Help me get started with costuming!
December 28, 2012 3:05 PM   Subscribe

I know nothing about costuming or sewing, and I don't have a lot of space to do it. Help me get set up and learning how to put together basic clothing/costumes in my apartment!

Backstory: my girlfriend has a LOTR dress that she and her mother made when the first movies came out, and she wanted to dress up for The Hobbit as well. I don't have a costume to match hers, and for all my searches, I couldn't find anyone selling anything. I'd like to have something for next year.

So basically it seems like knowing how to put together a costume would be a good skill to have, and one that I could put to use fairly easily. I've tried to piece some knowledge together about patterns and all that, but it's all fairly overwhelming and I don't really have a place to start. Do I need a sewing machine, and if so, which one? I'd rather not burn through a bunch of cash right off the bat. How do I learn technique? What are the best places to get fabric? What if we want to make something that doesn't have a pattern? Where do you even start with that sort of thing? All those sorts of questions.

Compounded with this is that we live in a relatively small apartment. I've seen pictures of people with rooms filled with sewing equipment, and we just don't have space for that. Does anyone have advice on how to sew/assemble clothing in small spaces?

And if there really is no point to this and it would just be easier to hire someone to put a piece of clothing together, is there a reliable directory of seamstresses or something?

PS, apologies if this post is all over the place.
posted by gchucky to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
If you just want one costume, it'll be much easier and probably cheaper to have someone (Etsy?) make it for you. If you want to take this up as a hobby and/or learn it as a practical skill, you don't have to spend a lot to get started but custom dressmaking may be a ways off. Old, well-made sewing machines can be had for next to nothing (or actually nothing); you don't need all the fancy digital features on newer machines. If there's a fabric store nearby, ask about beginners' classes.
posted by jon1270 at 3:27 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some sources of free books that might be handy:From an older relative who was a seamstress, I'm given to understand that older books like those from when doing your own tailoring and clothing construction was more common can often convey a more sophisticated understanding and offer more techniques.
posted by XMLicious at 3:43 PM on December 28, 2012

There aren't sewing machines in Middle Earth, so there doesn't need to be one in your apartment either.

"But wait!" you say, "It doesn't need to be THAT authentic!". Well then you're in luck, because for a professional costumer, a glue gun might be the go-to tool of the day, not a sewing machine.

I've heard good things about this book

I get a lot of impressed people asking how I made costumes. Generally I didn't - I assembled existing modern things and modified them. Thrift stores are obviously great for this - lots of raw material cheap, especially leather stuff, but you should budget in a few mistake purchases as you develop an eye for what can be used as what.

For example if you need a period shirt with lace cuffs and a tie-up front, there is a selection of shirts and a selection of lacy things at the thrift store. A craft shop will supply the eyelets, leather cord, etc. Your job is to find a shirt with an acceptable enough fabric and the right kind of billow on you, and a collar and front that you can convert to what you want using hopefully no more than scissors, and for which you can obtain an appropriate matching lace from another garment in the store. Lace can go on with a glue gun and still look like a proper seam when the shirt is worn. You've made a lot of compromises, but you've created a complex garment in almost no time flat. Now grind some dirt into it. But dirt is dirty, so if you have the aptitude and desire, you could use paint or makeup or fake it some other way.

Basically, don't get into the headspace that a costume should be made like your other clothes. A costume has a very different, specific purpose, that purpose is that it must look (and move) like the desired fictional style. All methods that can achieve this are fair game. Methods that can achieve this faster are even better. And because you are going to wear the costume a LOT less often than a pair of jeans, be mindful that cutting a corner in durability in order to gain better results elsewhere could potentially be a tradeoff that pays off immensely.

With costumes, a lot of the rules of making clothes go right out the window. There is no shortage of bad costumes made with outstanding clothes-making experience and technical skill, and astounding costumes made with none of that but outstanding costume making experience.

Start looking at costumes that don't quite look all that good to you even though there isn't anything obviously wrong with them, and challenge yourself to figure out why it isn't working. You'll find some low-hanging gold there, if I may mix my metaphors :)
posted by anonymisc at 4:09 PM on December 28, 2012 [7 favorites]

I sew a fair bit, and have a cheap, entry level machine (Singer Simple) that cost me under $150 and works fine for the most part. I wouldn't hand-sew clothing because it would be extremely time-consuming and probably frustrating. A introduction to machine sewing class would be an excellent idea. If you need help on anything specific, YouTube has tons of sewing tutorials.

When I sewed in an apartment, I kept my machine on a small table and my fabric in a bin - that was it. Cutting and pinning were done on the floor, which can be hard on the back. You can also just move your sewing machine to the dining room table when you need to use it.

I've never successfully drafted my own pattern and just use commercial patterns, which I usually buy on sale for under $3. If you go that route, make sure you measure yourself carefully, because the "sizes" on the pattern don't have any relation to real-world clothing sizes. You can find commercial patterns for pretty much anything, and can always combine multiple patterns as well. The pattern will also recommend suitable fabrics to use. If you work without patterns, more power to you.

