Exacting Nerdy Revenge: Make a Tri-Lam Sweater!

Introduction: Exacting Nerdy Revenge: Make a Tri-Lam Sweater!

About: My days are filled with engineering, green energy, and science writing. And costumes. Don't forget to wear your costumes.

Looking to earn some serious geek cred at your next con or nerd party? Look no further: make yourself a cozy cardigan and send everyone's nostalgia reeling with your very own replica of the iconic "Tri-Lam" sweater from the beloved '80s classic, Revenge of the Nerds.

This project will require some basic sewing skills and some moderate re-purposing skills-- that is, it requires a penchant for sourcing easily-modifiable project pieces. I'll provide some suggestions and ideas for places to start looking.

This project was also inspired in part by the replica sweater from 80sTees.com . You could just buy it from there, I suppose... but where's the Maker Spirit in that?

Let's get started: I know you're all anxious to become "NEEEEEEEEERDS!"

Step 1: Materials

As with any costume project where screen-accuracy is important, we begin with research. Screenshots and photos of these sweaters are surprising scarce, so the primary photo I looked at is the Tri-Lam group shot. This is where you can get really nit-picky about the details. I tend not to be too anal about being 100% screen-accurate, as long as I get the overall idea across. For example, my sweater has white trim along the bottom hem and the cuffs, whereas the movie version doesn't. If you feel like being more screen-accurate, go for it.

Key features that will make folks think Revenge of the Nerds upon seeing it (AKA, the features a decent reproduction should have):
  • ~1" white trim
  • V-neck
  • White buttons
  • Lower pockets with white trim
  • Black-and-white Lambda-Lambda-Lambda badge on upper left chest
  • Black knit background

That said, you'll need:

  • A sweater to modify (see step 2 for details)
  • White thread
  • Black thread
  • Sturdy needle
  • Fabric Scissors
  • Paper/craft Scissors
  • White felt (one standard 8.5x11" sheet should be plenty for the project + mistakes)
  • Black felt (ditto)
  • Straight pins
  • A ruler
  • scrap paper for a pattern
  • Some matching plain white buttons
  • A seam ripper (useful, but not essential)

Step 2: Sweater Specifics

I made my Tri-Lam sweater by modifying a retro-tastic old lady's top that I got at a seconds discount store for $5. It looked a lot like these sweaters: it had white trim, gold buttons, and a really tacky lace-and-ribbon sewn-on brooch. It was a complicated beginning, but it goes to show what can be done with a little vision.

When you source your sweater, keep in mind that with a seam-ripper and some creativity, you can modify a wide range of hideous clothing into exactly what you want.

Some things to look for that will make your mod job easier:

  • White trim, especially on lower pockets
  • Existing V-neck
  • Existing buttons and buttonholes
  • Embellishments (brooches, extra buttons, etc) that can be easily taken off. Stitches are easy to rip, while glue leaves a big, ugly spot behind.
Pictured here are some example sweaters that could easily work. Luckily for us, this style of sweater is pretty generic and easy to find.

Step 3: Begin Modifications

This is the part that varies, based on how lucky you were in your sourcing expedition.

I'll try to keep this fairly modular so you can just skip to the changes that your particular sweater needs.

For my original sweater, I needed to adjust the neckline, modify the placket (the strip along the front opening where the buttons go), and swap out the buttons.

Step 4: Adjust the Neckline Part 1

With some clever folding, overlapping, and stitching, we can smooth that sharp, square neckline into a smooth V-neck. This takes a little patience and a whole lot of straight pins, but the more careful you are here, the more natural your neckline will look!

First, open up the sweater and line up the bottom hems. Mark where you want the bottom of the V-neck to start with a pin. Make sure to mark both sides of the sweater opening so the V will be even! Now, mark the top part of the V along the collar. Ideally, the V-neck will make a straight line from where the neck meets the shoulder seam to the point you just marked as the bottom. I'll call this the V-line. I wanted more of a feminine scoop, so I made the bottom of the V much lower than the movie version. Mark this line with some straight pins.

With the top and bottom points of the V marked, you can now start adjusting the white trim of the placket into place. Start with one side. Holding the pin at the bottom of the V in place as a pivot point, fold the straight edge back so it's in-line with the V-line. Pin the edge in place. If any black knit peeks out towards the front of the sweater once the edge is folded back, tuck it neatly under the edge and pin it in place.

When you're happy with how this looks, stitch along the sides of the trim with the white thread (a whipstitch might be the handiest method). Then take out the pins.

Step 5: Adjust the Neckline Part 2

But ho! there's all this squiggly mess now, right where the square neckline's been folded back on itself! We'll hide all this with a tricksy cheat: neatly snip the trim as close to the original angle of the neckline as possible. Cut the trim away from the black for about 2", or however much you need to so that the trim can pivot in a straight line and stay in-line with the V-line. Adjust, pin, and straighten until you're happy with how straight your V-line looks. You might need to cut the white trim down so that it can lie neatly alongside the other segment.

