Yaya Han poses in the Bernina booth at Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, held March 22-24, 2019.
Photo courtesy of Bernina USA
“My mom is a big quilter so she taught me the very basics of sewing probably when I was like eight or so,” Toth says, but it had been years since she’d sewn anything. To make Risa’s signature white and crimson outfit, Toth drew with Sharpie on an old button-down shirt, dyed a skirt and then glued a ribbon around its edge. The results weren’t spectacular, but Toth was hooked. “Being able to make something that I’ve seen on TV and then wearing it around and having people recognize you as that character? It’s really fun,” she says. She’s gone on to cosplay at Bronycon, FairfaxComicon, the Maryland Renaissance Festival, Katsucon and more. She even has an Instagram account devoted to her cosplay, @sugarshockcosplay. This year she asked for a sewing machine for her birthday. Her mom was happy to oblige.
The market opportunity is sizable. The comics convention industry grossed $5 billion last year at over 900 events nationwide, and 38% of comic con attendees attended those shows dressed up in some kind of costume.
Cosplay, or costume play, originated in Japan in the early 1990s, and for a long time in the US it was something only comic book geeks participated in. Cheryl Sleboda, sewing instructor and owner of the specialty product Sew Much Cosplay, recalls many years when cosplayers were not cool. “You were nerdier than the other nerds,” she laughs. But in the last few years that perception has changed. “It’s a good time to be a nerd now,” Sleboda says, noting that cosplay has appeared recently on popular TV shows like CBS’s Big Bang Theory.
Having spent the prior 20 years working in the comic book industry, Sleboda has been able to successfully bridge the gap between both worlds. She recognized that cosplayers have a particular set of needs when it comes to sewing. “There are challenges with cosplay that are different from a costume you’d make for Halloween,” she explains. “The costume needs to be wearable all day. It needs to be light and breathable. It needs to be packable in a suitcase and come out of that suitcase in a form that you could wear and possibly win a contest.” Sleboda partnered with Knoxville-based RNK Distributing to source and manufacture interlinings and foam that bounce back to their original shape. Everything can be washed.
Still, some shops have been hesitant to jump in. “We’re not your normal market,” says Toth of the cosplay community. “We’re nerdy, mostly younger people. I think a big fear a lot of cosplayers have is that people will think we’re weird.” At times, she says, this fear of judgement has prevented her from going into the independently owned stores near her, although she’d like to patronize them more.
Toth wants to reassure hesitant shop owners that cosplayer don’t expect them to know every anime or comics character. “I don’t know every character either. Just ask to see a picture. If someone loves a character enough to make their outfit, they’ll talk about them to anybody.”
Cheryl Sleboda at at Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, held March 22-24, 2019.
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Sleboda
View this post on Instagram
Look at what we made! We can’t wait to see you all at #DragonCon in booth 3301/3303! Our friends at @famorecutlery have your #cosplay scissors and lights, and we have all the stuff that goes inside your cosplay. Come enter to win a 3D printer! Plus, #cosplayrepair! See you tomorrow!
Recently, though, that perception is changing. “Now when I go to Sew Expo and The Original Sewing & Quilt Expo, people are so happy the cosplayers are there. They’ll tell me, ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re here doing this cosplay thing. This is what we’ve needed.’ So I think they’re starting to get it,” Sleboda says.
For shops who are just getting started with the cosplay community one idea is to partner with a comics bookstore for an event. “There are lots of people that I think would want to start cosplaying, but don’t even know where to begin,” Toth says. “If it’s already in a familiar environment, that makes it easier.”
Yaya Han cosplay fabric and trim available at at JOANN.
Photos by Abby Glassenberg
Glass estimates that only five of every hundred people she talks to at the shows know anything about sewing machines.
“We had an embroidery machine set up in the booth stitching out Marvel Comics designs. People kept asking if it was a 3D printer,” she says. “We realized how little knowledge people have so we’ve started simplifying what we bring.”
To welcome cosplayers into the store, the Singer Sewing Center offers a cape-making class that doubles as an introductory sewing class the week leading up to ComicCon. “Every year we get more and more people coming in to get their hero foam to make their swords and armor,” Glass says. “As a shop owner, we try everything. Why not?”