Here’s the scenario: your kids want to cosplay (short for “costume play”) and go to a convention, or maybe they just want to dress up as a video game character for Halloween. Maybe you want to dress up as a family! But video game costumes can be pretty intricate. You don’t have a clue where to start.

It’s okay! We’re here to help.

First of all, if you’re feeling really un-crafty, you can always buy a costume from a retailer or commission one from a professional costumer. The latter route will typically get you a better-quality costume, but can be very expensive, and most pros have a long waiting list. Store-bought costumes usually aren’t great quality, and they aren’t necessarily cheap, either, but they’ll certainly save you time and energy. This isn’t the most exciting method, though.

Making your own costumes with your kids can reap a lot of rewards—I’ve learned all sorts of things from my adventures in cosplay over the years. Sewing, carpentry, jewelry-making, painting, theatre makeup, prosthetics, embroidery, even welding—these are valuable creative skills that can often be put to good use in other endeavors. Plus, making costumes is fun!

Here are the first steps you should take if you want to make cosplay the best experience it can be for your family.

Choosing a Character

Everybody has more fun if they’re dressed up as somebody they think is cool. Choose a character you like, and make sure your kids are excited about playing their faves as well. Keep in mind that you’ll all have to walk around in these costumes, so don’t choose something you think will make you uncomfortable—this can be particularly important for female video game characters, who are often clothed in chainmail bikinis. It’s also good to start with something simple—massive wings are super awesome, but I wouldn’t try to tackle something that intense for a first try. Wait till you have a bit more experience under your belt. Even a basic dress can be a challenge if you’ve never threaded a sewing machine before!

One way to figure out if something is feasible for you is to look up other cosplayers—analyze their costumes and read tutorials to see if you have the skills necessary to put it all together.

Gathering Materials

If there’s one thing you should know about cosplay, it’s that it can be prohibitively expensive. The second thing you should know is that it absolutely doesn’t have to be. If your kids are older, they can use their own money, and if they’re younger it’s a good idea to set a budget beforehand so you don’t get carried away.

Thrift shops are a best friend to cosplayers. Beginners, especially, often have an easier time altering existing clothing than starting fresh, and your checkbook will thank you. If you start on the costumes early enough, you’ll be able to scavenge cheap materials as you go, whether it’s something you turn up in a friend’s attic, on a fruitful garage-sale run, or by searching eBay.

Wigs. In my experience, if there’s one thing you’re going to spend money on, let it be the wig. Not all costumes need it, of course, but with the variety of fantastic colors and shapes that video game hair can come in, sometimes your real hair just won’t cut it. A good wig can go a long way. This will undoubtedly be more important to older kids and teens who want to look “realistic” or accurate; younger kids probably won’t care one way or another.

Kanekalon wigs are a high-quality fiber that doesn’t have to be super pricey. There are leagues of difference between a kanekalon wig and a vinyl party wig; the latter can be difficult to style and uncomfortable, and while you won’t find kanekalon wigs at most party suppliers, there are lots of online stores that sell them, including eBay. Depending on the length, you can find nice kanekalon wigs for $20-$40 (and oftentimes even cheaper).

Styrofoam wig heads make styling wigs much easier, and wig caps are nice too (they help keep everything clean and the wig will stay on your head much better with a cap underneath). You can pick up this stuff for cents if you keep an eye out for it.

Fabric. Cheap and non-fraying is best. Try for something you can buy a lot of so your kids can practice and fail without needing 20,000 trips to the fabric store. Always check the discount bins at fabric stores. Keep in mind that although stretchy fabrics are more accommodating, they’re also difficult to sew. Once you’ve found the right fabric, make sure to write down its name and number so that if you do end up needing more, you can order it online.

Weapons and Props. Weapons and other props are another conundrum for new cosplayers. “What, do I mold it out of clay?” you might ask. The answer is, sometimes! Spray paint and Sculpey can make even the most neon of squirt guns look like a fantasy laser blaster. Metallic paints on craft foam are great for jewelry and small details. For larger props, the many options include cardboard, craft foam, papier-mâché, styrene plastic, and even wood and metal. Craft and art stores are a great resource. Other places to get odds and ends for props are office supply stores, hardware stores, and costume shops.

