{DIY} Meet an FOF who makes her own clothes

There are “strokes of genius” and then there are “stitches of genius.” Karen Oliver has the latter. This FOF sews and crafts nearly her entire wardrobe, hundreds of gorgeous garments and jewelry that look like a million bucks but sometimes end up costing as little as $14 dollars.

Karen taught herself to sew at the age of 13. “I wanted nice clothes, but my parents didn’t have a lot of money to buy them for me,” says Karen. “The beauty of sewing is you can say, ‘I want that skirt in that green,’ and chances are you’ll be able to make what you’re thinking about.”

Once a week, Karen hits up her favorite fabric and bead stores in the Garment District, including Mood Designer Fabrics and M&J Trimming. (One time, she scored a yard of luxe Loro Piana cashmere for just $19 dollars!)  Sometimes she goes to buy fabric with an idea in mind, other times it’s not until she sees a fabric that the inspiration takes place. “My philosophy is, ‘how hard can it be’?'” says Karen.

Nearly every evening, Karen takes out her portable Bernina sewing machine and gets to work on the dining room table of her 1000 square-foot apartment. Sometimes she sews or beads through the wee hours of the night. One time, she stayed up the entire evening helping her friend, an editor at People magazine, sew something to wear for a gala. “The mark of loving something is you’re never tired while doing it,” says Karen. “I’m never tired when I’m creating.”

Take a look at Karen’s hand-crafted outfits below. Do you have a favorite?

Skirt,  jacket and belt: Made by Karen in a french silk faille from B&J Fabrics.
Blouse: Milly from Bloomingdales.”I would have made it myself but I ran out of time.”
Earrings: “They’re from a little shop in Paris. I’ve had them for 35 years.”
Necklace: “It’s vintage. My mother got it at an antique shop in Carmel, California.

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Tunic and wrap: Made by Karen. “The tunic cost me $14 to make and took about 3 hours.”
Choker: “I bought it in Cannes.”
Necklace (middle): “I got it in Mexico.”
Chain-link necklace: Made by Karen
Greek-key belt: Made by Karen

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Vest: Made by Karen with French-lace detailing
Skirt:
Made by Karen in cashmere. “I make this same skirt in every color. It fits just right.”
Blouse: Yves Saint Laurent
Necklaces: Vintage Chanel. “Yeah, I have Chanel pieces. But, I do them with my own twist.”

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Coat: Made by Karen. “It’s a knock off of a coat I found from Zara.
Belt:
Yves Saint Laurent
Skirt: Made by Karen. “It’s the same skirt [as in outfit 3 above], just in a different fabric.”
Scarf: Hermès

{Read the entire interview with Karen, here}

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  • Nicole

    Hello Karen, could you please take a look at this bag and tell me if you recognise it. I stumbled across it through my grandmother’s wardrobe and i wonder if it is genuine. If so, which model.. i’ve seen bags with pins at Chanel but nothing similar to this. Thank youu.

    • Nicole

      these are the pictures.

  • Nanci

    This is so inspiring! I used to make all my own clothes, and after seeing these fabulous outfits I’m inspired to get sewing (on my Bernina) again! Thanks for this story. I love all the outfits; all are different for different occasions. Thus it’s too difficult for me to choose a favorite.

  • Reggie Teer

    Both my mother and my grandmother were wonderful seamstresses. They could even cut their own patterns from a picture. My mother copied many outfits from pictures in Vogue and Bazaar for me. My grandmother copied my wedding dress from a picture. Unfortunately, neither of them taught me how to sew. I tried taking a few lessons when I was much younger, but I just didn’t enjoy it. I really miss having clothes made from wonderful fabrics (always bought on sale) because the cost of ready made of that quality is prohibitive. Really great fabric stores really aren’t around anymore – even in a city as large as Houston.

  • amy mayer

    Karen- I would LOVE to know what patterns you used for your looks–amazing eye for detail and style! and I LOVE shopping the NYC fashion district–Mood, Paron’s etc…

  • Joanne McWhorter

    Fab over 50? Yes indeed!Karen says it all, how hard can it be? Choose a favorite outfit? Each and every one unique and beautiful in every way. Could we please have regular bits and pieces from Karen ? In a day and age where money is tight but style and economy are not Karen fits the bill. Joanne

  • Jeannette Mann

    I love outfit #1! Love the vibrant colors and the fact that most people would be swallowed up by the colors whereas Karen effortlessly wears them well.
    Karen, I met you working at Christian Dior Perfumes as an account executive. I lost touch with you when you moved to New York.
    Hope to see you again.

