Class: Tailoring Details with Kenneth D. King


That humming sound you hear is coming from my head, which is still spinning from spending last weekend at Janie’s Sewing Corner in Cleveland, Ohio.

Students gather around Kenneth for a closer look.

Students gather around Kenneth for a closer look.

That’s where I joined 31 fellow sewers to see Threads magazine contributing editor, adjunct professor at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, and self-described “couturier to the stars” Kenneth D. King demonstrate tailoring and couture techniques for about 11 packed hours spread over two days.

The class description on Janie’s website read, “Kenneth will teach a workshop on tailoring details, focusing on old-school techniques the first day and more modern techniques the second day.”

Actually, Kenneth led off on Day 1 with his “new school” tailoring innovations–not that it mattered, since nearly all of us had signed up for both days.

I had e-mailed Kenneth earlier in the week:

Hello Kenneth,
I thought I would drop you a line to say how much I look forward to meeting you Saturday and Sunday at Janie’s Sewing Corner.

I also wanted to tell you that I bought Smart Tailoring the day it was announced on the Taunton website, and made a jacket following your “old school” methods. I was going to follow up with a “new school” jacket, but remained confused about the collar-lapel pattern adaptation, so I will learn from you this weekend and then produce a “new school” jacket—the first of many, I think.

I documented the process of making my jacket using Smart Tailoring on my blog, Getting Things Sewn. In this post, I explain why I took on this project.

Sewing is not easy for me, but I’m capable of good work, especially with expert help. I look forward to getting my questions answered this weekend!

Thank you, Kenneth,
Paula DeGrand

Minutes later Kenneth replied:

Hello, Paula,

Be sure to bring your pattern, and I’ll show how to adapt the under collar to the body for everyone else to learn….
See you this weekend!


So in class I was prepared when Kenneth asked me to retrieve the pattern pieces for the under collar and front of the pattern I was trying to adapt for a “new school” jacket. He pinned the front to his flip chart, and then pinned on the under collar at the notch on the neckline. He pinned the collar to the chart at a second point, showing a gap between the two pattern pieces.

I was watching intently and scribbling notes at the same time and didn’t even think to take a picture. Here are my notes, in their entirety:IMG_9636 (460x192)Okay: “gap…curve…take out there…add back here…make a muslin…my jacket does have a peaked lapel…this adaptation does work for peaked lapels…” I have fragments here, but not a clear picture.

I don’t write fast enough, and I barely grasp patternmaking principles, which are both big impediments in a fast-paced sewing class.

In short,  it is still a mystery to me how to combine the under collar and the front into a single pattern piece to simplify making a notched collar. How to “finesse some of that gap” remains beyond my grasp. I doubt a photo of the flip chart would have provided the solution to my puzzlement. I needed one-on-one instruction, and that wasn’t going to happen with 31 classmates that day.

The undercollar and front are a single piece, removing a seam and therefore bulk. Notice--no seamline between undercollar and front. The line of stitching is holding the stay tape along the roll line.

See this? No seamline between the undercollar and the front, which means one fewer pesky, bulky seam to deal with. This is the result I want to achieve with my own jacket pattern pieces.

When I do adapt my pattern at last, I’ll post a step-by-step process. Promise!

(See my previous three posts to read about attempting to adapt my pattern.)

On both days Kenneth taught at a steady, swift pace, frequently checking our faces for comprehension. One time I must have been staring back blankly, because he asked again if I was following him, and I said “I’ll have to practice to lock in the knowledge.” It was an honest answer, and it seemed to satisfy him.

When I looked at my notes I was astonished at all the ground Kenneth covered. For example:

  • How to make a muslin framework to suspend canvas inside a jacket front, providing support but avoiding bulky seams
  • How to tape a roll line and machine-stitch it in place through the canvas and fashion fabric

    The stay tape is stitched in place through the canvas and fashion fabric along the roll line.

    The stay tape is stitched in place through the canvas and fashion fabric along the roll line.

  • How to steam, press, and baste in the turn of cloth in a lapel
  • How to stitch a notched collar with a minimum of bulk, avoiding the usual “train wreck” of seams meeting in one place

    A notched collar "new school" style.

    A notched collar “new school” style.

  • How to make mitered cuffs
  • How to make a “hidden pocket” in a jacket front lining
  • How to remove bulk from a pocket flap pattern piece by cleverly relocating the seams
    The "origami" pocket flap means no bulk at the edges because the seam allowances have been shifted out of sight. This is the back.

    The “origami” pocket flap means no bulk at the edges because the seam allowances have been shifted out of sight. This is the back.