Putting it all Together

First of all, put on some upbeat music and make some snacks! Making cosplay should be fun, not grueling. If everybody is getting tired, take a break, stat.

Practice. If you’ve done any kind of sewing before, you’ll be familiar with patterns, but if you haven’t, they can be invaluable. Most fabric stores sell old patterns for 75 cents a piece. Garage sales are another good place to look. You can also make your own mockup of a costume using cheap old sheets or paper. However you approach it, it’s best to make some sort of practice piece before you start slicing up your rare materials.

Remember to allow room for movement, comfort, and bathroom breaks.

Sewing. There are many beginner sewing courses and videos on using sewing machines. If you don’t have a sewing machine, hand-sewing is pretty easy as well, though it’s time-consuming and can be tedious. I’ve always enjoyed hand-sewing in front of the TV, but long car rides or bus trips are also a good option.

Alternatively, if you and your kids aren’t big on sewing, Velcro, duct tape, snaps, buttons, stick-on zippers, safety pins, and even hot glue present totally reasonable alternatives.

Making Props. One important thing to remember about props is that realism isn’t always desirable. Some conventions don’t allow photo-realistic assault guns, for instance, and for good reason. Sharp edges are another danger. And for heaven’s sake don’t let anyone bring a real weapon, even one that is unsharpened or unloaded!

At most conventions props will be “peace-bonded”—fitted with a bright zip-tie or ribbon that shows the weapons have been okayed by con staff. If the staff deems your props unsafe, or if they look too realistic, the results of your hard work could be confiscated. It’s best to play it safe.

When creating a prop, it’s a good idea to look up tutorials. Many will be specific to your project, and others may have tips and pointers that can still help. Craft foam and cardboard are some of my favorite materials for making props; versatile, cheap—and with the right amount of shiny paint, your prop can look very cool and official, while still being obviously fake.

Attending the Con

Now your team has costumes. What next?

Packing. First of all, pack a costume-malfunction kit. Safety pins, band aids, duct tape, hot glue, a travel sewing-kit, lots of hairpins and bobby pins, and maybe some sticky-backed Velcro. You should also think about a pair of fold-up flats or comfy shoes in case your cosplayers get sore feet—in fact, that’s not a bad idea even if they’re not in costume. Never assume that you and your family will be in costume 24/7; loose, comfortable clothing is a must. Even the best plans go awry, and having this stuff on hand can make or break a convention experience. (That said, most cosplayers pack for emergencies, and will be happy to help out, especially if you’ve got a crying child  in need of a handful of safety pins).

Second, make a list of every costume piece you want to bring, and check it off before you head out. And don’t forget to pack a camera!

Pictures. If you’re in costume at a convention, be prepared to be asked for photos. It’s fun to try on some poses before you head out onto the convention floor, and practicing might save you some awkwardness. People will get pretty excited about your costumes! It can be a great way to make new friends with similar interests, and it’s always fun to be the center of attention every once in a while—but, it can also be pretty overwhelming if you’re not accustomed to it. Don’t feel bad if you have to say no to a photo!

For more on preparing for and attending conventions, check out this article.

Finally? Have fun! This might seem obvious, but it’s easy to get carried away, especially for teenagers who tend toward perfectionism. Cosplay is all about having a good time and using your creativity to bring the games or other media you love to life. Never let anyone tell you that you’re doing it wrong—if you’re enjoying yourself, then you’re absolutely doing it right.

This article was written by

Keezy is a gamer, illustrator, and designer. Her background is in teaching and tutoring kids from ages 9 to 19, and she's led workshops for young women in STEM. She is also holds a certificate in teaching English. Her first memory of gaming is when her dad taught her to play the first Warcraft when she was five. You can find her at Key of Zee and on Twitter @KeezyBees.