    • Karen Oliver

      Hi Jeannette!
      What a lovely surprise to see that you commented on the blog (thanks for the kind words). I am so happy to touch base again. I have thought of you SO often over the years and would love to hear about how you and the family are doing. As always, Karen

  • Susan

    I like Karen’s outfit number three the very best although all are quite nice. I love to sew but never have the time. Maybe with the start of a new year, I will just make the time. My daughter got me thinking about it when she asked to make Grandma a Chirstmas pillowcase. We had the sewing machine out on our dining room table two days before Christmas finishing up as that is the best place to sew in our house. It made a bit of a mess but how much fun we had and Grandma loved her gift. I thank my Aunt Katheryn who was a home economics teacher (back when they had those is junior high) for letting me come to visit her two summer and really teaching me how to sew quite well. I hope to revisit sewing this New Year 2012 and just make the time for it.

  • Barbara

    In order to make quality clothes, you need a quality fabric store. Those are far a few. Most are craft fabrics. My mother made most of my clothes in the late 60’s and early 70’s. She was amazing–but there were tons of fabric stores.

  • vicki holtzman

    Love the style! I’m inspired and want to get started on my sewing. Thank you.

  • Daniel

    Hi Karen

    Love the outfits! You look stunning in each and everyone of them. The #4 pic is my favourite though, cmposition and everything… I also like you on this website – who else, if not you, epitomizes fab over 50! 😉
    Hope to see you guys in the not so distant future.
    Please also give my best to Jerry!
    Big Hug,
    Daniel

  • Sunn ymay

    I love the professional look in the mash-up of outfit #4. It’s amazing to see your eye for detail and the subtle plaid in your combination of 2 in 1 outfit.

  • Michelle

    You’ve always been someone I look up to. I’m proud of you and love you, sis.

  • jerry tokofsky

    i have been married to this superwoman for over 33 years and it has been incredible…she is greatly gifted and generous beyond belief, the best friend a person could have! available at any time for her friends and has taught me the value of friends any one she comes in contact with is blessed! i will always be thankful to my friend doctor.ken dychwald for showing up at my front door at the beach in los angeles(flying in from san francisco without notice) and saying let’s go to rancho le puerta where he was giving a lecture i met karen the next day! Oh lucky man!

    she is available

  • Nigel S. Christiani

    Beautiful through and through. However,the quandary still exists. Is it the clothes that make the lady(lovely as she is), or the lady that makes the clothes? Hmmm……

  • Pat

    Just LOVE the outfits! Ohhh, so insired to start sewing again. Just went shopping and couldn’t find much. How I miss sewing! OK….pulling out the fabric and starting up!

  • Jennifer Snowdon

    Love your designs! I too started sewing at 8 and just haven’t had the living space to do in years. I just got my machine back in my room and you are totally inspiring me to get it out again.

  • Karen

    Karen***
    what an exceptional style! I SO miss our trips to M.J Trimmings and our jewlery making afternoons..It is so inspirational to look at all of your styles! It is tough to decide what my favourite outfit is but I think my favourite style is outfit #3.
    On the one hand it looks so classy and extravagant but on the other hand also very pure and reduced to the essentials. I would love to sew also one of these fantastic cashmere skirts…:) Karen – when i am back in NY we need to do all this again!… I miss my sis, friend, soulmate soooo much* and i am incredibly blessed to have you in my life….xoxo over the ocean….
    karen

  • dee jones

    My sis, Karen, is the most amazing, charismatic, talented, resourceful, beautiful and unique person I have ever known. I am so proud to be her sister. Dee

  • Debbie Costello

    My mom sewed all our clothes, including winter p.j.’s. My sis and I thought it was a treat to get a store-bought Easter dress! I sewed my first outfit in home ec. in jr. high and have been sewing ever since. I sewed for my 5 daughters, including 2 wedding gowns and 27 birdes maid dresses! I now sew for 8 granddaughters, the lacier and frillier, the better. I love going to vintage stores to look for kids’ patterns form the 50’s and 60’s. Haven’t sewn much for myself lately, but this has inspired me to get back to it!