    This is the front of the flap. The edges are free of bulk.

    This is the front of the flap. The edges are free of bulk.

  • How to make a bulk-free seams and welt pockets in nonravelly materials like felt or leather
    Sketching a pocket for nonravelly materials like felt and leather.

    Sketching a pocket for nonravelly materials like felt and leather.

    The pocket in felt. Nice.

    The pocket in felt. Nice.

    The pocket bag of the felt pocket.

    The pocket bag of the felt pocket.

  • When a three-piece sleeve is better than a two-piece
  • How to draft a notched lapel from a shawl lapel
  • How to reason out the proportions of a garment in a fashion illustration or photograph from knowing the average neck-to-shoulder seam measurement and knowing that the elbow bends at the natural waist.
  • How to make a surgeon’s style jacket cuff with working buttonholes
    Surgeon's cuff, with working buttonholes.

    Surgeon’s cuff, with working buttonholes.

    The surgeon's cuff, neatly finished inside.

    The surgeon’s cuff, neatly finished inside.

  • How to make bound buttonholes and welt pockets of consistent dimensions and quality

    Kenneth  demonstrated bound buttonholes and neatly finishing the facing. That's silk organza.

    Kenneth demonstrated bound buttonholes and neatly finishing the facing. That’s silk organza.

  • How to smoothly install an invisible zipper
  • How to make fell stitches, tailor bastes, and pad stitches
  • How to stay curves even before cutting out the pattern piece
  • Why cut some seam allowances 1 inch wide and how to press out the ripples along the edges
  • How to make a Hong Kong finish the couture way

Both days Kenneth produced samples from scratch or finished ones he’d started and then passed them around for us to scrutinize and photograph.

Kenneth King demonstrated sewing a notched collar, "new school" style.

Kenneth King demonstrated sewing a notched collar, “new school” style.

What a nice looking felt collar.

What a nice looking felt collar.

He brought several jackets, familiar to users of his DVDs, books, and Threads articles, that we could look at inside and out.

The "new school" jacket that appears in the Smart Tailoring DVD.

The “new school” jacket that appears in the Smart Tailoring DVD.

His tool bag lay open on the table. It was fun to see the tools he had amassed or created over the years and how he used them.

Kenneth King's tool bag.

Kenneth King’s tool bag.

I’d never heard of a Florian pinker. “Pinking shears tend to chew some fabrics,” Kenneth said, as many of us nodded in agreement. When I saw how neatly this gadget trimmed edges, I wanted one for myself.

The Florian pinker

The Florian pinker

IMG_9604 (460x273)

“I’m all about having the right tool for the job,” Kenneth told us, and sometimes that means adapting a tool to improve it. He did not hesitate or apologize when removing a spring mechanism from a zipper foot, pronouncing it useless, and dropping it with a “plunk!” into the wastebasket.

We got more advice on equipment, tools, and supplies:

  • Don’t use a Teflon ironing board cover, which repels moisture rather than allowing steam to move through a garment
  • Collect and use good pieces of pressing equipment–tailors’ hams, a point presser, a clapper, sleeve rolls, a sleeve board
  • Get a really good iron. (Kenneth has a Reliable i600, which has amazing steam–and runs up an equally amazing electric bill.)
  • Have at least one pair of Gingher tailors’ scissors, and ship them back to Gingher to be sharpened.
  • A vacuum table? “Not really. Good for a dry cleaner. Too much for me.”
  • Use a trimmed shaving brush to remove chalk markings.
  • Iron thread for hand sewing, and it won’t twist
  • “Don’t cheap out on needles.”

Then there was the quotable Kenneth:

  • “I wasn’t formally trained except for patternmaking.”
  • “Know the rules.”
  • “Know when to break the rules.”
  • “I’m not wild about wearable art.” In couture, the wearer is more important than the garment; with wearable art the garment is more important than the wearer, he said.
  • “I believe in spending the time you need to get a beautiful result.”
  • “I’m lazy–I don’t want to do any more than I have to.”
  • “You need to put your time in where it shows.”
  • I’m very much about repeatable and reliable.”
  • “I’m known for handouts at FIT.” (And at Janie’s, too: We all got to take home a CD of Kenneth’s ten handouts for the classes.)

    Drafting a notched-collar jacket from a shawl collar pattern. Kenneth makes it look easy.

    Drafting a notched-collar jacket from a shawl collar pattern. Kenneth makes it look easy.

