Introduction: How to Be an Elf

About: Costume and experimental fashion designer and artist. Maker of clothing and accessories for time traveling cyborg superheroes, and lucid dreamers. Interested in fusing couture design and leatherwork with weara…

I spent most of my childhood running around in the woods pretending to be various magical creatures while my dad read me fantasy novels. More than two decades later, I have still refused to stop playing dress-up. I've designed a lot of costumes, but I've never actually realized on my childhood elven fantasies. I thought it was about time.

In my personal mythology, being an elf has a lot to do with having a connection to nature... but wearing the right accessories doesn't hurt either. I knew my elf persona needed to reflect the environment I inhabited as a kid, so I chose an oak motif for my design.

Building on this theme, I tooled, cut, dyed and braided leather to create a leafy headpiece, ears, bracers and belt that, when worn together, will ideally make even the most mundane human feel a little mythical.

In this Instructable, I will show you all the leather working techniques you need to create your own elf alter ego. I can only teach you how to build your accessories though, forest frolicking will be up to you. But, I do firmly believe in the power of costumes, especially costumes you make yourself. Create the right outfit and the rest will follow.

Step 1: What You Need

Leather Tools:

Dying and Finishing Supplies:


Basic Tools:

Step 2: Designing and Creating Patterns

I started my elven transformation like I start all my designs, by looking for inspiration and then sketching ideas.

When I had an overall design sketch that I was satisfied with, I started patterning my pieces. I looked at photos of oak leaves and sketched a basic leaf design that I liked. Then I used this design as a jumping off point to create leaf variations for each pattern. I took measurements of my head and forearms to help get the proportions of the bracers and headpiece right, and used a mannequin head as a base for creating the headpiece.

To create the pattern for the pointy ears, I put a piece of paper behind my own ear and had someone help me trace its outline. Then I used this guideline to draw the ear shape I wanted. By playing around with folding paper around this shape I was able to create an ear pattern out of a single piece of leather which covered part of my own ear and extended out to a suitably elven point.

I wanted to make the pocket on the belt fit my phone... because even elves need digital connectivity... so I used my phone to determine the size of the pocket, then designed the details around it.

The patterns for the headpiece and belt came together fairly easily, but the bracers were more of a challenge. I really wanted them to extend down over the wrist onto the back of the hand, but this required them to have a point of articulation. I went through quite a few different design variations, testing each one on my own arm in oaktag, before I found something that fit right and flowed smoothly with the movement of my hand.

Step 3: Transferring the Patterns Into Illustrator

When I had well fitting mock ups of the headpiece, bracers and pocket, I scanned all the pieces and imported them into Illustrator. There I traced them with the pen tool, making any alterations I wanted, and duplicating and flipping where there were multiples or pairs. This step wasn't strictly necessary, but I find it really useful to have clean digital copies of my patterns. It makes adjusting or duplicating them much easier. And, of course, it lets me share them with you!

Step 4: Tracing the Patterns Onto Leather

Now that my patterns were drafted I needed to make physical copies. I printed all the patterns that would fit on 8.5"x11" on clear printable tracing paper that I got from Tandy. This paper is nice to work with because it is durable and lets you see the leather under your pattern, but printing onto regular paper works fine too.

To transfer my patterns onto leather I first took appropriately sized pieces of leather and dampened, or "cased" them evenly, with a wet sponge. I used two different types of leather for different parts of my accessories. For the bracers and the main part of the headpiece I used 5-6oz unmilled veg tanned leather because it was stiffer and held it's shape better, but for the ears, individual leaves, and pocket I used a 4-5oz milled veg tanned leather, which was much softer and easier to cut and form.

Once my leather pieces were wet, I laid my patterns over them, securing them with tape, and then used an a small ball point sculpting stylus to trace my patterns through onto the leather.

If you are using the transfer paper, you have to be sure to lay it on the wet leather with the printed side up or the coating that enables you to print on it will get sticky, and the ink could run onto your leather.

Step 5: Making the Ears

To construct my elf ears, I first cut out the ear patterns I had traced, then I flipped my leather pieces over and lay my patterns over the underside of my ear cut outs. I used a tracing wheel to mark the fold lines through onto the leather, and then gouged all these lines with my V-gouge to make them easier to fold.

Next I folded each ear into it's basic shape an then used leather contact cement in a few places to hold the shape together, making sure to leave most of the space between the two layers open so my own ear would be able to fit inside.

Step 6: Forming the Ears

I could have just stopped after gluing the ears together, but I wanted them to have a more organic shape, so, once the glue had dried, I soaked them in water and sculpted them a little with my hands until they looked a bit more lifelike.

Before leaving them to dry, I filled the insides with pillow stuffing to keep a little room between the layers.

