Thursday, March 1, 2012

Crystal Blue Persuasion

It's common knowledge that you can't do Figure Skating without Sparkle. The more elaborate, unique, blinged out thing you're wearing, the better. Freestyle dresses have been turned away by Coach because they were not sparkly enough.

But Sparkle isn't cheap. Go online shopping for a figure skating dress, and you'll fast learn that the more crystal a dress has, the price goes up exponentially. A common practice in the Skating Universe is to buy a prefab dress and stone it yourself.

In the not-so-distant past, you could Crystal just about anything using The Device Which Shall Not Be Named. I have only found a few people willing to admit that they owned The Device Which Shall Not Be Named, because ownership of said Device seems to carry a cultural imperative that you create a denim jacket with a unicorn motif.

Nowadays, we use Flatback Crystal and some form of Glue.

Where do you get Crystal? Does it have to be Swarovski? How much do you need to buy, and what color? And most importantly, how do you stick it on the dress?

As it so happens, I've been in the thick of a few projects that are heavy on the Crystal, in addition to stoning a few dresses for my fellow skating parents. So, let's talk about the Crystal Mysteries.

Swarovski, as I've stated before, is quite possibly the most commonly known crystal around. Swarovski used to limit itself to crystal knicknacks, stemware and commercial jewelry, but then it discovered that hoardes of amatuer jewelers like myself were buying up old costume jewelry and prying out the stones to create our own things. (The old style round stones in sew-on metal settings were terrible.) So, Swarovski, smart company that it is, moved in to accommodate us, and now there is a vast array of beads and gems under the Swarovski Elements line.

Firstly, Swarovski Crystal is not a true crystal like quartz or tourmaline or amethyst. It's just leaded glass with a high refractive index, finely cut like a traditional gemstone. But when you facet leaded glass, the results are stunning.

You can buy Swarovski Elements any number of internet vendors, or even a local bead store. Bead stores, however, are more likely to carry bicone and cube shapes, and not the flatbacks needed for costuming. I've found the most unique shapes and cuts on Artbeads, and when I need common cuts and colors I just go to Fire Mountain. Keep your eyes open, always be shopping, always price compare.

Crystal Colors
What color you choose is dictated by the garment. When I'm making Jewelry, I steer clear of A/B (rainbow) Coatings as I find they look chintzy. But for Costuming, they look pretty good. I'd say the most common crystal I see is an A/B Coated one, but don't limit yourself. Swarovski offers an incredible array of colors, coatings, and foilbacked stones. Look around. Spend a little money to experiment. See what others are doing. Collaborate.

Crystal Sizes
Coming from Jewelry, I'm used to measuring my stones in millimeters, but apparently costume design uses some kind of arbitrary numbering system. I found this image, with the various stones and their size numbers next to a US Penny, which clears things up.

I've never gone larger than 5mm. In the right color, a 5mm can pop with just as much drama as a larger stone, and they are cheap.

What truly staggers me is that the only shape of Crystal I see out there is round. Did you know Swarovski makes a wide variety of shapes and facets in the Flatback Style? Doubtless, once you drop below a certain size, no one will know if it's a snowflake shape or a round shape from forty feet away, but all the same, I would imagine it would be fun to have a different crystal style than everyone else. Check out Artbeads' Swarovski Resource Page for colors, wire diagrams, shapes, sizes and a glossary of terms!

Snowflakes in a Rivoli Cut, 5mm AB Coat
About Hotfix
I've never used Hotfix, mostly because I'm too cheap to buy a seperate implement for the express purpose of gluing crystal, but also because I fear burning my projects. I'm not alone in my fear. If you have experience with Hotfix, please speak up!

Gluing them on.
Most people, I've found, use some incredibly toxic and annoying substance called E6000. I personally cannot stand this stuff. It's impossible to work with because the tubes are so much larger than the stones themselves, and you end up squirting way too much adhesive on everything. Or if you try squirting a set amount of E6000 into a dish and try using a toothpick or some other tiny pokey thing to poke the adhesive onto the place you want to glue, you drag tendrils of adhesive all over the garment. And you can kiss that dish goodbye, because E6000 is instantaneously permanent as all hell. Then you have E6000 all over your fingers for at least three days, from trying to wipe away the tendrils. I find E6000 to be the most unforgiving substance in the universe, and since I make tons of mistakes, I use something different.

I use Rosco Crystal Gel. Even Rosco found this surprising. Take a tablespoon of Crystal Gel, put it in a sandwich bag. Nip off the end and voila! Piping bag. Pipe a small dab of the Gel onto the spot you want a crystal. You can even let it sit for awhile, because unlike E6000, Crystal Gel does not start to set instantaneously. You have about five minutes.

I use tweezers to drop stones onto the Gel, and then I give them a little tap on the head to squish them into the Gel. If a little seeps up onto the side of the stone, don't fret. It dries completely clear. If you accidentally smudge the gel, you can wipe it away quickly with a wet washcloth, as the Gel is water soluble. (Unlike the Evil E6000.) Wash your implements before the Gel dries.