  • “When it’s all said and done, if it gives you a good result, it’s correct.”
  • “There’s this whole thing on directional sewing…” Kenneth disagrees: “I have a life…”
  • “A lot of Bemberg lining you can read a newspaper through, and I hate that.”
  • A tedious or time-consuming task is “a nosebleed.”
  • “I tell my students, ‘I started when I was 4; I’m 57–do the math.”
  • Sewing purists who endlessly debate fine points are “clutching their pearls” or “wrapped around the axle.”
  • Quoting Fred Astaire: “If you make the same mistake long enough, they assume it’s your style.”

Miscellaneous facts:

  • Kenneth takes his own photos for his Threads articles.
  • His next DVD in Threads’ “Smart” series will be about sewing fake fur.
  • He loves Fortuny fabric. (Shocking, I know.)
  • He takes a dim view of mimes.

Kenneth’s recommendations:

  • Better Dressmaking by Ruth Wyeth Spears is “one of those good all-around books from the forties.”
  • Check out the great content on Threads Insider, where Kenneth’s beautiful “bark coat” can be seen.
  • Support your local independent fabric store, which can provide supplies and services that the big chains can’t or won’t.
  • If you have a chance to take a class from Lynda Maynard, do it.

It’s been six days now since Tailoring Details with Kenneth King ended, and I’ve been thinking about what I got out of it.

  • I got to meet and listen to a master. I find being around any kind of mastery has a good effect on me.
  • I saw with my own eyes techniques demonstrated with successful results. (I am a little bit skeptical of most sewing directions–and directions in general.) I’m much more likely to try these techniques now.
  • I made, or renewed, the acquaintance of fellow sewers.
  • I bought myself an impressively large sleeve board.IMG_9632 (460x260)

It would be a shame, though, not to invest a little more effort to yield richer, longer-lasting rewards. Like:

  • Researching irons and buying a much better one
  • Making or buying the right ironing board cover
  • Seeing how far I could get following Kenneth’s handouts for his FIT students
  • Trying Kenneth’s bound buttonhole method
  • Trying his “origami” pocket flap, not only to reduce bulk but as a pattern-drafting exercise
  • Using my Threads and Threads Insider subscriptions more, and more strategically

And, most of all,

  • Continuing to amass experience and knowledge making jackets and coats.

Although I brought my “old school” jacket to class to show Kenneth and to ask questions about it, I may have given him a mistaken impression. If I had listed my specific questions in that e-mail earlier in the week, Kenneth probably would have woven those topics into his talk.

My jacket made following Kenneth's "old school" methods still needs a final press.

My jacket made following Kenneth’s “old school” methods still needs a final press.

Instead, my jacket waited in the wings and never got onstage. And when we wrapped up Sunday afternoon and Kenneth had a plane to catch, I thought it would be insensitive as well as untimely to press him for advice about–pressing, among other things.

But you know what? I’ll just look at my jacket again on my own and figure out what to do next.

Thanks, Janie! I'll be back!

Thanks, Janie! I’ll be back!

Getting Back Into the Sewing Game


The illustrations for a post about taking a pattern-drafting class are not exciting.

The tools for pattern-drafting may be simple and dull, but the results can be spectacular.

The tools for pattern-drafting may be simple and dull, but the results can be spectacular.

The tools–a 2-inch clear ruler, a fashion ruler, a measuring tape, mechanical pencil, and paper–aren’t the most interesting things to photograph.

The instruction sheets are dull, too.

Great pants start with accurate measuring.

Great pants start with accurate measuring.

What is exciting about pattern-drafting, in my experience, is the fervor of patternmaking teachers.

Edith, my fairy godmother sewing and patternmaking teacher in Minneapolis; Steve, who worked with me on a shirt pattern for Jack in St. Paul; and Victoria, the bespoke tailor who taught the Savile Row class in London last year, all preached discipline and mastery and had boatloads of patience for their uncomprehending student: me. I did not reward their efforts. My spirit is willing, but my aptitude is weak.

I was so pessimistic that I could learn one jot about patternmaking that I passed up a class by Nina Bagley offered by the City of Columbus Recreation and Parks Department last fall about how to alter commercial patterns to suit your taste and figure.

Columbus, Ohio's Cultural Arts Center offers classes in painting, metal work, and much more.

Columbus, Ohio’s Cultural Arts Center offers classes in painting, metal work, and much more.

(I ask you–how many city governments would offer such a class–and for only a nominal fee–taught by a master patternmaker who worked in New York and Italy? I love Columbus!)

No, I would only be frustrated again. And surely I could find a teacher to work with me individually. I had just set up my new sewing room and could get back to getting things sewn again in a few weeks. Couldn’t I?

