We've had experience with lots of materials over the years. This will act as both a run down of those materials as well as a repository of links to where we go to get our materials! We've also given a talk at PAX South about cosplay materials. You can find the slides from that panel here, and the info sheet we handed out here.
Things To Keep In Mind
- Cosplay tends to be based on fictional characters, generally from video games and comic books. Their costumes don't have to follow the laws of physics, but yours do! Don't be afraid to compromise perfection for the sake of being able to actually wear the costume.
- Feel free to add joints or seams where the original costume might not have them - video game characters can clip through their armor, but you can't.
- Your weapons and armor won't magically float for you, so always be thinking about adding straps, snaps or rare earth magnets to hold things up.
- Many characters have unrealistic body types, so don't be afraid to modify the costume to work for your body type. Change proportions as necessary!
- Focusing on a few key features for a costume is sometimes better than trying to get every single little detail. The key features will be more than enough for your character to be recognized, and you can often come back and add more of the smaller details later.
- Comfort and durability - remember that you're going to likely be in this costume for a while in non-ideal circumstances. People will likely bump into you and things will bend in ways you weren't anticipating. Make sure your costume is comfortable enough that you won't get grumpy having to stay in it for hours, and durable enough that an unexpected shift in the crowd won't cost you days of work as something irreplaceable snaps.
- Conventions vs. photoshoots - If you're only going to wear a costume for a brief period at a photoshoot then you can make it less durable and less comfortable, going instead for a focus on how it looks. Conventions, however, require that you remember things like "can I use the bathroom in this?" "Will I be able to sit down to eat?" "What's the weather like, both outside and inside of the convention?"
- Mixed Media! Costumes are not made out of just one material. Remember that each and every material has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it's almost always going to be the case that mixing different materials will give a better end result.
- Experimenting with new materials is fun and a great way to improve! That said, if you're short on time then maybe stick to something your comfortable with and save experimenting for the future when you have more time to react and redo pieces that don't work.
- Always plan ahead - make mockups before working with your final material. This will save you time and money in the long run.
- You don't need to build everything from scratch. Try and find a good pre-existing base to build on top of or modify.
Insulation Foam (AKA Extruded Polystyrene)
- What - Closed cell, rigid foam that is extremely light. It snaps fairly easily, so either reinforce it or be gentle. It's more resilient against compression. It's reasonably cheap so acts as a great filler for large props.
- Where - Can almost always be found at your local hardware store (i.e. Home Depot or Lowes). It comes in a variety of sizes and thicknesses, most commonly in 3/4"-1" thick. If you can find the 2" thick stuff I recommend grabbing it. The big sheets are 8' tall, so I have to break them in two to fit them into my car.
- Recommended Tools - Actually behaves a lot like a really soft wood with no grain. You can use saws, your rotary tool, and sanding for most shaping.
- Glue - I recommend wood glue. Avoid super glue or hot glue, as they will eat the foam
- Filler - It might not be the best option, but I like to mix my wood glue with some paper clay and use that as filler for this foam. It's lightweight and still sands reasonably well.
- Tips - Be sure to thoroughly prime or cover the foam before painting it, as spray paint WILL eat through this foam. Also keep it away from heat (such as your heat gun if you're working with thermoplastic) - it will absolutely melt/shrink.
- What - This encapsulates the flexible, heat-formable, closed cell foams. EVA foam is the most readily available type (cosplayers often use the jigsaw-style floor mats), but a higher quality foam will yield better results (at a slightly higher price). This foam is very durable - it will bend instead of break (so your paint job will suffer from damage, but the underlying piece should be okay) and will move with you to a degree. It will warp if left out of shape too long.
- Recommended Tools - Based on the thickness of your foam you can either cut it with a sharp box cutter or a saw. Be sure to get nice crisp lines if you can. If not you can always sand those down later with your rotary tool. A heat gun will let you curve the foam as necessary.
- Glue - Barge cement or E6000 are supposed to work pretty well. I'll be honest that I've had poor luck, myself. I normally fall back on super glue, even though it's not as flexible.
