Vinyl, pleather, suede and real leather: or how not to freak out and blow your budget.
Special thanks to the awesome team at the Tandy store who let me take pictures for this post.
So you want to make a warrior character, cool! He’s head to toe in leather! He looks so badass!! And so very expensive to build…..
A lot of times people put off characters like this because they know it’s going to cost a lot, and it is, I won’t lie. BUT there are things to consider before going straight to vinyl by the yard at your local JoAnn’s.
First consider all the parts of the costume, anything that might be recyclable (belts, bags, belt pouches, weapon slings, outer wear like jackets) it’s usually worth investing in real leather. Think on this: a belt blank from Tandy runs about $8, but in order to sew a belt of the same length from vinyl, you need to buy at least a yard (if 58” will do) or more, at $12-16/ yard. So for a belt, real leather is often cheaper.
Second, while I love wandering around in the Tandy store, I know I’m spoiled rotten having a brick & mortar one in my city. Ordering unfamiliar materials online is terrifying. But you CAN buy sample swatches, which will get you familiar with the various weights and textures, and help you make more informed decisions. I’ll go into more detail a little further down but, nothing beats touching the materials with your own hands, it’s the best way to learn.
Misconception #1: my outfit must be all leather or all fake.
Why people think this is beyond me, mixing the two stretches your dollars significantly, improves the overall appearance of the finished costume (when real leather is used in the highlights) and there is no logical reason for restricting materials used.
Misconception #2: If I want leather I have to buy a whole cow hide retail.
Get thee to a thrift shop! I’ve bought numerous jackets and coats that were 100% real leather never spending more than $20 on any single item. Need little pouches or belt items? Buy outdated purses, the wear on them that resulted in their being donated to charity may be perfect for your character. They may have gathers or pleats or flaps already made that you can cut around and glue up the backside to make your pouch. That and you can feel good about supporting charity with your purchases.
The best leather I’ve bought at thrift stores for recycling was ladies skirts. Late 80’s early 90’s A-line skirts in a mid-calf length were hot with the cubicle crowd, and in a size 16 that’s over a full yard of unblemished (usually, inspect carefully for stains and tears) leather with only side seams and darts to work around. These are often priced the same as any other ladies skirt, the last one I bought at Salvation Army was $3. A whole yard of real leather in a lovely chocolate brown for threeeeeee dolllllaaaarrrssss….. At that price you can afford to practice sewing it before investing in bigger yardage.
The second best item is mens outerwear. The bigger the size the more leather you get to work with.
Think! You aren’t looking for current fashion, it’s a thrift store, remember? It’s all going to be outdated and weird, you are looking for the materials alone, in quantity to do your project. Mens outer wear is usually a little bit heavier, but not impossible to sew on a machine. Good choice for the rugged and rustic builds.
Last, I think I’ve seen real leather pants second hand once, and that was a really nice consignment shop. Pants just aren’t going to be easy to find in this context, so resign yourself to buying or making these for your character if they are necessary.
This comes in two basic categories: upholstery and garment. Garment vinyl tends to stretch (not intentionally) and is pretty wimpy. It’s exceptionally subject to chemicals and heat. Ever had a fake leather bag or jacket start bubbling, cracking and peeling? it’s garment vinyl. Pleather is a brand name of garment vinyl (like Kleenex or Xerox… common useage but still a brand name). There are stretch varieties which are actually spandex with a coating on top. The advantages are that this is at least hand washable, and fairly comfortable to wear. Upholstery vinyl is just that, a bit thicker and a bit tougher (much more so in the heat and chemical resistance categories) intended for harder use. If the costume you are making is supposed to look like armor (saddle leather) this is what you want to use. The down side to all vinyl is the back and cut edges are obviously not leather, so it must be treated or sewn in such a way as to not ever expose the backs or have raw cut edges visible.
there is this other product, headliner foam, that when paired with vinyl and sewn in a classic lining method, replicates thick tooled leather beautifully. It CHEAP and really fun to use. Buy some and play with it!
Let’s break down generalized sections of wardrobe to give the pros & cons of leather vs. fake and help you determine where to spend your money and time.
Pants are one area where real leather is rarely necessary. If there are accessories, weapons and any outer wear that hangs to the hips or longer, no one will notice if the pants are real or not. Washable faux suedes are most comfortable, but wet look spandex is often a good substitute also. If it needs to look like armored leather, line it! Don’t use upholstery vinyl in the crotch region if you can avoid it. The lack of softness at the seams will result in much chaffing.
Let’s face it, butts get sweaty, do you really want to sweat all over something that will cost several hundred dollars to get professionally cleaned? Or just own really stinky pants eternally? I once knew a musician who had leather pants he wore on stage regularly. Those pants were sexy as hell, from a distance. His girlfriend literally did not allow them in their apartment, he was required to strip at the door and they were left on the back balcony to prevent the funk from invading. Fine to own if you’re a rock star who can pay a lot to maintain a wardrobe…
This is where you want to invest in real leather if the belt is in any way functional. If it holds up your pants, has pouches or a weapon hanging from it, you need the strength and rigidity that real leather provides. Remember those belt blanks from Tandy; they can be textured, dyed, trimmed down and more and the basic blank size is very long.
