DIY Butterfly Wings




About: I'm a designer at Instructables. I have a degree in fashion design and like to sew, get crafty, and attempt to use power tools.

I've always loved blue morpho butterflies. Their radiant color and iridescence can't be matched. I was lucky enough to see them in real life for the first time this year and was also delighted to find out how clumsy they are, which as a somewhat clumsy person myself makes them all the more endearing. So of course there was no question what this year's costume was going to be!

This costume is composed of these wings and a butterfly headband, which is written up separately here.

I'd also like to give a big shout out to mikeasaurus for the awesome photos!

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Step 1: Inspiration and Design Process

Together with loving blue morpho butterflies, my initial inspiration was the beautiful work of etsy maker El Costurero Real, pictured above. I wanted to recreate a similar look as a blue morpho.

I struggled quite a bit with what process to use for these wings. As I often integrate light up elements that was a consideration, as well as the possibility of integrating blacklight reactive elements and/or iridescence. Another decision was whether to incorporate the amazing camouflage backside of the wings. Initially I wanted a heavy iridescent cloak vs something light and airy, but there were a number of pitfalls along the way.

For weeks I was undecided between these main options:

1) Print both sides of the wings on spoonflower. Pros: easy, would have total control over the appearance and fabric type. Cons: expensive, and not very interesting for an instructable.

2) Paint the wings on black velvet. Pros: with pigment could have iridescence and UV reactivity, and it would be a heavy cloak like I imagined. Cons: Time consuming, process was an unknown.

3) Silk paint the wings. Pros: easier, more fluid, shows through to both sides. Cons: prone to error in the dye process, wouldn't be iridescent unless I painted the fabric afterwards which would affect drape and color, not what I had in mind initially.

4) Applique iridescent blue silk dupioni to the velvet. Pros: easy. Cons: not as nice drape, color fading would be difficult, might look cheesy.

After quite a few tests with paint on velvet, I realized that getting that rich blue was easier said than done. I tried all combinations of fabric paints, fabric medium (helps in retaining fabric texture), water, and UV pigments. The color barely showed unless you caked it on there, which made the texture terrible. I fell down a rabbit hole of how to paint velvet and learned that doing so with a combination of chalk paint and water or fabric medium with many thin coats and sanding in between could work, but my experiments were disheartening enough to bail on #2.

I also tested paints and UV on silk as a way to add iridescence to #3, but after enough tests and deliberation I let go of the desire for either iridescence or light up elements as both paints and fiber optics would ruin the drape of lightweight silk.

On to silk painting!

Step 2: About Silk Painting

I did a ton of silk painting in college, and this was a nice opportunity to revisit something I had not done in years. In college I was only familiar with a more professional dye and setting process using steam, and I used this as an experiment in something simpler. There are several categories of silk paints out there, and there are trade offs between color intensity and ease of use. Dharma Trading is the main online resource for buying dye supplies and has a ton of information, however the main categories are:

1) Dyes set using steam. These are the most professional dyes which yield the best color. I had used fiber reactive Procion dyes in this manner, which are a good economical professional dye that can be used in a lot of different ways (tub dyeing, silk painting, hot, cold, etc). You can build your own steamer using the following method, which involves rolling your piece with aluminum foil and newsprint into a tight roll, and hanging it within a metal tube on top of a pot. From there it gets steamed much like you would vegetables, although there is a learning curve in avoiding drips and condensation ruining even dye areas. Given the 4' size of my pieces that would have been a dangerous mess, so I decided against this method.

2) Dyes set using chemicals. These are the second most vivid category of dyes for color. This is what I decided to try, and used Jacquard green label dyes. Unfortunately in the chemical setting process the even color got ruined with spots from the set chemicals and/or dye transfer, so while they did retain their color fairly well I'm not 100% sold on using this process again.

3) Paints that are thinned to be almost like dyes, like these which are set by ironing. They add a feel to the fabric as they are pigments not dye, and are not as bright, which is why I decided against this route. However in retrospect this would have enabled me to add pearlescent powder to them for that iridescence, and would have been more controllable results in theory. Worth trying next time.

