These instructions assume that the reader has an advanced beginner to intermediate level sewing ability.
Since I’ve been performing a bit more lately I’ve decided to go through all of my costuming and update my wardrobe. I found I didn’t have as much as I thought in terms of complete ensembles, and much of it was not at the quality level that I would prefer.
Several years ago I made a coin bra, but I didn’t do a very good job of it so I re-vamped it a couple months ago. Originally I just took a regular bra, made the straps into halters and sewed some Afghan coins onto it. Truth be told, everyone I showed it to was pretty impressed. But being older and wiser now I can tell you there is a better way and I’ll show you what I did.
My first mistake in the original concept was that I did not cover the bra. It was a lingerie bra with some padding (firm cups). The Afghan coins were quite heavy and the back strap was not reinforced at all so it put some strain on the back of my neck if I wore it for too long. Before you start:
- Find out what your actual bra size is. The last time I was properly measured for a bra I was 14. I’ve changed a lot since then. I was lucky enough to find a great gal who does professional bra fittings and she set me straight.
- Try on a bunch of different types of bras, and then find one style you like. Make note of it for future reference. I use the same brand/model of bra now for all of my designs, which means if I make a pattern I can use the same one every time. That can be a time saver, and a money saver if you stock up when they go on sale. Get a bra that has an underwire and firm cups so it can support you and your embellishments.
- Decide what kind of straps work best for you. Some people need more support than others. In my coin bra example I use the crossover type of strap that is rather popular on Etsy.com right now. It is very adjustable.
I have two different books about how to cover and embellish bras. I have taken advice from both, and I’ve scoured the internet for design help too (see links in the right column). As a result I’ve come up with my own technique. I would recommend either book for some really good advice and design ideas.
Below you can see examples of a few different strap situations. There are pros and cons to each.
- Professional costume with halter neck strap and overlapping band. The band has two hooks and an industrial snap. This sucker ain’t coming off. Definite pro. Also, with snaps and hooks that are sewn on you can adjust if you change size or sell it. Cons: Halter necks can put weight on your neck. A criss-cross strap could be substituted in that case. You may need help getting into this bra, so plan ahead.
- Covered elastic band and standard over-the-shoulder straps. Pros are that the elastic will stretch with you, and it’s easier to put on by yourself. Cons are that elastic eventually wears out. Maybe by the time it does you won’t care, but if you put a lot of time and effort into embellishment this may be a let down. I sometimes have problems with the shoulder straps falling down. This can be remedied by installing a T-strap across the back.
- Criss-cross straps with D-rings. This is very adjustable to multiple sizes, which is probably why it is such a favorite design on Etsy.com. The criss-cross straps really distribute the weight evenly so it’s very comfortable for my neck and shoulders. Cons to this design are that you really need to have it tied tight, and you’ll need help to get dressed. It can also feel like it is shifting as you move, but I’ve never had it shift out of place.
These are not the only possibilities, but that’s all I have to show you at the moment. So here’s my process for making an embellished bra with criss-cross straps and D-rings. Yes, I know 5/8” is a standard seam allowance, but this is my pattern, so there.
You will need:
- A bra you don’t mind cutting up
- 1/2 yard of fabric (this is a great project for remnants)
- 1/2 yard of lining fabric
- At least 2 yards of 1” grosgrain ribbon, depending on the length of your straps
- Scraps of buckram, felt, or some structural material
- Needle, straight pins, and a thimble
- A tube turner (optional)
- Thread to match the fabric
- Beading thread
- 2 D-rings
- Whatever embellishments you want
Covering your bra:
- Cut off the shoulder straps and cut down the band to about 2 inches. I keep part of the band attached so that the replacement band has something to grip on to.
- Make a pattern for the band by drawing around the side of the cup, then taper down to to the width of your D-ring. You’ll have to determine the length based on the circumference of your own torso. I figure about 6 inches between the D-rings when I am wearing the finished bra. Make it 1.5” longer at the end so you can fold the end over the D-ring, and give yourself .5” seam allowance all the way around.
- Cut two pieces from your pattern, making sure that they are opposites – one for the right and one for the left. Then cut two pieces (also opposites) of whatever lining material you would like to use. I like cotton or a cotton blend. Something comfortable against your sweaty skin.
- With wrong sides together, sew the fabric to the lining on top and bottom edges using a .5” seam allowance, making a sleeve. Turn them right side out and press if possible. The material I used here actually had a rubbery coating so I couldn’t press it.
