Fiber Optic 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.

It's been a while since I dug into a meaty project, so when Joel from Ants on a Melon asked me to make a costume piece for the launch of his new fiber optic products, I gladly accepted. I used his previous generation flashlight for my fiber optic dress and coat, and you can learn more about the new color changing flashlight used in this Instructable on his kickstarter. It was fun to make and shoot - thanks a ton to my awesome photographer Lisa Donchak and model Mara Harris!

The design constraints of this one were challenging, as it had to be one size fits all, appeal to a wide audience, and of course show off the product. After some back and forth we decided on a set of wings, which gave me an excuse to execute on a design idea I've had for a long time.

I love the silhouette and drama of wings, but structural pieces have their drawbacks. I've damaged my fair share of wings in a cab, and had a hard time making my way through a crowd or not worn them for fear of injuring someone in a crowd. They are also generally cumbersome to pack and often stay at home because it's not worth a whole suitcase for a single costume piece. With these pitfalls in mind I took advantage of the fibers themselves to create the winged shape while keeping the base pretty minimal, which allows for easy transport and mobility with all the impact of a large set of wings. While there are some things I would change for next time, I'm pretty happy with how they turned out!


I might have forgotten a few things, but this is most of what I used:

Fiber optic kit (flashlight and fiber optic bundle): The fiber optic components used in this project are the RGB Critter flashlight and 360 strand fiber optic accessory from Ants on a Melon. The new flashlight and fiber optic accessories are available in Joel's kickstarter. As the kickstarter products aren't going to ship immediately, if you want to make these wings now you can check out some of the other fiber optic whips on the market, or take a stab at doing the electronics yourself. These two instructables (Jellyfish Skirt and Fiber Optic Fairy Wings) use smaller bundles, but are good inspiration for creating your own lighting source and fiber optics.

Leather: 7 oz or so, or 3mm is what I used. I think it was a good thickness, and wouldn't go much thinner at least for the wings. You could go thinner on the trims and back pieces. I used finished leather because I wasn't interested in adding another step of dyeing, however veg tan might work really well for this because of its rigidity. I also ended up buying a 72" 3/4" strap from Tandy, as the leather I bought didn't lend itself well to burnishing.

Hardware:Rivets (I used medium double cap, choose your leather first and get the right size for two layers of that leather), snaps, 3/4" buckles (3), and

Findings:Stretchy clear cord for sewing down fibers, heavy duty thread for sewing leather, super glue (I used locktite), and 1/2"x1/2" eva foam tape to separate the layers of leather. It's way more foam than I needed, so another material could work for this if you have some kind of foam or neoprene you could stack on hand.

Tools: I used a heavy duty industrial machine for this project, but you could do the punching and sewing by hand as well. The basic tools I used were a set of single hole punches, sharp rotary cutter, ruler, cutting mat and sturdy table, leather hammer, edging tool, black leather dye, heavy sewing needles. For setting the above snaps and rivets, setting tools for these can be purchased separately or as one set. Depends on your needs what you may want to invest in if you don't already have this tool.

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Step 1: Design and Pattern

I started with a pretty clear design in my mind. I wanted the fibers to extend from the shoulders to create the wing shape, and for the base to be black leather with a feathered look. I wanted the to have lift off the shoulders for more movement and shape. To accommodate the handle of the whip in back, something with a holster style was what first came to mind. I started researching different harness designs, and after drawing some inspiration from WaterFallWorkshop on Etsy and others, I landed on the above sketch.

The patternmaking on this one was a real challenge. I wanted the fibers to be mostly hidden from view on the underside, and somehow feed through the thick leather. I liked the idea of a winglike appearance, but didn't want individual feathers, so went with a two tiered approach to provide a more even surface for the fibers. Some design challenges were how to feed the fibers through without damaging them, and how to avoid too many layers of thick leather attached in one place. Using paper to prototype wasn't ideal, but it was better than fabric, and I made small design samples in the final leather for as much as I could.