4) Instant set silk dye. The easiest of the bunch, but the least vibrant color and black is more of an eggplant color, which was a deal breaker for this project. However these are a great way to get started with silk painting.

Step 3: Supplies

Now that all the variables had been worked out, this was my final supply list for dyeing:

  • 4' of 16mm 55" crepe de chine silk fabric: it was just enough for the wings plus a half foot for testing purposes.
  • 250ml of turquoise dye, 250ml of cyan dye, 60ml x 2 of royal blue, 60ml x 2 of black Jacquard Green Label dyes. By the end I used all my dye, and had just the right amount of cyan, royal, and black, but wish I'd had a little more turquoise.
  • Jacquard dyeset concentrate to set the dye. The bottle and the website say different amounts are needed. I used two tablespoons per quart vs per gallon as it says on the bottle, and for that amount needed the 32oz bottle.
  • Gutta resist: gutta is what is used to create the resist lines for dividing areas of color. There is water soluble resist which is not as sharp or reliable a line, and regular gutta which holds a strong line but requires dry cleaning to remove and leaves a yellowish tint and feel if not removed. It is also a strong, smelly chemical that I prefer not to use it if possible due to fumes. I used regular gutta for the butterfly spots as they looked much better than the water soluble in the tests, and water soluble for the wing seams. Gutta solvent is also handy if you go with regular gutta for fixing mistakes.
  • Applicator bottles for gutta/resist. I used different ones, but these are better.
  • Rubber gloves
  • Foam or regular brushes for applying color
  • Tacks, rubber bands, and safety pins for attaching material to frame.
  • Dye detergent, for washing the fabric before and after dyeing.
  • Disappearing ink pen

And some supplies for finishing the wings:

  • Black fur
  • Black bias binding
  • Two lengths of wire - I found wire at the hardware store that was lightweight but strong and not too bendable. Something super bendable or heavy would not work well.

Step 4: Make the Pattern

The first step was to make the pattern. I wanted them as large in the isis wing style, so I used my height from the neck down as the size constraint so they could be the maximum size without dragging on the ground. Using photos as reference I first sketched out the overall shape to size, then filled in the details. Once done with regular pen I copied over in sharpie so it would show through the fabric for easy transfer.

In the end I didn't end up painting the lines in the middle of each section due to time, but I think they would have looked really nice and did some dye tests of this effect in the next couple steps.

Step 5: Dye Setup

Before dyeing your fabric, first wash it with the professional textile detergent. Fabric shrinks and have residue that should be washed out first for ideal results.

To set up the dye area, lay out your supplies using either plastic cups or an ice cube tray for mixing colors together. Be sure to have a rag on hand, and wear gloves to protect your skin.

To attach the fabric to the frame (or two sawhorses in this case for the samples), use safety pins, rubber bands, and tacks as shown. The fabric should be tightly stretched but not tearing. It will loosen significantly once wet.

Step 6: Dye Test #1

Before painting the final wings, there were a lot of variables to test out. Each of the colors individually, how they blended as a gradient, both gutta types, different ways of creating the seams of the wings, and creating the boundary of the black edge. I started by testing all of the above in one sample, let it sit for two days, then washed it with the dyeset concentrate.

The results of the first test were very good in terms of color. I cut strips off to compare before and after washing, and couldn't tell the difference. Success! From this sample I was able to decide that regular gutta looked better for the dots of white, and the turquoise by itself as a single coat is too light. Knowing how the colors looked and which gutta to use, I did another test for the remaining variables.

Step 7: Dye Test #2

In this sample I wanted to test different types of seam lines, an even gradient of color like the final wings, and whether I needed a line of resist between the blue and black. All was looking good and I followed the same dyeset process, but this sample turned out dull in color and splotchy. My best guess is that the dye set wasn't well mixed in the water before I added the fabric, but if anyone is experienced with this kind of dye set process I'd love to know what the variables are that could create such different results!

I also tested painting pigments on top of the fabric as an option for the seam lines, but decided it added too much of a feel on the fabric.

