Distressing Fabric
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Distressing Fabric

Distressing = making the outfit look old

What you need to do for the worn not-so-new look...

The Lord of the Rings movie costumes have a wonderful texture and feel to them.  All the clothing looks like the characters lived in it., and some, like they died in it.

Also see Leather Distressing and Aging

Washing and fabric breakdown

The easier way to make something look older is it wash it a few times.  This will fade both the color and soften the fabric by removing the sizing.  However, if you're going to be doing this... be sure to have prewashed all your fabric.

If you have a back yard, leave it outside to weather for a week in the sun, wind, rain, whatever.

Work the wear area

You can use sand paper on the area of wear: Knees, elbows, seat of pants.  Look at an old outfit to know where to wear.  It's at the knee and below.

Start with a coarser sand paper, then finer grades further out.

Put a whole pocket full of pebbles in the pockets and leave to hang for a few days.  This stretches the pockets out.

I got a hint from some model railroaders on how to age things.  They look for the normal progression of wear, and duplicate that.  For them, they know rust comes from under the paint, the paint flakes, and dirt gets on top of the paint.  So they paint on rust, paint on flaking paint, and paint on dirt, in that order. 

For us, doing costumes, we know that edges fray, and that dirt and rips happen more often in some places than others (elbows, knees, hems the outsides of folds and creases, etc.)  So to age a costume realistically, fray the parts that most likely get frayed, dirty and rip the places that most likely get dirty and ripped, and so on.  And don't forget wrinkles where wrinkles naturally go, and a little wear around necks and cuffs.  You might go to a thrift store to research old worn-out clothes. Outside edges get more wear, like the outsides of any pleats and gathers.  Fading happens here too.  The tops of shoulders, the edges of cuffs (oops - no cuffs), and like that. 

My point was if these garments are to look realistic, the apparent age on them should also look realistic, not fakey/costumey. (Nothing looks so costumey, to me, than carefully cut frayed edges, neatly sewn-on patches in places that never take wear, and clean crisp edges.) 

General suggestions:  Give the costume to some small boys to play with in the back yard?  Abraid it with a wire brush?  Grab one end and spank trees and chain-link fences with the other end?  And yes, drag it around the parking lot tied to your bumper (don't run over it unless you want visible tire marks on it).


Dying & Paint

You can even give it watered-out dyebaths of brown or black to "age" it.  The seams will catch more dye that way, suggesting the robe was darker before the su n bleached it over the years.  

==N'stasha Ariel

You can over dye the outfit with a light grey wash.  You can add stains with the dye, coffee or tea.  Diluted paints can be used as well, depending on how permanent you need them to be.  Add fabric medium to the paint to make it permanent.

== Cat

Make the garment then do the distressing.  A wire brush as someone else suggested is good for distressing fabric.  If you don't want to use bleach to age the fabric - try taking a spray bottle and spraying a solution of hydrogen peroxide on the fabric and standing  it out in the sun and/or light. You can also use lemon juice to bleach out color.  Saturated solutions of tea or coffee will give you a brownish look.  Be careful of using Acrylic paint or mediums - they'll tend to stiffen the fabric.

==Fran E

Especially for the Nazgul..

Someone said you should paint the edges brown and it's an excellent idea. But I have an 'extreme' option that is called (at least in Mexico) "dirty water". You have to dissolve a little amount of white or gray acrylic paint in a bucket of water (see where I'm going?) Now get a volunteer to wear the costume and pour the water over him/her. let the costume dry to air. Keeping it on as it dries would give the best effect *LOL*  Once it is dry, the clear sections will give the impression of color fading off from wrinkles. Try this with a piece of the fabric you're using, to see if you like how it looks.


Mix techniques were used in the film

Sandpaper.  Different grades in different spots - anywhere there would normally be wear and tear - knees, elbows, hems and edges.  Bleach will also weaken the fabric structure, but then you'd need to re-dye it.  They dyed and overdyed their cloth as part of the aging process, which took about two weeks, if I remember rightly!

== Naomi

On the Nazgul and Dead... don't forget to do the trim as well.  You can find some black and gold trims.  Over dying it poorly will a black rinse  help in the fake aging process.  It too need's to be shredded w/o a inch of its life.  A wire brush will help that.

If you accidentally break one of the major threads that holds the trim together, tack it back together in a rough repair.


Extremes - rips and tears

Get a wire brush like the kind used for taking paint off walls.  Run this across the garment.  It will snag and tear the fabric. 

