Tutorial: Reflective recycled inner tube belt

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right?

Or, when life gives you goat head stickers, use your punctured inner tubes to make something fun, like a reflective belt.

I’ve used the technique of insetting a reflective design in inner tube rubber before, but I’ve never talked about it on this blog. I think it looks pretty cool—the black of the rubber combined with the silver of the reflective tape—and it’s high vis, to boot.

I whipped this belt up in an evening, and I’m really happy with how it turned out. It’ll look fabulous wrapped over my Minoru rain coat, once that’s done. (I finished the muslin the same evening I made this belt—pictures to come.)

Sewing bicycle inner tubes

My sewing machine doesn’t always love the materials I try to make it sew, like bicycle inner tubes, for instance. It thinks I should buy an industrial machine if I’m going to keep up with these rubber-leather-Cordura-canvas insanities, but until I have a place to put an industrial machine, little miss Singer is just going to have to deal.

It’s very possible to sew inner tubes on a home machine. Here are a couple of things I’ve learned to make it easier:

1. How to keep the inner tube from sticking: I’ve seen a lot of tips across the interwebs for sewing with sticky materials like rubber and oilcloth, including sewing through a layer of tissue paper, and spreading a thin layer of vegetable oil on the top of the inner tube to help it slide under the presser foot better.

The method that works best for me is to use a teflon presser foot, and stick a few strips of masking tape along the throat plate to help the rubber slide better. I also found that pulling the tube through the needle rather than trying to push it helped keep things moving.

2. How to keep your thread from snarling: Thread tension is the key here. Because you’re sewing through a thicker material, you’ll need to set your machine’s tension to a higher setting. Make a few practice runs on scrap pieces to check before you start sewing your main pieces—tearing out seams and re-stitching can weaken the rubber and cause it to tear.

A sharp needle will also help. I used a titanium-coated one that I got at our local sewing-machine-and-vacuum-cleaner store (you have one of those, don’t you?), but a heavy jeans needle should work, too. Clean it off from time to time with rubbing alcohol to keep everything from gumming up.

3. How to pin inner tubes: Just as with sewing with oilcloth, pinning doesn’t work. I brought out the trusty binder clips to use on the inner tubes, and that was perfect.

With no further ado, let’s:

Make a reflective belt out of recycled inner tubes

Materials
2 busted road bike inner tubes
Reflective tape (about 1/2 yard, depending on your design)
X-Acto knife
Scissors (not your good scissors)
Belt buckle

Step 1: Prepare your inner tubes

Cut both inner tubes a few inches longer than your desired length. I cut out the valve, then wrapped it around my waist until it seemed right (overlapping from hipbone to hipbone). I ended up cutting about 5″ off the final length.

Slit both tubes open along the inside of the curve, then wash them well with dish soap and hot water. Let them dry.

The hot water should help the rubber relax a bit, which will make it easier to work with for the rest of the project.

Step 2: Decide how wide you want your belt to be

This will be dictated in part by the width of your belt buckle. I used one salvaged from a u-lock holster project, so I just measured the width of the original belt. If you buy a belt buckle, the packaging should tell you the correct width.

In this photo you can see my weird way of measuring—I always start at the 1″ mark rather than the end of the tape. This is a holdout from my college days working as a carpenter in the theater stage shop. My technical director always did this, because the ends of tape measures can become loose and fidgety, so if you just hook it over the edge there’s some play in the actual measurement. So when I want to be really exact, I always trust starting at the 1″ over starting at the end (remember to subtract!)

Step 3: Plan your design

My belt is going to be 1 1/4″ wide, so if I leave a 1/4″ border on top and bottom, my design can only be 3/4″ tall. Practically, that means measuring in 1/2″ from the top and the bottom, marking that distance, and sketching my design within those marks.

(I used a Sharpie on the inside of the tube, where it’s more gray than black. It was a bit hard to see, but not too bad.)

Keep your design about 10″ from each end. I went for a stars-and-bars theme, with 3″ in between each motif repeat. I didn’t use a template, though that certainly would make things easier if you want to do so.

Step 4: Cut out your design

Use your X-Acto knife to get a slit started in one of the corners, then use your scissors to finish cutting the rest of the design. I found this to be much easier than doing the whole thing with an X-Acto, since the blade can kind of drag and slip on the rubber. The main thing I would impress on you here is to always snip into the corners—it makes things so much easier!

Step 5: Stitch the top seam

Stitch both tubes together along one long edge. We’ll trim the belt down to this seam, so keep that in mind when choosing a seam width. To explain: My finished belt will be 1 1/4″, but my inner tube is 1 3/4″. So I stitched slightly more than a 1/4″ seam on both sides, so when I trim it down the finished width will be 1 1/4″.

Keep an eye on the bobbin side of things to make sure you’re not snarling the bobbin thread. If you are, adjust your tension.

If you’re skipping a lot of stitches, try using a new sharp needle.

Step 6: Apply the reflective tape

The tape I’m using is a 2″ Silver Adhesive Backed 3M Scotchlight Tape from Seattle Fabrics. Since my design is only 3/4″ wide, I cut it into 1″ strips, then cut those strips into a length that was 1/2″ longer than my design motif.

This stuff is super easy to use—just peel off the backing and stick it on.

Step 7: Stitch the rest

Stitch your second seam, using the same seam measurement you used in Step 5. Be careful to keep the two pieces from slipping against each other and bunching up.

Top stitch 1/4″ inside both seams, to help tack down the edges of your cutout designs. You can add more topstitching if you like, but I thought this worked just fine.

Trim down both sides to a scant 1/8″, and trim both ends so they’re straight.

Step 8: Attach the belt buckle

Cut a hole in the center of your belt about 2″ from the end. Slide the tongue of the buckle through, fold it over, then stitch it down. You’ll probably want to tighten your tension here, since you’re stitching through 4 layers of rubber. It can help to use your hand wheel to walk the machine through, too.

To make a loop, take a 3/8″ strip and top stitch along both sides (I simply salvaged a piece I’d cut off the end of the sewn belt, and trimmed it down). Carefully, carefully, stitch the ends together with a zig-zag. I used the hand wheel, and didn’t have much trouble.

Slide the loop onto the belt.

Try the belt on, then cut a hole for the tongue. You’re done!

Now, to answer the age-old question: how do you take a picture of your ass in the bathroom mirror without the photo looking like you’re going to advertise in the back page of the Stranger?

I’m still working on that one. Cropping helps.

8 thoughts on “Tutorial: Reflective recycled inner tube belt

    • I do it with my cutting mat, too. If I want to cut something 5″ long, instead of moving the end of it to the 0, I’ll usually just count from wherever it happens to be. :)

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    • Masking tape, teflon pressor foot & binder clips? Fucking brilliant! I’ve been having issues with all of the above on my OG home-machine trying to make stash pouches out of recycled tubes. Do you find that heavier thread types bind more easily that regular thread? I can’t wait to try out your suggestions! Thanks!

      • I think heavier thread does a better job, for sure. You should also use a good heavy duty needle (and make sure it’s sharp–I change mine out for every new belt I make). I use either a titanium-coated needle or a leather needle. Neither are too expensive.

        Glad I could be of help!

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