- Filler - Dynaflex 230 works pretty well, since it bends with the foam. Be sure to wipe the excess off immediately because once it dries it'll rip the foam when you trie to remove it. Doesn't sand amazingly well.
- Tips - If you're using floor mats then you can sand off the texture! This will make gluing pieces together work better and will make it look a little better overall (even if the texture is just going to be on the back side).
- What - Craft foam is basically super-thin EVA foam. It's not useful structurally, but can be very useful for adding small details to a piece or acting as filler between two pieces of thermoplastic to give it some extra thickness
- Where - Michaels is our go-to, though Amazon will also have you covered
- Recommended Tools - pretty much just scissors?
- Glue - Whatever you have will probably work. Hot glue is a fine choice.
- Tips - This is great for props when you want a little bit of relief - make the extruded detail out of the craft foam and glue it on! Also, you're going to be painting it, so color probably doesn't matter. That said, if you can get a color that's close to what your final product is going to look like, then use that - if your paint chips off then it won't be as glaringly obvious.
- What - An open-cell, flexible foam that is squishy and comes in a variety of thicknesses. Great for big, fluffy parts of a costume that you want to be light.
- Where - Foam Mart, Joann - If you get the right coupons you can actually get your upholstery foam for way cheaper at Joann
- Recommended Tools - Electric carving knife. ELECTRIC. CARVING. KNIFE. Seriously, it is pretty much the only thing that will work.
- Glue - Spray adhesive. I hate using the stuff, because it makes a mess, but it works surprisingly well on the open cell foam.
- Tips - After you've finished shaping your foam be sure to cover it in some sort of skin to protect it and make it look like something (since it's open cell you will not be painting it directly).
- As Seen On - Squirrel Guy's tail is upholstery foam covered in faux fur!
There are many different brands and styles of thermoplastics, but their common trait is being heat formable at a (relatively) low temperature. The majority of them also have great re-workability, so you can keep reheating it as many times as you need to get just the right shape.
- What - A self-adhering thermoplastic with a fabric backing. The backing gives it extra durability (making it less likely to tear) but also gives it a noticeable texture. Manufactured and sold in the United States, so it tends to be slightly cheaper than the alternatives
- Where - Wonderflex World
- Recommended Tools - A heat gun and a heat-resistant, non-stick surface. Possibly also a bowl of cold water to dunk the plastic into if you want to cool it off rapidly.
- Glue - It's self-adhesive, so frequently you won't even need glue. Hot glue works well as a reinforcement as necessary, though.
- Tips - Because of that fabric backing be sure to pay attention to which side is facing out while you're working.
- What - There are many different types of Worbla. They are (nearly) all self-adhering thermoplastics, but they have different properties otherwise. Note that, as of writing this, we've only actually worked directly with Finest Art, BlackArt and TranspArt.
- Finest Art - The "classic" Worbla, it's kind of like Wonderflex without the fabric backing (only in a tan color instead of white). Adheres well, and scraps are extremely re-usable, but it always leaves a grainy texture.
- Black Art - Smooth black Worbla. It has okay adhesion, but not as good as regular worbla; if you're trying to stick two pieces together they both have to be pretty hot, but the texture is much better.
- TranspArt - This is a transparent Worbla. It has a noticeably higher activation temperature, so it's a bit more dangerous to use. It's intended to be used as a vacuum form material, but can be worked by hand. Doesn't really self-adhere.
- Pearly Art - Like the Black Art, but white and with a slightly better adhesion.
- Mesh Art - Worbla's version of Wonderflex - has a plastic mesh backing similar to the backing on Wonderflex.
- Where - Worbla, Cosplay Supplies
- Recommended Tools - Same as Wonderflex!
- Glue - Depends on the type of Worbla you're using. Most of them are self-adhering, but for TranspArt I would recommend super glue.
- Tips - Worbla comes in so many different flavors that it's important to know what you need it for. Finest Art is good for smaller detail pieces that are in weird shapes, but for larger pieces you might need the smoothness of Black Art.
