How to Paint Fabric for Cosplay Costumes

tips for painting fabric for cosplay

Many anime and comic costumes have unique designs that you’re not going to find at the fabric store. This can be anything from a superhero logo to a specific pattern of stripes on your character’s T-shirt. If you can’t find the fabric or clothing that works for your character, you can use paint to create the design yourself.

Painting fabric is not all that different from painting other props. You need to use a special kind of paint that will be flexible with the fabric, and you’ll probably want to use stencils to help create neat designs since there is no way to correct mistakes. 

Fabric paint can be used to create stripes, checkers, detailed designs, or even large blocks of color. You can also use fabric dye to create gradients on the fabric of your costume pieces.

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painting designs with fabric paint
You can use a stencil to easily make repeatable designs with fabric paint.

Painting designs on fabric (including stripes)

To paint designs onto your costume, you need to use a special kind of paint made for fabric. If you try to use other types of paint (such as regular acrylic paint) you’ll notice that as soon as the fabric starts to bend or stretch, the paint will crack and chip. Fabric, or textile, paint is meant to be more flexible so that it can move with the material it’s painted onto. Textile paint is also made so that it won’t bleed into surrounding areas of the fabric so you can still create sharp lines with the paint.

The type of fabric paint that you choose does matter. Brands that are too cheap will give you less of the flexibility you’ll want for fabric paint, whereas better brands will make the paint almost appear to be part of the fabric. My go-to textile paint brand is Jacquard. These paints leave the fabric fairly soft while not being exorbitantly expensive.

Tip: Always put paper or cardboard as a backing to the layer of fabric while painting. If you don’t, the paint will bleed through and you’ll end up painting the back of your costume or the table that you’re working on.

using fabric paint with a stencil
When painting with a stencil, be sure to paint inward, away from the edge of the stencil. This will keep you from accidentally painting underneath the edge.

Using textile paint to add designs to your costume

For the most part, you can treat fabric the same way you treat any other surface that you’re painting, it’s just a little more difficult because it moves a bit. When painting fabric, try to make it as flat as possible. It can even help to tape the material to a flat piece of cardboard underneath.

You obviously can’t use a pencil on your fabric to draw out your design before painting, but you can use tailor’s chalk. Tailor’s chalk is a tool used in sewing to make markings that will easily wash away with a little bit of water. You can use it to draw your design onto your fabric before painting. Then use a damp cloth to wipe any visible chalk away after the paint has completely dried.

The other thing you can do is create a custom stencil for your costume. This is especially useful if you’re making any repeating symbols or if you want to make a design perfectly symmetrical on both sides of the fabric. You can, of course, freehand your design if you want to, but if you’re anything like me with unsteady hands, the stencil method is a lifesaver. There are no do-overs with fabric paint. Once it’s on the fabric it stays on the fabric.

To create a custom stencil all you need is some thin sheets of stencil plastic and your design.

  1. Start by drawing your design on paper.
  2. Tape your paper underneath the plastic stencil sheet and cut it out. I like to use an X-acto knife or sharp razor instead of scissors for this.
  3. Place the stencil over top of your fabric and paint.

Tip: When using a stencil, remember to always paint with your brush starting at the edge of the stencil and moving in toward the center. This will prevent paint from going under the edge of your stencil and messing up the shape.

stripes on fabric
If your cosplay calls for stripes and you can’t find the correct fabric, you can make them yourself with fabric paint.

Painting stripes on your costume

It’s pretty common for character designs to have a striped shirt, socks, or other articles of clothing that are too specific to find the correct fabric. In this case, you’ll need to create your own stripes to perfect your costume. Remember, it’s usually best to start with a base of the lighter color stripe, then paint the darker one on top.

using masking tape to paint stripes
Instead of making a stencil, you can use masking tape to block of stripes on fabric.

Stripes are among the easiest designs to create for a costume. All you need is some masking tape or painter’s tape in the thickness of your stripes, then use a ruler to apply it across the length of the material. So if you want one-inch stripes, place the lines of tape one inch apart from each other and paint in the gaps. You can use the same idea to create a checkered, diamond, or other geometric patterned designs.

Tip: If you’re making a costume that has stripes or a repeating geometric design throughout the costume, try painting the fabric before cutting out your pattern pieces so you won’t have to worry about getting the paint correct on seams or other difficult areas.

painting bright colors on dark fabric
One way to make bright colors on dark fabric is to first paint a layer of white. Once that dries, add the lighter colored paint on top to make it nice and bright.

Painting dark-colored fabrics

I know I’ve said to always start with a light fabric and paint it darker, but that’s not a rule that you always have to follow. In general, you’ll get softer fabric as an end result if you go light to dark, but there are ways of painting dark fabric if that’s what makes sense for your costume.

The first way to do this is by getting paints that are specifically made for dark fabric. For example, Jacquard has a line of highly pigmented paints called Neopaque that is meant to work well on all types of backgrounds, even dark colors.

