For my various custom minifigures, I've needed to make a variety of fabric elements. Lego produces capes in several colours, but what if you want a shade not available? My answer was to produce my own! The techniques appropriate for capes are also useful for skirts, dresses, long coats and many other things, too. Let your imagination be your guide!
A two-tone opera cape
A pleated skirt
My fabric elements are made from a thin, finely-woven synthetic fabric that's called "broadcloth" in the fabric store where I shop. I think the material is polyester. Fortunately, the cloth is the cheapest in the store, so it doesn't cost much (less than ) to buy a 10 cm. swatch and experiment a bit. A bolt of broadcloth fabric will probably be something like 120 cm. wide, so you'll have lots of material to spare from your 10x120 cm. strip if your first attempts are not perfect.
One very important thing to remember is that you want to get cloth with as fine a weave as possible. It's worth shopping around if you have a number of stores in your area that sell fabric. Broadcloth can be tightly woven, with a very high threads-per-centimetre count, or rather loose. The only time a low thread-count is appropriate is for making clothes for your castle peasants - miniature burlap anyone?
Some minifig customizers use paper to create capes and so forth. This works, but the results don't look much like real Lego elements, and they're more fragile, too. Using the methods and materials described in this document, you can make elements that look good and stand up to wear and tear, too.
Preparing the material for use:
Before you can cut your new fabric into shape, it needs to be treated to stop it from fraying. When I buy a new strip of material, I cut off a modest amount (usually something like a 10 cm. square) and apply some artist's acrylic matte medium to stop the fabric from unravelling.
You can buy acrylic matte medium in any decent artists' supply store. Note that you need acrylic medium, since it stays flexible even after drying completely, and you want matte medium so that the fabric doesn't dry shiny.
To apply the medium, I take a piece of waxed paper and lay my small piece of fabric on top of it. I then use a 1 cm. flat brush to cover the fabric with acrylic medium. The brand of medium I use is sufficiently runny to soak right into the fabric. Some brands are a little less viscous, so you may need to dilute them slightly with water.
I try to get the fabric soaked, but not dripping wet. Once this is achieved, I hang the material up to dry. Leave a border of unsoaked material along one side so that your clothes pegs don't stick to the material! Make sure there are no wrinkles or creases in the fabric. If necessary, iron wrinkled fabric before treating with acrylic medium.
The medium will be whitish in colour when wet, but will dry clear. Even after drying, however, it will make the fabric a shade darker, so take that into account when choosing your fabric at the store.
Once the acrylic-soaked fabric has dried, you will find that you can use sharp scissors to cut and trim it to whatever shape you want. The edges will not unravel because the threads have all been coated in plastic.
Treated fabric is slightly stiffer than raw fabric. It will still bend easily, however. Be aware that if you put a sharp fold in treated fabric, the crease will stay visible. This can be useful if you want to make a pleated skirt for a Lego minifigure. Beware - this takes lots of patience to do...
If you've been lazy about ironing or careless about hanging your fabric to dry, you may have unwanted creases. You're stuck with them! Start again, and with a little bit of care and effort, you'll eventually have a smooth piece of fabric to use for your custom masterpieces.
Techniques for painting fabric:
When fabric has been sealed with acrylic medium, you can paint upon it with acrylic paints. The paint won't bleed into the treated fabric as it would with raw fabric. That makes it possible to paint straight edges or complex designs.
Because the fabric's surface remains irregular, you may need to build up your painted design with several thin coats of diluted paint. You want the paint to get right down onto the surface of the sealed fabric, and diluting it a bit will help this to happen.
Be patient, and add depth of colour with several thin coats of paint. Don't forget to put down a white undercoat first if trying to paint a light colour over a dark fabric. Also, be careful not to build up thick layers of paint on the fabric - the paint may crack when the fabric bends.
You can get a variety of effects with paint. Insignia, stripes and coloured borders are all possible. I've even created military camouflage patterns. It would also be possible to simulate tie-died fabric, if you needed to... :)
Of course, if you can buy fabric that's pre-printed with the pattern you want, that's even easier! I've found tartan, checked and striped broadcloth occasionally over the years, and bought small samples of each when I saw them, for use in future projects.
Changing colours and creating coloured linings:
Another thing you can do with paint is completely change the colour of a fabric. In cases where I could not match a Lego colour at the fabric store, I've cheated by buying the closest match and then applying a very thin coating of acrylic paint. This was done after the fabric was treated with acrylic medium.
You can use paint, as described above, to make a cape with a different coloured lining. Lego themselves used this trick for the vampire figure in the Studios movie monster line. The problem with this method is that the paint can through on the other side of your fabric.
I prefer to make linings by cutting identically-shaped pieces in both colours and using acrylic medium to glue them together. You get a much stronger colour, and so long as the laminated item is handled carefully, it won't split apart.
Simulating exotic materials:
If you used gloss acrylic medium instead of matte on very finely woven cloth, you could get something that looked a bit like leather. Perhaps this would be useful for making skirts for your Lego disco customers, or trenchcoats for your cyberpunk characters? Actually, I'd be tempted to replace the broadcloth fabric with thin PVC plastic, but that's something I've not yet tried in practice.
One specialized fabric I have experimented with is "fun fur". By choosing a fur fabric with a very finely woven backing, and really soaking a lot of matte medium into the backing FROM THE NON-HAIRY SIDE, I was able to make a very impressive fur cape for one character.
In this case, soaking the fun fur's fabric backing with acrylic medium has to do two things: first, it stops the backing from fraying/unravelling once cut, and second, it glues the base of the "fur" fibres to the fabric backing so that they don't fall off at the edges when you cut the fun fur.
Cutting fun fur is a very tricky exercise. Use sharp scissors with very short blades. Once the basic shape of your fun fur element has been cut, you may need to trim the "fur" fibres in some areas to improve the look of the piece.
Another exotic material is sheer fabric. This is a lot more expensive than broadcloth, but the same basic techniques apply for preparation and use. The only trick is to treat the sheer fabric with very dilute (instead of full-strength) acrylic medium.
Once you've applied the medium, but before you hang it up to dry, use a paper towel to blot away most of the medium. Try to make sure that the medium isn't left filling in the spaces between the fine threads of the fabric. Full-strength acrylic medium will tend to fill in these spaces, which is why we use it very diluted with sheer material.
To keep the see-through look, we just want to coat the threads, not fill in the gaps between them. If you leave areas of fabric with filled gaps, these will show as ugly blotches when dry. Work carefully.
You may need two or three careful treatments to prepare sheer fabric for use with a figure. Because you're using diluted acrylic medium, the treated fabric has far less strength than usual. Repeated careful applications of diluted medium will build up protection while keeping a see-through appearance.
The end result will still be more fragile than regular- treated broadcloth, but the effect of a sheer cape or skirt can be absolutely stunning. I find that look is worth some extra care and effort.
Using fabric to make custom elements for your Lego figures is easy once you've learned how to prepare it. The raw materials are cheap and easy to find, so give these techniques a try on your next figure, and you'll never look back! And remember, as always, I'd be interested to see what people come up with, so post a message to Lugnet to let me and everyone else know where to see your creations.