- As Seen On - Ghost Rider's helmet made use of TranspArt for all of the flames!
- What - Less of a thermoplastic, more of a... thermo... fabric? This is a loose weave, thick white fabric until you apply heat. At that point the fibers shrink and harden, making it hold its shape.
- Where - Wonderflex World
- Recommended Tools - A heat gun and (possibly) a sewing machine
- Glue - This is fabric, so shouldn't be glued. Instead you can sew it!
- Tips - Supposedly you can dye this, but we had no luck doing that. We ended up painting it, but it is a very loose-weave fabric, so it ate paint like nobodies business.
- As Seen On - High Seas Hawkman's mask!
- What - PVC is most commonly used in its pipe form, because it's cheap and durable. You can also get sheets of PVC. These have more give than MDF, but are sturdier than using sheets of thermoplastic (even when reinforced).
- Where - Harward store (Home Depot, Lowes) for pipes, TAP Plastics for sheets
- Recommended Tools - Saws for cutting and a rotary tool for detail work. Heat gun for forming as necessary (along with heat resistant gloves, because the PVC has a HIGH working temperature)
- Glue - There is special PVC pipe glue found at your hardware store (probably right next to the PVC). That stuff does not mess around. Otherwise, most glues are safe to use with PVC.
- Tips - One trick I'm a big fan of is to carve wood grain into PVC pipe for pieces that are supposed to look like wood. It's time consuming, but the end result is lighter and meets the cosplay guidelines for more conventions. You can also do slight bends via heat forming to make it look a little more irregular.
- What - a strong, rigid plastic that is usually translucent. Great for props you need to see through.
- Where - TAP Plastics, local suppliers will also often carry some, but not usually in the range of colors that TAP has
- Recommended Tools - Saws, rotary tools, and a heat gun
- Glue - Super glue
- Tips - Acrylic heat forms pretty well (though, like PVC, you'll want to wear heat-resistant gloves). Super gluing two pieces of acrylic together will make a surprisingly strong bond, so be sure of your placement before that glue dries. We've used acrylic for a lot of lenses in masks and helmets, but it WILL fog up if you don't have proper ventilation!
- As Seen On - Atomic Green Lantern's entire arm
- What - A thin, clear plastic that is ideal for vacuum forming.
- Where - Amazon
- Recommended Tools - A vacuum form, some strong scissors
- Glue - It's light enough most things will work, but super glue is a safe bet
- Tips - You can actually dye PETG using RIT dye. The problem with this is it WILL stink up your house and make a mess. Cosplay4UsAll has a great video that goes over the entire process.
- As Seen On - The helmet lenses for Cyberpunk Hawkgirl, Cyberpunk Hawkman, and the Catwoman of Shanghai
- What - Lumber is frequently a bad choice for cosplay, because it's heavy, slow to work with, and many conventions don't allow wooden props. That said, there are a LOT of resources and tools for working with wood.
- Where - Home Depot, Lowes
- Recommended Tools - There are many woodworking tools, but your rotary tool will work. It's just slow going.
- Glue - Wood glue or fasteners (screws, nails)
- Tips - Working with wood is VERY slow. After working with foam it's just so much more resistant. This does mean it's harder to screw it up, though. One of the nice things about working with lumber is the large number of different wood stains that exist out there - you can make even a cheap piece of wood look sharp with the right stains and finishes.
- As Seen On - Iorveth's Bow
- What - MDF is a reasonable base for many props; it's fairly cheap, lightweight (not as light as plastic, but still fairly light) but very durable.
- Where - Home Depot, Lowes
- Recommended Tools - Saws, a rotary tool, and sanding tools for MDF.
- Glue - Generally the same as lumber, just be careful of having fasteners damage the MDF
- Tips - MDF actually makes a great base for swords. The biggest challenge is honing their edge and tips - MDF tends to get fuzzy when you make it too thin.
Most surfaces don't take paint well on their own, so it's recommended to prime it first. There are several options.
