This Designer’s Journey- From Childhood To Present Day

This was made for her in my 50th year of sewing.
Golden lace dress with beaded trim

I want to share some of my personal story, how thru life’s twists and turns I learned and evolved as a crafts woman and designer.

This is a lenghty post!

Mom and Grandma often sewed when Grandma visited. This influence really got me interested in sewing. A lot of what we learn creatively is visual- seeing what others are making or have made. At age 4, my brother and I got out my Mom’s scrap box and traced our hands to make puppets. We hand stitched the cut-outs and turned them right side out. His fit, mine didn’t. He was 1-1/2 year older, and knew to add a little extra for seam allowances. I was going to make another one. Suddenly, Mom walked in the room to see what we were up to. She yelled at us for getting into her stuff and took everything away!

It wouldn’t be until I was 6 at Christmas that I was encouraged to do any kind of needlework. She explained to me 20 something-years later thr reason. It was the pediatrician who told her not to let a child handle do small detailed works in order to protect the developing eyes! He said to wait until I was 6. At that age a child is beyond the risk of permanent eye damage from such use. I don’t know if that’s true- it was after 1963.

So, when I was 6, my Mom started Jay and I with simple knitting. Then she took me to the dime store and bought me supplies to embroider a pillow case. At Christmas I was given new Barbie dolls, and pre-printed Barbie outfits to cut and hand stitch. That was the beginning of my creative obsession.

At age 8, I was given a real sewing machine. It was a used White brand, and only did a straight stitch. Mom was using a Necchi with a zigzag. It was a wedding gift- Brand new in 1955. She still has it! I was allowed to use hers if I needed the zig-zag, if she wasn’t working on something. It was at this time of my life a driving passion for all kinds of crafts was ignited! I checked out one particular library book so often, my parents bought it for me at Christmas! It was loaded with all kinds of needlecrafts! I also knit little sweaters for Barbie, and made little doll clothes. I could be up in my room for hours on end.

Then at 10, Jay and I took oil painting classes at a hobby store. It was Hal’s Hobbies. He and his wife taught a variety of classes, but our parents could only afford the paint classes. That came to an abrupt end when Hal died of a heart attack. I’m using that picture as my feature image, since it is the only surviving work of my youth.

Even at that age I was making simple clothes and wearing them to school. I was totally clueless about fashion trends or style, but I didn’t care at that point.

When I was 12, the McCalls Pattern Company announced a sewing contest being held at South Coast Plaza. This was in Costa Mesa California. I had made a royal blue tailored pant suit that was flawlessly made, and fit perfectly. So I entered it in the contest. To my disappointment, I didn’t win- not even 3rd place! What I learned from that was to be mindful of the season being promoted in a contest like that. It was all about spring, and seer-sucker fabric and strawberries were the trends.

I kept sewing, and got good at making shirts for my brother, having made the sleeves too short on the first one! The shirt was otherwise perfect. This was a live aand learn process, because Mom didn’t teach me these things. She was busy with other things in her life. As long as I was keeping busy, she didn’t have to worry about me!

By the time I was 20, I had a baby and we got married when he was 6 months old.

One day my Dad came over with a handcrafted clown doll he purchased. He thought I could make some money on them. It had a block of wood covered with a loose outfit, a styrofoam head, and yarn hair. He sat on the bottom of the wood block, and worked nicely with his feet dangling from a shelf or dresser. Do you remember those? That was the first thing I ever made!

Shortly after, my husband told me of a little alterations store nearby. It was called “The Button Box”. They did tailoring and general alterations, and sold notions. True to the name, the little front room was covered with walls of buttons! I went and introduced myself. The owner, Hope- sent me home a project for a customer. She was often asked to do custom sewing; but didn’t really want the work. The first project was a pleated little skirt for a High School cheerleader. I made it perfectly- (so I thought) but when it was all finished, I realized I had the lapped side zipper facing the wrong way! I asked my Mom if she thought the shop keeper would notice- the answer was- “Of Course she will- don’t you think she’s going to scrutinize every stitch?” So, I fixed it, and my sewing career was born!

