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Using Buttons as Embellishment

This is the project I teased earlier, and now am presenting for your enjoyment!

Recently I was given about 75 pounds of antique uniform buttons, primarily gold ones. The variety and quantity were dizzying, but I was determined to cover a jacket with them.

I have a short jacket pattern that I like making, so I decided to make this piece from black wool Melton–it’s a dense fabric that will hold the weight of so much metal hanging from it.

stitching lines on a jacket

To make a project like this, you need to thread mark the stitching lines, and sew some of the seams before applying the buttons. Notice I’ve left quite a bit of fabric around the stitching lines; this is so I have enough fabric to accommodate shrinkage that occurs when the buttons are applied.

buttons on sleeve

I decided to work from the shoulders down, applying the buttons evenly to front, back, and sleeves. I did this in the event that I might run out of buttons–then I wouldn’t have one piece done and another bare. As it turned out, that wasn’t a worry.

By the way, the teaser photo was the sleeves.

holes punched through wool

This is a view from the wrong side–I decided to punch holes through the wool, push the shanks through the fabric, and stitch from the back. This made it much easier to sew, and the buttons don’t wobble on their shanks, as they would have done if I’d just sewn them to the surface of the fabric.

back of jacket with buttons

This is the jacket back–I decided to make a “yoke line” with the buttons, to make my shoulders look wider.

sleeve pattern

The next step was to check for shrinkage. Here is the sleeve pattern on the sleeve piece, comparing the original pattern with the worked sleeve…

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  1. User avater
    2tango | | #1

    Wowsa, I love it! Its so dramatic and you are wearing it well.

  2. AdaSharon | | #2

    How much does it weigh?

  3. User avater
    kennethdking | | #3

    This jacket weighs in at over 25 pounds--those buttons are solid brass. But since the weight is distributed evenly, it isn't oppressive to wear. Quite the contrary--really fun to wear!

  4. User avater
    LuvThreadsMagazine | | #4

    Bold, brilliant, and breathtaking!

    Senor King, you are neither bounded, nor barricaded, by conventional thought.

    Breakthroughs are your stock and trade.

  5. chrisch | | #5

    Great jacket--what a cool idea. Question--did you layer any kind of batting or interfacing between the lining and the button shanks so that you don't feel the shanks? thanks for all the great information!

  6. jozica | | #6

    Wauw, this is really original and wonderfull to look at!!! Thank you for all the information!!!

  7. brocadegoddess | | #7

    This IS pretty cool. But not so original as all that. Try a google image search for Pearly Kings and/or Pearly Queens. They've been doing pretty much this - and on a way grander scale - for over a century!

  8. NancyKSews | | #8

    75 lbs of buttons? It's a great use for them and the jacket is spectacular. What are you going to do with the remaining 50 odd lbs of buttons?

  9. User avater
    victlady | | #9


  10. jeannearis | | #10

    Finally, an appropriate time for the word "awesome!" Truly stunning. Saves you a trip to the gym, too.

  11. BRosser | | #11

    Kenneth King you're a gift to us all!

  12. Stylelady | | #12


  13. User avater
    at_clearing | | #13

    Cool! I do wonder how Antiques Road Show would value this!

  14. User avater
    vicarious1 | | #14

    Love this, bravo great Matador look.
    I have bags full of a life of collecting buttons this inspired me. I love using antique buttons when I can like in this French King costume all buttons are antique and brass.If I may share http://smu.gs/YFtSAX

  15. User avater
    jennyebner | | #15

    Great jacket. Would love to see it in person.

  16. idahomeow | | #16

    This is utterly ridiculous. Just because you CAN do something, doesn't mean you SHOULD.

  17. User avater
    CarrGrand | | #17

    This is just beautiful! Thank you so much for providing the techniques, which we can use in other applications! I understand that although you had 75 pounds of buttons that you did not actually use all of it on the jacket. But what you did use, you did it well! You are a master!