I learned a fair bit from the first run, and made some adjustments to the pattern attached here. The attached pattern pieces are all on letter or legal for ease of printing in case you want to tool this or skip the feather texture altogether and don't have access to a laser cutter. If formatting for laser, the pieces are all in there but the outlines aren't formatted for laser yet, and I didn't include the pieces laid out in one document as the layout will depend on your leather dimensions. Note that this pattern was made to fit the flashlight from Joel's Kickstarter, so if you are working with a different product make adjustments accordingly.

In the following steps I'll show how I made the pattern, in case you want to make some variations.

Step 2: Base Pattern Creation

To start I created a pattern for the base. I made the back scoop down pretty far to allow more vertical space for a winglike shape. I started with fabric, then transferred to thick paper as it is more structural and easy to adjust with scissors and tape.

Step 3: Test Base Pattern

After transferring to paper, I added adjustable paper straps to try out the first pattern iteration.

I put it on the form and laid down the fiber optics to test out out the concept as much as I could. Using the form I was able to make some small adjustments like how high I needed the back pocket for the flashlight attachment. However the more important part that is not pictured is trying it on a bunch of friends with different body types to help me narrow in on a near universal fit and define how long the straps would need to be in various places to accommodate the range of sizes.

Step 4: Wing Pattern Creation

Once the base seemed solid, I moved onto the wings. I wanted the winged pieces to lift off the base to provide some shape to the fibers, but wasn't quite sure how the pieces would integrate with the back pocket where the fibers began. This went under a number of iterations until I landed on the pattern in that last picture, as it covered the fiber bundles pretty well when viewed from the back, and had a decent amount of separation between the winged layers.

One of the last considerations was how the wings were going to be attached. I intended to finish the back with a strip of leather and rivets, but four layers of thick 3mm leather would create a bulky immovable edge. To address this I planned to offset the two wing layers about a half inch from the edge, and use the strip of leather and rivets to close the gap.

Step 5: Leather Tests

Test test test! And when you think you've got it test some more, especially when you only have one shot to get it right on the final fabric/leather :)

I started with testing my leather settings. I had both veg tan and a nice black finished leather as options, and tested them both on the laser cutter. I wanted to use the black since it would save the trouble of dyeing the leather, and went forward with it. One interesting unintended byproduct of the laser cutting was that is blasted the dye away from the black in the raster process, so I realized I'd need to add some dye after all to fix that problem. Which led to the next problem, which was that it changed the tone of the black. So after some aggressive scrubbing with a damp towel, I was able to get the raster marks to their desired black tone without any sheen from the dye layer.

The next test was around the back trim and rivets. As mentioned in the last step I'd be closing a gap with the strap, but the ledge created by two layers of wings was very thick and meant the strap would be a steep angle and rivets under a lot of pressure. It took some practice hammering the rivets in on an angle, but eventually learned to tape my rivet setting base to the table for stability, and to hammer gently in line with the angle of the rivet or else they would deform.

Step 6: Prototype 1

At this stage I made a prototype from faux leather. Unfortunately, faux leather does not act much like leather, and I should have chosen a different prototyping fabric. However I did get to test out the overall design and orientation of the fibers, and figure out where to punch holes for them in the base. That said the location of the holes I determined in this step ended up not being ideal in the thick final leather. In the attached pattern in step 3 I have holes included which are a better distance.

I also tested out how to attach the fibers at the end of the feathers. I'd hoped to use tiny zip ties to keep things simple, but being the perfectionist I am it was far too noticeable and I opted for stretchy clear thread instead.

After trying it on a number of friends again, I decided it was close enough to go for it in final fabric/leather.

Eek! Here we go!

Step 7: Cut and Finish Strap

Because I needed some pretty long straps, I cut the lengths I needed first before laying out the pattern for the laser cutter. As mentioned in the supplies list, I ended up buying pre-made strap from Tandy as it finished more nicely than the straps I made. But regardless the lengths needed were as follows:

Back/side strap: The strap that would be riveted to the inside back also serves as the straps in the front to attach to the under bust harness. In order to accommodate a range of sizes the total length of mine was 45", however you could get away with less depending on your size. To determine the length of this strap, an ideal length would be the exact length of the inside curve down to the under bust strap on either side.