From this sample I concluded that I liked the look of the resist seams, and resist in between the black border and blue areas. I also decided that two layers of dye resulted in more even, saturated color.

Step 8: Build the Frame

The last step before painting the real wings was to create a frame. I cobbled this together very poorly from wood scraps. It was not very strong, but it was fast and stable enough to last through the dye process. Don't judge me woodworkers! ;)

The frame does not need to fit the shape of your piece perfectly, but it should fit the shape fairly well knowing that you will use rubber bands to secure it to the frame as shown in steps prior. I built the frame with a 4-6" buffer around the perimeter of the pattern, however my piece ended up stretching all the way to the frame once wet. I think 9" is a better guideline for the perimeter of a piece this large.

Step 9: Get Ready to Dye!

Time to set up for the real thing!

First, I traced the outside of the wings on my final fabric and marked the white spots around the outside with a disappearing ink pen. Initially I planned to draw all of the seam lines at this stage, but realized that disappearing ink is very water soluble and would wash away immediately with the dye. As I did not want the gutta seam lines to be white, that means that I would have to trace those on after the first layer of blue dye was applied.

I cut out my piece with an inch or so to spare around the outside, and started attaching it to the frame. Given the size of the wings, stretching it takes some time. I started by attaching the corners plus a few key spots, then filled in the gaps and adjusted until the piece was well centered and taught.

Once the dyeing process begins it needs to go very quickly, so I made sure to have everything needed on hand. My workspace looked like the above, plus a spray bottle of water and the two guttas which are not pictured.

Step 10: Apply Gutta for White Areas

The first step before coating the fabric in dye was to add resist to all the spots that will remain white. I used regular gutta for this as I found it worked better for these larger areas, whereas the water soluble gutta left an uneven texture.

If any mistakes are made, you can use gutta solvent to wipe them out.

Allow the gutta to dry fully before painting with dye.

Step 11: First Layer of Blue

From my dye samples it seemed that the best color fade came from two coats of dye, as it allowed the color to blend more naturally and resulted in deeper color.

This stage is dramatic and covers a large area, but has to happen fast while everything is very wet for the colors to blend well. For better color spreading, wet the fabric first with water. I started with a large section of turquoise in the middle, blended in the cyan, and finally the royal blue around the edges ending just after where the black would begin. Any areas that weren't wet enough I rewet with water before blending. You will find the technique that works for you, but I had good luck with blending by adding the second color, then brushing quickly between colors, and once again along the bands of color to even things out.

Once the fabric had gone from shiny wet to damp I added a layer of black around the edge stopping a couple inches shy of where the line would be to allow for plenty of bleed room.

Step 12: Managing Wet Fabric

Once the fabric gets wet, it loosens significantly and sagging can be problematic when very wet. I learned a couple techniques to manage the excess water and dye that risked the darker colors edges running from the edges to the center.

For the first wing, after half and hour or so I dried it on its side and let the dye run to one side, knowing that the dark line created near the bottom from colors bleeding down would eventually get covered by black. This actually helped the colors blend together more smoothly. For the second one, I tried out painting the drips that formed in the center back up to the sides until the fabric was no longer sopping wet. This was a little more time consuming, but more reliable and effective. Warning: this will get dye dripping down on you. Keep on your gloves and be ready!

Step 13: Add Seam Lines

Once this first layer of dye was dry I traced my pattern for the seam lines with disappearing ink. The fabric stretched quite a bit in the dyeing process so the pattern was no longer a perfect fit, but I was still able to make it work. For each seam line I laid down two lines of the water soluble resist, and one line around the outside as a barrier for the black.

If you have never used gutta, I recommend practicing first. It is difficult to get a straight, even line right away, and many of mine were pretty shaky or uneven. Once lines are laid down, it's a good idea to look a them from the underside to check for gaps that could allow for dye to bleed through.

Step 14: Second Layer of Dye and Seams

Once the resist was dry, I filled in black along the outside, and added another layer of dye to the blue areas for more color saturation and to further blend some of the areas that were less well mixed. Lastly I colored in the seams with a mix of royal blue and black for contrast.