In a half hour, the Gel should be dry enough that you can pick up the garment. In 24 hours, the Gel will have cured completely.

I have used Crystal Gel successfully for the past year to adhere crystal to knits, spandex, fleece, stretch velvet and canvas. Because Crystal Gel offers a degree of flexibility, it doesn't seem to mind when the fabric underneath it stretches.

I have also never used Gemtack. If you have some Gemtack experience, speak up!

Do not use Hot Glue. Hot Glue is simply plastic that melts at a low temperature, and if it sticks to anything then you've found the exception to the rule. I got over Hot Glue in the early Nineties, you should, too.

Crystal will fall off. No matter what you use, you will have a failure rate. Even my prized Cherri Chau Crystal Barrette, advertised as being the only crystalled jewelry that would never lose a stone, has a few bare spots. Buy 10% additional stones to cover for failures. Check the garment before and after wearing to see if you've lost anyone. Have a moment of silence for the MIA and Presumed Dead stones, and replace as needed.

Consider Crystal on a Garment as you would Icing on a Cake. The right amount tastes wonderful, but too much or too little is ruinous. Fifty well placed stones can do so much more than a hundred just thrown scattershot at a dress. Make a drawing, lay out the stones before you commit with glue, sleep on it and collaborate with your fellow seamstresses.

Have fun. Don't be afraid to mess up. My beading Stash is replete with failed projects. Without failing, how will you learn what works?


  1. is the least expensive place I've ever found flat back crystals.

    I prefer Preciosa to Swarvoski because they are less expensive and have just as much sparkle.

    I'm one of the crazy ones that uses E6000, but will look for this Crystal Gel you recommend. is it washing machine safe? I like that E6000 goes in the washer/dryer and crystals stay put.

    I had a device which must not be named, but a sorority sister borrowed it and it never got back to me (stealing in the house was not even among the reason sorority life was not my thing, but I digress) I don't think that would be so great on skating costumes- wouldn't the metal backings be super cold on the skin?

  2. (1) I have never owned the device which must not be named. I am hardcore like that. Skating dresses from the 80s and early 90s used this method. It did not look good, made them too heavy, and the backings were bloody annoying! I was very happy when we didn't buy me used dresses anymore...

    (2) I too vote for Preciosa, at least for personal use. If you are selling something, adding that Swarovski label can jack up the price you can charge, but for figure skaters on a budget, I find the Preciosas to be as good, if not better. There is also slight color variation, so sometimes I mix and match from the two brands to get the colors I want. I find the Preciosa AB coatings are less heavy than Swarovski, which actually I like better because then you get more of the glass color coming through. Typically I use 30ss and 20ss. Smaller stones are a PITA to apply and don't offer up much sparkle, and larger stones tend to more easily fall off as they don't want to stretch when the dress stretches. 34ss tends to be ok, but if you are in the 40ss range it might be better to pay the extra, buy the Lochrosens, and sew the darned things on. Swarovski offers more options for sew-on stones though, so I do tend to prefer them to Preciosa in that area. Also, am I the only one who laments the stone companied moving from an 8-facet to a 12-facet? The new ones have more twinkle, but the older stones had much more flash at a distance.

    (3) Hotfix - haven't tried it, but I don't know how much I trust that glue, and I definitely don't trust myself with a heated implement near the competition dresses...

    (4) Gemtack - I do NOT recommend it for applying crystals to skating costumes. In my experience, the glue tends to get soaked into the fabric, and doesn't stick as well to the crystals because of this. It is especially bad on velvet. Also, I have noticed that sweat tends to dissolve the glue a bit, adding to stone loss. It is not a good thing. What I do use this for is glueing threads on the INSIDE of the dress after a stone has been sewn on. This prevents the threads from coming unraveled or untied. More often the threads will rip from friction with the stone then come untied if you glue them.

    (5) E6000 - I must admit I use this stuff. I use a paper plate, poke a small hole in the seal, and use a tooth pick to scoop out glue, apply it to the stone backs, and then I roll it off onto the dress. I don't really have a lot of wispies with this method because I roll the glue into a little ball. The quick dry time is a bonus feature - you compete in an hour and the dress isn't done? Not a problem. So many times I have seen girls standing around in skates while moms apply stones to the back of their skirts less than an hour before they go out to compete. Yeah... Anyway, I like this because I feel I have the most control with the application of the stones, though I do agree the smell can get pretty bad. The hard core seamstresses buy disposable syringes, load them up with the glue, squirt on the dress and plop the stones down. 5 gross in an hour? You better believe it.

    1. I know I'm going to regret this. Here's Leslie and the LYs (the best satiric rap group in Ames, IA) rappin' about the device that must not be named.

      "Sequins baby bring me dollar bills. One night of pleasure, rhinestone thrills."