My Handmade Style: Karen from Did You Make That?

From vintage chic to clean modern shapes, how do these seamstresses create and communicate their own unique style in their projects? What and who inspires them, from film and music to everyday life. And what’s their dream outfit?

Oh we’ve got a corker to kick off the new year for you. This lady is tremendously popular with you lot so who better to take us into 2013 with her style secrets? I give you… a very modest Karen Ball from the hugely influential (and hilarious) blog Did You Make That?

Karen, I’ve watched you develop your handmade style over the last year or so. Your nods to vintage couture and love of colourful prints really mark you out as a stylish lady. But how would you sum up your handmade style?

You’re right that I like strong colours, but I still don’t feel as though I have a particularly defined sense of style. Some bloggers know exactly what furrow they plough, and stick with it. I’m a bit of a butterfly that skitters around from one thing to the other. I feel as though my personal sense of style has maybe only started to settle over recent months. And I only think that because readers have told me so!

But creativity is all about experimenting and being brave enough to make mistakes. If you have a blog, you’ll make those mistakes in public!

Where do you find your style inspiration and how do you channel that into your me-made wardrobe?

Whenever I go to the hairdresser, I devour their copy of Vogue magazine! I love this for inspiration – soaking up colours, fabrics, just the feel of the season. Once you get past the laughably unachievable prices and lifestyle, and just treat the magazine as a mood board, it becomes a much more interesting read.

I people watch like mad! London is a great fashion capital and just walking the streets or sitting on the tube, I’m surrounded by people who really know what they’re doing.

Like most Sewists, I see something on another person’s blog and want to emulate it. I’m trying to be a bit more cautious on that front, though. So many patterns ordered, so many patterns still sitting in drawers…

Sewing meet ups have had a big impact. They’re a great opportunity to share knowledge and tips, see other people’s outfits and just get out of your own groove. Swaps are excellent for testing your comfort zone – you often go home with  something you’d never have looked at otherwise.

What’s your creative process in deciding what to make? Is it a fabric-based decision or a pattern that inspires you?

Choosing what to make is a very, very organic process for me. I am not someone who draws up a list at the start of the year (barring my Sewlutions promise to conquer the blouse). I have enough commitments and deadlines in my working life, so never plan much more than 2/3 months ahead. My stash is pretty small. I tend to start with a pattern and then find the fabric. When I made the Simplicity 4934 with Beth at Sunny Gal Studios, I bought my vintage pattern and then hit Goldhawk Road. I knew right away that the lavender wool I saw there was the right choice for me. I still can’t forgive the shop for refusing me a discount, though – I bought eight metres of that stuff!

Who are your style icons and why?

Hmmm. Am I allowed to say I don’t really have any? (Of course! – Ed) I mean, there are looks I like, but I’ve never consciously tried to emulate anyone else. I do LOVE the silhouette of any woman who is long and lithe – in another life I will be born into a body that
is all long limbs and tapering fingers! Okay, if forced to say, I would be a female character in any novel by F Scott Fitzgerald – just without the nerves and drinking!

But flapper dresses don’t really work in the mean streets of Walthamstow and I still haven’t found a speakeasy in E17.

Are there any particular designers or high street stores that you use for inspiration?

I pop into Top Shop Oxford Circus when I’m passing. I do like to see what the youngsters are up to! I love Uniqlo right now. But, honestly, um – no! In fact, high fashion annoys me sometimes. I’ve bought two peplum patterns and now I wonder if it’s even worth bothering to sew them – the peplum ship has sailed.

If you had to select one self-stitched garment that really encapsulates your style – what would it be and why?

I still really like the Vogue 8667 dress that I made during my first term at Morley College. It has just a touch of retro and I used a wonderful magenta wool. I loves me a wool dress!

Why do you sew what you sew? Do you choose projects on a whim or do you look at your existing wardrobe and spot vital gaps to fill?

Often, I’ll get curious and want to expand my knowledge. I want to work with leather soon, just to find out how to work with leather! I recently made a ruched sleeve top because I wanted to understand ruched sleeves. I loved the learning curve of making Gertie’s Bombshell Dress, even though I knew I’d hardly ever wear the finished item. I just wanted to learn! And when I made my Vogue 8548 coat I plunged into the unknown of tailoring. I have merely scratched the surface. The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know…

Do you ever take risks and experiment with your look? What’s worked and what hasn’t?

I think that when you start sewing, you often take really big risks – you’re plunging into a whole, new world and there’s a certain amount of liberation there. Plus, you just don’t know how to make the right choices! So, yes, I’ve definitely experimented. Some of it has worked and some of it hasn’t.

The Sencha blouse was a horror story for me! The Taffy blouse made me feel like a clown. Oh dear, that looks as though I’m knocking Colette Patterns, which I am not at all. Two cases of not understanding what suits me and making bad fabric choices. What HAS worked have been some lovely dresses. I love a well-fitted dress. My two versions of Simplicity 1882 were both big hits and extremely comfortable.

And I remain very fond of the Butterick 5605 dress I made in floral cotton for a friend’s vintage-themed wedding.

There are certain looks some of us just can’t pull off… do you have a style bugbear?

Oh, the high neckline is my sworn enemy! I have a round face and need to give it space. I really admire the layered look, but not on my figure – I just look like I don’t know how to get dressed in the morning. I wear skinny jeans and jeggings but need to ensure that my derriere is sufficiently covered. I’ve realised that gathered skirts don’t do any favours for my paunch, which is a shame because they’re so easy to make! I look dreadful in most pairs of shorts. And I will never, ever wear anything that reveals a midriff. Shudder.

