A tale of obsession, neurosis, and simply having way too much time on my hands.
Note: Because I am a kind person, I present you with the option to skip directly to my notes on construction technique
, in the case that you don’t want to read my longwinded explanation of how and why the belt came to be.
This was not my first belt. Nor my first fringe belt. I have been dancing for a little over 5 years and making belts nearly just as long—tassel belts, yarn fringe belts, lame fringe belts (much less lame than they sound, mind you), embroidered belt bases, mirrored belt bases, shelled belt bases, feathered belt bases, corset belts and panel belts. (No bedlah belts yet, but give me time.) When I started dancing, there were no vendors in my area who sold any kind of tribal-looking belts, so my first project was to make an embroidered belt base from scratch. I didn’t have any mirrors or even a clear idea of what I wanted it to look like when I was done, and I never finished it.
A few months later I received a mirror belt base purchased off Ebay for Christmas. I set to work making my first ATS-style tassel belt, using a terrible choice of colors that clashed both with my outfit and with the belt base itself, but when it was done I wore it with immense pride.
Well, I wore it with pride for at least one performance or two, before I went to Asheville for a workshop with Ultra Gypsy, where I saw Jill Parker perform in the most beautiful object I had ever seen tied to someone’s hips (you can see a picture of it here http://people.tribe.net/jillparker/photos/2d38eb8e-bcdc-4f02-8dd6-b8d3eb3136ea). I believe this was in 2003.
In any case, I knew I had to have one. Later I found out that this type of belt was made by Mardi Love, who at that time I knew of from videos of Urban Tribal, and that you could (theoretically) purchase them from her (although good luck doing that if you live on the East Coast on a student’s budget), but why would I want to buy something I could make myself? Right?
I only had one belt base I thought would be suitable, which happened to be the base of my tassel belt, so that was promptly disassembled. I went out and bought some beautiful Manos de Uruguay yarn (this time in a coordinating color), chopped the belt I had in half, and affixed ties and yarn fringe. This solution was satisfactory for about a minute and a half—I made the fringe too short, so it looked kind of dorky, and it bore little overall resemblance to Jill’s beautiful belt. I was determined to try again.
I had acquired a leather belt covered in cowry shells from someone on some other occasion (birthday? Christmas?) and now I was eyeing it with a fresh perspective. So, in 2004, I bought some more yarn and some feather trim, hacked up the belt, and embarked on the most hellish handsewing experience of my life, which culminated in this belt http://people.tribe.net/sarabeaman/photos/758d003c-48cc-4355-92f5-15e8d4d4a872, along with some self-inflicted puncture wounds.
This belt was badass, but as soon as I wore it the feathers started falling out. I only wore it twice.
After my ill-advised adventures with the cowry shell belt, I wanted to find a better canvas for my belt bases. In the recesses of my memory I recalled seeing some handmade belts sold at a workshop sometime in my past that were made with some kind of fuzzy, natural-looking material. I wondered if I could figure out what it was, because its softness and fuzziness seemed like the perfect antithesis to that horrible leather.
Now, the yarn shop expedition for my first fringe belt had slowly transformed me into a knitter. The vision of skeins of wool and alpaca and linen and silk and cotton yarn all piled into delicious little heaps in their own wooden cubbies had worked its way into my dreams. I needed a suitable excuse to buy more yarn than I would ever need for just tassels and fringe, so I taught myself to knit. Somewhere in my knitting books I had read about a process called felting, which transforms a knitted woolen object into a fuzzy little length of fabric as the fibers lock together. Perhaps, I surmised, the lovely material I recalled was, in fact, felt. So I knitted up some little squares of Icelandic wool, threw them in the washing machine on the hot cycle for a few hours, and voila—dreamy felt, just like from my vague belt memories.
Handmade felt is the perfect belt backing. It’s got a good amount of friction to it, so it won’t slip down the sides of your silk pantaloons, and you can sew through it with anything the size of a yarn needle or smaller. (Store-bought felt, on the other hand, completely lacks this latter virtue.) This means you can embroider it with worsted-weight yarn, which in turn means you can do shisha mirror embroidery about 3 times faster than you can with embroidery floss.
I made four belts to sell using felt bases and yarn embroidery, all of which are now with happy owners elsewhere in the Southeast. At some point it crossed my mind that I might want to make one to keep for myself, and visions of Jill’s belt danced in my head once more. So one day, on a long car ride, I set to work.
First, a note of caution.
