Construction Site: Diary of a mad costume maker

Photo by Brittney MacDonald
Photo by Brittney MacDonald

Building your own silk-screen

By Brittney MacDonald, Life & Style Editor

Now that the patterning and sewing is mostly done, and you have the basics that you’ll be working with, it’s time to move on to details. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the details make or break your costume. Unfortunately you can be the best tailor in the world, but if your painting or jewelry is off, then it will throw your entire costume off. Keep in mind, most people at conventions are purely concerned with aesthetics, therefore if it looks right, it doesn’t really matter how you achieved it—remember when I told you about adaptability?

Fortunately this type of mentality has fostered an entire community of innovators—people looking for the best way to construct impossible things out of unconventional materials. Generally members of the community won’t mind sharing their knowledge, which is why there are countless blog and YouTube tutorials on everything from prop weapon crafting, to making wings, and styling wigs.

In that general vein I’m going to talk now about a do-it-yourself print technology you can use at home that will save you a lot of time and money if you’re looking to go into costume making as a hobby, or professionally.

In order to achieve the distinct pattern on Yuna’s skirt I decided to do a combination of silk-screening and handmade fabric appliqués. If you’ll remember my first Construction Site, the fact that I would be silk-screening a pattern onto the skirt was the whole reason I decided to go with a polyester blend when choosing fabrics.

With a silk-screen it is best to try and utilize one stencil, as opposed to matching several up to create a large pattern. Because of this, I had to build a new silk-screen in a friend’s yard, and then disassemble it afterward. The pattern I needed required a frame that was approximately 4×5 feet.

In the interest of teaching you the basics, I would say if you’re going to try this, make one that’s a little more practical to keep around.

For those of you who have never heard of it, silk-screening is a print making technique that utilizes woven fabric, a stencil, and some sort of squeegee. It’s really simple to do, and will save you a ton of time, as opposed to painting.

I learned how to do mine from a tutorial available on and adapted it using other tutorials available on YouTube.

Begin by buying a pre-made stretched canvas. You can use a wooden picture frame but I find them a little more difficult to work with. Remove the actual canvas—all you want is the wooden frame. Be sure to choose one with a slightly deep well, about half an inch or so, in order to prevent the ink from running out of it. Next choose the flattest side that will be the one you cover with woven fabric. Any woven fabric should work as long as the ink can bleed through it. I have used cheese cloth as well as scraps of nylon tights. It doesn’t really matter. Just pull it tight over the flat side, and using a staple gun, fix it to the opposite side of the frame.

For relatively easy or simple designs, make a copy and then trace them directly onto the woven fabric using a sharpie. Then paint hodge podge over the areas you don’t want the ink to seep through. For more complicated designs you can do the same, or you can do what I did with mine and purchase latex decal paper. Trace the design onto the decal paper and then, using a scalpel, score the outline. When finished, peel the back off and stick it directly onto your woven fabric on the inside of the frame. After that, take your scalpel again, and carefully peel off the areas you want the ink or paint to go.  Use painter’s tape to seal off the edges around the frame so no ink or paint makes its way under it.

Make sure you use water-based paints or inks during this process, or if you want to be extra safe you can use silk-screen specific ones, but you may have to order them.

Once your screen is prepped it’s simply a matter of putting on an even coat of paint, and then using your squeegee or any other painters’ blade, press the paint or ink down into the fabric. Do several coats before removing the screen from the garment. Once you remove the screen it is near impossible to line it back up again.

Good luck, and I’ll see you next week for tips on appliqués and beading!