- Acrylic Gesso - This is one of the safest options. It works on basically every surface, never has reactions with the environment, with the only downside is being careful not to leave visible brush strokes. You can find it at art supply stores, such as Dick Blick's
- Plasti-dip (spray on) - This creates a rubbery covering on most surfaces, coating evenly and taking paint well. It doesn't, however, work well on some foams, eating through them. It will also sometimes have reactions with your environment (especially in humid climates). Use in a well-ventilated area. You can pick this up at hardware stores, like Home Depot and Lowes
- Acrylic Paints - This is your best bet for getting specific colors or doing any sort of detail work. It's easy to work with, dries without issue, and can be found at all major art supply stores. These come in a few different grades/qualities, depending on what you need. When you're just starting out/doing basic things, you can stick with student grade paints. For metallics, we like Golden paints which tend to be a bit more expensive (you can mix them with the other paints to make them last longer).
- Spray Paint/Rattle-can - Found at both art suppy stores and hardware stores, this is your best bet for doing large surfaces or hitting things with a base color. Be sure to use it outside or in a well-ventilated area!
When you're done making something beautiful you don't want a little bit of rain or wear-and-tear to destroy all of your hard work. Be sure to give it a finishing coat! There are generally three types of finish - glossy (lots of shine), satin (a little bit of shine) or matte (no shine). Pick the one that works best for your piece.
- Acrylic Varnish - A brush-on finish, best for when you only need to apply it to a part of a larger piece. Look out for it dripping or pooling! Found at art supply stores.
- Clear Coat Spray/Rattle-can - The quickest and easiest way to apply a clear coat to an entire piece at once. Several coats are recommended for true protection. Found at crafting stores and hardware stores.
The bread-and-butter of cosplay outfits are going to be made out of classic fashion fabrics, from cotton twill to silk.
- Joann Fabrics - Odds are, if you live in the U.S., there is a Joann store near you. They have a wide variety of options, but not much depth. Remember that coupons are your friends when it comes to Joann Fabrics! Their prices can be a little bit high, but if you have a 50% off coupon they quickly become the cheapest option out there. Be sure to check out the Yaya Han line of cosplay fabrics - it's constantly expanding and is actually super nice (it's just super expensive, so coupons are an absolute must).
- Mood Fabrics - If you've ever watched Project Runway then you've probably drooled over the store that they go to in almost every episode. While you might not be able to get to NYC yourself, you can buy their fabrics online. They are a little pricey, but can't be beat for quality.
- Dharma Trading Company- This is an online company that sells dyes, paints and dyeable fabrics! They're great if you need a custom color for a project. They carry both natural and synthetic fabrics, as well as a whole host of dyes & paints to alter them!
- Blackbird Fabrics- Carry a lot of good woven fabrics as well as atheltic wear (tencel, twill, etc)
- Nature's Fabrics- Lots of knits! Particularly cotton, bamboo and hemp knits at pretty reasonable prices.
Superheroes wear a lot of spandex, in a large variety of colors. Keep in mind if you need two way or four way stretch, as well as the weight of the fabric - if it's going to be your only layer, then you might want a thicker spandex. If you're going to be in a hot climate, then maybe something lighter.
If you're cosplaying an animal, making an animal friend as a prop, or playing the part of a hunter then odds are you're going to need faux fur. When it comes to faux fur there is cheap stuff you can generally find at Joann, and then there's good stuff that you'll have to go online for. Cheap faux fur will shed and shed and shed. It will get everywhere. Good faux fur will still shed, but only while you're cutting it. You can reduce this by being careful how you cut it, trying to cut between strands. Also, be sure your sewing machine can handle high-pile faux fur, or just sew it by hand to be safe.
- Fabric Empire - If you need faux fur in every color under the sun, this is your place
- Fur and Fabric - This Etsy seller has phenomenal, realistic-looking faux furs (you can see it in action on our Squirrel Guy costume!)
Essential for weathering or any kind of borderlands cosplay! You can use any kind of fabric paint for what you need (experiment for different effects!), these are just the ones we like to use. You can also use acylics mixed with a textile medium if you want to forego fabric paints, we personally find fabric paints tend to last a bit longer than that method (so it's really a matter of durability at that point). You can usually get all of these from Dharma Trading Company, your local art store or Amazon.