What would be your dream outfit, existing or otherwise?

Something comfortable! My issue with uber-fitted dresses is – what do you do after you’ve eaten a meal?! But I tend to go too far the other way and sometimes make items that are a bit roomy. I have days when I really want to cover up – then my dream outfit would be a sack (or the Vogue 1179, which I have made four times now)! On more confident days, my dream outfit would be a beautifully fitted, understated dress, maybe in wool, probably in a solid colour!

What other sewing bloggers would you recommend for great individual style?

I absolutely love A Fashionable Stitch right now. She has such a good eye for colour and is  really doing a lot with practical, comfortable yet stylish day wear.

DIY Couture is urban, edgy, hip – and just a lovely person! She’s so cool and creative, I want to be her. Those other lives I need to live are stacking up…

I’ve always liked Boo Dogg and Me. She works wonders with linen. You see, it’s that  elusive, layered look again…

Finally, what’s on your sewing table right now?

A blouse! Then I’d like to make a couple of daywear skirts (one including leather), and then I think I might feel a dress coming on. Can’t beat a good dress! I’m annoyed that I still haven’t wrestled New Look 6000 to the ground. And before the end of 2013, I need to conquer my Sewlution

You are a modest minnie Karen but we love you for it. What a way with wool you have! Thanks for sharing your handmade style with us.

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The Knitting, Stitching and Blogger Show

Since I live quite literally FIVE MINUTES from Alexandra Palace, and had never before been to the Knitting and Stitching Show up there, I felt it would have been quite, quite rude not to make an appearance this weekend. I’ve passed by before when it’s on and marvelled at the coachloads of silver-haired, sharp-elbowed grannies coming in from all over the country, yet always thought it might not be my cup of tea exactly. But this year I was absolutely determined to check it out, and I have to say, I’m glad I did!

Not only was it a gorgeous day for a walk to to the Palace (see Karen’s lovely scenic pics), my in-laws were down from Norwich for the weekend, so it seemed the perfect opportunity to go and have a look with Ann, my M-i-L.

We were only in ten minutes when who should I see having their picture taken together but new bride Zoe and Karen! Sewing serendipity batman! Zoe had to dash off to her stall (yes Zoe was manning an area for Traid, giving advice on upcycling and refashioning old clothes, as she is a responsible and caring human… not browsing for bargains like the grasping selfish seamstress I am…) but I managed to grab Karen for a quick chat and pic before we toddled off to look around. Here’s the lovely lady in question looking rather fabulous (are we both wearing Orla Kiely prints Karen?)!

Karen and me!Then it was off to try and cram in as much as possible from the exhibition and the stalls. Here’s my modest haul from the day:

The haulHere we have a metre of gorgeous helicopter fabric from Favourite Fabrics, first spotted on Jane’s tutorial for baby blankets. Hey – I’m a plagiarist an ideas magpie, what can I say? We also have four wooden buttons for the winter coat, an embroidery hoop, some assorted needles and a thread organiser to get me started on embroidery and a rather fabulous 5mm crochet hook. I’ve been frothing at the mouth with jealousy every time I see another swanky hook on the crochet vids I’ve been watching on Youtube so I’m delighted to finally get one of my own.

Then it was over to Zoe for a quick chat (thanks for being so accommodating whilst trying to work at the same time Zoe!) – we’ve never met so it was just lovely to see her in person. Here she is hard at work, bless her.

Zoe hard at work

Finally, off to the Royal Oak in Muswell Hill for a cup of tea and a sit down. Phew. Oh and we spotted this delight on the way out – a knitted village!

All in all I really enjoyed the couple of hours I spent there, but here are my tips for doing it well:

1. Dedicate a structured day to it. There’s so much to see and do it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Try and get booked in for a couple of workshops (like Shivani did) or talks in the morning as these are easy to miss out on. Shivani made the excellent point (in comments on Karen’s blog) that the coaches start to leave from 3pm and it empties out quite a bit so it might be worth leaving the shopping bit til then.

2. Bring a packed lunch. Alexandra Palace is a delight to walk around and have a picnic (yes, even in October!). At the back of the Palace is an enclosed deer park and there are loads of parks and woodland to the fore.

3. Have a budget and stick to it. It would be so easy to get carried away, especially at the sewing gadget stores, and it’s difficult to tell in all the excitement whether you’re really getting a bargain.

4. Don’t expect to get much in the way of dressmaking fabric. Most of the fabric available is quilting cotton.

5. Make the most of the expert advice on offer. I feel bad I can’t remember this particular stall’s name, but the lovely owner was invaluable and spent at least five or ten minutes in helping me find the right tools to get started with embroidery.

6. Which brings me neatly to my next point – bring a notepad and pen to take notes of shops and locations in the hall, otherwise you’ll lose track if you want to go back and visit them or buy from them again. And pick up as many leaflets/business cards as you can too.

7. Take the time to look at some of the exhibitions around the place. ‘Mining a Golden Seam’ was an embroidery exhibition from North East embroiderers. Inspired by coal mining, exhibitors were as young as 7 years old! Seeing something like this definitely makes you think about craft and communities, shared histories and narratives. Ooh it got me feeling all cultured like.

Maybe next year I’ll see some more of you there!