You are probably a huge fan of Karen, mistress of the wonderful and informative blog, Did You Make That? I know I am. Grab yourself a cup of tea and find out how she learned to make such drool-inducing togs.
How long have you been sewing?
About three years, after I acquired a Toshiba sewing machine from a little old lady via Freecycle. She was upgrading to a new machine and was happy to give me her old one. I wonder if she has any idea what she started!
What inspired you to learn?
I’d started reading knitting blogs because of my love of knitting, and that led me to read sewing blogs. It blew my mind to see some of the expert sewing out there, and it lit a fire in my belly. I really wanted to see if I could have a go and aim towards similar levels of achievement.
Did your mother or grandmother sew?
>Both my mother and my maternal grandmother had sewing machines and used them.
Like many children in the '70s, I wore a lot of homemade outfits! I’ll always be grateful that my mum was happy to let me use her sewing machine as a child. Little did I know that I would be returning to a sewing machine 30-odd years later. Initially, it was intimidating, but it was fascinating to see how many memories came back.
How did you learn? A class? Your mom? Home ec?
Initially, I learnt entirely by trial and error (with a little help from my mum!), and through following blogs and Internet resources. Slowly, slowly, I gained a little sewing library, but the Internet is still my most valuable research tool. I am in awe of the talent and experience out there, often shared so very modestly by people who have been sewing for 30+ years.
After a while, I sensed that I’d got as far as I could take myself (you don’t know what you don’t know) so I enrolled for two intermediate dressmaking courses at Morley College in London. Since then, I have also done a beginner pattern drafting course at Central Saint Martins in London, and I have studied one-on-one with the sewing teacher, Sunny Gal, in San Francisco. I think I am addicted to learning about sewing!
Aw, I’m still very fond of my first make! It was a loose-fitting Vogue pattern, V8495. I’ll never throw that out. Looking back on it, I am struck by two things: that I managed to choose asoft cotton that was perfect for this make and that the work is, well, pretty good!
Did you wear it?
Yes, it’s received a certain amount of wear although it’s a while since I last wore it. It’s definitely one of those patterns that fall into the "Does this look like maternity wear?" category, but I often have days when I just want to cover up, so I don’t mind this too much.
How long did it take for you to get the basics down?
Hmmmm . . . Possibly about six months. There’s a lot of trial and error, making mistakes and learning that it’s okay to make mistakes. I think I suffered slightly from the novice’s desire to make things in a massive hurry. I’d rush down to my local market, all wide-eyed, and impulsively buy fabric to sew up.
How long did it take you to feel confident of your dressmaking skills?
About a year, I’d say — I think I had to feel a certain amount of confidence before daring to enroll on a course and take an existing make along to show the teacher.
Do you still make things that you simply won't wear?
All the time! I firmly believe in honest blogging, and I’d be lying if I said that everything I made worked. The last dud was, I’m afraid, Colette’s Taffy blouse. I looked like a circus performer in those huge sleeves. I know this, because my boyfriend told me so!
How many hours a week do you sew?
I work full time, but generally, my sewing productivity depends on whether or not I’m going through a manic sewing period! I’ve been known to get up at 5 a.m. to sew before work, but I do not recommend this at all. On busy weeks, I’m lucky to get a couple of hours in, but on average weeks I’d say I sew for 8-9 hours a week — a few hours after work and then a decent hit of sewing at the weekend.
What are your five favorite sewing books?
The Reader’s Digest New Complete Guide to Sewing. This is the only one I’m going to list, because it’s the one I’ve gone back to time and time and time again. So far, any other sewing books have felt like indulgences, but the Reader’s Digest is my bible.
Are there any sewing DVDs that you like?
I’ve never used sewing DVDs. Not even the instruction DVD that came with my overlocker!
If you're a fan of free online tutorials, name five for the beginning sewer, please.
Tilly and the Button’s bow belt tutorial
Anything by Sewaholic
Sunni’s tutorial for inserting an invisible zipper to a bias cut skirt.
Gertie’s tutorial on bound buttonholes.
My own set of classes for making a pair of pajama bottoms!
What garment would you suggest that a newbie make first?
Actually, pajama bottoms are very sweet. There’s lots of room for creative fun, and if they aren’t perfect, no one other than your bed mate needs to know!
I know some people roll their eyes at the words ‘A line skirt’ but there are some stylish variations out there – just look at Colette Pattern’s Ginger skirt. They’re not too taxing, and their simplicity makes them a great project for challenging yourself technique-wise. I am a big fan of taking something very simple and making it up to as good a standard as your skills can reach. Plus, A-line skirts are a great blank canvas for fabric choice, so you can have lots of fun fabric shopping.