After a few years, sewing as a “GHOST SEWER”- meaning the customer was never to know she sent the work out; Someone mentioned that Bridal Shops were good places to get a sewing job. That person was right! After I got out the phone book and made a few calls, I had a sewing job in a shop! One such shop was “Penelope of California”; in the city of Orange, Orange County California. This was around 1983 to 1986. Penny taught me how to create a dress pattern by draping fabric on a live person, and using that “muslin” to draft my pattern. She was happy to teach me everything she could. Nearly all the custom gowns I designed were created using this method. It was later in my career that I started to push myself to work by drafting patterns strictly on paper, without the customer standing for lengthy fittings. I was simply doing what I was taught. As my skills developed, I began working with the customer on site less, having done more work in the back-ground to be ready for her first fitting. Still, I use those skills to bring a design to life, once the customer tries on her fitting muslin. I simply do not start with scraps pinned to her undergarments the way Penny taught me!

All through this period, I was going thru a personal crisis. Having left my husband of only 4 years in total, our kids ended up in foster homes. I was still not able to support them. Phil had his own problems. After a while, having settled into a Newport Beach apartment, the courts gave him custody of the kids. I was living with Mom at the time.

In less than a year, he would come and drop the kids at our doorstep, and leave the county, not to be seen or heard from again for several years. The reason was due to a crime he had committed- he was afraid he would be procecuted for child molestation. ( He passed away in 2006) . His first wife had severral children. At the age of 14, one of her girls told her mother of the molestation that occurred when she was very young. Ultimatly, charges were never pressed. I had to get help from social services and quit my job.

I started sewing at home again, having a great studio space available to me. While at that particular residence, and before Phil brought the kids back; I would start design school at FIDM, but dropped out . I had met an L.A. designer named Sharon. We had volunteered as cast member’s in the 1983 production of “The Glory of Christmas” at the Crystal Cathedral church. This is the famous glass church built by Robert Schuller Ministries. He was a kind man, we shared the same birthday! That year, I followed her around, telling her I could sew. At some point she decided to take me seriously.

Sharon and I worked on many high profile projects together for several years, including costumes for the 1994 World’s Fair. These were outfits for the “Ambassador Band” – a Jazz group who were to tour the country that year to promote the New Orleans World’s Fair. We travelled there, sewing machine in tow. I had to sew through the night in the hotel room of the River Hilton. We ate cajun food at the hotel restaurant. At the time, the French Quarter was undergoing a MASSIVE renovation, to put on the best show possible for the flood of visitors expected. Aside from that, we did other projects together, for such events as the Super Bowl 17 halftime show, and a show called “Up with People ” at Seaworld, San Diego. Also there was a lion tamer’s outfit we made for an animal trainer preforming on the “Johnny Carson” show. The truth being told, even though I was being paid some, in my Naivete’ , I was really being being taken advantage of! When I realized just how bad the abuse was, I walked away! (This is why I am not revealing her full name.)

One Christmas, I started making hand painted silk scarves. We rented a kiosk at the new Main Place Mall in Santa Ana, California. I sold about $9,000 worth of scarves that were completetly hand sewn, dyed and painted. Can you imagine my hands? My Mom still has some of those scarves- One large scarf was actually purchased as a gift for an executiver auto builder. I wonder if he still has it? I sold that 45 inch square of silk for $100!

As usual, styles changed. People stopped wearing scarves. They are back again, but I’m not set up for the mess in this home!

I was single for 33 years after a short marriage to Phil King. We have 2 kids, Mike born in February of ’79 and Crystal – born in January of ’81. Then there is Damien, my third child who was of another father. He was born in October of ’86.

I had to give Damien up for adoption because I did not think I could take care of three kids by myself. My Mom kicked me out of the house when she found I was pregnant, and Mike and Crystal ended up in foster homes. They spent several years being moved from home to home.

Their Dad, P. King was nowhere to be found. He had just dissappeared. When it came time for permanency planning, The social worker asked if I knew how to find him. I suggested they track his social security number. Why couldn’t they think of that?