  18. User avater
    CarrGrand | | #18

    And did i say that I also love the lining!

  19. hanksews | | #19

    Kenneth King, you definitely have wa-a-a-y too much time on your hands -- and we are all the better for it. Thank you for yet another crazy, wonderful inspiration.

  20. Lagacero | | #20

    It would have been the perfect jacket for halloween! With a matching pair of pants!
    Mr. King has talent however he should use it more adequately. The reason why people want to sew is to make garments that are unique and beautifully done. Tacky garments can be found at Walmart.

  21. Jensen2 | | #21

    I did see and handle the jacket and it is a stunning achievement of technique and imagination. This is haute couture at its finest.

  22. User avater
    kennethdking | | #22

    Thanks for the kind words! This is just a folly I wanted to make, and share the process with you all. I'm going to wear it to a really fab Thanksgiving dinner at one of my Park Avenue gals' house, where it will be a smashing success.

    Some comments:

    To Brocadegoddess: I was referencing the idea of the Pearly Kings when I decided to do this jacket. So, while not an original concept (and I'm the first to admit it), it is my particular take on that idea. I was going for a cross between the Pearly Kings and a matador jacket. And it has a really sweet jingling sound when I wear it.

    And, to those who seem a bit puzzled or challenged by this jacket: I've said this in posts before and will say it again. I'm flattered when people are amused by or like what I make, but I design for myself, and for those who pay me. My own taste, or the taste of my customers, is all I really care about. Since this was for my own pleasure, this is what I came up with, and I look fabulous in it.

    If we all liked the same things, the world would be a boring place, with no new ideas or points of view. Variety is what makes up that beautiful blend of people all over the world. However, if something isn't to your taste, saying just that is a legitimate comment. Learn from the sewing information and leave the aesthetics aside. I'm puzzled, though, by words like "tacky" and "scarey". Are they really necessary?

  23. User avater
    kennethdking | | #23

    To Crisch: A good question here! There wasn't any batting between jacket and lining--I used the layers of canvas to absorb the strain of the buttons on the outer fabric, but since the shanks were between the outer fabric and canvas (for the most part), I don't feel the shanks through the lining. So no batting was necessary.

  24. stillsuesew | | #24

    I've been using buttons to decorate clothing for years - but never quite in that over the top way. And, yes, this is over the top.

  25. maddy1 | | #25

    Hi, Kenneth!

    I love your jacket. I'm not sure if it would be right for me, but it is beautiful and it looks great on you. I appreciate your sharing with us how this was put together. There are many other types and kind of embellishments that could be used by people to personalize this jacket or not.

    Wonderful idea. Keep up the great work.


  26. cruelladequilter | | #26

    tacky - no; scary - no. inspiring - yes. i read threads for the out of the box creations and kenneth king creates just what i want to see. no. i don't need a button jacket for my lawfirm job, but i do need inspiration to repair the damage from it. i love it!

  27. Blin | | #27

    It's an amazing concept and a beautiful jacket! What a fun thing to wear to a party or gathering. All too often, we miss out on opportunties to use our talents that let others see our creativity which could start up converstations about new topics. What hostess wouldn't love to have THE party which no one could stop talking about?!! Your wonderful creations are trips to thoughts we might never have pondered, and we are so blessed that you, so clearly, enjoy sharing. I drool over beauties you have created, others which you have brought to us from different talented people, plus all the history we would not have known. Please keep close to your heart those of us who love the ENTIRE world of sewing and can see beyond what is only needed. Sewing, indeed, is art!

  28. cinnaminspice42 | | #28

    love the jacket, I would wear it in a heartbeat, may I borrow it sometime?

  29. veras | | #29

    Kenneth - what a cool jacket! And what great techniques to learn from this piece. I never thought about the fabric "shrinking" after the buttons are added, so if I want to embellish something in future projects, I'm adding that bit of info to my knowledge and make wider seam allowances. And punching the shank *through* the wool to stabilize the wobble - brilliant. Those are the little touches that elevate a project to a level beyond ordinary.

