The Tragic Optimist

monarch butterfly costume

This weekend was the Monarch Festival.  There’s a fun run for kids, and kids are encouraged to wear costumes.  Luckily for me, my parents were visiting the weekend before the festival, and my mom is a miracle-worker when it comes to pulling together costumes — actually, she’s pretty much magic when it comes to anything fiber-related, and she loves figuring out how to make things.

So Zoe and my mom worked together to design and create her wings.  Zoe and I made her mask.  Zoe and I both I love how the whole thing turned out..

Butterfly from the front.

Butterfly from the front.


from the back.


Zoe and the costume in action during the Monarch Festival’s fun run.

When I posted pictures to facebook, I got a lot of requests for instructions.  Of course, when we were working on the costume, we didn’t write down the steps, or take notes, or even many pictures.  So I wasn’t sure that I could give much in the way of instructions.  Then mom surprised me with a written set of instructions.  And I was reminded that not only is she amazing with all things fiber and fabric, she’s also a great teacher and writer.

So here’s the butterfly costume instructions, written out by my mom.  I wish we had good photos to illustrate.

Instructions for making butterfly wings


  • Photo of a butterfly for reference if you’re going for realism (we used this one)
  • Large paper to draw wing pattern – as big as you want the wings to be
  • Thick 1/8“ aluminum wire (easy to shape, jewelry area Micheals)
  • Stretchy fine tulle netting, (this one was orange and had glitter all over it, JoAnns)
  • Thread (colors should match the felt and the tulle).
  • Sewing machine
  • 2”X 8” corrugated cardboard (the backbone for supporting the wing wires, cut so the corrugation is crosswise for sticking the wing-wire into)
  • Black felt pieces
  • Black permanent marker
  • Other felt pieces
  • ¼ inch Black elastic for straps

Zoe’s part

Draw the shape of the wings you want, (we were looking at a pair of fairy wings for comparison), it’s good if the upper and lower wings overlap a an inch or so

Grammy’s part

  1. Cut backbone from corrugated cardboard 2 inch by 8 inch

For each set of wings:

  1. Cut and shape 2 wires with 2 inch extensions for attaching to the backbone.
  2. Using the wing cut a double layer of tulle about a ½ inch bigger all the way around the wing.
  3. Stitch with a wide zig-zag, open stitch (should look like  wwww  so it will stretch) ½ inch seam allowance, leave open about 2 inches at the backbone area
  4. Turn the tulle-wing right side out, with the seam inside
  5. To insert the wire into the stitched tulle you will have to collapse it from some point, so the wire looks a little like a large bobby pin.  Once the tight fold is inside the tulle you will need to adjust it so all the wire goes into the tulle.  Then you should be able to reshape the wing to your pattern.  Don’t worry if the tulle is a bit loose, all the stitching and gluing will fix that.
  6. Repeat for each wing.
  7. Insert wing-wires through the corrugation, into the backbone. It will all probably be floppy, don’t worry too much.  Pull the tulle tight over the cardboard and stitch the tulle to the cardboard, to hold the wire ends in place in the backbone.
  8. Using a butterfly photo begin to lay out black felt to cover the top edges and mimic the outer markings of the butterfly.  Let the black felt extend a ¼ inch or so past the wire edge.  Just overlap pieces by an inch or so.  (Black felt can hide a lot of mistakes)
  9. Hand stitch the outline felt pieces on the backbone and the tulle shaping the wire a bit more as you go.
  10. I had to hand stitch the overlapping areas top wing over bottom wing, to add structural integrity.

Now the fun part of decorating the wings!


Adding the dots to the wings.

Cut lots of ½ inch wide stripes of black felt for the wing markings.  

Zoe’s part:

Zoe placed the black felt lines where ever she wanted them on the wings.  Grammy pinned the felt in place and stitches them down.

Grammy’s part again:

I was short on time.  I was able to do this on the sewing machine by always starting at the outer edge of the wing and stitching towards the backbone.

Some of Grammy’s thoughts on this:

  • Hand stitching would be easier
  • Putting the markings on before attaching to the backbone would also be easier but harder for the child to imagine while it is in separate pieces.

Ann’s part

Use a wide permanent black marker to draw on the back side of the tulle over the stitching and the black felt.  This made the black lines stand out better on both sides of the wings.

Zoe’s part

Glue on felt spots wherever you want them on to the black felt.  We tried gluing on to the tulle on the back side of the wings and that didn’t work, but we were able to put the dots where ever there was felt.

Ann’s part

Sew on the elastic straps to the backbone.  Crisscross is probably best.

I also sewed a few of the dots down that weren’t staying on well with glue.

I will say that these wings were very bendable, so they’d get bent whenever Zoe hit anything with them (which happens often when you’re at a crowded festival).  They were very easy to bend back into shape, but depending on what you want to do with the wings, you might need less malleable wire, which might be harder to work with.

Instructions for making the mask

mask close-up

The mask is based on this fantastic design that a friend came up with for kids in glasses – the mask simply slides on to the glasses, so it stays in place perfectly.  It’s genius!  There’s a tutorial for the general mask here.  But for the butterfly mask, I cut the foam so that there’s a very thin border of foam around the bottom of the glasses and a thicker bit over Zoe’s nose.  We threaded a pipe cleaner into the nose and Zoe shaped it to be the proboscis.  The whole mask is cut from one piece of foam, but the antennae were a little droopy, so I stitched a pipe cleaner into the back of the mask to give it a little support.

If your child doesn’t wear glasses, you could do a similar mask with sunglasses, especially if they’ll be outside in the costume.  There were also a lot of kids wearing headbands with antennae.   Zoe was the only kid with a proboscis.

1 Comment

  1. This is such a cute monarch butterfly costume – it’s all the more impressive considering you created it all at home!

    I wanted to let you and your readers know about a Creative Costume Contest that is happening over at – the best part has to be the $250 grand prize.

    Congrats on the beautiful costume – it will make a great Halloween costume too!


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