It turned out he lived in a flat in San Francisco’s Sunset District. Phil was excited to have a chance to get the kids back. Ultimately, we all moved there. (June 30, 1994) After a brief stay at Phil’s friend’s apartment nearby, I rented a basement studio under a house. It was the perfect little apartment to start over. after 2 years, his stability fell apart when his boss died of lung cancer. He could not keep up the bills, and eventually hit rock bottom. At that point, he gave me back the kids. We finally got our own apartment closer to downtown, on the south side of Nob Hill. It was a lovely place with hardwood floors. I stayed there for several years, until going back to Orange county. (After 1-1/2 years I returned to S.F. only to find the rents had tripled! ) That began the secend part of my 12 year saga back and forth up there from Southern California. By the way, I’m from San Diego, and moved to Orange county at age 10.

Back to the San Francisco part of this story…..

I got jobs easily in the Bridal studios in town. While job hunting one day, a sweet japanese designer who had her own studio gave me a suggestion. She told me to go to I Magnin’s and apply for the alteration department.

This was actually life changing! That high-end store in Union Square was the company’s Flag-Ship store. Meaning the first, and well respected in a small chain of stores . So, I passed a sewing test and was hired. That workroom had 40 women and 3 men who were from many countries around the world. Even though there were language barriers; sewing has a universal language of “Show and Tell”.

It was for me Couture School! I was a fitter, and was sent to every clothing department in the store. I learmed about clothes and designers I never even heard of! This was an amazing experience! One day Iwould be inside a $6 to 10,000 Valentino beaded gown, another day it could a resizing of a $4,000 Chanel suit.

So, after the store closed and was absorbed by Macy’s; I met and came on board with Angelo DiRosa. He was a handsome 38 year old blond. I was swept off my feet. Except therre was a big problem. He was gay and had Aids. So did his partner Jimmy who worked in the Tuxedo company our studio shared space with. They would pick me up for work and drive me home most days. Angelo would sell a wedding dress, and I would bring it to life. Finally, he got to the point where he had to stop working, and I had to find another job. There were other Bridal jobs in San Francisco.

The phone book was my best friend! I’d simply go down the list, and in a few minutes I had interviews. If I got the interview, it meant they needed help and I’d go to work! This led me to La Boutique Des Brides at the Gift Center Jewelry Mart. The owner , Hilda was a 50-something Armenian lady who was raised in Paris. She had a beautiful French accent and was nearly always sweet. Her 82 year old mother came to work with her . She sat on a small sofa all day and basted the hems, to mark the line. Here’s a tip: never mark a light colored fabric with dark thread. She used bright magenta and deep blue so she could see, and it always left tiny dots on the gown!

After a while, I got her to use pale pastels, even though using white was the correct method. But it was a compromise I could live with.

Believe it or not, at one point I had worked in 4 shops in that building! Hilda’s competitor, Marie, would try to catch me when I went to the restroom to look at dresses on a customer. Ultimately I worked it out to take her things home, so I wouldn’t get fired. Then, there was the Furrier who had a shop directly the Bridal Boutique. She was not a compettitor; so Hilda didn’t mind.

This was Furs by Ettienne. All three of these shop owners were from Paris! Ettienne taught me new skills in the few hours of the morning. I learned to secrets of working on fur. Not to say I mastered that trade, but the experience added a new skill set to my “tool-box”.

Then there was David’s Bridal. It seemed like a dream job to become the Alteration’s Manager there. After 9 months, I had enough. The stress level was horrific! I won’t slander the company- but I was happy to leave. I needed to get back to a creative flow. So, soon after I decided to leave the San Francisco area. This was mainly due to a relationship gone sour, and I needed to put some distance in it.

Next Post: Heading South Again!- Part 2

I put all my belongings in a storage unit, and took a Greyhound bus to Phoenix Arizona. I spent about three months enjoying the early spring in the desert. The watercolor on my home page was done then. My Mom’s place was on the edge of the mountain range in North Central Phoenix. I did an earlier painting with realistic colors. This one, I just animated the colors. But the scene was realistic in detail. There is a mate to that painting, to show the other half of the view.