Finally, when it's lying nice and flat, stitch in place with white thread, stitching down as much of the raw edge as possible.

Repeat for the other side of the neckline. Your sweater now has a V-neck!

Step 6: Modify the Placket and Swap the Buttons

"Placket" is a fancy sewing term that refers to the folded-over area where either a row of buttons or a row of buttonholes is sewn. Each sweater you come across might treat plackets differently: some have a row of buttons and properly-sized buttonholes already, some simply have the buttons permanently sewn over both layers, some just hang open without buttons or holes. How many buttons you put on is entirely up to you and how functional you want your sweater to be. The screen versions have 6.

Mine was the second variety: the thread holding on the gold buttons also held the front of the sweater closed, making it less of a cardigan and more of a pullover. I didn't feel like making functional buttonholes, so I just kept it the same way. I overlapped the plackets according to the standard for female tops*, marked out even spacing between the bottom hem and the bottom V-point, and sewed on three plain white buttons with white thread, making sure to go through both layers.

If you would like to make a functional, fully buttoning placket (the screen-accurate option), simply mark out the same spacing on both sides, sew the buttons on the appropriate one, and on the other make buttonholes using white thread and your favorite sewing machine's automated buttonhole program. Just make sure they're the same diameter as whatever buttons you're using!

* In the Western fashion world, we still follow a rather archaic standard for putting on buttons, purportedly left over from the days where women had servants to help dress them while men were left to their own devices. Whether or not that's the true origin, the convention holds: men's buttons are on the right side of their shirts, while women's are on the left. A handy--albeit sexist--mnemonic for this that my costuming mentor taught me is, "Women are always right on top, while men get what's left over."

Step 7: Other Modifications You Might Need to Make

Based on what condition your original sweater is in, you might have some more modifications to make. Here's some suggestions:

Turning a zipper closure into buttons:
Zipper are almost always sewn onto a garment. Take a close look and you'll see the stitches holding it in place. Carefully rip these out with a seam ripper and the zipper will come away (save it for another project!). Sometimes, the zipper is stitched on top of the trim, and sometimes the trim surrounds it. If you take apart anything important, you can always just stitch it right back up once the zipper's out!

Taking off a pocket:
If your sweater has more pockets than needed, you can also snip them off and sew up the opening.

Adding a pocket (or at least the appearance of one):
This Instructable is an excellent overview on the innards of pockets:

If you're not interested in a functional pocket but still want the white pocket cuff, take some leftover trim from the neckline or a scrap of white felt and simply stitch it in place.

Taking off a collar:
Similar to removing a zipper, a collar sometimes has been sewn on post-knitting. Take out the stitches, then re-stitch the collar stand (the band against your neck, right below the collar). If it wasn't sewn on, just trim it off, leaving the white border behind. Some knits won't unravel if you just leave them raw like this: others will. If your sweater is threatening to unravel, stitch along the raw edge to hold it in place, or keep it together with a little bit of Fray-Check.

Step 8: Make the Tri-Lam Badge

Now comes the fun, crafty part: making yourself an iconic Tri-Lam badge. Mine has three layers: a base layer of black felt, a white triangle on top, and then three black felt lambdas sewn on top in a triangle. The important thing is using a nice pair of sharp and precise scissors to give your shapes nice crisp edges!

First, draft a pattern: use the scrap paper, a pencil, and ruler to draft an equilateral triangle. I snipped the edges off, which the screen version actually shows as more round, but that's because I like the sharp look of geometric felt. :) Cut the triangle out (remember to use craft scissors instead of your sharp fabric scissors!) and hold it up to your chest to gauge if the size is right for you. Keep in mind how much room you have on the front of the sweater you just modified. From the triangle pattern, you can draft the three pieces of the badge:

  • For the black base, pin the whole equilateral triangle to some black felt, and cut out.
  • For the white base, trim off 1/4" from each edge of the paper triangle pattern. A ruler might help you draw this out. Pin this to some white felt, and cut out. Center this white triangle on the black base, pin, and neatly stitch around the edge with white thread to hold the two pieces together.
  • For the black Lambdas, trim another 1/4" from each edge of the paper pattern. Cut your trimmed triangle pattern into four smaller equilateral triangles (think of cutting it into a triforce). Within one of these triangles, sketch out a Lambda, using your ruler to make the lines nice and straight. Cut out this lambda and pin it to some black felt, then carefully cut it out of the fabric. Here's where making nice, clean lines will really make a difference! Pin the Lambdas out in the "triforce" formation, then neatly stitch on with black thread.

Step 9: Sew on the Badge

Pin the badge on the front left of your sweater, try it on to see if you like it, and stitch on with black thread along the black boarder.

Step 10: Grab Your Calculator and Enjoy!

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