A couple of years ago my daughter, Susanna, asked me what I’d like to do with the rest of my life.  It was a great question – but I didn’t know how to answer it.  I did, however, know what I did not want to be doing for the rest of my life – and that was the “full-time” volunteer work that had gradually taken over my days, often my sleep, and certainly my sense of balance in my day-to-day living.  But it was more complicated than that.  I had to admit that the work I had done and was doing (mostly for The Philadelphia Antiques Show, a major fundraiser for the University of Pennsylvania Hospital) had given me countless friendships, a peculiar source of “identity” and respect, and a sense of accomplishment.  I had to figure out if I really wanted to “give that all up”  – and if so, what would I replace it with?  That was the key question that I could not answer.

How I have come to Fifty Dresses is my “rediscovery” story, a crazy concurrence of events which provided me with an answer to that question which I never could have imagined.

Here’s what happened:

Mad Men on AMC.  The story line is captivating, but it was those early 60’s fashions that really caught my attention.

A chance sighting of a book display in a Barnes and Nobel for A Vintage Affair by Isabel Wolff.  The cover illustration of 1950’s style prom dresses piqued my interest.  I bought the book, loved the story, and it started me thinking about vintage clothing and about many of my clothes from my childhood (which my mother made for me) and from my teens and 20’s (which I made for myself).

A random search on Google to find an obscure kitchen item lead me to make my first purchase on eBay, which meant that I had to set up an eBay account and a PayPal account.  Once those were in place, I thought I’d do a search for Vogue patterns, then vintage Vogue patterns.  EBay and Etsy have led me to many wonderful vintage patterns, which have added so much to my enjoyment of fashion sewing.

I started to dig out old Vogue patterns which I had sewn with in the 1970’s and had kept because I loved them so much.  In doing so, I found a beautifully tailored red linen jacket which I had completed except for buttons and handworked buttonholes. I figured if I could sew like that years ago, I could do it again.

I went shopping for an outfit to wear to the Preview Party of The Philadelphia Antiques Show.  I found exactly one dressy jacket that I liked.  It was an Armani (!), it was $1,295, and it would need another $100 in alterations to fit me properly.  It wasn’t even silk!!   That’s when I knew it was time to start sewing again…

You’re invited to follow my adventures in sewing from these mid-century patterns (and the occasional new one, too!) and my observations about what I call the Golden Years of Fashion – the 1950s through the 1970s. These adventures have also led me into the world of vintage fabrics and couture sewing, enhanced by online courses and by attending Susan Khalje’s Couture Sewing School.  There are many sewing stories to be told!

33 responses to “About

  1. Great story! I am definitely excited to check out your creations!

  2. arlene

    Thanks Karen…very interesting and loved your candid commments.

  3. How wonderful that your daughter posed that question! My similar experience came from one of my first graders when I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up. In return, he asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up a little bit more?” 🙂 I’m looking forward to following your blog!

    • I’m so happy to have you as new follower! Sewing is such a wonderfully creative activity, and I feel so fortunate to have it “back” in my life!

  4. I found your blog while searching for Make It Yourself With Wool (MIWW). Yes, your fabric choice is very similar to the Sr. Winner, Marisa Linton. Your outfit is lovely, you wear it beautifully and such fine finishing details!

    I had the chance to meet Ms. Linton at the North Carolina MIWW Contest in September, where she brought her winning ensemble for the contestants to see. The pictures don’t do it justice. Her details in the felted waistband, piping and buttonholes are amazing.

    I wishfully look back too on the Vogue Era and fine fabrics and am so thankful for learning to sew in the 70’s… Every chance I can, I search the Internet for Vogue Era patterns…

    • Thank you so much for your comment. That must have been such a wonderful opportunity to see a winning MIWW outift – especially that one. I’d love to enter that contest some day – perhaps you are thinking of doing the same?

  5. I’ll share Marisa’s MIWW winning strategy… Start planning the next day! I set a goal last September to improve my skills (after not sewing for nearly 30 years…) with the goal of entering this year’s MIWW in NC. Tonight I put the finishing stitches in my ensemble to represent NC for the Nationals (Adult Division). Of course, I’m hopeful that this will be my year, but if not, then I have a beautiful outfit, inspired by Chanel Couture, Paris Runway Collection Fall 2012, and there’s always next year…

    My Oh Chanel Board is on Pinterest at:
    http://pinterest.com/cccinnc/oh-chanel/ and Crafsy.com

    • Your jacket is absolutely gorgeous, Charlene! How I would love to see it in person. Congratulations on your NC win and I so hope you win the Nationals. Now I have someone to cheer for! Thank you so much for sharing this information.