Ooh, good question! Honestly, I think it’s my Vogue V8667 dress. I love the colour and the wool, the fit is the best I’d achieved at that stage in my sewing career, and I have happy memories of working on this dress at Morley College. My one regret is that back then I still didn’t know how to hem wool properly — and it shows! But that’s sewing for you — it’s a constant journey with no finish line. I like that.
That would be my red dress, V1183, made from cashmere mix wool bought in Paris. I’d set myself a steep challenge with this dress – to make fit adjustments on my own (I had barely any idea what I was doing) and to work to the highest level of excellence that I was capable of at the time. The fact that it turned out a success was a minor miracle to me. If I hadn’t had comments from blog readers with fitting suggestions, though, this dress would never have worked. Quite recently a good friend said to me, ‘You know, that is still my favorite dress of yours.’ I was thrilled!
Name your five top tips for beginners, please.
- Learn self-forgiveness. It’s OK to make mistakes.
- Give yourself plenty of time. Please, please, please don’t leave work on a Friday afternoon thinking, ‘I’ll whip a dress up this weekend.’ You won’t. You’ll just return to work on Monday morning unhappy and frustrated.
- Engage with the online sewing community. It is a rich and free resource, full of information and kindness.
- Work with cheap fabric that you don’t mind wasting — then work with expensive fabric that you do mind wasting. An investment of money can really focus the mind when you’re ready for the next challenge!
- Don’t ignore those little marks on the paper patterns. They’re there for a reason! I speak as someone who spent the first 18 months of her sewing career ignoring notches.
What's the last garment you made?
I’m still working on a make from an early '60s vintage pattern, Simplicity 4934. Again, I’m trying to work to the best standard that I can, and it’s been a big investment of man hours — but hopefully a worthwhile one. Yet again, I am working in wool. I love working with wool. It behaves so beautifully.
Have you sewn with unprinted vintage patterns? If so, please share pointers for newbies who might want to try them.
I haven’t! They scare me.
How long does it take to get to the Vogue "Plus Difficile" rated pattern? (I can dream, can't I?)
Tell me when you get there!
Share your funniest sewing adventure, please.
The most laughing I’ve done is when meeting up with sewing friends. We have regular sewing get-togethers in the UK — they’re relatively easy to organize on this small island of ours! My favorite so far is when a group of us went to Edinburgh for a weekend, an event organized by My Happy Sewing Space, Kestrel Finds & Makes and Kristen Makes.
One of our group wore a short circle skirt she’d made in what turned out to be a very windy city! She spent the whole day patting her skirt down. I also love watching the reactions of strangers as they witness large groups of semihysterical women hugging each other and stroking each other’s clothes. I guess we don’t get out much, us sewists!
And your most exasperating or difficult?
Whoo-boy. That would definitely have to be the final sewing marathon I undertook on the V8548 coat (first picture). My boyfriend very wisely vacated the house for the day. I spent six hours in my pajamas, sewing. Part of the final process was opening up the rear bound buttonholes. I decided to sew these on the machine. Wrestling an entire coat through a sewing machine? Thank goodness no one was in the house to hear my language!
I’m currently in love with pretty much anything Sewaholic produces. I adore my recent Cambie dress. I want to marry Tasia or lock her in a gilded cage, so that she can churn out patterns just for me. Except she already does that, so I guess I don’t need to lock her up! I have a huge amount of respect for her pattern drafting and empathy with a) the female form and b) the trials and tribulations of a home sewist. And most of all, she does all this with a huge amount of modesty. This woman will go far!
Do you sew vintage patterns?
Three so far! I’m torn — there can be a lot of adjustment needed. There are so many stimulating new patterns hitting the market all the time. Yet I do appreciate how unique and special some of these vintage patterns can be.
Do you find instructions easier to follow on vintage patterns?
The Simplicity pattern from the 1960s has a whole side of A3 devoted to teaching the reader how to line a pencil skirt with lots of text and diagrams. Imagine that now!
How many hours of sewing do you think it takes for the average person to become proficient?
Define ‘proficient’? If you can sew a button on, you’re more proficient than a lot of people I know. Personally, and despite my own self-set challenges of doing my sewing best, I’m learning that there’s no time in a home sewing career when you can sit back and know you’ve done it all. I hope not — wouldn’t that be sad? I’ve seen sewing do wonders for people’s confidence, and I’ve also witnessed people cringing over their machines when they think they’re doing something wrong. The best message I can send out is: Trust yourself. We’re all capable of much more than we imagine!
Isn't that coat magnificent? Actually, all of Karen's garments look professional. Even her first top. Color me green. Sigh. But. Karen definitely gives beginners inspiration. Scads of it. Don't you agree?