Have you always wanted to join those glamourous, sweaty creatures who own the floor at pop culture conventions? Do you convince yourself that you can never join their ranks because you've never even touched a sewing machine, let alone power tools and thermoplastics? The first step to get started in cosplay is to remind yourself that everyone has to start somewhere. Eight years ago, I didn't even know how to backstitch on my sewing machine — and if you're wondering what the hell a 'backstitch' is right now, you're in the right place.
Where To Start
Cosplay is huge. I can't think of any other hobby that requires so many skills — tailoring, woodworking, wig styling, thermoplastics, fabric dyeing, painting, leatherworking, metalworking, resin casting, you name it. If it's difficult, expensive and potentially dangerous, you'll probably need to learn it at some stage to make cosplay. In fact a good cosplayer never stops learning, but where's the best place to start?
You can't go anywhere without a plan, so the best way to start is to figure out exactly what you're making. Reference pictures in hand, grab a piece of paper and some pencils, pens, crayons — whatever you have nearby — and sketch out your character's costume. Figure out how many layers the character is wearing and how it's all going to be put on and worn. Pay special attention to the character's silhouette — whether it includes a huge, poofy skirt, corseted waist or WoW-sized pauldrons, the overall shape of a character is more important than you would think. First impressions are key, so even dodgy seams and rushed paintjobs can be excused when you get the overall look of the character right.
Now that you (hopefully) have a plan, let's make it a reality. For clarity's sake let's break up our crafting into two categories: textiles and fabrication. Generally speaking, textiles includes everything involving fabric and wigs, while fabrication covers crafts that use hard materials and tend to require power tools or specialty equipment.
Most cosplayers are more talented with one type of craft than another, but learning a little bit of each skill set will help you tackle any challenge that cosplay will inevitably throw at you. Don't fence yourself in with outdated assumptions that men can't learn to sew, or women can't use power tools — male cosplayer Joshua Hart works magic with his sewing machine like you wouldn't believe, while one-woman powerhouse Vensy makes props that could have been pulled straight out of their respective games.
Textiles: The Basics
Find a sewing machine. Trust me, there is absolutely no reason to subject yourself to tens of hours of hand sewing on the simplest costume pieces when you can buy a simple sewing machine for little over $100. What's more, most stores that sell sewing machines will also hold lessons, and some will even throw in a lesson for free when you buy a machine. If you already own a machine then chances are you know someone who knows how to use it. Now's the time to reconnect with your grandma — she'll probably be thrilled to hear from you. Once you know the basics to using your machine, sewing is fairly straightforward, especially if you're making things that only have to look pretty on the outside. Unless you're already confident with a sewing machine, don't worry yourself over lining or fancy techniques just yet. Pin everything before you sew it — and buy a seam ripper for the inevitable moment when you ignore that piece of advice.
A quick word on wigs for the beginner cosplayer: wigs are neither sacred nor irreplaceable. I know cosplayers who have been making incredible costumes for years, but are still too terrified to take a pair of scissors to their precious wigs. Taking a few inches off the bottom of a wig shouldn't be a terrifying ordeal so when doubt hits, take Shia LaBeouf's advice and JUST DO IT. Hopefully your first costume won't require any intricate styling, but if you do find yourself with a wig-related problem, Arda Wigs has a full page of useful tutorials.
Fabrication: The Basics
Vensy Props by Evan Stulc
While working with textiles requires a sewing machine, I count a rotary tool (ideally a Dremel, but other brands can make do on a tight budget) as the must-have tool for fabrication. Anything you want to build out of foam, wood, even metal — there'll be a way to do it with a rotary tool. Just like the sewing machine, it takes some practice to use efficiently and neatly, but this is one investment that every beginner cosplayer should think about making.
Small trinkets are easiest to make with good old oven bake clay — don't forget that most brands can be lightly sanded after baking, which can make all the difference to the finished product. For anything too large to easily sculpt in clay, consider looking at foam, wood, Worbla — or any combination of the three.
Worbla is a low-temperature thermoplastic that is mostly used to strengthen and provide an even finish to foam builds. You can also very easily skip the Worbla altogether and build entirely out of foam. Local Sydney cosplayer AmenoKitarou has created a collection of useful and hilarious tutorials which are a must-read for anyone looking to craft things out of foam or Worbla. Wood never goes out of fashion — there are very few props you can't make with a sheet of MDF and a jigsaw. It even makes a great base to add strength to foam builds.
Papercraft and fibreglass builds used to be much more popular than they are today, thanks to Worbla and other cosplay thermoplastics, but it can still be a great method for builds with lots of flat surfaces and sharp edges, like Halo armour.
If all else fails and you find yourself stuck, you can always ask for help. In fact, asking for help should be one of the first things you do when you're unsure. Facebook is host to a heap of helpful cosplay communities where people post their progress, tips and pleas for advice. These are generally grouped by location (such as NSW Cosplayers, Melbourne Cosplay Community, Cosplayers WA Perth, Adelaide Cosplay & EGL and Brisbane Cosplayers) so jump onto your local one and introduce yourself.
The main thing to remember is that no one starts out perfect. Yaya Han has been cosplaying since 1999. Volpin has been making props for eight years, four of them as a full time job. I would show you a picture of one of my particularly cringeworthy first costumes to prove my point, but it was so terrible that no pictures survived past 2008. So when your cosplays aren't screen-accurate on your first try, don't fret it. It gets easier — you just have to jump in and have a go.