You can buy fabric from fabric stores, or online. I do both, but mostly buy online when I know exactly what I need. Otherwise I prefer to feel the fabric and see it in person before buying. I shop at JoAnn, because that's the only option where I live other than quilt stores. I really only buy fabric on sale or with their ubiquitous 40% off coupons - fabric is EXPENSIVE. Most of the things I've made would probably be cheaper to buy. If you decide to buy a custom-made costume, it would probably be pretty pricy, because of the labor costs. However, if this is just a one-time thing, it would probably be a better idea because it can take quite a bit of time (and wasted fabric) before you have the skills necessary to make a wearable garment. I've seen blogs (I think they were "dress diaries") of dressmakers/costumers who I'm sure would be able to make you a great outfit, but can't remember any off the top of my head.
posted by Safiya at 4:13 PM on December 28, 2012

A sewing machine isn't necessary, but it will certainly make some parts of the process go a lot faster.

It's not clear from your question or your profile whether you're a man or a woman. The only reason I bring up the distinction is that I asked a similar question a couple of years ago and it didn't turn up much; If you're a man, there is pretty much a complete lack of male-oriented get-started-sewing instructional material out there, so most intro/how-to books are going to start you off making aprons and handbags and other stuff you are probably not interested in.

I did pick up a copy of the DK Complete book of sewing which is a very nice illustrated guide to a lot of basic techniques, good for gleaning a better understanding of terminology that comes up in pattern instructions. (Look on Alibris for super-cheap used copies of the earlier edition.)

Since I asked that question I've made a little progress towards making garments (apart from sewing a lot of bow ties, which are about as simple a thing as you can make, but that's another story) - I've actually hand-sewn a traditional 8-yard Scottish kilt, and made a matching vest. The kilt was an interesting project because it's not so much made from a pattern as it is made according to a set of instructions based on individual measurements. For the vest I used variation A of Simplicity 2456, and would definitely recommend it as a good starter project - it has no collar or lapels, which makes it simpler than many shirts or jackets, and a patch pocket instead of a more complicated welt or slash pockets. There aren't many pieces and the instructions are also pretty clear.

I haven't progressed much beyond there, but at this point it's mostly for want of having enough time to dedicate to a more complicated project - the vest was a big confidence booster, and made me realize that you pretty much just have to jump in and do it; be prepared to make mistakes the first time out, but don't let it get you down. When I made my vest I actually cut test pieces out of cheap muslin (usually only a couple of bucks per yard) before committing to my expensive tartan fabric. It was worth the extra time and nominal extra cost to do a practice run.

I don't have a ton of room either; my work surface is a table that's maybe 5 feet by 2 and a half feet. It feels cramped sometimes, but it's workable. For cutting out bigger stuff, a larger surface would definitely be helpful - a folding table that can be put away will be really handy.

As for fabric, Safiya has it - JoAnn is pretty much the major ubiquitous fabric shop in the US, and they pretty much always have 40-50% coupons running either via circular, e-mail or their phone app. Otherwise, look around for independent (non-quilt specific) local fabric stores, who are likely to have a better selection of silks and suitings (but unfortunately no 40% coupons.)

And yes- what others have already said about paying someone to make a one-off costume being way faster/more efficient is true. I don't have any specific recommendations, but there are a lot of folks doing interesting stuff on Etsy; do some searching there and if you find someone whose work you like, contact them and get a conversation going.
posted by usonian at 4:26 PM on December 28, 2012

Oh - if you go to JoAnn, check out the costume sections of the pattern books; I think most if not all of the companies do have stuff for both men and women on the Pirate/Ren Faire/Middle Earth spectrum.
posted by usonian at 4:33 PM on December 28, 2012

[The gist of my answer above was that you don't need a sewing machine to do what you want to do and do it well, but my answer overlooks that in general life a sewing machine can be a useful thing to have, and sewing is a useful skill. So if it makes sense to you to use this costume project as a reason/excuse to tool-up in that department and get started, then that is a good reason to go that way.]
posted by anonymisc at 4:33 PM on December 28, 2012

I am a costumer, and FWIW, the tool of the day is never a glue gun.

If you want ONE costume, there are umpteen zillions of people on Etsy who will make the various bits for you. Given the time and trial and error involved in learning how to make a functional garment - with a sewing machine or otherwise - I would choose to get things from people like this over gluing something together from the thrift store.

The one thing I think you could get by on would be pants, if you want to be a hobbit, basically because they wear suspenders (you can just buy those, too) and they need to be large in the waist and hemmed short -- so you have a lot of leeway.

the 2nd thing you could get away with is probably the shirt, because it's mostly under the jacket, so the sleeves don't matter and that's just a mandarin collar, button front shirt. You can tea-dye a white men's dress shirt and get generally what you want.

