, you can always take a break and revive yourself with a gargantuan cupcake a few doors down at Madame Fromage.