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So you decided you need an underbust harnest/vest for your steampunk or other costume. This costume piece tends to retail online for around $100 and up, and you just don't have the money lying around for a small piece of a larger costume. Fear not! With a bit of craftiness, dedication and patience you can create your very own underbust harness/vest for much much less than you could have imagined!

To get yourself started, it is good to have a solid idea for what you are trying to make. The above illustration shows the underbust vest/harness style I was going for. Basically, it is a bit higher up to show the high-waisted sailor pants underneath. Even if you don't draw, try to create a simple sketch of your costume idea for visual aid purposes. It doesn't have to be pretty in order to be functional.

On to the materials!

Step 1: Materials

  • Vest
  • Measuring Tape
  • Fray Check (optional)
  • Thread
  • Bias Tape (doublefold)
  • Buttons (optional)
  • Marking Device (charcoal pencil, chalk, crayon, etc.)
  • Fabric Scissors
  • Pins
  • Seam Ripper
  • Faux Fur (optional)
  • Stuffing Material (optional)

Vest: For the vest you will want to find a vest close to your size. These can easily be obtained at thrift stores or a closet near you. I happened to remember I had a vest laying around in my closet from some past costume so my vest was free!

Measuring Tape: Not 100% necessary, but it helps to double-check your cuts are even.

Fray Check: If you do not have a serger and your material is starting to fray after you cut it, you will want to have this to keep your vest from falling apart in the future. (runs about $5-6 dollars, if you can get a coupon for 1/2 off at a fabric store like Joann Fabrics or Hancock Fabrics this will help to knock the price down further)

Thread: Have thread that either matches or contrasts what you are sewing. Contrasting thread is cool for topstitch details if you want them to stand out for decorational reasons. Thread can be obtained fairly cheaply at Walmart or fabric stores, and sometimes even at thrift stores. I have occasionally found thread in the colors I have needed at thrift stores in the ranges of 50 cents to $1.

Bias Tape (doublefold): Either get in the same color as your vest or in a contrasting color for a snazzy look. I only needed one pack but I have an underbust of 32" so if you are a more three-dimensional person (as my co-worker calls herself) you will want to have two packs. These can be obtained at fabric stores around $2.50 on regular price, but they do tend to go on sale from time to time, and coupons are always an option! If you are lucky it can also be obtained at thrift stores. Also if you are less confident in your sewing skills go with a thicker rather than thinner bias tape (1/2 or 7/8 inch) so you won't have areas where the needle didn't catch both the front and back bias tape which will leave lovely gaps on your underbust harness/vest.

Buttons: If the buttons on your vest are not the color you wish they were, replace them! Just make sure your buttons are the correct size to go through the button holes on your vest. ***It is a good idea to take your vest with you while shopping for this reason and for color matching.***

Marking Device: You will want to have a marking device that will show up on your fabric without damaging it. NO SHARPIES. These can bleed in to your material and can cause stains. I used a white charcoal pencil I had laying around from a past art class.

Fabric Scissors: Regular scissors just won't cut it (sorry...not sorry...). Fabric scissors will be able to cut through multiple layers of fabric and leave a cleaner edge allowing the bias tape to have a better guide.

Pins: Highly necessary! You can find packs of these at Walmart, fabric stores and thrift stores if you are lucky. Once again, these are fairly cheap.

Seam Ripper: Useful if you need to undo a sewed line. Think of it as an eraser or ctrl + z for fabric.

Faux Fur: Decorative use only - it can be highly expensive, but with a little luck you can find it on clearance at fabric stores, or even better at the thrift store. If you have to, buy a coat/sweatshirt/etc. with faux fur from a thrift store. It doesn't have to be pure fabric!

Stuffing: If you want to give your faux fur collar a bit of oomph. I used fleece scraps from my hat business.

The total cost of materials for me was under $10 since I had many of the supplies in my crafty stash. For a ballpark cost, I'd say you could make one for around $5-20 dollars.