Under bust strap: This one is more straightforward, and needs to be the size of your under bust/lower chest plus about 6 inches for the buckle and such.

Side strap buckles: Slotted on to the under bust strap are two short straps with buckles. I made these a total of 4 inches long, which means you'll need around 8" to be safe for folding back and riveting closed.

Cut your strap as cleanly as possible. This is easier said than done, even with a sharp rotary cutter. I think I would have done better with a knife or the next level up of rotary cutter. They turned out fine, but the leather wasn't conducive to a nice finish on the sides. All I could do with this leather was use an edging tool to cut down the feathery inside edges. However if using a leather which will burnish, after trimming your edges give it a good burnish for a finished, professional looking strap.

Step 8: Lay Out Laser Pattern

Since leather is generally sold in non-uniform pieces, laying out the pieces takes some planning and care. There was a small hole that needed to be avoided on my piece, and I had to adjust the placement of my pattern pieces accordingly.

Step 9: Laser Time!

Once I felt confident the placement was solid, I did some air passes and went for it. The raster on this took a long time, about an hour. The cut was pretty quick.

You're probably wondering what my settings were, but guess what?! After all that testing the day before, the settings I thought I had dialed in weren't strong enough. I didn't check thoroughly before pulling the piece off, and much to my dismay it had only cut 2/3 of the way through! Fun for me, I got to spend the time creating a digital pattern to "speed up the process" only to get to cut it out by hand as well! Sigh. Several unplanned hours later, I finally had my pieces cut out and ready for assembly.

Learnings here is that a little overpowered is best, as the optics can get cloudy and lose power when doing a larger job like this.

Step 10: Prep Pieces for Assembly

Before sewing anything together, I dyed the raster pattern black, wiping up the excess dye thoroughly as I learned was needed in my test.

Next I punched holes where I planned to feed the fibers through to the top of each winged layer. In retrospect I should have lasered this part too, but since I messed up my laser settings anyways I'd have been punching them anyways. Lucky for you that if you make this project and have access to a laser cutter, the holes are in the files!

Lastly I used my awl to poke holes where I'd need to sew down the fibers. Ultimately I only tied them down at the ends of the feathers, and the second row of holes I poked closer to the inside of the feathers weren't needed.

Step 11: Sewing the Back Pocket

And now for the fun part - getting to use this awesome industrial machine! I have used industrials before, but this one is perfect for leather as it can be slowed down for more control. You only get one shot when sewing leather, so slow and steady is the way to go. If you do not have access to a machine like this, it can also be punched and sewn by hand.

First I sewed a 3" length of strap to the center bottom of the base piece, which would serve to keep the handle in place. I left it with length to spare so I could measure to size once the rest of the back pocket was assembled. Next I sewed on each of the side pieces, aligning along the bottom. To accommodate the chest strap at the bottom of the pouch, only sew to about 1" from the bottom of the back pieces.

Step 12: Sew Flexible Panels

As is common in some leather garments, I decided to add some stretch panels as shown to add some flexibility to the piece. My hope was that it would flex to better accommodate different body shapes and motion while wearing. In the end while the finished piece turned out quite rigid, I still think it helped.

Now that the base was sewn together, I moved on to the wings.

Step 13: Sew Wings Together

Before adding the wings to the base, I first sewed them to each other to make attaching to the base easier to manage. This was pretty easy as it involved sewing flush along the inside edge.

Step 14: Sew Wings to Base

Next was the final seam. As described earlier, I offset the wings from the inside edge of the base so as to avoid a big chunky four layer edge. To keep it centered I aligned the pieces first and started from the middle, sewing up either side with about a 1/2" offset from the edge

While my goal had initially been for the final trim to cover the holes where the fiber optics would be threaded through, I realized how difficult that would be with the thickness of the leather I was using and aimed to simply cover the stitching line instead.