Apparently not. Call it bad luck, call it inertia, but I found myself in early December with a sewing room but no sewing community–and no desire to sew. I had scared off a couple of sewing teachers local fabric stores had referred me to. One called me and the other wrote back to say, regretfully but firmly, No. Another teacher responded positively to my e-mail, asking me for dates I could meet her for lunch, but never followed up on my response.

The measurements you took become lines on your big piece of paper.

The measurements you took become lines on your big piece of paper.

I did ponder registering for a tailoring or clothing construction course at the Columbus College of Art and Design, but blanched at the $1200 per credit hour. $3600 for one course! Surely there was another way to enter or create a local sewing community to rekindle my enthusiasm for sewing.

This was the state of affairs in early December when, as I always eventually do, I rallied.  Ever the librarian, I delved into researching my burning question again. I Googled the name of the teacher of that class I spurned in the fall, and found an interview with her on a little Columbus website.

Eventually, the lines turn into pattern pieces.

Eventually, the lines turn into pattern pieces.

I liked what I read. I dug around some more and found contact information for her. I decided to take a chance and write her. Here’s what I wrote:

Hello Nina,
This morning I read what you said in the “Locals” piece at and said to myself, “That does it—I’ve got to meet this person.” What you said about being a patternmaker and doing quality work struck a chord.
Since moving from Minnesota back to Ohio six months ago I have really missed my sewing teacher-patternmaker Edith Gazzuolo, who worked with me on challenging vintage-pattern sewing projects. She pushed me to accomplish more and at a higher level than I had before, and changed my life.
I am now looking to hire an expert or two here in Columbus to work with me one-on-one when I have questions about fitting, pattern alterations, and construction. I started a blog, Getting Things Sewn, a little over a year and a half ago partly to chronicle my projects and processes and partly to challenge myself to sew the patterns I couldn’t stop dreaming about. I have a small but growing and widespread audience around the world that’s interested in what I’m doing.
A very large part of what I do is to clarify what’s stopping me—whether a technical question, aesthetic question, or something else—and define and test processes that work for me. Right now I feel quite stopped—my projects and the blog are stalled out—and the main reason is I need some local experts on my team to answer questions that are tough for me. I am a writer first and a sewer a distant second. My spatial aptitudes are only average, and it’s hard for me to grasp fitting and patternmaking. But with the help of experts I can do good work. (Threads magazine has featured a couple of my jackets made from a 1936 pattern. One of those jackets is on my home page.)
I want to get back to sewing great stuff and writing about how I’m overcoming obstacles that frustrate so many sewers today.
I am writing you with the hope that we will meet soon and that a creative partnership will be in the offing. Edith was so important to my life that I wrote a tribute about the lasting lessons she taught me that will give you an idea of the kind of student I am and what I want to achieve. It can be seen here:
Thank you, Nina,
Paula DeGrand

Darts in the front pattern piece.

Darts in the front pattern piece.

As I paused before hitting Send I thought, She’ll be either intrigued and want to know more, or a little stunned and say no or not even reply. Having just spent 25 years dealing with phlegmatic Minnesotans, I’d gotten used to being perceived as histrionic at times. But now that I’d returned to the battleground state of Ohio, where people are not taken aback by enthusiasm (Go Bucks!), I hoped I would be seen as–normal.

I took a breath and hit Send.

Ten days later, Nina Bagley replied: Here’s my number–call me. I did. She had a pants patternmaking class at the Cultural Arts Center coming up in January; it could fill quickly; I should think about taking it. She understood how confusing patternmaking can be for novices: “I kind of go through the back door and explain so the light bulb goes off.”

Going through the back door sounded good, as well as the prospect of light being shed on this arcane art.

IMG_6625 (460x195)

Once again, that fervor peculiar to patternmakers trumped any doubts in my mind. I registered for Pants: Block Pattern Making for $100 plus a $5.25 processing fee. If I could actually make patterns for pants that fit and flatter me, how great would that be? And if I could connect with a great teacher, and make a sewing friend, or several? This could be the best $105.25 investment I’d ever made.

Yes! I'm in!

Yes! I’m in!

Tuesday at 6:30 I entered the classroom, met my seven congenial classmates, and started following Nina’s directions for turning measurements into a pattern draft. Three hours never went by so fast. And I actually kept up!

At the end of class we were all smiling as we gathered our tools and paper and bundled up to go back out into the bitter cold night. For homework we will sew muslins from our drafts to be analyzed and fine-tuned in our second class.

No one was more enthusiastic than Nina. “I can’t wait till next week! I can’t wait till next week!” she declared.

And you know what? Neither can I.