How To Plan a Cosplay Workshop for Teens

Strategies for planning an event, recruiting experts, and teaching crafting and make-up skills.

Workshop instructor Kelsey Young.  Photo: Luisa Earle

Cosplay, a portmanteau of costume and play, is just as much fun as it sounds. Fans show their dedication to a character and his or her imaginary world by using sewing, crafting, makeup, and role-playing to bring their favorite characters to life. Children and teens often enter into fan culture by simply donning a favorite costume, even if it's just a cape or a wizard’s robe. But as they begin to attend conventions and follow their favorite cosplayers on social media, they also become curious to learn the skills involved. Teens begin to research materials and techniques, learn from each other, discover which part of the craft they like best, and collaborate to present characters in groups at their next event. How do you get involved in cosplaying? With maker spaces now a national trend, patrons have become accustomed to the idea that libraries can offer hands-on training in addition to how-to titles. Cosplay requires a mix of smart thrift store shopping, prop making, makeup application skills beyond the basics, and learning how to pose in character. Finding a way to teach new fans multiple skills was our goal this past summer. We can connect patrons with books on the shelves, like Gillian Conahan’s The Hero’s Closet; tutorials on YouTube; and online communities full of skilled cosplayers who offer advice. However, the detailed and careful reconstructions of everything from badges to boots can be intimidating for new fans. Running a series of programs that brought area cosplayers into the library to mentor and teach new cosplayers turned out to be a great way to break down some of those initial barriers, as well as make the world of cosplaying more accessible.

Planning and preparation

Summer is a time full of programs for our youngest readers, but attracting teens to attend them has always proven difficult with vacations, camp stays, and work occupying large chunks of their schedules. We invited teens and adults to participate, but we also made the workshops a series that could either be attended individually to learn about one element, like wig styling or sewing troubleshooting, or as a complete program with the goal of finishing an entire project over the course of the seven classes. We timed the workshops between June and early August in order to have the final session the week before our big local comics convention, FanExpo Boston. In late spring, I contacted our local cosplay charity group, Causeplay New England, to see if any members would be willing to teach one lesson in our series. This meant that no one person had to commit to teaching all seven weeks, while allowing us to offer a wide range of skill sets. Dedicated cosplayers are happy to share what they love, and we ended up with people traveling across state lines to inspire our local fans to pick up their brushes, needles, and hot glue. Eight instructors committed to the series, and together we whittled down the components of a good cosplay into seven sessions: creating a cosplay plan, modifying thrift store items, sewing patterns, sewing troubleshooting, props and wigs, makeup and accessories, and posing and photography etiquette. While we couldn’t go over every detail in the allotted hour every Monday, we could give attendees a foundation. Each instructor was happy to answer any questions on the individual projects attendees were working to complete. I coordinated the technology needs, including laptops and screens, uploaded presentations, printed handouts and handled online sign-ups. The weekend before each upcoming session, I sent out a reminder by Eventbrite, which included details on that week’s topic. Each instructor brought his or her own examples, if applicable, and list of resources.

Instructor Silhouette Cosplay, also known as Luisa Earle. Photo: Avery Earle

How it went

We had a dedicated group of attendees, including teens and adults, who came every week, with attendance at individual sessions ranging from six to 14, depending on the topic and timing. The cosplay goals featured a wide range of characters, from a basic Wolverine to a Suffragette to a 1950s-style Batwoman. The participants particularly enjoyed being able to ask questions, consult with the instructors on problems they’d run into in the progress of their work, and meet other area cosplayers. While most didn’t attempt to complete a full costume during the series, many brought in their works in progress. Teens were excited to learn and posed questions on topics such as how to use a sewing machine, alternate options for finishing a seam, and understanding the best ways to use chest binders and similar undergarments to shift gender presentation when portraying a character of a different gender. Applying simple makeup so photos in character pop or for different face and eye shapes was also covered. Historical research is key to creating a complete look, and the participants pored over our cinematic art books, delved into recommended websites devoted to high-resolution documentation of film costumes, and investigated period details to reimagine contemporary characters dressed appropriately for different time periods. The attendees also took full advantage of library resources. One member of the group used our 3-D printer to create a Doctor Doom mask and then, at FanExpo Boston, got it signed by Stan Lee! Cosplay encourages people to think creatively in terms of materials to use, and everything from engineering know-how to color theory comes in to play.

Points to consider

These cosplayers researched and recreated the costumes of the four Founders of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the style of ninth-century Britain. Photo: Gerry Begley

Take note of the major conventions in town, including science fiction, fantasy, pop culture, anime, and comic conferences. It is worth the time to seek out a local cosplay organization at one of these events, and if possible, attend one of the many cosplay 101 and prop-building demonstrations often featured to get contact information for the presenters. If there is no such local cosplayer organization or group—keep in mind that the majority of cosplayers are self-taught—and follow online communities and how-to vloggers for their own education. A savvy librarian can build a DIY course by going through resources, showing a series of YouTube channels, and inspiring teens without needing official instructors. Figure out what tools the library can offer, such as sewing machines, seam rippers, thread, needles, scissors, hot glue guns, and glue sticks. We weren’t able to offer attendees materials like fabric or leather, especially since everyone was working on their own projects, but between the library and the instructors, we made sure that basic tools were available every week for people to see and to test. Make sure to advertise where the fans are. Using an online service like Eventbrite expanded our audience. In fact, one of our most frequent attendees first heard about our program when he was looking for a FanExpo Boston after-party and saw our listing.

What’s next?

Our attendees requested that we continue the series during the rest of the year. While we can’t guarantee instructors every week as we did during the summer, we will continue Cosplay Mondays as a meetup for like-minded creators to work on cosplay and help each other. We plan to bring in guest instructors when possible. Our next big local convention is Anime Boston, so we’re looking forward to the projects that event might inspire.


What is Cosplay? An introduction to cosplay presentation by Rachael Linker Cosplay Makeup by Tayla Cardillo

Websites and Tutorials

Cosplanner App (for planning out cosplays from beginning to end) Cosplay Supplies The Replica Prop Forum (Also on Facebook) Cosplay 101 Sewing with MangoSirene Cosplay Sewing Tips with Annika Victoria Thrift Store transformations with Coolirpa Historical Costume Details with Angela Clayton  

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