Step 15: Add Snaps

Now that the sewing was complete, I moved on to hardware. To complete the back pouch, I starting with the two side snaps and top snap. I added snaps using a snap setter, base and hammer. Leaving the bottom snap for last, I added the fiber optic handle first to determine placement, and trimmed the bottom leather strip as needed for a snug fit.

Finally, I cut open a window for accessing the control buttons on the handle. One thing to note, is that while your fibers might seem to be laying one way, the handle has a habit of twisting. There's not a lot to do about it, but know that even if you divide your fibers perfectly down the middle of the bundle and the handle seems to be resting in a consistent place, it may twist over time and mean you need to unscrew the handle just a bit to keep the buttons aligned with the open window. Luckily the product will work fine even if it's not screwed together tightly.

Step 16: Add Chest Strap

To add the chest strap, I started with a D ring approach. However after finishing this piece I realized that this is a design flaw. Unless it is tailored to one person specifically, the buckle in front will not be centered. For maximum flexibility, the strap should be able to pass through the handle pouch.

To address this I removed the D rings, and tacked the leather together along the bottom, feeding the strap behind the fiber optic handle (see last two photos).

Step 17: Attach Trim

The last major construction step was to add the trim finish, which also serves as the fastening straps in front. As the curve in the center back was pretty deep, first I had to form the leather to fit. After a few sessions of wetting and bending the leather, it fit pretty well and was ready to be attached.

Beginning in the center, I punched a hole centered in the trim and right up against the sewing line of the wings on the main piece, then attached with a rivet. If you'll remember this was a design element I tested a fair bit first, as the leather trim is at a significant angle and it's easy to mess this part up. By the time I started on the final piece I'd gotten the hang of it, but the important parts to note here is that the rivet base is either taped down directly, or in this photo resting against my taped down hammering board so I could put some directional force on it. It's also important not to hammer too hard, and to keep the direction of hammering at a bit of a angle as well, or else the rivets became deformed.

I worked my way to the front rivet by rivet, trying to keep things symmetrical and replacing the occasional rivet gone wrong. If you do need to replace a rivet, it's good to have a set of pliers and snips on hand to pry and cut them out.

Step 18: Make Side Buckles

The loose ends of the strap added in the last step will attach to the front via these sliding buckles. They were simple to make, and I ended up making them shorter (4") after trying my piece on a few smaller friends.

The bottom loop needs to be big enough to easily slide over the chest strap, with room for an extra layer of strap for holding the loose end of the chest strap if left longer. I started there, attaching with a rivet. Next I marked where the loop for the buckle should go, and punched a hole for it. With a center bar buckle like these your leather will wrap around the center bar with a hole for the tongue. At this point I could have attached with a rivet, but opted for sewing given how short they were.

Step 19: Feeding the Fibers

Unfortunately I didn't document this step as well as I'd like, but once the construction was complete it was fiber time. On either side there are two sets of bundles, one running between the base and the first wing layer, and one between the first and second wing layers on either side. From there smaller bunches run through the holes to the top side.

Before beginning this step, I counted the fibers and did the math on how many should be threaded through each hole. There are 11 holes on the top wing layer, and 12 on the bottom, so with a total of 360 fibers and 46 total lines, the answer is just shy of 8. To be exact 4 from each side need only 7, and the rest 8.

To set things up for this process, I started by detangling and dividing the bundle evenly in half. Not pictured here, I zip tied it to the base to keep it firmly in place, hoping that it would maintain a consistent position and not twist or turn so as to disrupt the alignment of the buttons within the back pouch. Unfortunately as I have learned working with these, is that regardless of how aligned things are it will often shift over time anyways, so do the best you can.

Once things were stable, I pulled out groups of 8 (or 7) fibers, and poked them through to the top side. This was easier said than done in some places, and I had to re-punch some holes along the way further away from the base so I could actually access them, especially on the bottom wing. Learnings!

