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Patternmaking & Sewing Notes
by Don McCunn

Creating a Pixie Costume

Pixie Costume

My background is costuming. So when I worked with my model Fallon Niedzwiecki she mentioned she tried to find a pixie costume for Halloween but none fit her--how could I resist?

The following is a description of the creation of this costume.

The Design Concept
When I work with a model I really like it to be a collaborative process. So the first thing I did was to do some Google image searches for pixies and forest nymphs. I recorded the links I thought looked interesting and asked her to tell me the ones she liked.

One of the key issues was what to do about the wings. When we were talking initially Fallon said she did not want wings because when she went to a party it was too easy to whack someone. On the other hand I was intrigued by the idea of making wings and there were wings in the image we settled on. Making wings is a project I had never undertaken and I was really looked forward to it. So I decided to make her a costume that had interchangeable wings, one for parties and one for photo shoots.

I mulled on several ideas about how to attach removable wings to the costume. Most of the ideas weren't very good. I'll spare you the details. Then a light bulb went off and I realized I could leave a long vertical pocket in the corset at center back (down her spine).

The next thing I had to do was to determine what the wings would look like. I did more Google searches and really liked the look of dragonfly wings. Each side has two wings and each wing comes to a single junction where it joins the body. I realized that this type of wing could easily be adjusted after the costume was made. This would give it a lot of flexibility. So it was off to find the fabric.

Finding the Fabric
It is common to find solid colors but I really wanted a variegated green for the dress. I was afraid I was going to need to dye fabric to get the effect I wanted. Fortunately the fabric store I went to had variegated green chiffon. It has been my experience as a costume designer that sometimes you have to do a lot of shopping to find the right fabric. Other times you are walking along and the fabric just jumps off the shelf and into your arms. This was one such occasion.

My second happy fabric search was to find a green organza fabric that was iridescent. Once again there was no choice to make. The idea of having translucent dragonfly wings made my heart sing. The other principle fabric I need was for the corset. But I had made myself some swim trunks out of a crushed brown velvet that had a wonderful tree bark like look. So it was off to start the construction process.

While I was in the store I found some wonderful artifical flowers and a cute butterfly pin. I couldn't resist.

The Wings
I realized the wings needed to come first. If I couldn't make the wings I envisioned, then I might need to change my entire design concept. How were the wings going to work with the rest of the costume and I needed to make two different sizes. To create the shape I opted for 14 gauge solid electrical wire. I had printed out an image of dragonfly wings I liked so I knew the shape I wanted to create. I took the wire over to a body double (aka dress form) I had of my model Alex to determine the proportions.

The other decision was how to treat the fabric. Initially I had intended to use a double layer so I could sew the two layers together, turn it and just pull it over the wire frame. But I really liked how fragile the organza as a single layer would work. I felt this was so appropriate for dragon fly wings. Below are the steps I followed to create the wings.

  1. Shape the wire with one continuous length for each pair of wings. I wanted the left and right side to be from one continuous length of wire.
  2. Tape the two stems of the wire together to stabilize the shape.
  3. Paint the wire green. I left the white insulation on to maximize adhesion and friction with the wing fabric.
  4. Cut the fabric to more than cover the two sides of the wings.
  5. Zigzag the fabric to the wings. This was a little tricky. You really need to think through how to move the wire through the sewing machine and still retain the desired shape.
  6. Cut the wings with a hot knife to seal the edges of the fabric close to the wire.
  7. Zigzag the fabric to the wire a second time to hold the cut edge close to the wire.
  8. Use Sobo glue mixed with an equal amount of water to further secure the fabric to the wire. I felt this was necessary because I could see how easily the fabric could be pulled loose from the zigzag stitches.
  9. Tape the upper and lower wings together along the stem.

The photos below show the various steps of this process.

Creating Dragon Wings

The Dress
For the dress I wanted a strapless dress with an uneven hem. I opted for the concept of a handkerchief hem. I figured if I wanted more of a petal effect, I could add it later.

To avoid a closing device I knew I needed to make the center circle larger than the hips so the dress could be pulled on. I could then enclose the waist in elastic to reduce it to the size of Fallon's above bust dimension. I used the wonderful pattern-making calculator from String Codes to determine the radius I need for the circle from the full hip measurement. I used just the hip measurement because I knew when I added the elastic I would be rolling it to create an even larger circle. If you haven't tried the String Code calculator, I recommend you do. It is free and does too much for me to describe here.

I cut the center circle and all edges of the fabric with a hot knife working for a freehand jagged around the outside edges. I then used a Swimsuit Edge finish to add the elastic. Fallon is allergic to latex so I was careful to roll the elastic a couple of times.

Handkerchief Dress

Checking the Design
About this time I was thinking "Okay enough for the theory. Let's see if it works." My model Fallon was out of town on an extended modeling gig. I knew she wouldn't be back until it was time to shoot her wearing the finished garment. Fortunately I had worked out custom-fitted bodice, skirt, and bra slopers for Fallon so I was able to construct a custom dress form for her as I describe in How to Make Sewing Patterns. To keep it simple I just taped this dress form to a stool that was a good height. It took about three hours to make the dress form which I now have to use for other projects. And it saved me a lot of anxiety wondering about whether the costume would fit or not. The photo on the left shows the dress form. On the right you can see how I could check the drape of the dress.