This belt probably took me around 40 hours to complete, maybe more, and all told cost me somewhere in the vicinity of $250 (of course, I spared no expense). What?! you ask. Why the hell would you make a belt yourself when you could probably buy it for the same amount? Well, you might, if:
a. You are crazy;
b. You have too much time on your hands;
c. You want absolute control over the color or style;
d. You actually enjoy this kind of crap; or
e. All of the above.
If any of these describe you, this is the kind of project for you. If not, maybe try buying one readymade.
(In my case, I love crafting and costuming more than I can even say, and I wanted a brown fringe belt somethin’ fierce.)Tools
•Knitting needles (probably size 10)
•Washing machine or stationary tub (for felting)
•Large tapestry needle (with an eye big enough to pass worsted weight yarn through)
•Smaller hand-sewing needles
•Beading needles for whatever size of seed beads you plan to use
•Sewing machine (optional)
•Wire brush (optional)
•Seam ripper (if you’re repurposing thrift-store finds like me)Materials
•2 skeins of Lamb’s Pride Bulky wool yarn (for base felt—if you are not going to use this brand, make sure whatever you are using is wool or alpaca or it will not felt!!!)
•Dish soap (for felting process)
•Various yarns for fringe—thick and thin (I don’t use Colinette, it’s psychotically overpriced and the colorways are really not that great. Try Berocco Hip Hop if you can get it.), rag, ribbon, whatever you like. I like to use a variety of widths and textures.
•A length of ½ inch wide ribbon (probably about 2ft)
•All kinds of crap to use as adornment. In my case I used cowry shells (backs removed), little round dollhouse mirrors (for shisha embroidery), worsted weight yarn (some of which I also used as fringe), seed beads, bugle beads, Ethiopian brass disc beads, and Kuchi coins that I bought already attached to a strip of colorful fabric. I also disemboweled a Kuchi metal belt that I had sitting around unused for its little metal domes, which were conveniently strung along a little piece of ribbon, making for easy sewing. The Kuchi belt also had some awesome metal fringe attached, which I used to decorate my coin bra.
•Beading thread and thread conditioner
•Some kind of fabric to use as ties—I like stretch velvet because it stays tied pretty much no matter what if you put it in a double knot. I couldn’t find velvet I liked much at a fabric store, so I went to the local thrift shop (one of my favorite things to do) and found a pretty hideous stretch velvet minidress in the loveliest shade of chocolate brown you can imagine. What you can’t tell from the picture is that the velvet actually has a subtle cheetah print burnout (yesss). I took a seam ripper to it and used it for my ties.
•Thread that matches both your yarn and your tie fabric.
•A small amount of grabby material for backing. Try a nice crappy non-stretch velvet (thrift store finds are always great for this too), the kind that give me nails-on-a-chalkboard creepies when I run my fingers across it. It doesn’t have to look nice, because no one will see it unless your belt falls off (God forbid). This will protect your embroidery, make your belt more durable, and if your fabric creates enough friction, decrease the chances of slippage. You might want to find something that won’t fray.Shortcuts
Buy the base premade.
Buy the beaded disks premade (good luck finding 4 matched ones though).
Buy squares of wool roving in your desired color and size to omit the knitting step before felting (they might have these at your local yarn store).
I don’t advise using a different base to save time unless you are not planning on doing shisha mirror embroidery. I find that I make up any time lost in the felting process by using worsted-weight yarn for the shishas rather than embroidery floss. However, if you are just attaching things like beads and cowries, you can use practically any fabric appropriate for hand embroidery for your base to save time. A. Knitting your Base
1. Learn to knit. http://www.learntoknit.com/instructions_kn.php3 You only need to do garter stitch, so if you can knit a garter stitch rectangle, you’re golden.
2. Figure out how large you want each part of the belt to be. If you want to make a 2 panel belt with a beaded medallion on each side, these are roughly the shapes you will need:
I like to make the front piece slightly shorter (or narrower, depending how you look at it) than the back, because I think it looks more balanced. The rectangular pieces of my belt are about 3 inches wide (ish) and the circular parts are about 3 ½ inches in diameter (ish).