For the Ring Wraiths, use the wire brush on the edges.  You will probably need someone to stabilize the fabric and then you hold right where you are brushing and pull it off the edge.

Desperate: drag it behind your car or bicycle... but make sure the local law enforcement have a sense of humor. 

== Cat

Real Dirt

Fullers Earth!!! Of course.  That's the hygienic type of dust used to make mud masks.  It'll make a nice grayish looking mud that dries a lighter whitish grey.  It can get a bit pricey if you want a lot of it though. This is even better than potting soil and certainly better than dirt from your backyard as it's free of bacteria, germs and other living things.


My grandmother used to buy it from the chemist and dab it on mouth ulcers... it's a yellow clay, presumably what they originally used for absorbing stains from wool.... hence the term 'fullers' earth.

Otherwise you can get the powdered clay from a ceramics or pottery supplier - will work the same.  If you're still stuck, buy some coloured chalk - the kind for a kid's blackboard, and just powder it on a rough rock or in a mortar & pestle - just put a hankie over your face so you don't breathe it (I don't recommend using a blender for this reason...grinding produces little dust.)  Or, you can always raid some females makeup box and use face powder... lighter colour, but will work. 

If you want it ingrained, wet the surface of the cloth/leather first and then sprinkle and rub! You can add more when it dries for top dust.


How about rolling around in the dirt/grass with it? Viggo got his worn, soiled look by wearing it all the time riding, mowing the lawn, fishing, whatever. Mind you, that was for leather, but rolling around the lawn ought to help take the shine off the black cotton.


On the Buffy the Vampire series.  Spike got back from a season break and found out that they had cleaned up his long leather jacket.  He had to go take it for a roll in the parking lot to get it back to where it needed to be. 


Leather & Heavy Fabric Aging

I've used sandpaper, wire brushes, drills with wire wheels, rusty chains, hammers and "kickin' it around the dusty gravel driveway", acetone, varsol, etc. (all for leather bits), but the "cheese grater" remark had me going ;).

I recently acquired a "graveyard zombie" wardrobe ensemble from a recent feature film, and was thoroughly impressed to note that besides the paint, Fullers earth, etc. that had been applied to this 100% virgin wool suit (in a very carefully applied and artistic fashion), that it had also be subjected to an electric belt sander. Some careful scalpel cutting in the sanded areas was also evident.

Something else I've used on leather and heavy fabrics alike to give a "worn-in" look is "Leather Balm", which is a microcrystalline wax in an alcohol solution.  Applied heavily and rapidly with a rag and rubbed / burnished off with a clean rag quickly, it can give the look of heavy/greasy wear very quickly. The heavier the application and burnishing the more aged and worn (especially over high wear points). I did some "Goliath boots" over with this treatment for a docu-drama that made them come out looking like they had been worn for years, even though they had only left my bench a couple of days earlier.

It probably won't make the material any softer in the overall scheme of things, but it may make it *look* that way, and isn't that what we're all about?


Rough Edge

For really rough edges, instead of just fraying an edge by unraveling or washing a raw edge... you can hack a new edge.  Gather a chunk together and cut it roughly in wads.  That gives you a fairly ragged hem.  You may then need to go back and add some more artistic snips.   Also consider adding a few snips above the hem line for tears and cut small ragged holes. 

The next step is to add some wear.  Either take sand paper to it or wash the edge with a diluted acrylic paint

Hacking and paint may be your main option on knits since they will not fray like woven fabrics.

More Techniques

I wanted to mention one thing about the wire brush (which happens to be my favorite distressing tool aside from airbrushing paint on).  If your fabric is a very tight weave, the wire brush will often simply "snag" the fabric as oppose to tearing it (like it does with a very loose weave and/or softer fabrics) and would therefore make the fabric look more worn without being all torn up.  You just have to experiment before going to town. (i.e. try it out on the hems which would be a bit raggy before working on the back of the cloak.)

Think about the obvious places a cloak would wear out before doing anything.  The worst thing about poorly distressed clothing is that they'll have a tear or "dirt" somewhere that doesn't' make ANY sense, and NO tears or dirt on the elbows.

My suggestions: neckline (necks get sweaty after all that running!), Hemline (ESPECIALLY the front corners) and the back where the cloak would have been slept on/sat on a lot.

== Lady Luke Skywalker

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Section editors: Cat and Judy

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This page was last updated 04/22/08