If you need multiple belts, or they aren’t doing anything besides looking pretty, do real math to see if belt blanks or vinyl will be cheaper. Skinny belts for the leg harnesses worn by Scouts in Attack on Titan can be made from splitting belt blanks long wise. If you are slim, two belt blanks might be enough, if you are tall or broad, vinyl might be cheaper, it all comes down to exactly how much you need.
JACKETS, VESTS, COATS, ANYTHING OVER A SHIRT:
Mix the materials! Use real leather on the collar and front panels, and sleeves. Use vinyl as your inner facings, lower tail sections and back if you can get decent enough matches. Using a faux suede mixed with real leather gives nice texture differences and adds breath-ability to an otherwise warm garment. This is how discount furniture chains sell “real leather!” couches for only a couple hundred bucks, the cushions you sit on are real leather, but the back, sides below the arm rest, and lower areas that get kicked a lot are all vinyl.
UPPER BODY DIRECT SKIN CONTACT (BRAS, CORSETS, ETC):
Again, I recommend mixing materials and definitely lining the garment. The less sweat that can seep into the real leather the better. You can hand wash the sides & backs to make the sweaty areas less funky for repeated wearing. IMPORTANT: you don’t want deodorant coming in contact with the leather, it will dry, crack and discolor it. It’s very important to have your underarm areas well lined or in the case of bra or corset type garments, have some other more washable material in that area. Try to keep the real leather front & center, on bra cups and abdominal region.
Go for real leather. Your face is where others naturally look first and if you are dressing in a character with specific headgear or hair, it is going to be scrutinized more than any other part of your costume. This is generally going to be a natural highlight of your costume anyway so splurge!
HANDS & ARMS:
This one is tricky, I would say “go for leather” but not crafting from scratch. Sewing gloves is not for beginners, ever, and doing so in the very thin leather gloves are made from… no wonder they went out of style.
Kid gloves were vitally important to the debutante set up until the early 70’s, meaning they now crop up very regularly in garage and estate sales. And they are so luxurious to wear! I regularly pick up these fancy leather gloves in all kinds of colors and sell them through my Etsy shop.
For the guys and more robust characters, welders gloves can be bought for about $15, they are often medium ‘natural’ tones that can be alcohol dyed darker.
FEET & LEGS:
Sorta depends…. If you are making boot covers, not intended to be worn more than a couple times and definitely not making permanent alterations to a shoe or boot, go faux. If you are permanently transforming shoes into, say Jack Sparrow boots, and you hope to wear them a lot, spend the money on real leather. Just don’t say to yourself “well if I like them I can re-do them in leather” because they won’t go together as well the second time and you will have wasted money by making them twice.
KINDS OF LEATHER AND WHERE TO USE THEM:
This is just a broad overview, there are many more subtle splits, but this lumps it into three categories specific to costume making.
The prices in these photos are just a reference point. Photos taken November of 2015. Leather is usually sold by the square foot, not by yard or meter!
Kid or Glove
This is what those debutante gloves are made from. It’s so thin it can be stretched fairly easily and it’s soft, like that big fuzzy blanket at mom’s house soft. It’s also pretty expensive.
Kid leather generally comes from goats and deer, but there is always variation as to specific breeds by the leathers country of origin. In the US that hide comes from axis and white tail deer, and Boer and Barbari goats which are meat varieties.
Use-wise this is only suitable for non-weight bearing items, gloves and decorative appliques.
This is a fairly generic term, because it covers a lot of ground, but basically it means “everything that can be worn easily and still has structural integrity of its own to not need other support”. Mostly this is split cow hide, split pig hide, larger antler types like elk and moose and occasionally buffalo or bison. Again, this leather mostly comes from critters farm raised as meat animals, nothing goes to waste. Outside the US this leather comes from whatever big grass eating critters they eat in that country.
Cow and pig hides are very thick, like ¼” to 3/8”, which isn’t really wearable as is, so it is split horizontally through the center creating double the square footage of more flexible leather. The outside split has a smooth surface and a rough surface, the inside split has two rough or suede surfaces.
This is the leather you will get if you buy second hand garments, and what you want for the majority of your builds.
This is what it sounds like, thick, hard leather, frequently used for wet forming things like purses, holsters, bags and other really heavy duty applications. Good quality work boots are made from slightly thinned saddle leather, and boot and shoe soles are made from this as well. This is mostly just cow but sometimes pig too. In other places and for those who want to spend big money on exotics, hippo and elephant hide are used this way. (I don’t approve personally of using elephants for hide, just stating facts).
Saddle leather can be stamped and carved, and the style isn’t restricted to Western themes. Go meet some SCA dudes if you want to see what leather armor is really all about. While the thought was intimidating, my first experiments with wet forming were very successful and much easier than I expected. There are plenty of tutes on that already out there, no need to elaborate here.
So in summary:
1. Don’t be scared!
2. You can afford to try it if you are willing to thrift shop!
3. As always, have fun!