Back details of Communion dress

This week we meet Karen Delahunty of Karen Delahunty Designs. Disillusioned with a career as a librarian, she single-mindedly pursued an alternative career as dress designer, taking several courses to increase her skill base, and also focusing on the business side of things, which is so important when starting up a new venture of any kind.

Tell us about yourself

I am professional dress designer, creating individual wedding, special occasion dresses and hand stitched corsets. Everything I do is bespoke, a luxury brand and hand crafted - I take great delight in helping to make a special day an experience to look back on and cherish.

Give a brief description of your career path

For 25 years I worked for Coventry City Libraries. When my two girls were little, I made pretty dresses and accessories for them to wear at a family wedding. My family and friends liked them and asked me to make things for them too. Using an old wedding dress from the local Oxfam store, I made my daughter's communion dress adding my own style and accessories.

Pure silk bridesmaid's dress

I enrolled on a BTEC Fashion Design course at Coventry Technical College so that I could to improve my sewing skills. For one of the projects, I had to create an outfit on the theme of the circus for a children’s party, and I made a bright jester outfit with matching hat. One of the tutors suggested I do a teaching course, and she invited me to one of her textile classes to help out.  I enjoyed sharing my expertise and knowledge with others. Several courses followed including a teaching course, Fashion and Design, costume design, and basic computing.

Three fabric flowers

What prompted you to pursue a creative career?

Computers were introduced into libraries, and my work load and shift patterns altered. I was becoming more despondent with the job.  I found a part time teaching post in textiles and sewing. I was asked to buy new sewing machines for the class, which led me to Leamington Spa Sewing Machines. The opportunity arose to manage the shop, and run the sewing classes there - I learnt a lot about working in a small business as a result of this.

Red Silk Corset with gold trim based on historical design

I still wanted to learn more, so I enrolled on a Corsetry fashion/historical corsetry course.  I enjoyed the job but knew that I really wanted to start my own business. I was entrusted to make my friend’s wedding dress and five bridesmaids dresses, which was a huge success. So I asked Women’s Business Development Agency for help with a business plan, marketing, and networking, and in 2010 I started my business, 'Karen Delahunty Designs’, creating  bespoke special occasion wear. Most of my work comes from recommendations.  I run sewing workshops for all ages and abilities around Warwickshire and Cheltenham areas.

One of Karen's workshops

What have been the highlights to date of your creative career?

I created ‘The Queen Of The Chocolates’ outfit, designed from a roll of Cadbury Dairy Milk wrappers - you can watch a short video of the catwalk here.  And my designs were also on the Catwalk at the ICHF Fashion Sewing for Pleasure Show held at the NEC in March this year. 

Karen Delahunty with her Queen of the Chocolates outfit

As a  member of the Embroiderers Guild Leamington Branch, I entered one of  my embroidered corsets , in their exhibition at’ The Gallery 150’ Leamington Spa, last April, where  over 2,500 visitors were recorded at the event and many items were sold.

What about the challenges?

Apart from the financial aspect, leaving a well paid job for something I loved to do, and finding a way to make it work, created some challenges. I joined some networking groups to find work, who have a common interest to support each other to provide business help and guidance as well as friendships too.  My first year proved to be more difficult than I expected. Having the talent is the easy part - taking on many job roles is part of the challenge of everyday business life to make a living wage. The passion for what you do has got to be strong enough to override the ups and downs that you will encounter along the way. 

Red prom dress, front and back

If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering taking up a creative career, what would that be?

I would say lots of perseverance is needed,  in terms of building clients and reputation. Be prepared for irregular work and cashflow, and learn how to take opportunities for marketing. It's great to have good support from your family and friends.

Karen at Warwickshire Open Studios

What are your plans for the future?

I am currently exhibiting a selection of my pieces at St Gregorys Church in Offchurch, near Leamington Spa as part of Warwickshire Open Studios. In March 2014, I will be showcasing a new collection of work on the Catwalk at the Sewing For Pleasure Show at the NEC, and I will also have a stand there too.

I have been asked by several WI , Embroiderers and Textile Guilds to demonstrate and talk about my work, and I intend to continue running my inspirational creative textile and dressmaking workshops, which are available for all ages and abilities.


You can see more of Karen's beautiful work on her website, and you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter. She's also done a great radio interview for BBC Coventry & Warwickshire.