Fustan raqs in red, part one, or how to cover a bra…

My job sometimes finds me with several things up in the air, when I’m waiting for third parties to contact me for whatever reason, and because of that, starting anything new in terms of work would not be a good idea. These are the times when I try to sneak in some sewing.

Today was such a day, and therefore I decided to start my costume for the Littlehampton Carnival, a fustan raqs (evening gown) in red patterned vinyl with black and silver decoration, and black, red, clear and silver beaded tassels. And if it sounds like a handful, it’s because it IS.

I did all the beaded threads ages ago; those will in time become the tassels once they’re grouped. I will no doubt need to  redo a few or add some when adding them, so I will talk about them when I get there. Right now, the first part of my job was to prepare the bra.

Anybody that has seen Egyptian costumes will notice that the bras are pretty much armour-plated. They’re so rigid you can actually knock on them! Me, I am not much of a fan of the look, and since I can’t really find that sort of moulded cup over here without resorting to some creative work with papier mache and balloons, I’ve gone instead for a foam-cup bra that fits me well. Some people advice going for a size bigger; this is because they might add padding on the inside. I am not planning on adding any padding to this one, and all the strength layers will go on the outside, so I’m keeping it simple and for my own size. Still, the cups will get quite a bit of work, and quite some heavy beading/embroidery, so they need reinforcement, and the whole cup needs stabilising. This is why it is a good idea to do this reinforcement with several different materials.

Firstly, assemble your materials. You will need:

  • a bra that fits you well; it’s ok if it’s a touch loose on the cups, but don’t make it too much; it’s also recommended that it has foam shaped cups, and underwires, as they help tremendously with the shape and overall structure of the gown
  • a GOOD thimble with a metal top, or at least a tailor’s thimble; you might want both if you can; DO NOT SKIMP ON THIS, you will thank me; your nails and your fingers will thank me too!
  • good scissors
  • Swedish Pattern Paper or similar, you can also use muslin, or thin fabric, but the paper lets you draw on it far easier.
  • lots of pins
  • gross grain ribbon in two thickness: some about 1″ wide, and some about the witdth of your straps.
  • sharp needle and thread.
  • calico fabric, coutil, denim, canvas… basically a strong, quite rigid fabric that will help your bra keep the shape once you cover it
  • your fashion fabric and an idea of what you want to do with it
Edges with gross grain ribbon

Edges with gross grain ribbon

Most if not all of the work you’ll be doing will be done by hand, so the thimbles are a necessity unless you want to end with very sore fingers. Grab some background noise (I find some pretty series that I don’t mind half-watching), arm yourself with patience, and get going!

Start by removing the straps from the bra, and sewing the attachment points in, to get a smooth finish on each end. Elastic straps on costumes are not a good idea because eventually they DO stretch, and will ruin the effect. You want something that is engineered to sustain a lot of abuse and movement, so you’re better off replacing them. We won’t get back to the straps for a while, but you can throw away the ones you’ve removed, unless you want to keep the hardware for whatever reason.

You first need to stabilise the cups edges by sewing the 1″ gross grain ribbon along the top edges. You should make sure that both edges of the tape are sewn into place, and this is done along the cleavage and the armpit sides. This will prevent wardrobe malfunctions, keeping your bust in check and gaping *just* enough to be enticing, without the risk of it all stretching in the near future and making all your hard work unusable unless you get a pair of implants.

Bra pattern making

Once the first stabilising layer -the gross grain ribbon- is done, you need to create a pattern for the cup with the Swedish paper or muslin. The shape of your pieces will depend a lot on how you’re planning on making it, and the overall shape and size of your breasts. I’ve done a single piece with a dart at the bottom before, but I’ve found that it tends to produce a bit of a conical effect, which, while desireable in some cases, is not what I was after this time.

Bra pattern making close-up

Bra pattern making close-up

I started by cutting a thick long strip of paper that I carefully pinned flat along the top edge. It is highly recommended that you do this pinning in the manner I’ve done it in the photo, using the pins vertically and not horizontally. I then drew the line along which I wanted the bottom two pieces to be. I cut two more big shapeless pieces of paper and proceeded to pin them in place, only caring that they were flushed against the cup, and once both were in place, drawing the edges on each where necessary. This will take time and requires patience, and will probably need adjusting a couple of times, but if you’re using the same model of bra for several projects, only needs to be done ONCE, and it’s worth doing right.

You can see a closeup of it all to the right, and the pieces I obtained below. There’s no right or wrong way of doing this, and the shape of your pieces, and even the quantities, will depend a lot on the shape of the bra, the size of your bust, and the type of stabilising fabric you’re working with.

Bra Pattern pieces

Bra Pattern pieces

Bra Pattern making, fashion fabric pattern

Bra Pattern making, fashion fabric pattern

If you want your fashion fabric to follow the same shape as the base, then you’re done. But as should be patently clear by now, I am a sucker for punishment, so I decided I wanted my bra to have a pretty gathered effect at the centre. This meant that I had to do the pattern process again, except with a single piece of paper this time, making small pleats along the inner edges of the wires. Delightful work, I tell you *sigh*. I then marked the edges as before, removed the pins, cut off the piece along the lines I’d marked, and I had a pattern piece ready.

The rest is pretty much as expected. I cut 2 mirrored pieces of each of my new patterns, remembering to add seam allowance; two cups in the calico, which I serged along the edges by hand then pinned together and machined-sewed. If you’re cutting the same pieces I am, it’s far easier to first sew the two bottom pieces together, then add the long rectangular one. Once you’ve got the two cups, you need to sew them to your bra, making sure while you sew that you are going through all the layers of the bra: foam and gross grain ribbon, or else elastic and wire casing. Be careful when sewing around the wires as it is easy to misjudge and try to put the needed through a wire. Also make sure that you have the thimble in your “pushing” finger, and you use it when pushing the needle through so many layers.

Bra covered

Bra covered


Once I’d done the stiffening layer, I cut two mirrored versions of the gathered pattern piece from the fashion fabric, and attached them to the cups. This time, I made sure that the excess fabric was turned towards the inner side of the bra, to cover the edges of it too.

I decided to make this a halter-neck, to leave my back free. So I cut two strips of the thinner gross-grain ribbon and wrapped them with the fashion fabric, then put through the sewing machine with straight stich along the seam, and along the other side of the strap to stabilise the cover and prevent it from twisting or bunching. After this, I attached each strap to the top of the cups, and ideally I will be adding a hook and slide to them once I get closer to the final stage.

This will have the decoration added once the rest of the dress is assembled and both parts are together. But the process I described above is perfectly suitable to use for creating a bra for a bedlah or for a different kind of costume. I’ve done this process before for the bra for my tribal/gypsy/ghawazee costume, so I will be adding notes on what else needs to be done when discussing them.

Tomorrow, I cut the dress and hopefully will assemble it!

3 Comments (+add yours?)

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