Thursday, July 18, 2013

Swimming Mermaid Tail Tutorial - How I made my new Neoprene tail

It's finished!  It's finally finally finished!

Well, except for all the additional decorating and sequining and seaweed and such.  But it's finished enough for Prime Time.

How to Make a Mermaid Tail


  • 1 sheet of 3 mm dark green neoprene (I got mine from Seattle Fabrics)
  • A Monofin - I got the "Rapid" from FINIS.  If in doubt, get the bigger foot-size.  You won't regret it.
  • 1/2 yd of Clear, lightweight vinyl for the wiggly fins - I got mine at JoAnn Fabrics.
  • A small piece of leather for the stomp-pad.  I got a used leather jacket from a thrift store and cut it from that.
  • Sparkly green spandex for the waistband
  • Jones Tones Metallic 3-D paint in lots of colors - I got the 8.9 oz bottles of blue swirl, teal, jade, emerald, sage, moss, black metal, and ivory, and a smaller bottle of violet.  
  • Holographic glitter
  • A big roll of 2" velcro
  • 2 heavy duty snaps
  • about 1 yard of 2" non-roll elastic for the waist band
  • Heavy-duty upholstery thread and leather needles
  • Pretty decorative thread for edging
  • Paint brushes & sponges for painting



First, I drew.  I sketched, I colored, I planned and schemed and designed.  I wanted this tail to be a little more "realistic" than my last tail, which had fabric fins and sequin trims and looks a little more cartoon-ish.  When I came up with a shape and color scheme I liked, I sketched it out with a silver sharpie on the back side of my neoprene to make sure I had enough.  I actually ended up having to piece one little section on the back, but it turned out to be not-too noticeable in the end so I consider that a Win.  

Patterning / Sizing:  

The neoprene is pretty stretchy, which makes sizing fairly easy, but adding the paint takes a whole lot of the stretch away.  A good technique is to lay down on the neoprene and have someone trace your outline.  Make it bigger than you think you need - it's always easy to make it smaller, but if it's too small there's no going back!

For the fluke, just be sure your monofin will fit snugly inside.  Trace around it and add a little extra for seam allowance at the edges.  Remember it'll get pretty thick around your ankles so leave plenty of room there too.

I plan to use this tail at a lot of events and parties, so I wanted to make it two pieces.  This way I can get into the top half and still be able to walk around (sort-of) instead of relying on a handler to carry me from my car or changing room all the way to the water.   I made the joining line a "v" shape so it's not quite as obvious that it's a seam.

Making the Basic Tail

I cut the tail out and made little darts in the back, to help it curve in at the top.  Then, I added the soft side of the velcro to the inside of the top half.  It is MUCH easier to get that on now before it's sewn together and painted!

Then I sewed the side seams and tried it on.  I did a lot of adjusting at this stage, getting the length right and the width right.  It's hard to change any of that once the tail is painted, so I had to be pretty sure it was right.

Stomp Pad

The first place mermaid tails wear out is underneath the heels.  We try and try NOT to stand up in our tails, but we're only human!  (see what I did there?)  It's kind of unavoidable if the tail gets a lot of use.  So I worked a stomp pad into the design.  I made it out of leather, cut from an old leather jacket I got at the thrift store for $5.  I just basically traced the biggest teardrop shape I could from the biggest unbroken piece of leather in the jacket (the back) and cut it out.  I edged it using a rolled edge stitch on my serger, then painted it.

This was a great place to practice and perfect my scale-painting technique.  The Jones Tones paints are delightful - they're glue-based, and easy to work with and they shimmer and shine.  I tried to use all the different colors in varying amounts to create a gradient effect.  I sprinkled the whole thing with holographic glitter before the paint was dry, so the glitter is effectively part of the tail.

I made a second one for the front side, for symmetry.  I used a neoprene base for this one since I didn't have any more leather and the neoprene leaves a smoother finish under the paint.

Wiggly Fins / Trim

To hide the seam, I made some seaweed-style fringe "fins" to line the top part of the tail.

Fringes (taken after the tail was painted, but I sewed them on before painting)
First, I sponge-painted a thin layer of Jones Tones paint onto the clear vinyl.  I did 3"strips of light green, darker green, and jade blue.  I cut the strips apart and then cut the fringes (leaving about 1" of uncut vinyl for attaching at the top).  I layered the 3 different colored strips of fringe and sewed them together.  Then I sewed them to the "skirt" part of the tail.

I also made some longer clear fringes, the width of the bottom of the fluke, and sewed them on.
Fluke, with clear fringes at the bottom and the stomp pad in place. 


When I was sure my upper tail fit well, I started the painting process.  This took a Very. Long. Time.  I masked the fringe fins, then did a couple thick paint coats along the edges first, to try and hide the seam lines a bit.

Then, starting at the bottom so they layered well, I painted the scales one at a time.  I made sure to line them up in an arc, rather than in a straight line from left to right - scales should flow, not march like soldiers, wot?  This was time consuming but SUPER satisfying.

In my design, the tail is lighter in the center and darker at the edges with a gradient effect.  I think it turned out lovely.

With regards to the design for the fluke, I really still didn't know what I wanted it to look like at this point.  I'd done about a dozen different drawings, but just wasn't "nailing" it.  So I laid the pieces of the tail out and took a picture, and then played with it in photoshop for a while until I came up with this design:

I was not sure if the 3-d paint would really be able to give me that much definition, but I gave it a shot and it turned out surprisingly well.

I started on the back (since if I screwed up, I wouldn't have to see it as much).  First I did a base coat of ivory white: 

You can see where I had to piece the neoprene!
Then I added the veins and did the painting with sponges, to blend the colors together.

I finished the whole tail using this method, then decided there wasn't nearly enough texture so I added another layer of paint and applied it using a large-toothed comb to make texture and "veins" all the way through.  Then I added glitter (of course!) before the paint dried and.. wowza.  It turned out nice.

Assembly & Finishing 

I sewed the front and back of the fluke together with my serger, leaving the bottom open.  This was super tricky - the sewing machine wants to stick to the paint.  I used leather needles (sharps) and intrinsic upholstery thread (super strong!) and ultimately got it to come together, after much frustration.  Then I fitted the whole thing and added the velcro onto the fluke where it would line up correctly with the velcro on the top.  

I added a couple more layers of paint over the seams and the edges of the fluke, and then slid the monofin up inside.  I stitched the bottom closed, leaving openings every few inches for drainage (if you stitch the whole tail closed it'll fill up with water and swamp you).

I added the waistband at the top, so the back doesn't gape open and show my butt crack - I have very round hips and a very small waist so this is a problem for me with skirts and jeans and any clothing that's not yoga pants, really, but lots of mermaid tails don't bother with elastic waistbands.  

I basically made a tube out of the shiny green spandex, threaded the right amount of elastic through (carefully and exactly measured by quickly wrapping it around my waist and eyeballing), then sewed the spandex onto the top of the tail.  

Lastly, I hand-sewed a heavy duty snap to the front and back at the point of the top part of the tail to keep it down. 


In conclusion.. I LOVE it!  It's a zoomy little tail - it seems faster and lighter than my previous one, with better drainage.  

I still want to add more vinyl fins to the bottom, probably colored since the clear vinyl ones just disappear.  I also want to add some shiny sequins to the sides of the fluke, peeking out from the fringe.  Also, right now the tail bunches a little too much around my ankles, so I'm pondering how to streamline it a bit.  

Let me know what you think!

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