Vinyl! Ubiquitous, shiny vinyl!
Vinyl covers a lot of ground. It can be shiny, semi-shiny or dull. It can be lightweight with a fuzzy backing and easily sewable, all the way through to heavy-weight marine vinyl which, as the name suggests, is used for things like boat covers and which I wouldn’t touch without a purpose-built industrial machine.
Vinyl is usually a petrochemical product and as such, is extruded rather than woven – although it might have a woven backing added to it for ease of handling or comfort of wear. It doesn’t breathe, it acts like a sweatbox and it can STINK, especially when it’s brand new. Vapors from freshly-created vinyl can cause headaches and even breathing issues for folks who are sensitive – asthmatics and such – so exercise caution when making your selection.
Despite all that, it’s a useful material. It’s an affordable substitute for leather. Some of the higher-end vinyls are indistinguishable from animal hide. It comes in a huge range of colors and finishes. Some vinyls even have a – limited – degree of stretch to them.
A bit of shorthand. If it’s described as “pleather”, it’s intended to look like leather. If it’s described as “vinyl”, the finish on it is NOT going to look like leather, even from a distance.
If you want to cosplay a barbarian or a superhero, odds are you’re going to reach for vinyl at some point. It can be used for capes, for garments and for props. It’s a real utility material.
Be prepared for some challenges.
It’s NOT easy to sew. It has most of the same challenges as leather when it comes to drape and sewing.
It’s not a woven or knit fabric – once the needle punches the material, that’s a permanent and visible hole. If you like to pin your seams together before running something through your machine, you’ll have to take care to place those pins inside the seam allowance, or use an alternative method, such as binder clips, paper clips or those fancy fabric clamps you can find in the notions section. Just be sure to go slowly and remove the clip/clamp before the fabric reaches the presser foot.
Slick vinyls can and will stick to itself, to your work surfaces AND risks picking up marks from the feed-dogs on your sewing machine. Encasing your seam in a tear-away stabilizer or tissue paper can help. A teflon plate and teflon foot or a rolling foot on your sewing machine will help the vinyl move as you work.
Heavier vinyls put stress on your machine, just like sewing leather does. Use the same caveats as when sewing leather – lengthen your stitch, and use a leather needle. Personally, I run heavier vinyl through my beloved gear-driven sewing machine that’s better built to cope with such stresses. If you don’t have such a machine, ask around as a friend might.
Of course, you don’t have to sew your vinyl. Depending on the task, you might be able to glue your pieces together. However, you can’t grab just any old adhesive and get to work.
The chemical composition of vinyl are wide and varied – although most of what you’ll find at the fabric store is a variant of PVC or poly-vinyl chlorate. The chemical compositions of glue are wide and varied. Pick the wrong glue for your material and you’ll destroy your vinyl, possibly producing some sickening fumes in the process. Not good!
I highly recommend you visit thistothat.com to explore your adhesive options.
When it comes to using a new glue, your number one rule of thumb should be: TEST FIRST. And the second rule is DO THIS OUTSIDE. Speaking as someone who’s nearly poisoned herself with noxious fumes a couple of times, if it’s a rainy day, wait for the weather to clear up, or find a friend with a garage who’ll let you open it up while they put their car in the driveway for a little while. You do NOT want to mess about with smelly, flammable glues inside your home.
While it’s cheaper than leather, good vinyl – especially high-end pleather – can still be pricey. But you’re not only saving a few dollars per square foot, you’re also getting a much more manageable cutting area. Vinyls are produced in the standard widths – 45 inches, 54 inches, et cetera – whereas when you buy leather hides, you get an irregular shape with varying thickness throughout.
And unless your vinyl has a directional pattern on it, you can often lay your pieces out any which way to get maximum use out of every yard. There’s no grain to it, so you don’t have to worry about how it drapes once it’s cut. For cutting, you’ll want heavy shears or a heavy-duty rotary cutter and a mat.
Bear in mind that, over time, some vinyls will get discolored. Some might even get sticky and cracked. I’ve got some vinyl garments in storage that are over ten years old and look fine, and I’ve had some vinyls disintegrate after three years. It can be a bit of a crapshoot.
The cheap multicolor PVC that you’ll find at a fabric store during the run-up to Halloween will cost about six dollars a yard. I’ve paid fifteen dollars a yard for wet-look medium weight PVC that mimicked patent leather a treat. Stretch vinyl is about the same price. The fancier pleathers that you’ll find at an upholstery store start at around twenty dollars a yard and go up like a kite from there.
Depending on the vinyl, you might be able to dry clean it, but I’ve relied on wiping the surface clean and a bit of strategically applied Febreze for my costumes. If you have to press a seam open, use just your fingers and a bone folder – that’s a smooth piece of wood or plastic designed to help put pressure on a small area, you can find them in the notions section. If that doesn’t do the trick, test a low temperature iron with a press cloth on a scrap of your vinyl and determine if that’s a safe approach. It might work, it might melt into a gooey mess. Put a cloth UNDER your test scrap, too.
Always use a leather needle for vinyl. For heavier weight projects, use upholstery thread, which is thicker and stronger than regular thread. As with leather, use a longer than normal stitch, lest you perforate your material.