Before I started cosplaying, I knew nothing about fabrics and sewing. The first time I walked into a fabric store to find material for a costume, I was completely overwhelmed by all the choices. If it wasn’t for my friends helping me out, I think I would have immediately walked back out without buying anything. Even after 10 years, I’m not an expert at fabrics, but I’ve learned enough to get around a fabric store and understand the basic terms.
In general, the best fabric to use for beginner cosplayers is woven cotton fabric. Whether you’re using a lightweight poplin or medium-weight broadcloth, standard cotton fabrics are easy to sew and come in a variety of colors that make them a great starting point.
After you’ve gained some experience, try sewing with different types of fabric. The best way to learn about fabric is to just start working with them. Go to your local fabric store and look at the fabric, feel the texture and stretchiness, and see how it hangs to get a feel for how it will look in a costume. While this guide can get you started, there is no substitute for gaining experience with hands-on learning.
Understanding different types of fabric for cosplay
When looking at fabrics, they will be defined by the way they are created (knit vs. woven fabrics) and the type of material used to make them (cotton, polyester, wool, etc.). Because of the way they are made, the edges of knit materials tend to fray less than woven materials.
In addition to the basic characteristics of each type of fabric, you also want to consider how it will look combined with other colors and fabrics in your costume, and how it will feel against your skin. You don’t want to end up wearing an itchy costume all day at a convention.
When you first start, you will probably want to aim for woven fabrics. These are easier for beginners to learn how to use and will be a good choice for most characters, as long as they are not wearing a skin-tight suit.
Woven fabrics are made with interlaced threads. They have no stretch to them, so if you want to make something fitted, you’ll have to use zippers or buttons. Some types of woven fabrics have a very loose weave, which makes them transparent, so you’ll also need to take that into account when choosing a fabric.
- Basic Cotton. There are so many types of cotton fabrics that it would take a long time to go through them. In general, these will be flat, somewhat stiff fabrics that can be light-weight to medium-weight. The weave can also vary from a loose transparent to a tight opaque.
- When to use: Standard cotton fabrics are a great choice to use for most costumes. This comes in many different colors and patterns and it’s a very sturdy fabric.
- Linen is really a type of cotton fabric. This kind, specifically, is lightweight and flowier. It’s excellent for cosplays in the summer or for characters who live in hot climates. Beware, linen wrinkles very easily, so you will have to spend a long time with the iron.
- When to use: Linen is best used for costumes that you plan to wear in the summer. Even a suit won’t feel too hot if it’s made out of linen.
- Wool fabric is made from the hair off the coats of animals such as sheep, goats, rabbits, and alpacas. It is known for being one of the warmest materials.
- When to use: Use wool for thicker articles of clothing, such as coats.
- Silk is made from fibers spun by insects, especially the silkworm. It’s a subtly shiny fabric that is expensive and has historically been used to show wealth. There are also silk-lookalike fabrics that are cheaper and can give the same appearance but are more slippery and difficult to work with.
- When to use: Silk creates flowing and elegant costumes. It gives the appearance of a wealthy character.
- Polyester fabrics are essentially made of plastic, synthetic fibers. They are typically pretty cheap, but they’re difficult to dye and iron. The fabric also doesn’t breathe well, so even though it’s not thick fabric, you may end up feeling pretty hot.
- When to use: Polyester is most often the material used if you purchase a costume from a cosplay shop. While I might use polyester blends occasionally (both polyester and cotton fibers), I rarely use pure polyester fabric when sewing.
- Twill has a diagonal weave that makes it a very strong fabric to use. That’s why it’s often used for clothing that will have heavy use, such as pants, and suits.
- When to use: Twill is another good choice of fabric to use with school or military uniforms for your cosplay.
- Chiffon and organza are two types of transparent fabrics. They are decorative and often used on outer layers of garments. Chiffon is more fluid, while organza is a stiff transparent material.
- When to use: Chiffon and organza are best used as layered fabrics. Use it as a veil, on the outer layer of a skirt, or as a flowy decorative fabric on your cosplay.