- For extra support, cut two pieces of buckram or other structural fabric to the size of the finished band parts. Slide the buckram into place in the band sleeve that you just made. Leaving about .5” at the cup side (you’ll overlap this later), top stitch the whole band construction into place.
- Slide the left-over band (still attached to the bra) into the sleeve you have made. The 1/2” you left at the cup side should now overlap onto the cup snugly. Pin in place and whip stitch the band/sleeve you constructed to both the front and back of the cup – onto the underwire construction. This stitching will not be seen in the end. TIP: use beading thread. It is made to be run through over and over again, and it is very strong. Regular cotton or poly sewing thread will typically fray and break fairly quickly during this phase.
- With a zipper foot, or by hand, sew along the band from top to bottom as closely as you can to the cup. This will catch the existing band, so you have a triple-stitched band. Very sturdy!
- Run the end of each band through a D-ring, folding the fabric over, and zig-zag stitch it in place.
- Next we cover the cups. Cut a rectangle of fabric that will easily cover the entire cup, and add about an inch on all sides to overlap. In the book Embellished Bras: Basic Techniques by Dawn Devine Brown and Stage Belt and Bra for Bellydancers by Dina Lydia they recommend making a pattern for the cups. I haven’t done this for the new bra model because I was impatient. The lazy technique still works, you just have to trim off the excess when you’re done.
- Fold the fabric over the outside edges of the bra and pin in place. On the band side, fold the fabric under and pin, covering the previous stitching. Let the fabric overlap the center panel as this will be covered later.
- Create a dart and pin in place. At this point you may have to re-position some of your other pins to finesse it just right. If your fabric is rather thick you will have to cut away the extra, but if it is very thin you may be able to get away with tucking the dart in. It is helpful to have some sort of ball or other round object to put under the cup while you are working. MAKE SURE THE DARTS ARE GOING THE SAME WAY ON BOTH CUPS.
- Whip stitch the fabric covering to the back side of the bra where the fabric folds over. Blind stitch the fabric to the band, and blind stitch the dart in place.
- Cut a triangle of fabric to the size of the center panel, plus .5” seam allowance. Fold the sides under and fold the top and bottom over the panel. Blind stitch the side to the cups and whip stitch the back side. IF YOU NEED MORE SUPPORT FOR THE CENTER PANEL REINFORCE WITH GROSGRAIN RIBBON BEFORE YOU COVER IT.
- Next we make the straps. Cut 2 pieces of matching or coordinating fabric 3 inches wide by 36-45 inches long (depending on how much you need or feel comfortable with). These will need to be long enough to go over your shoulders, criss-cross through the D-rings and tie into a knot. I double-tie to make sure it won’t come loose.
- Fold each strip lengthwise, wrong sides together. Pin and stitch with .5” seam allowance. You will end up with 2 long tubes of fabric. Turn them right side out and press.
- Feed a length of 1” grosgrain ribbon through the tubes for extra support.
- Top stitch it all in place, tucking in the raw edges of the tube inside for a finished look on the ends.
- Determine the best placement and angle for the straps. With about .5” overlapping, stitch them to the tops of each cup. I did a machine top stitch very close to the edge of the cup. THIS STEP CAN ACTUALLY BE DONE BEFORE YOU COVER THE BRA, DEPENDING ON THE FABRIC AND ORNAMENTATION YOU CHOOSE. Whip stitch the remainder into the inside of the cups for extra strength.
You have now covered the bra. You can decorate it any way you want! If you have very heavy ornaments you may choose to add strips of grosgrain ribbon to reinforce the cups. In the case of the coin bra I did this:
- I drew lines with tailor’s chalk as guides where the decoration should go.
- I wanted the spacing between the coins to look finished and consistent, so I re-purposed beads from a broken necklace. Starting from the backside of the cup I ran thread through, caught a coin, back through the cup, four beads, through the cup, coin, an so on.
- I finished the knots with beading glue to make sure they wouldn’t come undone.
- I added a lining so my skin wouldn’t be irritated by the stitching and knots. Also the lining can be removed and washed if necessary.
- The center piece is a brooch that my mother gave to me. She received it from a friend who had actually lived in Afghanistan many years ago. Authentic!
Hopefully soon I’ll get around to posting a belt tutorial. I hope this was helpful. Please post any questions or suggestions in the comments.
UPDATE: See also “How to make a belly dance belt (the easy way).”