Miscellaneous tips and tricks for costuming/sewing on a budget

Whenever I’m working on a costume, I think “this is super cheap. I should share it.” And then it doesn’t quite fit into the tutorial, or it’s a weird tributary of eddying thoughts that strays far away from the main flow of the post. So here’s a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up about obtaining materials on the cheap, that hopefully go beyond your standard “go to the thrift store. Thrift. Good job.”

Fabric:

1. Curtains/bedsheets/household items: Next time you go to the thrift store, skip the clothes section and go straight to the household goods. There’s TONS of yardage out there if you look for it. Not just crazy floral prints either (though those are great for voluminous petticoats, carpet bags and the like). I’ve found lace curtains, king-size Gaiam sheets (2+ yards of organic cotton for a dollar!) and all the brocade my little heart could wish for. Sometimes (rarely) there’s even velvet. Don’t forget that in fitted sheets, there’s elastic you can salvage. Sometimes duvet covers will have huge snaps. Things like that are great bonuses to go along with fabric you already want.

Bonus tip: If the yardage is damaged in any way, you might be able to get an extra discount at checkout. You don’t have to tell them you’ll just cut around the damage.

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All this was under $10 at my local pay-by-the-pound Goodwill. There’s at least 5 yards there, including a white/ivory striped cotton, a fuzzy green fleece, lace and some translucent green textured stuff.

2. Purses: This is a hybrid fabric/metal tip. Take apart those huge purses that people have donated, and you have a nice supply of fake leather/leather/neat quilted fabric, D-rings, zippers and snaps. Purses are particularly good if you want an exotic colored leather/fake leather.

3. Lingerie: It may already be common knowledge, but the lingerie/pajama section is full of luxury fabrics, especially silk and stretch lace, in solid colors and neat patterns. Don’t overlook this section just because someone wore it to bed.

4. EBay: This is a weird one, but hear me out. If you’re willing to look at things in a new way, EBay can be a fantastic resource, even if you don’t end up buying. For example, I’m building a house-sized, event-style tent with my friends. We wanted some fairly specific fabric (strong, wind-resistant, water-resistant), and were looking up tarps. EBay suggested used billboard material. Turns out that old billboards are something like a dollar a yard, and several millimeters thicker than most tarps. Thanks, suggested search feature!

5. Coffee roasters: If you like burlap at all, go to a coffee roaster and ask if they have any leftover bags. Oftentimes you can get a neat printed burlap sack for free. Kind of a specific tip, but it’s free!

6. Garage sales: This is actually an anti-tip. I don’t really like going to garage sales for stuff. They’re great for furniture, but trying to get fabric is a pain in the butt, and in my opinion takes more time than it’s worth.

7. City-specific resources: Depending on where you live, there may be a free or cheap fabric resource in your area. Look it up before you go hunting; I know that there’s a lot of great stuff out there for larger cities. My area doesn’t have much, but yours might! A little bit of research goes a long way.

Elaborate Embellishments:

1. Kids clothes: You know who likes bling, sparkle and crazy embellishment? Kids. You can find some crazay stuff in the kids’ section of a thrift store. Cut off that insane beading and stick it to something else. It’ll save you the time of figuring out how to hand applique 8 bazillion sequins.

From the front waistband of a cotton child's skirt.

From the front waistband of a cotton child’s skirt.

2. Prom dresses: There is a LOT of really terrible formalwear out there. Go to the dress section and revel in all the shiny, velvety, sheer, beaded awfulness… and chop it up guilt-free. Just make sure you recycle the nasty polyester lining. Bonus: Grab a wedding dress; there’s usually beading and lace and tulle and lots of fabric, plus you can dye it any color you want with poly dye. Save the (probably inexpensive) polyester yardage for lining.

Bonus: Formalwear is more likely to have plastic boning than other types of clothes. Cut out the boning, save it, and use it to add structure to costume pieces later.

Elderly women seem to like lots of embellishment as well, but there’s not really a section for that.

3. The dollar store: Check out your local dollar store. They’ll often have terrible candleholders, miscellaneous knick-knacks with wire, kids’ toys with ribbons and sparkle, and so on. My local store often has headbands with fake hair attached, or crazy colored clip in “extensions” that make for great fake horsehair braid trim. It’s a bit of a crap shoot, but when I’m in the area I try to stop in and see what they’ve got lying around. Some cities have great dollar stores, others not so much. Your mileage may vary.

Metal:

1. Craigslist/Freecycle: Obviously. Try the free section; sometimes you’ll find great miscellaneous broken metal pieces, metal fences, etc. Broken ladders are especially good if you have some tools. I’ve found that Freecyle is more for useful/useable things, not trash, so I don’t frequent it as much; I don’t want to take apart use-able things.

2. Alcohol bottles: Another weird one. Oftentimes, wine (even cheap wine) will come with thin wire wrapped around the cork; carefully cut it off, and you have a ready-made delicate diamond-weave net. Or, unwind it. Some beers (Modelo in particular) come with gold foil. It doesn’t take much effort to rip pieces off of the bottle; apply them where you want a gold leaf effect. It’s not much, but it adds up over time; if you already like the beer you’re drinking, why not save the foil?

3. Broken jewelry: I have a whole box full of broken jewelry from friends, family, and myself. It’s a fun way to incorporate a memory into a costume, and a cheap way to get nice stones, bits of metal and other resources. Lost one earring? Save the spare!

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4. Your local shooting spot: So I’m not 100% sure how legal an outdoor, undeveloped shooting spot is. But many towns, especially slightly rural areas, will have a locally-known designated shooting spot. And many people just can’t resist the idea of shooting up their old electronics, the ones that have a special knack for inducing rage when they stop working. Unfortunately, these same people generally don’t clean up after themselves. The only good part about these horrible people is that you can find springs and wire and other neat things. Couch springs make great additions to mad scientist/nerf gun props. Some shells leave neat round casings that look just like brass bugle beads. (It probably goes without saying, but wash your hands after handling trash, and especially bullet casings: they can have lead residue from the bullet.) Copper wire is a particularly good find, as it’s expensive, there’s lots of it wrapped around old electronics, and it’s great for LED projects.

Copper wire from an old, broken lamp (headlight?)

Copper wire from an old, broken lamp (headlight?)

This tip is my favorite because I’ve found some really good stuff out there, and I know I’m helping repair some of the damage that irresponsible jerks have done, saving myself money, and saving the planet resources.

Note: Be careful with this one! ALWAYS stay visible. Don’t duck behind something. Wear bright colors. Make noise. If possible, bring a friend to spot for you. It would suck to get shot by someone who didn’t know you were there. Don’t scavenge when other people are using the spot, obviously. If you want to use the shooting spot and scavenge at the same time, please PLEASE clean up after yourself.

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