You probably get the idea. Good luck!
posted by Medieval Maven at 4:39 PM on December 28, 2012

In LA there are open workspaces for crafting that you can pay to visit and use the sewing machines. You can also sign up for classes there and after learning the basics, they usually have a class that is for finishing a project of your choice.
posted by dottiechang at 4:51 PM on December 28, 2012

A hobbit costume is a well-trod and therefore well documented costume to put together, no sewing required.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:02 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

DarlingBri's link has it. Except don't cut the collar off the shirt; just turn it under. Velvet smoking jacket and waistcoat from a thrift shop.

If you'd rather be a badass fighting Dwarf, then medieval is the way to go. Most of the Dwarf costumes seem to be sort of medieval/Dark Ages inspired. Many are wearing lamellar scale mail armour; plastic lamellar plates can be found here and are pretty easy to hand-sew onto things using leather thong or thick cord.
posted by Pallas Athena at 6:54 PM on December 28, 2012

Response by poster: Just to clarify: while the immediate thing that brought this up was The Hobbit, I was hoping for more general answers. There are posts all the time on Kotaku, e.g. of people with stunning cosplay outfits. While I don't really plan on building myself a mech suit out of foamcore anytime soon, I was just more hoping for information on how they even put those sort of things together, and how one would go about doing that.
posted by gchucky at 7:37 PM on December 28, 2012

It really is a case of Whatever Works. In the super-technical costumes, everyone figures out their own path and materials based on what resources and skills they have available, so there isn't a "this is how they do it", but there are a lot of "this is how I did it" - Google any character costume you can think of, you'll pretty quickly end up in a fan forums with people posting making-of sequence photographs and quick explanations of each step of their work. These are generally not how-to guides that will teach you how to laser-cut, or how to paint-chip metal, or how to export to Pepakura Designer when turning a video-game character's 3D computer file of a breastplate into plans for a you-sized physical breastplate, but they'll show you that that was the process this person chose, and what results they obtained, and if it looks like an approach that will work for you, then you can look into it further.

AskMetafilter is a generalist forum. There are a few people here who do this stuff, but you should browse some forums that are dedicated to fan costumes, where there are a lot of people who do it :) I can't recommend any particular forum to you, because my approach is to find multiple forums that have a lot on the character in question, check out what people have done, learn what did (and didn't!) work, then go off my own way and figure out my own approach. But though I don't have links for you, I can recommend searching by character, finding the most kickass costumes of that character, and tracking them to the fan forum where they (hopefully) spill the beans on how they built it.

If I can't build something with what I already know, then I have to learn a new method of construction, or outsource it. At that point, the question is not so much "What's the best way to make this piece", it's "what is a way to make this piece that pays off the most in the long run". Eg learning an esoteric technique you'll only use once is not as good as learning a powerful versatile technique that you'll benefit from elsewhere too even if it's not quite the best for the job at hand.
Same goes for decisions on tool purchases.
posted by anonymisc at 8:37 PM on December 28, 2012

Your profile does not say where you are, but for example, at Dragon*Con, there is an entire costuming track that will not only give you a primer on all kinds of things, but you can also usually look at people's work up close (not just the people on the tracks, the cosplayers at the Con, too) and ask questions, get great information about where and how and so forth. If there is a Con like this near you, I would look at the schedule and see what day you think you will get the most out of (if you don't want to just go all three days or whatever).

There are costumers and cosplayers EVERYWHERE. The power of the internerds might point you toward someone local who can help you out. I know that we use forums and other resources all the time but for me, at least, seeing and doing in person - being taught by doing and watching - is much more productive and powerful
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:47 AM on December 29, 2012

So your girlfriend knows how to sew? Is she the "we" who is with you in your small apartment?

A good starting point might be to talk to your girlfriend and see if she would be willing to help you learn any sewing and costuming skills she has, or see if she would prefer that you learn about some techniques that she doesn't know. Ask her how she feels about making space for that in your shared living space, and if she has any good ideas for where to keep things in your apartment.
posted by yohko at 2:25 PM on December 29, 2012

Oh, y'know what's a good tip if you're making armor and other fantasy-genre-type stuff: in several parts of the country I've been to, Walmarts frequently have lots of dog collars on clearance and they're usually made with very high-quality straps and buckles; often better than belts made for humans at the same prices. (I assume that this happens in "pet superstore" places too.)
posted by XMLicious at 4:43 PM on December 29, 2012

I really enjoy (and have learned a lot) reading Peter Lappin's blog, Male Pattern Boldness. He taught himself to sew with scrounged/eBayed sewing machines, thrifted patterns, and '70s sheets from Goodwill. He makes clothes for himself, and his partner Michael, and his "identical twin cousin" Cathy. Cathy's ensembles tend to be vintage style, which although not LoTR and not exactly applicable to maybe what you're looking to do, are a type of costuming.
posted by mon-ma-tron at 10:39 AM on January 1, 2013

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