  6. Jen

    Karen, I’m Jen… in a similar place in life as you describe yourself in this post… a pivotal questioning phase of ‘what to do’ ? I do sew (have since about 1971, off and on), but I maybe knit a lot more than I sew. Okay, so truthfully , I haven’t sewn for myself in near a decade, but … I am a good sewer. and … well, I want to sew more. But of course, I’ll probably just knit more 🙂 Nice to find your blog… it’s fun.

    • Thanks, Jen – so nice to “meet” you! I keep thinking I need to try to take some time out from my sewing to do some knitting (to which I’ve recently become reacquainted). Hm-m-m-m, I think I need more hours in the day!

  7. Pam

    Hello Karen- I just happened upon your delightful blog. I love all the vintage patterns that you share. I have many fond memories of sitting at the pattern counter in our local fabric store, studying the latest Vogue patterns and planning a special dress or outfit. It hardly seems possible that those patterns are now “vintage!” Lovely to meet you!

    • I am so glad you found my blog! It is difficult to believe that so many of the vintage patterns are from so long ago, as they look so contemporary. I really enjoy sewing from them. And yes, they bring back those exact memories for me, too!

  8. Kat

    Karen, I really enjoy your blog and want to share it so I’ve nominated you for a Liebster! Run over to the blog if you want to accept it! http://www.coutureacademic.com/awards/a-liebster-happy-kat/

    • Hi Kat – I am so glad you like my blog! Thank you for the lovely nomination. I really don’t pay enough attention to how many followers other blogs have, so I am not so sure I can fulfill that requirement… In any event, I look forward to our online friendship and shared interests! Thanks again!

  9. Heather Myers

    I really enjoy your blog and your projects descriptions! Your grand daughters are the best dressed today!

  10. Hi Fiftydresses Team,

    My name is Anuj Agarwal. I’m Founder of Feedspot.

    I would like to personally congratulate you as your blog fiftydresses has been selected by our panelist as one of the Top 100 Vintage Blogs on the web.


    I personally give you a high-five and want to thank you for your contribution to this world. This is the most comprehensive list of Top 100 Vintage Blogs on the internet and I’m honored to have you as part of this!

    Also, you have the honor of displaying the badge on your blog.


  11. Miriam

    I found your blog, it’s gorgeous!

  12. Debbie Hixenbaugh

    Karen, I am delighted to find you. I too have rediscovered sewing garments and it is giving me such satisfaction. I sewed all the time many years ago, I wonder if I am nuts to be trying to hone better skills in my late sixties, but I really want to become good, to do the classic French jacket, and many other couture clothing. To read about you, really helps with the inspiration that I need. Where was the internet 45 years ago! Thanks for doing it for me as well as I am sure many others!

    • Hi Debbie, It was wonderful to read your comment and know that I can be a bit of inspiration to you. All I can say is “Go for it!” My sewing skills (for making fashions) were a bit rusty when I started this type of sewing again, but I quickly caught up and have since learned so much. My new knowledge has changed the way I sew forever (and in a good way.) There is a wealth of information out there for those of us who want to use true couture techniques for our dressmaking. I really recommend using vintage patterns if you can, as the detail and engineering included in even simple designs provide so much more finesse than available in many new patterns.
      I have had so much gratification from my sewing the last 5 or so years, and I wish the same for you! Thanks so much for your comment!