Step 20: Tie Off Fibers

Once I managed to pull all the fibers through and had taken some care to have them all seated nicely, it was time to tie them down.

With a thick blunt sewing needle and stretchy clear cord I sewed through the outer cuts I had made, wrapping the fiber bundles twice, and tying off with two tight square knots. Once all tied down, I put a drop of super glue on each one. Once dry I trimmed the loose ends.

Step 21: Securing the Fiber Base

Once all the fibers were in place, I realized I didn't like how the bundle looked in this section. It looked clean from the back, but from the side had too much light emanating from it. To cut up the block of light and add some visual interest I wrapped the two sides with some black cord. To keep the cord in place, I punched a hole in the middle wing layer to secure the start of the wrap, and punched two holes in the center back to secure the end of the wrap. As additional support I tied the bundles down with the same clear elastic cord, and finished the knots with super glue before trimming.

In retrospect I may have designed things such that the leather flap covered it better, but given the design I had it helped enough.

Step 22: Add Lift to Wings

In my initial design, the wing sections had a fair amount of lift between each other and the base, but as I suspected might happen once the layers were weighed down with fibers, they collapsed down on each other.

To help, I got some 1/2"x1/2" eva adhesive foam to add some support and separation. It definitely helped, but were I to make this again it would be interesting to exaggerate the pattern so there would be more natural separation. Alternately it would be interesting to make this with something more rigid, although this piece turned out stiff enough as it is.

Step 23: Trim Fibers

And now the final somewhat scary part!

I wanted to create a winged shape with the front relatively short and the back long, but had no idea if the fibers would behave once their weight was gone. To start I cut each bundle flush with each other, starting with where I wanted the shortest to be and ending with the longest, then drawing a straight line between them and trimming accordingly. I primarily did this through measuring the distance from the ground. This gave me a first pass at how it would look.

On one side the fibers were pretty uniform in their bend inward, but the other was all over the place. I experimented with heat on some spare trimmings. I learned that it is easy to overdue, but it is possible to alter the shape without destroying the fiber.

To do this I took the piece off the dress form and laid the fibers out on the ground, straightening a bundle at a time. I used my foot and one hand to hold the bundles taught against the floor, and the other hand to gently apply heat. There is a subtle shift when the fibers heat enough to release their form, and after some practice you'll see the moment when this happens. Once it does, cut the heat immediately, and hold it taught for a few seconds to set. After straightening the bottom half of all the fibers, while not perfect the shape was significantly more uniform between the sides.

As a final step, I layered each bundle as shown in the 5th photo for more distribution of the points of light.

Step 24: Take on the Night!

And now you are ready to take on the night!

Be sure to post an I Made It if you make one, I love to see how people adapt my designs!

Go shake those shoulders and enjoy your wings :)

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    12 Discussions


    1 day ago

    Very nice and fantastic, it shows passionate view of technology


    9 days ago on Step 24

    Beatifully done! And the pictures of you showing it off look fabulous! Very creative and inventive!

    1 reply

    Question 8 days ago

    I would like to buy a pair for coreography. Can you make them and sell it to me? How much? And time? Lorenzo.

    1 answer

    Answer 6 days ago

    Sorry, I generally only make one offs for fun as it isn’t cost effective to sell pieces this time consuming to make. However this one pair might still be available in the Kickstarter.


    9 days ago

    Would love to see it as an armor

    Penolopy Bulnick

    15 days ago

    That is really impressive! I love all the glowing pieces you are able to create :)

    1 reply

    14 days ago

    Great instructable but I think you missed a trick not including a video clip. i suspect it looks awesome in movement but I'll never know.

    1 reply

    Reply 10 days ago

    Yup you’re right, I had a beta version of the product and didn’t have time to make a video. There is video on the Kickstarter, and I have videos on my dress and coat Instructables linked in the intro which are a similar quality to this most recent product.


    10 days ago

    Lovely!!! Very nice! :)