- Satin and sateen are materials that have one shiny side and one dull side. Polyester satin will often look like cheap, shiny plastic, but higher-end satin can have a nice sheen to it.
- When to use: Satin is used for elegant costumes, such as ball dresses and formal wear. However, if you’re a beginner, beware of low-quality satin that is too shiny, since it will not look good in photographs.
- Velvet is a tufted fabric with a short, fuzzy pile. It can be one of the most expensive types of fabric to work with, but there are cheaper polyester alternatives. It’s very difficult to sew and work with because it’s slippery and sewing can push the fuzzy part in the wrong direction.
- When to use: Velvet is most often used for cloaks or cosplays of royal characters because it creates an expensive look.
- Tulle is a stiff, netted fabric where you can see the holes in the weave. It is bunched together and used to give volume to clothing in the form of a petticoat or other undergarments.
- When to use: Tulle is what you’ll use to create a thick, layered cosplay. It’s most often used in petticoats under large skirts but is also used as lace-like decorations.
- Brocade is an intricate, patterned fabric. It’s usually pretty thick and the edges will fray and shed everywhere. It’s somewhat expensive, but you can use it for most types of clothing. I’ll most often use it on one section of the costume to give it a little bit of a pop.
- When to use: Brocade is best used as an embellishment. Use it as a contrast by making a vest, the trim, or other small areas of the costume with this fabric.
The fibers of knit materials are knitted together, instead of woven. This means the fabrics have some stretch to them. Knit fabrics will have either a 2-way or a 4-way stretch. This means they either stretch in only one direction, or they’ll be fully stretchy whichever way you pull them. 4-way stretch fabrics are, therefore, more versatile, but 2-way stretch still has its uses.
- Spandex is the main stretch fiber used in most types of knit fabrics. This is a highly stretchy fabric that is also lightweight, dries easily, and is very sturdy. Other fabrics, such as scuba, will be mixed with spandex to create less-stretchy alternatives.
- When to use: Spandex is what you want to use if you are creating a bodysuit costume (such as a superhero) or a swimsuit.
- Cotton knit fabric also uses some spandex to create the stretch. Instead of being a smooth fabric, these are soft and highly comfortable. Jersey fabric (used for T-shirts) is a common example of the types of knit material you’ll find, but stretchier alternatives also exist.
- When to use: Use cotton knits for comfortable clothing, such as yoga pants and loungewear.
- Fleece is a soft knit material that has a napped look on at least one side. Generally, you will only use this material for creating comfortable pajamas or winter wear, but it can also be used for a soft lining in coats and can be used for some athletic clothing.
- When to use: Fleece is great for hats and scarfs, or you can create a Kigurumi onesie using fleece. You might also see it used occasionally for sweatshirts and jackets.
When sewing with knit materials, you need to use a different type of stitch. If you were to sew in a simple straight stitch, the thread would snap as soon as it’s stretched. You’ll need to sew in a zig-zag so that the thread will be able to stretch along with the material. If you’re using a sewing machine you can easily switch to the zig-zag stitch setting. If you are hand-sewing, here’s how you stitch knit fabric:
- Make a diagonal stitch up toward the edge of the fabric.
- Make a tiny backstitch.
- Make a diagonal stitch down, away from the edge of the fabric.
- Make a tiny backstitch.
- Repeat steps 1-4
You probably will not be working with real leather when you cosplay. Not only is it difficult to work with, but it’s also very expensive. Instead, you can work with faux leather or faux suede to get the same kind of look.
While it’s not the easiest for beginners to use, faux leather has many uses. It can be used in leather armor, steampunk garments, and even accessories, such as belts, gloves, and shoe covers.
Just like with leather, you’re probably not ever going to work with real fur. However, you can get faux fur material in a myriad of colors. Some of them will try to mimic the appearance of real fur, while other types will be brightly colored or have intense patterns.
Unless you are making a fursuit, you will probably only use faux fur as an embellishment. You might add it to the trim of your shoes or jacket hood. When cutting any kind of fur, make sure to part the hairs out of the way before cutting. This way you won’t end up with an unnatural edge with obviously trimmed fur.