Step 2: Put on Your Vest Inside Out

The purpose for putting your vest on inside out is so you can mark on the fabric without your marks being seen, and so when you sew, your seams will be on the inside of your finished piece instead of the outside!

Step 3: Figuring Out Your Fit

This is the part where your sketch will come in handy. Where do you want your vest to be on your body? For my vest I needed it to be higher up. I could have either chopped off the bottom of my vest or pulled up the shoulders so the bottom of my vest was still in tact. I decided I liked the little pocket details on the front so I will be going with the option of pulling up the shoulders.

What will be affected when you pull up the shoulders of your vest:

  • You will need to cut the arm holes to be lower in order to not cut off circulation to your arms!
  • The area behind your neck will need to be cut deeper so your vest can sit higher on your back.
  • The shoulder seams will have to be re-sewn to also make the vest be shorter on your torso.

*I sewed this option*

What will be affected when you chop off the bottom of your vest:

  • The whole bottom will need to be re-hemmed, but you get to cut the bottom in to whatever shape you like!
    • You can either roll your hems (fold the raw edges of your fabric to the backside of your vest two times)
    • Carefully fold both the lining and outer fabric inside the raw edge and stitch all the way around the bottom of your vest to close the hem
    • Or use bias tape to cover the raw edges (easiest method)
  • If you choose to hem your vest with bias tape you may want to have at least three packs of bias tape
  • I do not have images for the step of hemming the bottom of the vest, so proceed to step 8.

What will be affected when you like your vest at the length it is:

  • Skip to step 8, pass go, collect $200

Step 4: Cutting Deeper Armholes

For the vest version where you want to keep the bottom of your vest in-tact so you will need to adjust the shoulders:

  • Pull up your vest on your body as high as you need it - if you cannot pull it high enough because of the arm holes you will have to make slits along the side seams under your arms until you are able to pull it up as high as you need it.
  • Pinch the fabric at the top of your shoulders and pin where you want the new shoulder seams to be.
  • With your marking device, draw your new arm holes under your pits (you may need a friend for this step)
    • To make sure the arm holes are even, after drawing one measure the deepest part of your drawn line up to the original armhole line, and mark the same distance on the other arm hole.

Step 5: Cut Arm Holes

When both of your arm hole lines have been drawn, take your fabric scissors and cut along the drawn lines. We will not need any seam allowance since we will cover the raw edges of the fabric with seam tape.

  • Do NOT cut the arm holes while you are still wearing the vest! You could not only cut what you are wearing underneath, but you could cut yourself as well. Fabric scissors are sharp for a reason!

Step 6: Drawing and Cutting the Neckline

After cutting your arm holes deeper you should have a much easier time putting on your vest. (again, inside-out!)

  • The pins in the shoulders of the vest should still be there since you didn't need to take them out in order to cut your arm holes
    • You may need to re-pin the shoulders to make the vest the desired length on your torso if you had difficulty when the arm holes were too small.
  • Once the shoulders are at the correct level, use your marking tool and draw on your desired neckline.
    • If you need to, grab a comfortable t-shirt and see where the neck falls on the back of your neck and try to imitate the curve when drawing your neckline on the vest.
    • You may need to draw a little ways in to the shoulders, which is fine!
  • When the desired line has been drawn, take off the vest and cut along the drawn line

Step 7: Sewing the Shoulder Seams and Hemming the Arm Holes

Shoulder Seams:

Before you add bias tape to the arm holes, sew along your pinned shoulders. If there is extra fabric over the curve of the arm hole, trim it off to allow the bias tape a nice, clean edge to guide it.

Arm Holes:

  • Find the side seam that is under the arm pit
    • This is where you want to start and finish sewing your arm hole to hide the start and finish of the bias tape
  • folding your bias tape in half over the edge of the fabric, make sure your fabric is wedged in as far in the middle crease as possible so you catch all three layer of fabric with the needle:
    • top bias tape
    • vest fabric
    • bottom bias tape
  • When you are near to completing the circular armhole seam, cut the bias tape a little beyond where your first started sewing your bias tape
  • Fold the bias tape in on itself to create a fray-free edge for the bias tape
  • Carefully place the doubled-up bias tape over the raw edge of your fabric and sew in place

Step 8: Fitting Your Vest Before Cutting the Bust Area

The whole point of the underbust harness/vest is that it will be close-fitting. If your vest is already close-fitting enough for you, feel free to skip to the next step.