  • Midgie

    Karen is the most creative person I know. All of her outfits are amazing and her attention to details is unbelieveable. She’s been teaching me to knit so my next request is to learn how to sew. She’s my mentor, advisor & good friend. Love you KO! xoxo, Midgie

  • Sneh

    Karen is the most inspirational person that I know. It is a blessing to know someone who is amazing at everything that she does with a sense of style that is classic and unforgettable- just like her!! <3 Bon Bon

  • Sneh

    Karen is the MOST inspirational person in my life. It is a blessing to have someone who is so amazing at everything she does with a sense of style that is classic and unforgettable- just like her !! <3 Bon Bon

  • billie musante

    Karen definitely belongs here on your web site. Over the years I have seen her talents first hand and am very proud
    to be her mother.

  • lynette douglas

    i love your style
    what a pleasure
    i also make most of my clothes
    am 71, have my own distinctive style and
    would love to meet you one day when i am in new york

  • Jeannette

    Karen is an amazing person, friend, sister and I have yet to meet someone with her talents as well as sense of style.
    Her talent as a seamstress is reflected by her impeccable sense of style.

    I feel honored and blessed to have her in my life!

  • george

    quiero una chava

  • Rose

    Karen and I are made from the same cloth. I love to sew my own clothes. I love creating an outfit that doesn’t look like anyone elses and it is still classy. Finding the right jewlery finishes the outfit.

  • Cathy Buckwalter

    Now THIS WOMAN, Karen Oliver, CAN SEW!!!, BABY!!!
    Her clothes are extremely flattering for her (and I’ll bet others, too), very chic, beautiful fabrics, great accessorizing, unique with twists, individually creative, and at great prices, and colorful! Love them! Show us more people like Karen.

  • MJ

    Wow! Outfit #3 is gorgeous. Classic with a twist. Karen has definitely taught me how much accessories make an outfit. Now if only I had her collection. 🙂

  • KVD

    Karen Oliver is one of the most stylish, inventive, talented, generous and indefatigable women who ever lived! Her motto is: “How hard can it be?” Gotta love that spirit. KO — You ROCK! 🙂 K.

  • India-Jewel Jackson

    LOVE my good friend Karen Oliver’s personal style–she’s so chic!

  • Rosemary Simm

    I want to know if you use a pattern for your creations or free style on a mannequin? I love the fact that you use the same style with different fabrics. I need to
    give a try at making clothes for myself instead of just altering or mending. Maybe we can get a pointer or two???

  • Jamie

    The most stylish and beautiful sister ever!

  • arlene satz

    I too started sewing when I was 12.
    When I landed my first professional job headed to South Philly and purchased wool gaberdines, high quality linings, beautiful buttons and made my wardrobe using designer patterns.
    Sewing is truly a craft, and Karen has a real flair. I really love the colors of the 1st outfit on her.
    If anyone knows of a good machine overhaul place in south jersey, please pass on the info. I have a renewed interest in sewing again. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • belindabg

    Karen, you have the gift at this Sewing thing! Like you, I’ve been sewing off and on since the age of 12 and in these economic times, I’m back at it again. LOVE your Asian-inspired look – as a larger woman, that’s my signature style.
    When I go to San Francisco, Britex is at the top of my list and here in Phoenix I frequent a wonderful eclectic store called SAS Fabrics by the Pound; they have three locations across town and each one features something a bit different. Keep up the good work – you look Fabulous!

  • Helene

    Ruth,

    You’ve got it right. If you want it to look good and to fit correctly, the best answer is to sew it yourself. I agree. It’s time to get back to my sewing machine.

  • RedRain

    I am SO jealous! My precious Grandmother sewed all of my clothes until I was 18. She taught herself to sew and she would frequent high-end shops and look at the clothes from the inside out. All of my clothes had French seams and were gorgeous. For my Senior Prom, she copied a chiffon gown that Elizabeth Taylor wore to the Academy Awards. I was the belle of the ball! Your wonderful taste in tailored clothes brings back so many memories for me. The attention to detail is staggering and simply beautiful. There isn’t one piece you have made that I wouldn’t wear myself!

  • Ruth

    Oh my goodness, you have soooo inspired me!

    I have been working on my “signature style” for years you have NAILED it (ok, sewn it!) I can never find what I’m looking for when shopping and now I know why!

    I need to get back to my sewing machine!!!

    Thank you!

  • Valerie

    I love outfit #2. Why? It is sheek, comfortable and easily noticed. It makes a statement and looks great on you! I grew up with a sewing machine in the house but frankly, I really was bad at it. I learned enough to get by so besides loving your look and your clothes. I am jealous of your craft! Definitely FAB.