Beginners Guide to Fabric Shopping (Question Box Answer)

Leafeon cosplay
Photo by Ben Gibson

I’m just starting out with sewing and cosplay construction. What are some basic fabrics that are easy to sew and generally look good? I often go with whichever fabric is the right color, but then I find that it’s too thick, it frays way too much, it’s stretchy when I don’t want it to be, or any other weird reason that seems designed to kill a beginner cosplayer. What about going with an easy to work with fabric in a base color and dying it to get the right color, perhaps? I just want simple fabrics with the right colors! – Milly

 

I recently got this question in my ask box, and boy, is it a doozy! Long story short, there is no one fabric that will work for every project. Each outfit and costume is completely different, and there are a ton of things you have to think about every time. There is SO much I would love to write about fabric choices, but it would simply take too long to do at the moment. I hope to in the future have a bit of free time to write out both a comprehensive guide and make a comparison chart similar to my armor materials chart, but it will have to wait until my current projects are finished. For now, I have decided to write a very short, incomplete guide to help introduce new cosplayers to the very basics of fabric shopping just to get you going!

 

The basic considerations:

  1. Fibre content
  2. Weave
  3. Weight
  4. Texture
  5. Color
  6. Cost

Each of these have their place in choosing what your fabric should be for a specific costume. I will go over the basic things you should think about when looking at them, and provide a few examples.

 

Fibre Content

One of the things you should /definitely/ be looking at is: what is this fabric made out of? Some materials can be very easy to clean, others take a ton of maintenance to keep looking good. Some can’t even be cleaned at all. This is all important as a cosplayer because you will be stuck in this costume for a long time, likely for more than one wear, and stains just aren’t an option. Here are a few very common fibres that you should know about:

  • Cotton – Cotton is great, but, it’s a pain in the arse to care for on it’s own. It’s a natural fibre and has very few anti-wrinkle properties. My Leafeon dress had a 100% cotton outer, and I had to steam and iron it EVERY TIME I put it on, or it would look like a crumpled up tissue. And sometimes I would have to steam it throughout the day if I had a big shoot or event. Usually by the end of the day, I went right back to crumpled tissue.
  • Polyester – This stuff is pretty great. However, on it’s own, it can end up looking quite shiny and cheap on some fabrics. It is quite easy to remove wrinkles from and they don’t tend to stick around. It tends to balance out the negative properties of cotton, and as such, poly-cotton blends are very popular. These are quite easy to work with and I highly recommend them for beginners.
  • Silk – Real silk can sometimes be found. It is very expensive, very pretty, and very hard to take care of. It can’t be washed normally and pretty much always needs to be dry cleaned, or not cleaned at all. So, unless you’re going for extreme historical accuracy, I’d say pass on the real silk.
  • Nylon – Nylon can also be great. Easy to care for, high strength, comes in all sorts of finishes. The only downside is that it is resistant to adhesives and iron-on products.
  • Wool – Sometimes you will find heavier fabrics made of wool. These can get extremely warm, and scratchy. Useful for coats and similar garments, not much else.
  • Spandex – Very stretchy and pretty awesome. I enjoy working with it on projects that need a lot of stretch to them. Other than that, it doesn’t have much of a use.

 

Weave

The way a fabric is woven has a large impact on the properties of the final fabric. There are many different weaves, however, I will just look at the difference between woven and knit fabric today.

Woven fabric is the type of fabric that has very little or no stretch to it. It is typically found in the quilting, upholstery, and garment sections of the store. It is best suited for doing anything that isn’t tightly fitted to the parts of the body that need to move (knees, elbows, etc). It can come in all sorts of weights, from sheer to heavy. Just avoid using this stuff for things like bodysuits, tight pants, tight shirts, or anything else that needs to stretch in the slightest. Things it is good for include jackets, structured garments such as bodices or corsets, and anything else that needs to avoid stretching

Knit fabric is the type of fabric that stretches. It is usually found in the garment section of the store, or it might have it’s own section. The amount of stretch a knit has can vary greatly and typically there are different amounts of stretch that are best for each project. Knit fabrics are amazing for things like bodysuits, tightly fitting shirts, shirt sleeves, leggings, or anything else that needs more movement. It is not all that great for anything needing structure, such as coats, loose fitting clothing, structured bodices, and anything else that requires a solid structure.

 

Weight

The weight of a fabric is essentially how thick it is. The weight will affect how it drapes, how much structure it can keep, how warm it will be to wear, among other things. If you are looking to make a light and airy dress that flows behind you as you walk, stick to lightweight fabrics. If you are looking for a strongly structured jacket, go for a heavy weight. Anything that needs strength, such as a corset or a bag, should probably be made out of heavy fabric. If you will be wearing this costume in Arizona during the summer, stick to lightweight fabrics. There are many things the weight will affect, so just try to think about the role of the fabric and how it will work on your costume before you buy it.