At the same time, unknown as to myself, my brother was purchasing the 10 acre estate in the desert outside of Yucca Valley. The property was 10 miles from town. A huge ’80s stucco house, 3000 square feet plus out buildings. And there was the high desert all around us! That’s when I came on board with him, and my Mom and I drove back to San Francisco to get my storage. I had to leave behind an antique 4 poster bed, and 2 dress forms. I simply gave them away to grateful people who happened to be at the storage facility .

With her help, I pared down my posessions to what would fit in a “professionally” packed Ford Windstar van. Mom and I drove the back highways down the state, enjoying the countryside. These were roads neither of us knew so we made an adventure of the trip. We were on our way to Dean’s newly purchased property. Then the advertising balloon making phase began!

My brother had just purchased an estate with a large workshop for his business. Having spent many years as a successful Bridal Dressmaker in the Bay Area, the move was in Perfecly Divinely Orchestrated timing. My younger brother, Dean was in the advertising balloon business. I was entering a business I knew nothing about! But, the sewing skills set I had were more than ample to fit the job .

I became the creative machine, while he was the master salesman. we sold a lot of products, some of which I had my hands on; some not so much. There were the giant inflatables that were custom made in India. I made the patterns for all the sky dancers. Then there were the helium blimps, cutting giant stencils and painting company logos on them. Pop up tent banners, inflatable tubes with a pig or a crab, I made them all- and created the patterns. On top of this, I had to train seamstresses to produce product. There came a point that I got bored with that business. I needed to get back to my first love- just making things spontaneously!

One day, I looked at all the ripstop nylon scraps being thrown away. A frugal person never wastes… especially when it could become another product!

I got the idea to make windsocks! All those long scraps trimmed from the patterns of 15 to 20 foot balloons were perfect! So I started saving everything I could get my hands on.

When my brother decided to close shop after a family tragedy hit, I was allowed to take whatever I could use, including two industrial machines -a newer single needle machine and overlock, I only wish I had grabbed the plotter!

So, in my little rented house in Joshua Tree CA; (the next little town on HWY 62) – I sewed. I had 2 dogs, and occasional adult children living with me when they needed a landing place.

My brother was in mourning from losing his 8 year old disabled son. He travelled the country and exotic places like Balize and Europe. Meanwhile, I salvaged the documents abandoned in his office. I made calls from his customer files. I managed to squeek out a living with the fabric, patterns and machines Dean let me take home.

And I really got into making those windsocks!

This was a fun phase, which ended with a Severed Achilles Tendon ! ( August of 2008) I was dancing in church when it happened. After several months of dealing with the surgery and recovery, my business died. I had to give up the sweet 2 bedroom house I rented. My Mom said “Come to Phoenix!” So, this time it was really hard to tear down a home, because I had done so much to make it mine. I had lived there 3 years. There was a lovely pond surrounded with lush flowers in the front. All my own hard work. Remember, this was the desert. My yard was nothing but sand lined with several large boulders. It was now the oasis of the neighborhood! There was all the furniture I had to sell or give away!

My sofa and loveseat had come from a thrift store nearby. They got it back 2 years later with my new slip covers I had made! I wonder if they recognized the set? Then there were the two dogs. Bear and Mikey. Both Rottie/Shepherd mixes. Not related, they looked very different. Bear was enormous. Mikey was a medium large dog. My friend Diane took them home. So, with my heart breaking and my Achilles mending, I settled into Phoenix Arizona. (It was May 3rd, 2009) I healed and found another Bridal shop to work for. This would be Azteca Bridal.

Then another tragedy struck! My son, Mike was killed on May 30, 2010. He was shot by the police in Joshua Tree, California. I got the call around midnight, the event happenned early that day. He was mentally ill, and supposedly attacked an officer when he was approached. I knew this was plausible, as he had become increasingly violent over the years. So, I chose not to persue the matter and let “sleeping giants” alone!