At this point, the first wing was finished! I let it dry overnight, and repeated the process for the second wing.

Step 15: Set the Dye

Now for the nerve wracking part. After leaving my fabric for a couple of days, I prepared my dye set bath and hoped for the best. The dye set calls for continuous agitation for several minutes to prevent dye transfer. I kept the fabric moving, but it is difficult to prevent it from balling up within the bath. One of my wings ended up coming out with lots of spots from either darker dye areas or the chemical set itself reacting unevenly. If anyone has any experience with this setting process, tips on avoiding blotches are welcome!

After the chemical set, I pulled out the fabric, rinsed it, then added it to a fresh water bath with the professional dye detergent. From there one should run it under water until it runs clear, but after a certain amount of time I became impatient and called it. A machine washer works as well, but I was worried the dye might linger so I chose to hand wash. In retrospect I'd recommend the machine washer given how long hand washing takes.

Once rinsed enough I hung them to dry in my backyard.

Step 16: Finishing

When the wings were dry, I trimmed the edges to shape and bound the outside with bias binding. As these are isis wings and very large, they extend past the reach of my hands and require a structural element from there to the edges of the wings. Many store bought isis wings have dowels inserted for this purpose, but I wanted to keep the curve of the wings so opted for wire instead. I got lucky and found lengths of wire at the hardware store that held their shape well but were also light weight, which worked perfectly.

To inset the wire, I attached the bias binding until it began to run around the farthest tip of the wing, then slid in the wire and continued sewing the bias binding from there. It stayed put pretty well, but just in case I sewed closed the bias binding on either side of the wire to keep it in that portion of the channel.

For the insides of the wings, I joined them together at the neck for a foot or so, then folded both sides under for a clean finish.

Step 17: Fur Collar

To complete the cloak style, I made a fur color to act as an anchor for the wings. I used a sweater I had as a pattern base. Because I needed to lift my arms easily, I found that a collar only vs something that covered the shoulders was more functional for the large size of my wings.

Once all seams were finished cleanly and the collar was ready, I tacked the wings to the collar in such a way that it covered my shoulders like a cape.

Step 18: Finished!

That's a wrap! Have fun making and dancing with your wings!

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    37 Discussions


    Question 10 months ago on Introduction

    Hi Natalina, your wings came out beautifully! I found my way here because I also loved similar wings from the same Etsy shop. Can I ask, was the cost of making them yourself significantly less than purchasing would have been?


    3 answers

    Answer 10 months ago

    Honestly, no. Not doing it the way I did it. I had never used a chemical fixative before and was curious to try it (I've always used procion fiber reactive dyes and steamed to set), but that required me to use liquid dyes and buy fixative which amounted to about ~50 just in dye supplies not including the gutta and brushes which you'd need for any dye project. The fabric I used was about $65 worth. So, you're looking at a somewhat pricey project. If you have the means to steam fabric, or are willing to look into building a steamer if you have intention to dye more in the future, procion fiber reactive dyes are very cost effective and produce amazing color, so you're just looking at minimal dye supply cost but they require steaming to set.

    While I love silk painting and enjoyed this project, if my goal was just the wings vs wanting to silk paint I'd having them printed. I was curious to design my own wings and get them printed on spoonflower, which would be cheaper than all of the above. Not everyone is comfortable prepping digital files like this though, so I also noticed if I searched for butterfly wings, some good options come up and then you can do all the finishing work yourself but save the time of painting them. Be mindful of fabric type, as the benefit of dyeing is that the color will show on both sides, whereas a print is one sided. I'd go with chiffon or crepe de chine so you get some transparency of the pattern through to the other side.

    Long winded answer but hope that helps!


    Reply 10 months ago

    Thank you, Natalina! I really appreciate your taking the time to answer in depth. I've never done any kind of fabric dying, so I'd be totally starting from scratch. I always love learning new creative processes though and might try a lower budget option for making these myself. I am particularly fond of the moth style wings, which would take less dye, so using your suggestions I'll do some research. Thank you for the leaping off point!
    Be well,


    Reply 10 months ago

    No problem, fabric dyeing is so fun! Good luck and would love to see what you come up with.