    And while the result may not be to everyone's taste, labeling this jacket with negative adjectives is missing the point. These articles are here for sharing skills, expertise, creativity, knowledge and points-of-view. If you don't like the result, isn't it much more productive to take away something useful from the article rather than dismissing the entire thing as "ugly"…even if it's just learning that brass-button-embellished jackets are not for you.

    And yes, you *do* wear it well!

  30. Lagacero | | #30

    Obviously this jacket has created a chain of reactions - negative or positive. I am the one who said that this jacket is "tacky". I apologize if I rubbed individuals' feelings the wrong way. I could use another word - ostentatious - but I still feel the same. I do reiterate what I said before: I do not denigrate Mr. King's skills -I do recognize them. It is because of his talent that I am critical of his work. I hope that Mr. King's fans know the difference. As for the mention of Haute Couture (at its finest!!!),I do hope that it is a mistake. If my professor of Haute Couture was still alive, she would have a seizure.

  31. User avater
    CraftyRose | | #31

    I have embellished a baseball cap with less expensive gold-coloured buttons of all types. Unfortunately the fabric was too tightly woven to accommodate the button shanks, but it gets a lot of compimentary comments on buses and so on! It`s a great conversation piece! I didn`t want to use the more authentic brass buttons I have because hats are so easily left where they`re not supposed to be left.
    Cheers, Craftyrose

  32. User avater
    CraftyRose | | #32

    I forgot to say that the three or four added ounces of weight help to keep the blue baseball hat on my head in a bit of a wind!

  33. soulsurfersteph | | #33

    This jacket is awesome! And Kenneth, I'm taking your Jean-ius class on Craftsy and you rock! To those of you who think the jacket is "tacky" - I think slamming the jacket here when you know Kenneth is reading the comments is what's really "tacky." You don't have to like the style to appreciate the workmanship or show some respect to the guy who is sharing his abundant expertise with you.

  34. imlady | | #34

    This is a splendid jacket which you were with panache. Thank you for posting it and teaching us to sew beyond the church lady look.

  35. BeerGoddess | | #35

    As kenneth said, it's his jacket, and he designed it for himself. That said, I'd wear it! In fact, I have a small stash of buttons and this gives me some thoughts as to what to do with some of them. I appreciate the ideas on shrinkage and the canvas underlayer. Good job!

  36. User avater
    kennethdking | | #36

    Thanks again for all the kind words! It's heartening to know that most of you, Dear Readers, get my real point in posting things like this, which is education--even in such a throw-away, kooky piece there's something to be learned.

    In heavy embellishment, there's always a possibility of shrinkage (something I discovered through bitter experience), so I'm glad that my mistake can benefit you all out there...

    Now, off to decide what I'm going to wear this with for my fab invitation for Thanksgiving!

  37. bakertoo | | #37

    Beautiful and fabulous. This shows us how truly creative you are to use this gift of buttons. Thank You for showing us your thoughtful, creative process, to make a unique garment that reflects your desire and freedom to wear exactly what you want. You are very inspiring.

    Thank You!

  38. user-1123536767 | | #38

    This is just 25 pounds of wonderfulness. Your over-the-top designs make me smile. I love the great care and talent you bring to every garment, and I appreciate what I can learn from it all.

  39. user-1119825 | | #39

    Love, love the jacket! You look gorgeous.
    But since you punched holes in the material for the shanks, do the shanks stick you?
    I think this is a very clever idea. Reminds me of some pictures I saw of street entertainers in England. They use little white buttons on dark suits and dresses to make patterns to catch the eye of pedestrians.

  40. User avater
    kennethdking | | #40

    Since I stitched canvas to the back of the areas where the buttons are, they don't press through and stick me. So the canvas does dual duty--it supports the weight of the buttons so the fashion fabric doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting,
    and protects the lining and the wearer (me) from the shanks of the buttons!