I had been back in Phoenix for just over a year, and working, going to worship services with my Mom, and learning all about the computer. During the time of my Achilles recovery, I really had an opportunity to get involved on-line with Craftster.org. I loved the different categories, and got involved in many craft swaps. This was instrumental in my learning to take and post photos, as well as other P.C. skills. I was nearly computer illiterate until then. Up until then, my brother had taught me to use a plotter cutting ptogram for lettering and other stencils, but I basically had no other skills. It was thru Craftster.org that I first learned about Blogs and ETSY. During this time, our community had an interior decorator/dressmaker pass away. I purchased all I could afford, having to walk away from supplies that I only wish I could have snatched up. The haul included over 300 patterns, boxes of lace, and even a pattern cabinet! My ETSY shop was born!!!

This is when I met my now husband, Jim! We became friends and after 6 years, we married. But I had to go away for four years to take care of my Dad in California. Jim called me constantly. He really was my best friend. Finally, we got engaged over the phone! The changes happened pretty fast after that.

Jim and my mother flew to California to bring my Dad and I back. We got married on Oct. 2nd, my Mom’s 80th birthday! After a while, Jim decided to move to North Carolina. His best friend, Dave kept asking him to come and help him in the Ministry. They are now very involved together in local prison ministry, and other community service.

After past several years of getting married, putting my family first, moving, renovating, and finally seeing life begin to settle, I am now starting to create again!

I’m experiencing a burst of creativity as I do my final sorting after the move. I’m down to this mountain of craft supplies in my little back bedroom. This is the sweet little room that’s all mine; including the stacks of things all around me. None of it can get donated. All of it represents about 13 years of collecting since I left San Francisco in my mother’s van.

I am full of ideas now! They are rushing in like a flood. There is rip stop nylon. There is a huge stash of yarn and stitchery supplies. There are fabric trimming from the bridal alterations. I have a box of dolls I planned to make clothes for. There is a bin full of leather skins. Stencils I made for windsocks, and large format lettering in vinyl and stencils. There’s all the paper goods. Beads of all kinds, including real semi precious stones. Not to mention all the unfinished works, There are wool fabrics for winter wraps and jackets. And random fabrics, trims, the list goes on!

I read once, a bead designer wrote: To be successful, “Stick to one medium.”

So there’s my problem! I have too many options!

Right now I’m working on aprons. I’m going to sew up all I can out of suitable fabrics on hand, and purchase what is needed . The plan is to list them in my much neglected ETSY shop.

Then, I’ll spend a few weeks on the rip-stop nylon, and make up some windsocks, yard flags, decorative banners, lightweight shopping totes, maybe even some fanny packs, I read today those are hot items!

After that, perhaps I’ll do something with all that wool yardage. Easy things. Forget the hard-core tailoring. I know to do it, but It’s very time consuming; and I have a lot of sewing to get done!

I may save those purses and small leather items for later.

Definitely put some jewelry pieces on the list.

And what am I going to do with all that yarn? Use it as a decoration?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on Pinterest.

Check out my boards at: www.https://klkingdesigns.pinterest.com

Thanks for reading! Karen

Published by

Karen L. King-Gonzales

Hi! I'm a retired Bridal Designer, and am now spending my time getting back to pleasure crafts! My husband and I are still newlyweds, nearing our 3rd anniversary on October 2. I was single 33 years! We moved across the country from Phoenix Arizona, to Lumberton N. Carolina. The slower lifestyle agrees with us! Both empty-nesters, Jim and I are finishing the work on the 1950's bungalow style cottage. Fortunately, this home has a huge addition.... adding about 40% to the original size. Having to quit the sewing trade due to a disability, I spend my time on projects for home, family, and pleasure- as I feel able. Jim, now a Pastor/Judeo Christian Rabbi; is retired from the tile trade, and currently joins his friend in local ministry. This includes a bible study twice a week at a local prison. Join us as I document the journey in our changing lives!

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