Step 7: Dying the Ears

I am a very pale creature, so the color of the leather was already fairly close to my skin color, but it wasn't quite right, so I used a combination of eco flow dyes to try to match the color of my own ear. I mixed timber brown, red and yellow in different ratios with water and tested it on a spare scrap of leather until I found good color. Then I wet the ears and shaded themn a little, focusing on the areas around the folds and looking at my own ear for reference.

Step 8: Tooling Part 1: the Swivel Knife

To create the details on the leaves in my design, I used a few different leather tools to carve and texture the outlines I had already traced onto my leather.

The leather needs to be wet throughout this process so I always kept a sponge and water nearby, and re-cased my leather when it started to dry out.

The first tool I used on each design was the swivel knife. This is a carving tool that allows you to cut grooves into your leather where you want to define lines or the edges of patten elements. You hold the knife with your thumb and middle finger while your index finger rests in the saddle at the top. Push down on the knife with your index finger while pulling it forward and guiding it around curves with your other two fingers. The action takes a some getting used to, but with a little practice it becomes fairly simple.

I used this tool to outline the veins on all my leaves. I found that it was useful to rotate my leather around as I worked to give myself a good angle for each stroke.

Step 9: Tooling Part 2: Modeling and Stamping

Once I had outlined my leaf veins with the swivel knife, I used two additional tools to texture the leaf design.

First I used a pointed modeling spoon to press down the areas around the veins of the leaf and slightly round the edges of the veins themselves.

Then I stamped with a textured beveling tool in the same areas I had just pressed down with my modeling spoon Using this tool increases the relief of the veins in relation to the rest of the leaf and and adds a nice texture.

Step 10: Cutting

When I had finished detailing my leaves, I cut them out along the outlines I had traced. As someone who works with fabric a lot I am more comfortable with scissors than an exacto knife, so I used leather shears whenever possible, but in some of the more detailed areas of thicker leather (like the leaves of the headpiece) I used a combination of hole punch and exacto knife.

On my pocket pattern I cut a V shaped slit along the top of the leaf to allow the flap to close over the front of the pocket. I also used my V-gouge to score the fold lines on the front piece so they would fold more cleanly.

I waited to cut out my bracers until after I had painted and dyed them.

Step 11: Shaping

Once my headpiece was cut out I wanted to give it a bit of shape, so I cased it with water and then sculpted the leaves a little so they looked more three dimensional. I put it back on the head form, taped it down in the shape I wanted and left it to dry overnight.

Step 12: Marking and Punching the Pocket

The only part of this project that required a little hand sewing was the pocket. Once I had it all cut out, I used thin double sided tape to stick the two layers together the way they were going to be attached. Then I cased my leather and used my stitching groover to mark a stitching line about 1/8" in from the edge of the pocket. I followed this line with my stitching chisel, punching sewing holes through both layers all the way around.

Step 13: Leaf Decomposition

I often think leaves are the most beautiful when they're starting to decompose, so once I had tooled and cut out all my pieces, I decided I wanted to add some decompositional detail to some of them.

I altered the pocket pattern piece to add some holes an other ragged details, then I traced this onto the leaf I had already tooled for the pocket and used my hole punch and exacto knife to cut away the areas I had traced. Last I used a Tandy matting stamp to give some areas of the leaf a rough texture.

I also added decomposition to two of the leaves that would be attached to the headpiece strands. I didn't create a pattern for these changes, I just used my exacto and hole punch to nibble away at the leaves in strategic areas, then added texture with my matting stamp.

Step 14: Painting and Dying

I used three different kinds of leather dye to add color to my leaves: A black Waterstain, a silver Cova Color, and an acorn Brown All-In-One Stain and Finish.

First I wet each leaf thoroughly, then I used a paintbrush to shade around the raised leaf veins with Black Waterstain. I applied the stain like a watercolor, letting it bleed and fade out into the wet leather. On the decomposing leaves I used more black Waterstain, applying some around the holes and textured areas as well.

Then I used a smaller paintbrush to apply the silver Cova Color to the raised veins of each leaf.

When both these treatments had dried, I used a paintbrush and sponge to apply the All-in-One Stain to the rest of the leaf, applying it with the brush, then wiping it off with the sponge. This stain is not very forgiving, it stains immediately, and therefore tends to create an uneven finish if you are not careful. I might recommend using a brown Waterstain instead, but this was just what I happened to have, and I made it work.

I painted both the branches on the headpiece and the leaves of the belt clasps entirely with silver Cova Color. I found this paint also went on best and gave the smoothest finish when applied to wet leather.

Step 15: Finishing

When everything was dyed, I cut out my bracers with scissors and then punched the holes that would connect the three parts.