    Question 10 months ago

    Thanks for this tutorial! I’m wondering though, how do you attach the wings to your body or clothing? Are they just something you hold?

    1 answer

    Answer 10 months ago

    I wear them like a cape. It’s all laid out in step 17.


    1 year ago

    Since I doubt you’ll ever be laundering these wings, have you considered using Inktense pencils and blocks to color the silk? You’d get the ease of paint without the downside of dye since his is ink. I used them to paint cotton for a quilt and combined with the resist you should get pretty good results. Daniel Smith makes some pretty good irridescent watercolors that could be used for highlighting. Sapphire and Electric Blue or Pearlescent Shimmer would do the job. Putting them on the veining wouldn’t effect the drape or movement much.

    4 replies

    Reply 1 year ago

    I've never thought of using watercolor pencils on fabric. Does it spread like dye? Maybe I could add some iridescence with those now. Thanks for the suggestion!

    I wanted the ability to launder, so that was a factor in deciding what medium to use. I have done some dyeing in the past I didn't properly fix for fear of losing the vibrant color, and all it takes is one spilled drink to ruin a piece.


    Reply 1 year ago

    I've used the Inktense pencils to make halloween themed pillow covers on home decorator cotton blend canvas. If you go over the area you penciled with fabric medium it sets the color and brightens it at the same time. I applied the medium with a fine paint brush. You would have to test bleeding on the silk. Good luck!


    Reply 1 year ago

    If you use Derwent Inktense pencils or blocks they *are* dye. They allow for some nice detail work. Once dry they are like a dye. It's permanent ink. Daniel Smith makes some lovely Duochrome and Iridescent watercolors but then you couldn't wash it afterwards. I'm sure there's a product out there to bring some sparkle to it that is waterproof.


    Reply 1 year ago

    Cool, I've never tried those. Thanks for the tip :)


    1 year ago

    Thank you for demystifying how to paint silk! I've had a bolt of stained silk fabric in my studio for some time, but now when I'm ready to use it, I'll be able to paint if first! Thanks @Natalina!


    1 year ago

    You should bring your wings to Olympia, WA for our annual Procession of the Species next April. It's on a weekend around Earth Day and people dress up in costumes representing any species, real or imagined, and parade through the streets downtown. The amazing spectacle draws thousands to participate and to watch. Your costume would make you among the most beautiful!

    1 reply

    Reply 1 year ago

    That sounds like a beautiful event! I'm glad I know about it now, thank you :)


    1 year ago

    Washfast acid dyes (have nearly fluorescent colors) and ProChemical procion dyes can be ‘batched’. Paint with acid soaked in cloth or put in dyes ( citric, vinegar , or acetic acid), ( directions are in both ProChemical and Dharma websites... like more clear ProChemical’s better) leave damp, cover with plastic for 1-5 days. Hotter and more humid , less time in plastic... Minneapolis MN in winter, 5 Days ABOVE 70 F. Houston in summer and fall 1 day !!!! (or one week in Texas humid barn plastic ..and there’s NO COLOR IN RINSE WATER!). My friends stretch silk. I just paint it on plastic and it works for me very well ..( I don’t like stretching cloth ..... just like it hanging free, even in exhibitions)... Thanks for your insights. Hat making wires and plastic wires have great recovery and bounce... I carefully serge the ‘wires’ into Hats and other worn art pieces... not ever been good at bias tape... Oh. !!!!!!!...Acids in dyes for protein fibers can mold if left damp too long. 3 Days is max in moderate climates... ( that is NOT Minnnesota winters)( not yet??!!)

    1 reply

    Reply 1 year ago

    Oh wow, I have used procion dyes a lot and didn't realize that you could set them without steaming. So you lay your fabric down on a sheet of plastic, then cover with more plastic when done?

    Thank you for sharing your expertise!


    1 year ago

    What a great fun cape. You have a wonderful talent plus patience. Its lovely and I look forward to your next project.

    1 reply

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thanks! Hopefully I'll have time to create some more projects soon.