  41. User avater
    couture_academic | | #41

    I just love your jacket and your willingness to just do something because you can and because you think it would be cool and you (and us!) could learn something from it. I find myself stuck in a kind of fear that I don't want to ruin something/waste time and I think that prevents me from doing crazy/experimental stuff. Did you always have the experimental attitude even when you were starting out? Do you recommend a time limit to the 'just follow the pattern' thing - ie: should you imitate to get skills up before you get experimental? Sorry for all the questions, but I admire you a lot and love the fact that you reply to comments :) Thanks for shining your light :)

  42. User avater
    kennethdking | | #42

    To Couture Academic:

    Thanks for the encouragement! I actually wore the jacket for Thanksgiving yesterday--with a white pleat front evening shirt complete with shirt studs and my grandpa's gold cuff links, black brocade corset, fabulous shoes, and torn up jeans. A real hit. The crowd, which was quite an arty Manhattan crowd, "got it", as you did.

    To answer your questions:

    Did I always have that experimental spirit? Well, in a way yes. I was always an odd duck--a chubby sissy kid in Kansas and Oklahoma, who sewed for Barbie, made things, and liked clothes waaaay too much for a boy. So early on, I understood that I wasn't going to fit in, and in a way, that freed me to do what I wanted to do, in many different areas of my life. Sometimes I ponder the early days, and all the hazing that I got. There were times I wished I'd fit in, just so I didn't have to duck the physical and emotional bullying I endured. But I understood it wasn't possible.

    However, that experience really has served me well. I do what I want to do, in as many areas of my life as I can. (There are always areas where one does things one would rather not do, but to keep those to the absolute minimum--that's my aim.) I operate on the principle that it's easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission. In my life as well as in my work.

    I feel bad for people who fit in, or are always trying to fit in (unless that's what makes you happy--then I wholeheartedly support it). "Fitting in" when that's not what one wants to do, is a tremendous drain on creative energy that could be expended on other, more interesting and satisfying pursuits. Since my default position is that I'm an odd duck (a friend calls me a "specialty item", not to the popular taste), I am free to experiment.

    As for the time limit thing: I believe that learning the craft is key in making good work. But learning the craft is a life-long pursuit--I'm still learning, and want to always know more. There are many ways to achieve a certain result, and I want to know as many as I can, so I can choose the best way. So don't handicap yourself by some artificial illusion of a time limit.

    In regards to learning the craft, a very smart professor said to me in the beginning of my career, that one should make the process of creation so invisible that one had to accept the work on aesthetics alone. If the craft was so polished that it was invisible, then I could get away with anything aesthetically--nothing then was a fluke. That appealed to my sense of independence. So, study and make things, learn the "rules" so to speak.

    There will come a time, though, when you will know to start stepping out of the box--your heart will tell you when it's time. When you step out, know that part of this journey includes taking risks, and the possibility of making mistakes. Some posters here thought this jacket was a big mistake--see also the posts on "fantasy fur" for more hilarious comments in that vein--oy! When I was given these buttons, I was willing to risk making that mistake, and this jacket is what I got. And it was a load of fun to make.

    You mention fear--of wasting time or materials. Really, it's not a waste, if you've learned something, enjoyed the process, or fed your soul in some way. Sometimes it's disappointing if the work doesn't turn out exactly as you'd seen it in your head. But it can sometimes turn out much different and better--and you would have missed that if you had given in to that fear. So when you can, let go of that.

    Really, don't be afraid to burn though materials, be they fabric, buttons (!) or anything else. The worst that can happen, is that you'll learn something (even if that is that "this didn't work out so well"), but you'll also discover something.

    This is a really satisfying journey, and it sounds like you'd like to put your foot on the path. Some people want or need permission to go do this. You have mine. But more importantly, you have your own permission to do this. You gave it to yourself, by asking these questions.

