Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Abhorsen's Bells

by guest contributor Grace, Ginger Armadillo Costumes' resident metalworker and props-lady

My biggest project for Geek Girl Con this year was creating Sabriel's iconic bells, the magical tools she uses to battle necromancers and lay the dead to rest. Since the bells are such an integral part of her character, I knew I wanted them to be both aesthetically pleasing and sturdy enough to endure lots of handling. (And unlike her sword, this was a project where I could use actual metal!)

The first step was acquiring the bells. I purchased the majority of them on Etsy from someone's collection of vintage bells. 

Not appearing in the final cosplay, that terrifying clown handle in the middle of the row.

I ended up choosing five of them for the mid-size bells, and had to purchase an additional larger bell from Amazon. The smallest bell I made from the end of a candle-snuffer.

The bells were vintage, so they had quite a lot of tarnish and patina on them.  I detached them all from the handles and clappers and went to work. I did lots and lots of scrubbing... and more scrubbing...

Yucky metal water is yucky.

...until I finally had some nice clean bells! 


Only one of my bells came with a wooden handle, so it was off to the thrift store to find something suitable to make handles for the rest of them. I was hoping for wood-handled silverware or maybe pegs of some kinds, but instead I found this:

For gnomes, presumably.

I quite unceremoniously tore apart the tiny chair for its various parts, resulting in a pretty good basis for some handles.

I sawed the chair pegs into graduated sizes, and got some brass finials that I would later affix to them. (The smallest two finials are actually alarm clock feet from the Alethiometer I was making for my Lyra costume.)

Sabriel's bells are explicitly stated as being silver; a necromancer's bells might be other colors, but not the Abhorsen's! This meant I had to find some way of changing the color.

If you are looking to budget your money/time/effort/sanity, at this point I would recommend finding the best silver paint you can and proceed with that. If you're looking to lose money/time/effort/sanity but gain an interesting new skill, you can do what I did, and electro-plate them with nickel.

I love metalworking and feel that there's a luminous, bright quality to true metal that paint can't quite capture, so going the extra mile on the bells was very important to me.

That being said, this is NOT a tutorial on safe and successful electro-plating! I recommend doing your own research and making sure that you are taking appropriate safety precautions, as the process involves live wires and a poisonous chemical, nickel acetate. (I used this tutorial: )

Pictured: not the ideal way to do this.

To start plating, you have to make a solution of nickel acetate by running a current through two pieces of nickel in vinegar (I used pure nickel wire, but a solid piece of nickel would be better, since the wire degraded quickly.) I started using 9V lantern batteries, but this takes forever. I soon graduated to making my own power source out of an old phone charger, a fuse box, and some alligator clips, which was much more successful.

Once the solution is saturated with nickel, it's time to plate! Ideally, you connect your bell to the negative wire and the nickel source to the positive wire and dunk them both in the solution to complete the circuit. This draws the nickel onto the surface of the bell.

Of course, things were not ideal, so this whole process took me about three weeks to get right. First the solution was too weak, then the bells weren't clean enough, then the current was wrong, then I had to agitate the whole mixture... It was definitely a learning experience.

But finally, after a lot of trial and error (mostly error)...

Worth the work.

With the bells complete at last, I went back to working on the handles. I filled the holes with wood filler, sanded it down, and drilled holes in both ends: one for the screw to hold the bells together, and one for the grub screws that the finials would be attached to.  For a functional prop like this, which might see wear-and-tear, I had a strict no-glue policy.

Lastly, I painted the handles with acrylic paint, sealed them with Renaissance Wax, attached the finials, and re-attached the bells and clappers. (I didn't plate the top part of Astarael, the largest bell, and left it brass so that size difference wasn't so dramatic.)

The finished bells.

The next step (and by far the most frustrating one) was building a bandolier to house them. This was a last-minute, night-before-the-con project, and I was very worried that all the work I had put into the bells would be wasted because I couldn't get the holder right.

Although Sabriel's bandolier is describe as having full pouches, I really wanted the bells to show. The difficulty was building a system that both displayed and supported the bells, while still allowing the user to easily remove and replace them.

I decided on a series of loops for the handles, and a lid and strap to hold the bell in place. (The lids have a lip on the inside that keeps the bells from moving too much.)

Two belts from Goodwill, a bag of leather scraps, and a lot of grueling leather-sewing later, I had a complete bandolier!

Making these bells was an amazing, informative, difficult, and altogether wonderful experience, truly a labor of love. By the end, it was as if each bell had developed it's own personality and quirks, often quite similar to those described in the book. (That means you, Kibeth. I guess "a difficult and contrary bell" means one that won't plate or hang straight or do anything I want.)