- Jacquard Fabric Paints- these are great, though a littler bit pricey. They have a basic color line as well as two special effect lines (lumiere and neopaque)
- Airbrush Paints- these are good when you want to paint spandex/stretchy fabrics, as they will not interfere with the stretch. They can be painted on with a brush or with an airbrush. They're also great for weathering as they are a bit more watery, so can splatter well. We like Createx and Jacquard as brands.
- Dye-na-flow- These are silk paints, but they are also really good at painting synthetics, including thermoplastics (Ghost Rider's flames were painted with dye-na-flow). They're good if you're trying to "dye" spandex as well and don't want to mess around with hot dyes. They're also great for wigs!
Sometimes you need such a specific pattern it simply doesn't exist in reality. When this happens your best bet is often to create the pattern yourself and get it custom printed onto fabric yourself. This, naturally, tends to not be the cheapest option, but it is often the best option for truly distinctive print fabrics.
- Spoonflower - Possibly the best option for custom fabrics, you can get a sample first to make sure it's what you need. You can also sell your patterns, just make sure you actually own the rights to the pattern before you do that.
- Fabric on Demand
- Art of Where - Does both custom fabric and custom apparel, so, for example, if you need a pair of leggings in a certain design but don't want to sew them yourself, they're a great option!
A lot of cosplay outfits incorporate leather in some fashion. When you're first starting out, or if you're on a budget, then faux leather will likely be good enough for you. But if you want to really up your game (and you are willing to shell out some cash) then working with real leather can lend your costume some great authenticity. We get nearly all of our leather supplies from Tandy Leather.
We primarily work with veg tanned cowhide of various thicknesses. You can cut it, shape it, sew it, stain it, and seal it. Shaping it can be done with water and a form to work on. Many of the hats and helmets that we've worn over the years have been wet-formed leather. You can also emboss or etch patterns into the leather.
Faux Leather: If you want the look of leather but not the cost (or you're against it for personal reasons), faux leather can work great for many projects! We use Mood Fabrics for both non-stretch faux leather & stretch faux leather (ghost rider uses a mix) as well as Spandex World for stretch leather. Cosplay Fabrics also carries stretch leather that's pretty good (be sure to use a coupon).
Your local fabric store (such as Joann Fabrics) has a large collection of patterns available. McCalls now has a full line of "cosplay" patterns that are character specific! Sometimes, though, they don't have what you're looking for. If you can't find a fitting pattern anywhere, don't be afraid to look into drafting your own patterns!
- Corsets by Caroline
- Closet Case Patterns
- Named Clothing
- Sten Martin's Draping tutorials - This is a great youtube series from a bespoke tailor on how to drape patterns yourself!
- Patternmaking for Fashion Design, by Helen Joseph Armstrong - This is a great text book with basic pattern blocks that teaches you to draft patterns yourself! The newer edition is pricey, but you can get older eds for pretty cheap.
- Draft your own corset- Foundations Revealed
Wigs are a must if you don't have hair like your character. Even if you do, it's usually less hassle to try and make your hair do what your character's hair does. Some hair styles are so cartoonish or absurd that it can actually be better to build a pseudo-helmet out of foam to replicate the hair. Most of the time, though, you're going to want a wig. Be sure to make note of whether the hair is pulled back or not - if it is then you're likely going to need a lacefront wig.
- Arda Wigs
- Epic Cosplay
- Wig is Fashion
- Pose Wigs (really lovely lacefront wigs, great for star wars & game of thrones!)
- Webster Wigs
- The Five Wits (great short wigs for masculine characters)
- How to make a foam wig by LM Cosplays
LEDs and motors can really make a costume pop. Always remember that you need a power source and a switch. Amazon actually has a ton of options when it comes to battery holders and switches. And, if you're short on space and don't need a ton of juice, check out 12 volt batteries; they're adorably tiny.