I used my edge beveler to bevel all the edges of the leaves before dying them with All-In-One stain. Then I used Gum Tragacanth and my wooden burnishing tool to give all the edges a nice polished look.

Step 16: Braiding

I used two different kinds of braids in this design, both made with silver buckstitch lace from Tandy.

For two strands of the belt I was excited to try a new kind of braid, so I figured out how to make a four-strand round braid with a rope core. I learned this braid from a book called Leather Braiding, which has a lot of good braiding patterns and tutorials.

As you can see in the diagram I've drawn above, you start the four strand braid by attaching 4 lengths of lacing around a central rope core with their silver sides facing out. To make the braid, you are basically always taking the highest strand from alternating sides, and wrapping it around the back of the rope to the other side and under the next highest strand.

It took me a little while to figure out, but it was actually simple once I got the hang of it, and the finished braid has a really nice effect, especially with the silver lacing. The four strand braid will reduce the original length of your laces by about 1/3, so you need to take that into account when planning your braid.

On the headpiece and the bracers I used a simple three-strand braid for the laces, loops and dangles. This braid will shorten the original length of your material by about 1/4 so it is a bit more efficient, but not quite as interesting.

Step 17: Assembling the Headpiece

To assemble the headpiece, I first created an extension to the strap which would buckle in the back. I cut out a notch for the buckle before dying the strap silver, then attached the buckle.

I riveted the new section of strap to the headpiece strap with two small silver rivets. I also used one of these rivet points to attach the silver braided dangles on each side. Then I attached the leaves to each dangle using the same silver rivets.

I attached the upper loop of silver braid to the front leaves of the headpiece with another three rivets. I also added a stud button which held the criss-cross of looped braids together on top of the head, and would also act as a point of attachment to help keep a hood on my head if I wanted to wear one.

Step 18: Attaching the Ears

To attach the ears punched holes in the lower layer of the ears, then put them on my ears and had someone help me mark where the holes should meet the headpiece strap behind the ear.

I punched holes in the strap at these points and attached the ears with rivets.

Step 19: Assembling the Bracers

To create the loops that would be used to lace up the bracers, I glued down the tabs on each side of the leaves, after first skiving and sanding them. I created the loops on the ends of the central wrist piece using a hole punch and rivets.

Then I attached the three pieces of the bracer with a Chicago screw at the wrists and closed the finger loop in the front with a rivet.

Last I threaded my braided silver strands through the loops and laced them onto my wrists.

Step 20: Assembling the Pocket

Before sewing the pocket together, I attached the male side of the snaps to the back side of the pocket, with two snaps on each side.

I used a leather needle and thick black waxed thread to sew the two sides of the pocket together with a saddle stitch. There are two ways to do a saddle stitch: the two needles at a time method, or the one needle, two passes method. I've tried both and I prefer the one needle, two passes method. For a great description of how to use two needles see this excellent Instructable by jessyratfink.

To use the one needle, two passes method, I just threaded a single leather needle with a long strand of waxed thread and began sewing at one end of the line of sewing holes. When I got to the other end of the holes, I turned around and sewed back the other way, this time filling in the opposite spaces between sewing holes, making the stitches look like one unbroken line similar to a sewing machine stitch. When I got back to the beginning I back stitched a few stitches to secure the thread before cutting it. Whenever I ran out of thread I just did a few backstitches and then started a new thread.

When my two layer were sewn together, I attached the other sides of my four snaps to the ends of each strap so they can fold over and snap onto themselves, creating adjustable loops.

Step 21: Assembling the Belt

To assemble the belt I took the silver leaf clasp pieces and folded them in half, gluing the two sides of the loop portions together.

I punched three holes in each leaf, and then sandwiched the ends of the braids between the two layers of the leaves, securing them with rivets and glue.

The pocket attaches to the silver part of the belt by snapping through the loops in the leaves, and can be adjusted by attaching the snaps in different positions.

Step 22: Being an Elf

Even though there were a lot of steps involved in making this outfit, none of the leather work was actually that difficult, and I was really pleased with the results. I had discovered that you can create some really beautiful details with simple tooling and dying, and I was excited to make more projects using these techniques ...but first, it was time for some frolicking.

To complete my elf outfit, I paired my leather pieces with a hooded cloak, a simple tunic, a pair of leggings and leather boots. Armed with my beautiful new set of elven accessories, I headed to the forest.

With such an awesome outfit, channeling my childhood imagination was easy. This is why I love dressing up. When you have the right costume on it doesn't disguise you, it lets you experience parts of yourself that might usually remain hidden, and gives you power you didn't know you had.

My elf persona might not increase my vision or agility, but it definitely makes me feel some of the wonder of an excited 8 year old running through the woods, climbing trees and believing in magic ...and I'm pretty sure it will also help me sense the presence of other fantasy nerds in my general vicinity.