Using muslin to mock-up designs
Muslin is a cheap woven material (usually made from cotton) that you can purchase at fabric stores. It’s usually pretty thin and somewhat see-through and is rarely used for finished garments. Instead, muslin is used for making mock-ups.
The first time you’re making your costume, put it together using muslin fabric. This will help you make sure you know what you’re doing before you make a mistake on your more expensive fabric. Muslin is also great if you have to make any alterations to a pattern you’re using. You can test out a change and use the muslin as your new pattern piece.
Since muslin is a woven fabric, you can’t use it for knit garments. Instead, try looking for discounted fabric remnants next time you’re at the shop, or use leftover fabric from a previous project to make your mock-ups.
How to choose the right fabric for your character
Now that you have a basic understanding of different types of fabrics, it’s time to find the right one for your cosplay. When looking for a fabric, you have to first look at the clothing your character wears. When they are moving, is their clothing stiff or does it flow around them? When they’re standing still, how does the fabric fall?
Using the character research you’ve done, you can look for a fabric that will behave the same way your character’s clothing acts. Use these tips to help you get started:
- Check the drape and texture of the fabric. When you’re in the store, pull a bolt of fabric off the shelf and unravel it a bit. Let the fabric hang down to see how it drapes. Also, pay attention to the way the fabric moves so that you can get an idea of how the fabric will look in motion. Don’t worry, this is a common thing to do in fabric shops so the shopkeepers won’t be upset if they see you playing with the fabric like this.
- Consider the utility. What kind of character are you cosplaying? Silk is more appropriate for wealthy characters, while cotton is a common fabric. Climates with warm weather will need thinner fabrics, while the thicker fabric will be used for coats and cold climates.
- Use the pattern recommendations. If you have a sewing pattern that you’re working with, check the back for the fabric recommendations. There should be one or two types of fabric that are meant to be used with the pattern and will make the garment look like it does in the pictures.
- Consider your own comfort. Feel the fabric before choosing. Is it soft and gentle on your skin, or rough and itchy? Is it see-through in areas that you would rather be opaque?
How to find the right color
Sometimes, the hardest part of finding fabric for your cosplay is finding the right color. Nothing seems to exactly match the character or with the other colors in the costume or you can’t find the right design. First, remember that the color doesn’t have to be an exact match to make a recognizable cosplay.
However, I understand the desire to be as close as possible to the original design. In this case, it’s best to go to the fabric store in person to check out the colors. If you’re unable to, try ordering a bunch of fabric color swatches to give you an idea of the different colors available and how they look next to each other.
- Compare the colors next to each other. If you’re trying to find matching colors, the best thing to do is physically carry the bolt of fabric with you to test it against other colors.
- Check how it photographs. Take out your phone and photograph the fabric with and without the flash. It can sometimes look like a completely different color in a picture, so this will help you get a better idea of what photos will look like.
- Custom print your fabric. If you need a specific pattern for your costume, you can purchase custom printed fabric at some online stores.
- If you cannot find the right color, dye the fabric. Another option is to dye the fabric yourself to create the desired color. In general, natural fibers are easier to dye and will hold the color more easily even when they’re washed. Polyester is notorious for being a difficult fabric to dye.
What types of fabric to avoid for beginner cosplayers
I encourage you to try to work with different types of fabrics. The only way to learn more and get comfortable choosing what’s right for your project is by trying something new. However, if this is your first time buying fabric and making your costume from scratch, there are a couple of types that it’s probably best to stay away from.
- Shiny materials. Satin has a bad reputation in the cosplay community because it’s easy to get a cheap shiny fabric that ends up looking bad on the costume. Once you’ve learned how to find and use shiny materials in a way photographs well, you can try experimenting with them more.
- Slippery fabrics. Velvet, chiffon, silk, and most knit fabrics are slippery, making them difficult to work with. They can be a challenge for even seasoned cosplayers, so it’s best to avoid them for your first costume.
- Thick materials. Leather and other thick materials will require special needles and some advanced skills to work with.
For more detailed information of fabrics, I recommend checking out the website Fabric for Cosplayers.