  13. J Lynn Spiher

    Dear Karen, I just found your blog. Im am so sorry I didn’t know about it sooner. I have read up to May of 2014. You are amazing and so inspiring. I love to sew and it has been my passion since I was 12 years, like you I’ve done other needlework. Can’t live without a needle in my hand. I have already learned so much that I’ll probably reread much of your blog again. I just reached where you made a skirt out of a blanket. I would love to try it but I feel my blanket might be too heavy. Do you have any suggestions for a pattern or sewing tips? It’s red plaid and would be lovely for the holidays. I could make a vest but I just love that fringe at the bottom of the skirt. Thank you for writing your blog. Your new best fan. ❤️ J Lynn

    • Dear J Lynn, I read your comment this morning after a long and very busy week, and it set the whole, new day off with a glow! Thank you! Now, about a blanket skirt. Probably the most important thing to help determine if your blanket is too heavy for a skirt is whether or not you will be able to put waistline darts in without them being lumpy. You could experiment with a selvedge edge of your blanket, by basting in a dart and seeing what it looks and feels like on the other side. If it’s lumpy or leaves a noticeable ridge, then I would say your blanket is too heavy If not, then you are good to go. Choose a slightly A-line pattern for your skirt, do a facing at the waist instead of a waistband, and make sure you measure correctly for the fringed hem, as you will be cutting your blanket to your finished length. I hope your blanket works for you; it sounds like a great project! Hope this helps. I am really delighted to have you as my new best fan!

      • J Lynn Spiher

        Dear Karen, thank you for your prompt answer. I will try a dart, in my heart I know it is too thick. I will hold onto it until another idea pops into my mind. A long vest might work. Darn I really wanted that skirt. Perhaps I just need a new blanket. I’m now up to August 2015. I’m reading instead of sewing. Actually I’ll call it studying. I really liked the article on taffeta, glad I read it before I decided on a pattern for my taffeta fabric. That gown was beautiful on you. I’m having more fun sewing on fabrics I never tried before. Love the challenges. Again thanks for the help. Looking forward to your future posts. J Lynn

  14. MrsLonnstrom

    Hello Karen,
    I found your blog a little over a year ago and have enjoyed your posts and sewing adventures.
    Thanks to your inspiration!
    I’m about to begin a sewing project with a 1965 Vogue Couturier Design pattern by Irene Galitzine #1452 using a Black and Bordeaux Metallic Cloqué.

    • Thank you,Cindy! I am so happy to hear you enjoy my blog! I looked up your Galitzine pattern, and it is a beauty. I had not run across it before, so it was new to me. The seaming detail is lovely, and the rolled collar is beautiful. It should be gorgeous in your fabric!

  15. Lee Manonian

    This is wonderful! I loved sewing as a teen and early 20 something. My problem was that nothing ever fit when I was done or I hated the way it looked on me!
    When children came along, sewing went out the window! I still needlepoint but I do miss using a machine.

    My husband (Simon) studied fashion in France and he still sews. We have a large machine in the basement from Mario in Paoli. He gave it to Simon
    saying he has too many!!!!

  16. Karen,

    Looking at the patterns in your most recent post today, and knowing that you choose to sew with vintage patterns, many from the early 60’s, have you drawn any conclusions about how your vintage patterns are cut differently than modern patterns with “similar” lines?

    For example, a princess seam dress from Vogue in the early-mid 60’s, to a Vogue with the same detailing from the 21st century: are there some basic differences in armhole fit, shoulder shaping, that kind of thing, that represents either a different idea for fit, at the time, or perhaps, higher quality of design?

    Thank you,

    • That is a very good question, Joan. I have found there are many differences, and that might be a good blog post topic sometime. Because women wore more foundation garments “back in the day,” often the bust is set higher, and the hips are cut more closely in patterns from the ’50’s, ’60’s and even ’70s, to mention just two differences. I often marvel at the pattern engineering in vintage examples, which was very precise, with more darts and subtle shaping than is found in patterns today. Sleeves, for example, had much more shaping at the elbow, which really helps to create a lovely silhouette of the arm. One thing so often missing from current patterns is so simple, but it makes such a huge difference – and that is a small shoulder dart. Whenever I use a current pattern, I add a shoulder dart…

      • Thanks very much, Karen. I have begun collecting vintage patterns, and plan to work on several this year. I think it would make a great blog post to review the typical differences you have found in vintage patterns!

        I have studied fitting privately time and again with some excellent teachers, but have let myself down by not sewing up the garments (terrible!). So I know a good bit about what makes for a beautiful fit, but have much less experience with getting garments to fit the way I like (on my own)!

        For me, it will be a shock if vintage patterns have an even higher bust than contemporary patterns! ;-}

  17. Moira Lamborn

    Great story. I love vintage clothes from the 60s 7Os

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