  43. fabricandscissors | | #43

    Thank you, Kenneth, for giving me my first birthday present this year! And what a wonderful gift!

    I've loved to design and sew since I was a little kid. I was always inventing and improvising with fabric, and my godmother taught me the basics about sewing and cutting from patterns. When it came the time to decide a career I couldn't choose fashion design (decided to go to computer sciences) but that didn't prevent me from still doing my own experiments, and I was known at college for having my own style. Even when I was getting married I set out myself on the adventure of making my wedding dress, because nobody understanded what I wanted (it was something absolutely different from the trend at the time).

    All that time I was doing things just with basic knowledge, some natural and learned skills, a small sewing machine and a lot of audacity. Nothing else, not even a dress form or a whole body mirror, or a sewing buddy, just me and lots of mistakes.

    Then, after few years after graduating from university and marrying, the company I worked for was closed and I suddenly found myself jobless. And I decided to take the money from indemnization to pursue my dream to become a fashion designer, so I enrolled in a design college, and eventually obtained my degree. By that time, my husband was transferred to another place, so I went after him and had to begin from zero.

    I have been lucky enough to have a small, but loyal, list of clients, and I still have that creativity that come to me when I have some fabric and a pair of scissors in my hands. But someway, in the middle of the story, I stopped doing things to myself, my very first client. I don't know exactly why, but have to admit that there is some self criticism and maybe I've become too rigid with myself.

    And this is your gift. In your answer to Couture Academic you reminded me why I became a fashion designer in the first place. You made me to recognize that I have lost that freshness, that impulsivity, and all those things that made me the way I am now and still can be found in my work... for others. So, thank you for being loyal to yourself and share that philosophy with us, your readers.

    This weekend I'll be myself again and will make my next invent, for wearing it on the Christmas party of the company my husband works for. Your aesthetic is not like my style, but I love your techniques, so probably I'll be browsing thru your articles and your book, and then steal an idea, or two.

    Thanks again, and keep going!!

  44. User avater
    couture_academic | | #44

    All I can say, Kenneth, I thank you. Especially for your last paragraph, thank you. I hope you know how much your beautiful response touched me. I wish you all the health, happiness and a closet full of the most fabulous creations :)

  45. User avater
    kennethdking | | #45

    To both of you, it's my privilege to have you (and all my other Dear Readers) reading my writings....when we all conspire to inspire, then only good can result!

  46. CrystalPgh | | #46

    You do amazing work. The jacket looks great on you. I've always had a fondness for buttons. I'd go for bakelite or mother of pearl - like the Pearly Kings you mention.

    i'm stunned by the nasty comments.

  47. heidelat | | #47

    Stunning! And you look great in it; like a bullfighter...But how in the world do you take care of it? Would you send it to the dry cleaners as usual?

  48. User avater
    kennethdking | | #48

    To Heidelat: As for caring for this, since it won't be worn frequently (for obvious reasons!), brushing and airing is all it will need. The fabric is a very stout wool Me,ton, so soil won't dig in very easily. If I get something on it, spot cleaning is the only option here.

  49. User avater
    michellepaganini | | #49

    Absolutely fantastic!!! I would love to see a picture of the whole Thanksgiving outfit as I love that pair of jeans. You are so inspiring. Thank you.

  50. user-884697 | | #50

    I am so very proud that God made people like Kenneth King, he opens up our minds and souls to possibilities that are endless and spirited to not cage ourselves in, yet to fly! Thank you Kenneth King and for those around you who have helped you become who you are today.

    Currently I am expanding my creativity of fabric painting, with plans to make a striking summer dress for this summer and for next spring, I wear it to a wedding in the tropic's.

    Keep the creativity flowing, your confidence will grow with it.

    Thank you again Kenneth for making yourself known to us who also like to sew and create.

    Who knows maybe my twin grandchildren will be more creative than grandma is, then I will have passed down a part of myself. May God bless us all! :)

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