Dress Form

When I saw the dress on the form I realized the front was too long. Fallon wanted it knee length. I think the error I made in my measurements was that I doubled the above bust to knee measurement for the overall length. I forgot to factor in the height of the center circle.

They say there is a silver lining to every cloud if you can find it. I liked the idea of the back hem being longer than the front. So I pulled out my trusty hot knife and shortened the front.

The Corset
The corset was a relatively easy pattern as I already had my fitted slopers for Fallon. So I just traced them to create center front, side front, side back, and center back patterns. I started it just under the bust and carried it three inches below the natural waist. I extended it below the natural waist because that contour of the body makes great support. Particularly because I wanted adequate support for the wings.

For the front lacing I shortened the front pattern by an inch which left a total opening of 2 inches. I first cut the pattern out of some stretch denim I had around the house. When I tried the initial denim on the dress form of Fallon, I felt so secure in the fit that I decided I would only need boning at side back to support the wings and center front to support the lacing. If you haven't tried lacing, you need the boning or the lacing will squeeze the height of the corset down. The following is the sequence I used to create the corset.

  1. Cut the denim lining for the corset.
  2. Sew the lining together.
  3. Cut the plastic boning with a hot knife then zigzag it to the lining. The hot knife seals the end of plastic boning. If you don't do this the plastic rods in the boning can stick out and puncture your fabric.
  4. Cut then sew the fashion fabric.
  5. Sew the fashion fabric to the lining, right sides together, around the front, top and down the other front.
  6. Trim then turn the fabric right side out.
  7. Turn under the bottom of the corset.
  8. Top stitch around the edges of the corset.
  9. Insert the grommets.

Initially I was considering adding a second skirt to the bottom of the corset. But during the process above I kept checking the corset on the dress form. I liked the simplicity of the single layer of skirt so I abandoned the idea of additional layers.

When I was figuring out the spacing for the grommets I eyeballed how many looked right to me. Six grommets looked right to me so I knew I needed to divide the space equally in fifths. I whipped out my Scale Rule and used the 1/5th scale to establish the distance--no head math or calculator needed. The dimensions are right there in front of your eyes--whew!

Head Band
I thought adding head and arm bands would be nice. It would give me a chance to use the artificial flowers and cute butterfly pin I had found.

I had not measured Fallon's forehead but I know that head sizes vary between 20 and 22 inches. I figure Fallon had a smallish head so 20" should work. I used a strip of my Lycra and a band of 1-1/8" elastic to make the head band.

  1. Cut the elastic and Lycra 21" long. Cut the Lycra 3" wide.
  2. Overlap the elastic by an inch and zigzag in a loop.
  3. Sew the Lycra ends with a 1mm zigzag stitch using a 1/2" seam allowance.
  4. Zigzag the Lycra to one edge of the elastic with a 4mm wide stitch.
  5. Wrap the Lycra around the elastic, then top stitch down the center of the band.
  6. Turn the band wrong side out and trim off the excess Lycra.
  7. Hand sew the flowers to the head band.

Arm Bands
I use a palm measurement to verify a sleeve will fit over the hand. I did some testing and determined that the palm measurement would be a good dimension for an arm band. I wanted some of the chiffon at the bottom of the arm band to echo the appearance of the dress and corset. So once again I opted for a handkerchief hem with the 8" opening. I decided that 3" was a good length for the short side of the chiffon. So here is how it came together.

  1. Cut the chiffon with a hot knife.
  2. Cut two Lycra rectangles 6" by 9" (the palm measurement plus seam allowances.)
  3. Pin the arm seam, then sew with a 1mm zigzag stitch.
  4. Pin the chiffon to one end of the arm band, right sides together.
  5. Turn the ends of the arm band to the inside, then top stitch with a 4mm zigzag.

Initially I had planned to add elastic to the top and bottom of the armband to further secure the edges. But I found with a trial fitting that the stretch in the Lycra was adequate and no additional elastic was needed.

If this had been a complicated costume to make, I could not have explained the process as easily as I was able to. My wife thought I was crazy to take on this project. But when she saw how quickly I was able to create this costume, she was surprised. I guess this was a big surprise because I spent a full month creating my Quorra costume and I completed this in less than a week from start to finish.

I am pleased to say that when Fallon tried on the costume for the first time, no fitting adjustments were required. She wore it for a full afternoon of photo shoots, dinner at a local restaurant, and she even drove home in it instead of changing back to her street clothes. She said that the corset was the most comfortable corset she had ever worn. I attribute this to the custom fit and minimal use of stays. I also asked her at dinner if the headband she was still wearing was comfortable. She said it fit her so well she didn't even feel she was wearing it. To me that is one of the goals I pursue for custom-fit clothes. When they fit, they are comfortable and a pleasure to wear.

If you have any additional questions about how I made this costume, I would be happy to answer them through my Reddit group BespokeSewingPatterns.

Copyright © 2015 by Donald H. McCunn