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Yaya Han poses in the Bernina booth at Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, held March 22-24, 2019.

Photo courtesy of Bernina USA

In 2009 Maggie Toth decided to go to Otakon, a three-day anime convention at the Baltimore Convention Center. A huge fan of comics and Japanese manga, Toth, 23, was excited to cosplay, meaning attend the convention dressed up as her favorite character. She wanted to dress as Risa Harada from DN Angel, a manga series written and illustrated by Yukiru Sugisaki. But first she had to make the costume.

“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.

Toth’s story is not unusual. Motivated by the desire to make their own costumes, cosplayers are buying sewing machines, sewing patterns, and specialty fabrics and supplies and they’re taking classes to develop their sewing skills. The sewing industry is taking note, especially since cosplayers are typically between 18-39 years old, a market that retailers are desperate to reach.

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.

Sewing companies are getting in on the action. JOANN, the largest fabric retailer in the US, has an exclusive line of fabric and trims with well-known cosplayer Yaya Han. Singer has signed Philip Odango of Canvas Cosplay as a brand ambassador and both Singer and Bernina are sponsoring comic cons this year. McCall’s has a special website, cosplay.mccall.com, devoted to their cosplay patterns, also licensed by Yaya Han, as well as a devoted cosplay blog and social media presence. McCalls has also been a vendor and sponsor of several comic cons.

Companies that serve the independent sewing stores have taken note as well. Sleboda co-founded Sew Much Cosplay in 2017 with the goal of providing high quality tools and materials such as dense, paintable EVA foam, heat-activated glitter and foil, and armor snips, for the independent brick-and-mortar quilt and sewing shops.

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

Vendors at the larger consumer sewing events have, at times, also struggled to understand cosplay. Sleboda says, “They just didn’t really understand why someone would want to dress up and go to an event in a costume. That’s not their personal thing that they would do, it’s not their hobby, so they look at it and think it’s very unusual.” She recalls one young woman who came in costume to a sewing show in Michigan and was barraged with questions like, ‘Why are you wearing that?’ and ‘Did your mother make that for you?’ “By the time she got to my booth she was very upset,” Sleboda recalls.

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

The Singer Sewing Center in Corpus Christi, Texas, goes a step further. Proprietor Susan Glass first learned about cosplay through her daughter, now 30, who began attending conventions several years ago. Then she met Sleboda at a sewing show and began carrying the Sew Much Cosplay line in her shop. For the last three years she’s also been a vendor at ComicCon and RealmsCon. “When people walk by our booth we talk to them about their costumes, how they made them,” Glass says. “They’ve usually put them together with duct tape. We introduce them to sewing.”

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?”

Cosplay Attracts a New Demographic to Sewing

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