Loose sides

  • To fix the loose sides, put on your vest inside out again
  • Pinching the fabric to the desired tightness, pin the side seams along the curves of your body
  • For ease of sewing, use your fabric marking device and draw a line connecting your pins together so you have a line to follow instead of pins alone
  • After sewing along the side seams, make sure to try your vest on right-side out to check the fit
    • If your vest fits the way you want it to, proceed to the next step
    • If your vest is too tight, use your seam ripper to rip out the areas needing adjusting, figure out your new sewing line using the above method and sew again
    • If your vest is too loose, keep pinching the fabric, pinning and sewing until you reach your desired fit

Sewing Tip: When pinching and pinning your fabric, try to pinch the same amount on both sides, otherwise your finished piece will have strange side seams and it will look and probably feel odd to wear.

Step 9: Cutting Open the Bust Area

Drawing the Cutting Line

  • You will be drawing a line from your shoulder to under your bust, and around to your other shoulder
  • The shoulder area will be a little thicker, then thinner as you get around the armpit area. Emphasize those curves!
  • The line under your bust should be right about where your breast is connected to your torso on top of your rib cage

Cutting the Cutting Line

  • If you want to cut your fabric while it is on you, use caution!
    • Gently lift the fabric away from your body and your clothes
  • If you want to cut your fabric while you are not wearing it, be careful not to smudge/lose your cutting line
  • Cut directly on the line as the raw edges of the fabric will be hemmed with bias tape
  • After cutting, you will want to try on the vest again just to make sure it will fit under your bust correctly

Step 10: Hem Your Raw Edge With Bias Tape

This step is the same as when you has sewed the arm hole.

  • To create a nice edge all the way around, start attaching the bias tape at the center seam at the back of your neckline.
  • Jam the fabric as far in to the fold in the bias tape as possible to catch all three layers with the needle
    • top bias tape
    • vest fabric
    • bottom bias tape
  • Once you are almost to where you started sewing the bias tape, cut your tape a little longer than your starting edge of bias tape
  • Fold the raw edge of bias tape under on itself and carefully place the fabric as far in the crease as you can
  • Finish sewing the last bit of bias tape

Congratulations on your nice, crisp edge!

Step 11: Finishing Touches

Here are a couple things you can do once your underbust harness/vest is nearly ready to wear:

  • If you had to sew in the side seams to make your vest more form-fitting, fold your extra seam fabric on the inside over to one edge and sew over it near your side seam - this is known as top stitching
    • The benefits of doing this are to create a less-bulky seam and to add decoration to the outside of your piece of clothing - you can use a contrasting colored thread if you want this decoration to stand out more
  • Buttons: If you want to add more decoration to the front of your underbust harness/vest, add some more eye-catching buttons!
  • Fur collar: You will want to have a vacuum handy if you need to cut faux fur, and a lint brush to remove excess hair from yourself and your project when you are finished.
    • Cut a long rectangular piece of fur, as long as you want it to lay around your collar
    • If you wish to, stuff it thicker in the middle and thinner on the ends so it will stand up
    • Sew along the edge of the stuffing to seal in the stuffing, making sure to pull the fur away from your sewing foot
      • If you do not pull the fur away as you sew, it will hook itself over the edged of your sewing foot until you cannot sew forwards anymore until you cut away the stuck fur
    • Once your fur collar has been sewn/pilfered from a coat/sweater, etc., you will want to attach it to your underbust harness/vest
    • Hand sewing works best for the stuffed collar to get it to lay where you want it to

You are Finally Done!

Congratulations on completing your very own custom-fit-to-you underbust harness/vest for a fraction of the cost one would have cost you to buy online! Not only does it fit you, it is made just how you want it to fit your specific costume.

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