 

Texture

The texture on the fabric can have a huge effect on the final outcome of the outfit. Some fabrics are shiny and smooth, such as satin. Others have a dense texture with no shine at all. Some have raised patterns. Texture can seriously affect the final look of the costume. Try to stay as close as possible to the reference material for this, or your fabric will look wrong even if everything else is correct. For instance, don’t use a shiny satin on a military uniform – it just doesn’t work!

 

Color

The color of the fabric should be as close as you can get, but honestly, is one of the least important things to get exact in this situation. No one at a con will be holding a reference picture up to your costume and saying “this is two shades too light!”. If you can get something close, it will be good enough.

Things also tend to look a lot different in different lighting situations. If you are concerned about the color, it is best to take a picture of the fabric both inside and outside, in artificial and natural light. This will give you the best idea of what it will look like on photos. Don’t be too concerned if it isn’t exact, as it will change from location to location anyway.

Also, if you have found the perfect fabric but it is not the right color, it is quite easy to dye your own fabric at home! There are many types of dye available for all kinds of fibre, make sure you are getting the correct one for the fabric you are attempting to dye. If you can find a white fabric this will work the best for dyeing, otherwise, you will have to attempt to correct for the previous color of the fabric when mixing your dye.

 

Cost

The cost of your fabric can also be a consideration for some people. I tend to always look in the bargain, clearance and sale sections before all others when shopping for fabric. Quite often, there will be a large, mixed variety of fabrics there that I could potentially use for my project. Many of them are not labeled, and in this case it is best to be able to identify the properties of the fabric instead of the name. That is why I’ve attempted to write this guide in a way that explains the properties of the fabric, over just listing some names and throwing you to the wilds.

By Otafest Photobooth
By Otafest Photobooth

In an attempt for historical accuracy, my leafeon costume was made mostly out of 100% cotton broadcloth. The wrinkles everywhere were horrible, and it needed to be steamed constantly. Yay history!

By WeNeals Photography and Retouching
Photo By WeNeals Photography and Retouching

This jacket was made of a woven polycotton blend. It had a decent amount of structure to keep the collar and sleeves stiff, and the fabric draped well. The dress is made of a thick woven polyester, also to create nice draping and structure through the bodice.

By Eurobeat Kasumi Photography
By Eurobeat Kasumi Photography

I got a little smarter with my vaporeon and used 100% polyester fabric from the discount section. Woven, with a raised line texture that reminded me of water. Heavy and resistant to stretch for a nice, structured garment.

By Otafest Photobooth
By Otafest Photobooth

The jacket for Popplio was made of a lightly stretchy woven fabric to keep some structure in the chest. The shirt and socks were a thin knit that fit close to my body. The shorts were made of a lightly stretchy, thick polyester fabric that allowed me to move easily.

By DMAC Studios
By DMAC Studios

My bodysuit for lady loki was a sports knit that I managed to get some smocking into. This made it fit close to my body and stretch with my movement. Sports knit is about the best thing you can use for bodysuits!

 

Fabrics to stay away from:
darkmoon faire cosplay
By Blizzcon Photographers

Ah yes, Satin. This costume was one of my first times working with satin, and you can tell. The wrinkles tell all! The purple bits were a woven polyester for lining, which didn’t fare much better at all.

Well, now you know what to look for in a fabric! But, I feel like I should mention some that a beginner should DEFINITELY stay away from. These are difficult to work with, require special tools, or are just generally nasty.

Slippery fabrics (Satin, chiffon, etc) – These fabrics can be awful. Just, don’t use them. There are a few things that they can be good for, but for a beginner, they are a killer. They wrinkle up as you sew, and usually show every wrinkle because of their shiny texture.They are incredibly slippery, and hard to get clean stitches on. Just don’t do it unless you really have to, and if you do, look up some tutorials before you try it.

Loosely woven, fraying fabrics – Always look at the cut line on the fabric before you buy. If the fabric is fraying a ton, it’s probably going to fray a lot after you cut it, too. Fabrics like this can completely come apart at the seams if proper precautions aren’t taken to make sure that the edges don’t fray. This also applies to webbing, straps, anything else that might come undone.

Leather, pleather, thick vinyls – These can be very difficult to work with for a beginner. They require a stronger sewing machine, special needles, and tons of precautions and special sewing to ensure everything stays together as intended. Although they look great on a finished costume, I would stay away if I was a beginner.

 

Conclusion

That’s all I’ve got for this time. I hope some of this has helped you think about the properties you are looking for in a fabric. As easy as it would be to say “XYZ works for all costumes”, it’s just not that easy. And though there are a few really easy fabric types (broadcloth, suiting, sports knit), they also do not solve all problems with figuring out a fabric to use. The easiest way to learn to buy fabric is to start thinking about the fabric’s properties as you shop, and go from there. I know this is a lot to take in as a beginner, but I promise you, it will help you significantly in the long run!

 

 

 

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