Best of luck with all your cosplay endeavors, and thanks for reading!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Studio 2.0!

I now have the entire attic space to use as a sewing studio! I'm starting to feel like a real professional.


Thursday, November 5, 2015

Teen Titans - Robin's Pants

A lot of my time designing Robin's outfit was spent on trying to figure out ways to hide her curves and create a more believable cross-play. I learned that diagonals do a great job of hiding curves, so I wanted to incorporate them into the pants as well as the jacket.

I started with a basic pair of army green pants from the local thrift shop.

Pretty boring, right?

I wanted to give them a more "cargo-esque" look, so I added three decorative horizontal seams. This served a dual purpose, as I also needed to shorten the pants. I slit the sides of the pants open because I knew I was just going to cover it up with a panel later.

With the sides cut out so I could sew the seams.

Close-up of the top stitching.

For the side panels, I didn't want to do just plain chevrons again, so I started looking for inspiration in Robin's other costumes. Well, the Nightwing logo is kind of like a chevron shape! I'll used that!

A decision I would come to regret.

I created a pattern based on the logo, adjusting it slightly so that when the pieces were layered, the head of the bird was still visible. 

Prototype pattern pieces

Of course, the birds would need to get smaller as the leg tapered...

Final pattern pieces, various sizes.

I cut out all the pieces... (Later I would realize that because of the knee-high boots, I would only need half the pieces I cut out).

I didn't have enough green from the jacket, so I cut half the birds out of black pleather and painted then with emerald green leather paint.

Then, in a fit of insanity, I top-stitched ALL the edges. Of ALL the birds.

Slooooow progress

One bird down!

More birds...

The pleather liked to stick in my machine, and the leather paint only made the stickiness worse. It was a frustrating process, to be sure. Some birds were definitely destroyed in a fit of rage...

Alternating bird colors...

I wanted the panels to be flexible, so I chose to only sew them together on the sides. I used some leftover fabric to make piping to go along the seam where the birds connected to the pants.

Adding piping

I sewed each panel back into the pants, adjusting as I went along to improve the fit of the original pants.

Pants fitting!

I did end up tacking down the birds in a handful of places so they didn't flap around so much, and then I was finally done!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Teen Titans - Raven's Leotard

For Raven's leotard (unitard?) I really, really wanted to steer clear of the spandex dance unitard look. I choose to make it from pleather, both to match everyone else and to be more flattering than clingy spandex. I was lucky enough to find a soft, stretchy pleather in a beautiful slate blue.

The first thing I did was find a free bathing suit pattern. I was worried about drafting the butt/crotch area from scratch, so I picked a french cut swimsuit to base my pattern pieces on.

Taping my printed pattern together.

I cut all the pieces out from a scrap section of blue non-stretchy cotton. That way I could adjust the pattern as needed without ruining my good fabric. (Plus, I could use it for the lining!)

Adjusting the original pattern

As you can see, I extended my pattern pieces so that the leotard would have a high neckline. Once I had the fit the way I wanted it, I used my lining fabric as a pattern and cut out all my pleather pieces. 

I cut the sides out from black pleather...

...and the front from my slate blue.

I wanted to add a little more texture to certain panels of the leotard, so I bought some black tulle with and laid it over some of the blue fabric. 

Looks more badass now

I used some leftover shiny black pleather to create piping to go between the panels.

Don't forget to clip your curves so they lie flat!

Added some top-stitching to all the seams...

With all the different textures and piping

I used a big industrial zipper to hold it together in the back, with an overlap of fabric to cover it. I didn't worry too much about it being "pretty," since I planned on wearing a cape. Also zippers are my bane.

Now I actually had something I could properly try on, which meant it need last minute fitting adjustments. Multiple times.... >.<

Fitting something tightly when the fabric has as little give as my pleather did is a long process. Don't be disheartened! Use big stitches until you're sure you like it, and keep trying! Also, don't top-stitch too early, or you'll be doing what I did and pulling out three seams for every one you want to adjust. T_T

Finally, the fit was good!

Almost done!

The last things I wanted to add were some additional panels over the shoulders.

Edging the panels with piping

Don't forget top-stitiching!

 I positioned the panels so that the lines drew upward and inward toward the neck, creating a focal point for her neck gem (and hopefully minimizing the width of my shoulders).

From the front...

...and the back.

With some trim to finish the edges of the neck and the armholes, it was (basically) done!

Just needs gems!

Lastly, I had to trim the thigh curve to the right height, and stitch the crotch together. This was one of the absolute last things I did before the con (like, I think it was Saturday morning at 9 AM) so there are no pictures of that.

But there are plenty of the final leotard in action!

Photo credit: South of Autumn