3. Knit the pieces for your base. You will want to make 2 long skinny rectangles (or one very long skinny rectangle to cut in half) and 4 squares (which you will later cut into the circles, but don’t bother trying to knit a circular object, it will only look funky after felting anyway). Keep in mind that the felting process will shrink everything a little, and you will probably need to trim off the uneven edges, so make everything bigger than you will ultimately need it to be by at least ½ an inch. B. Felting your Base
Using these instructions
or whatever method you prefer, felt all your knitted pieces until you can only barely see the individual stitches, and when you pull on the fabric, you can’t see any little holes. This might take a while. I like using soap and lukewarm water in a basin or sink because it ultimately uses less water, but it’s hard work!C. Turning your Felt from a Gross Matted Mess into a Nice Fuzzy Base
Allow the felt to dry for at least an hour or so (you don’t need to put it in the dryer, just leave it out on an old towel or whatever). If you have a wire brush, you can use this to gently coax out any nasty looking parts and to give the felt a nice fur-like texture. Use the brush gently and judiciously. Next, get a nice sharp pair of fabric scissors and cut out the shapes you would like. Only cut away a bit at a time for the best results. If you hack away with abandon, you might cut too much off and be forced to start over, which would be pretty sad.D. Decorating your Base
This is by far the most time-consuming step, but also the part where you can really get creative if you want and personalize your design. I started with the beaded medallions; a helpful tutorial on beading technique can be found at this page
. You won’t need an embroidery hoop if you are using felt (yay!). I did basically the same thing as in the tutorial, except I put a shisha mirror in the middle of mine, so here is a link to some info on shisha embroidery: Stitch
In addition to using bead embroidery and shisha mirrors, try affixing cowry shells, coins, ethnic beads, or whatever strikes your fancy using sturdy thread.
You will probably want to leave the ends of your long skinny pieces unadorned, because the medallions will go over top of them and you won’t see them.
EDIT: You can now read my ideas about how to do shisha embroidery
in another post.E. Assembling your Base Pieces
Place the medallions on the ends of your rectangle pieces, overlapping by at least an inch or so. Using backstitch or a similar sturdy stitch on the interior and whipstitch around the edges, firmly attach the medallions to the rectangles so that they will in no way be tempted to wriggle free.
Optional: At this point, you can attach pre-strung coins, a necklace, a belly drape, or what have you to the back of your base to use as a center drape. Use one or many, whatever you like, but attach it before you attach the fringe, or you’ll have a hard time putting it in front of the fringe. You can also put tassels on the sides if you want before or after you add the yarn fringe.F. Making the Fringe
1. Cut a length of ribbon for each side of your belt, about 4 inches longer than the belt’s actual length.
2. Determine how long you want the fringe to be (this process can be as simple as dangling a measuring tape from your hips to the floor). Erring on the longer side is advised—you can always cut the fringe later if you find it’s too long.
3. Cut lengths of yarn that are twice the length you want the fringe to be, plus a little to be on the safe side.
4. “Fold” each piece of yarn in half, and, using a slipknot, knot the center of each piece around the ribbon. Try starting at the middle and working out. This way you can test the fringe out as you are working, holding it up in front of a mirror to see if the pieces look nice together. Nothing is permanent yet, so if you need to move pieces around, spread them out or scrunch them together, it’s easy.
5. Once you are finished creating the fringe, using straight pins, pin the ribbon onto the back of your belt base. Fold the edges over and pin them down. Now, using whatever stitch you feel comfortable with/accommodates the decoration on the front of the belt, stitch the fringe to your belt, going over the edges multiple times and the center at least twice (you don’t want it to come off, do you?).G. Making the Ties
This is where a sewing machine really comes in handy. Cut out two lengths of the material you are using for your ties—both a little more than twice as wide as you want your ties to be, and a few inches longer. For each tie, place the right side of the fabric down, wrong side up, and fold a bit of one edge over (at least ¾ inch or so). Sew across this edge with a straight seam. Flip the fabric over (now the right side is facing up). Fold in half (now you can see the wrong side) and sew a straight seam across the free edge to make a tube that is closed at one end. Now you have an inside-out tie. Turn it right side out and sew the unfinished edge to the back of your belt. Repeat for the other side.H. Attaching the Backing
If you are using fabric that won’t fray, good for you. All you need to do is cut the fabric down to size and sew it on the back of each half of your belt. Otherwise, finish the edges using no-fray solution or by seaming and sew it on. Don’t use Liquid Stitch or whatever—despite what it claims, it will not affix well to felt. I have made this mistake in the past (not on this belt thank God) and regret it deeply.I. Rock Your Awesome, Awesome New Belt.
You might also want to check out this Bellydance DIY blog
for more project ideas!