The other option is to use white fabric paint as a base layer. One that dries, add your paint on top of that and you should still be able to achieve a fairly bright color. You may need to add more that one layer of color with this method.

stretching the fabric
If you’re using stretchy fabric, you’ll usually need to pin it in stretched out before painting. You can also use paper clips or binder clips to help you out.

Painting stretchy fabrics

If you want to paint a fabric that needs to stretch, the best practice is to paint it when it is stretched out as it will be when you wear it. Since the fabric paint does not stretch or compress the same way stretch fabric does, you have to think about how the paint will look on the finished costume while you’re wearing it.

This generally means stretching the fabric while you paint it. You don’t need to stretch the fabric all the way to its limits (unless that’s how you’ll wear it), but it probably needs to be stretched at least a little bit to look right when you’re finished.

One way to do this is to wear the costume piece while you’re painting it. But it’s not always ideal since you might need the help of a friend to paint everything, and you need to keep the costume on until the paint fully dries (which can take a couple of hours).

Instead, it’s usually best to stuff the article of clothing (like stuffing a sock or stocking) or pin it in a stretched-out position until the paint dries. You can also put your costume onto a dress form and paint it that way.

ironing the back of the fabric
To set the fabric paint, iron the reverse side of the fabric.

How to make the fabric paint permanent and colorfast

Most types of fabric paint will have a fairly strong hold, even if you skip this step. However, if you want to be sure that your hard work in painting your costume doesn’t wash away when you clean it, you’ll want to take an extra few minutes to fix the paint and make it permanent.

The easiest way to do this is by simply ironing the back side of your painted fabric after the paint has dried. You’ll want to make the iron as hot as your fabric will allow without burning or melting. If you’re working with polyester or another fabric that can’t take a high temperature easily, you can use a cotton press cloth between the fabric and the iron.

If you don’t want to iron the costume, or it can’t be ironed easily for whatever reason, there are two other options you can try.

  1. The first is by popping your painted costume or fabric into the dryer for 30-45 minutes, allowing the heat from the drying to set the paint.
  2. The other option is to mix an air fixative (like Jacquard Airfix) with your fabric paint before painting your fabric. You’ll mix a small amount of this into your paint, then paint the fabric as usual. As the paint dries, the Airfix will work as a sealant to keep the paint from fading or washing away.
dying a gradient in a garment
You can use fabric dye to create a gradient effect.

How to make a gradient with fabric dye

The other option for coloring fabric is using fabric dye. This is not really practical if you’re trying to create a specific design or logo on your costume, but it’s great for changing the color of a costume piece so it’s the exact right shade, or creating a gradient in the color of your costume.

Fabric dye can only be used to make the material darker than it already is. You won’t be able to use it to make the fabric lighter, so it’s best to start with a fabric or material on the light end of the spectrum.

When choosing a fabric dye you also want to pay attention to the type of material the dye is made for. Typically it will be made for either synthetic fibers or natural fibers. Cotton, wool, or other natural materials are better at absorbing color, so an all-purpose fabric dye will usually work quite well. However, if you’re working with something polyester-based (such as spandex or nylon), it’s best to get the fabric dye for synthetic fabrics.

dyeing a shirt gradient
To dye a gradient, swish the bottom of the garment in the dye bath. Every few minutes raise it a little further, until you’ve reached the very bottom of the material you’re dying.

How to use fabric dye

To use fabric dye, all you have to do is follow the instructions on the bottle you purchase. Usually, this means combining the dye with boiling water and dunking the fabric or costume piece into the dye bath for 30-60 minutes.

Some tips to help you get a consistent color using fabric dye:

  • Make sure the entire costume piece is submerged
  • Use a rod or spoon to poke out any air bubbles
  • Keep moving the costume and swishing the water to keep some areas from getting more dye than others.
  • Keep the water simmering if you can
  • The longer you keep the fabric in the dye bath, the darker and more vibrant it will be.
  • The color when wet will usually be slightly darker than the fabric will look when it’s dried
  • When you are happy with the color, remove it from the dye bath and rinse the fabric under cold water until the water running off of it is clear.

If you want to create a gradient over your material, the general idea is still the same. However, you will not be dipping your entire costume into the dye bath for very long.

  1. Start by dipping the whole costume into the bath. If you want the fabric gradient to fade all the way to white, skip this step)
  2. Quickly lift the top portion out of the bath, but continue to swish the bottom of the garment or material. The swishing keeps you from creating a hard line of dye and instead helps create a soft gradient.
  3. After 1-2 minutes lift the fabric out of the bath a little bit more. Repeat the process every few minutes. The areas at the bottom that are in the dye bath longer will end up being darker or brighter than the top.
  4. When rinsing the fabric, make sure the darker side is underneath the lighter side so the excess dye doesn’t drip and create stains.

Emily Joice

My name is Emily, and I have been cosplaying since my very first convention in 2008. Over the years, I've experimented with all different kinds of cosplay costumes, especially loving the process of creating props and styling wigs. I also delved into cosplay photography, and love exploring how to optimize costumes so they look excellent in photos. Most of the photos you find on this site were taken by me over my years at anime conventions.

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