Costume Crafts at 50o Below: The Fairbank Non-Toxic Crafts Cookbook
This article originally appeared in Theatre Design and Technology in 1994.)
The best way to avoid damage from toxic materials in the work place is not to buy gloves that you never wear, nor to use respirators that never get their filters changed, nor to complain about the lack of proper spray booth that “the administration” will never pay to install anyway. The best away is to avoid using toxic products in the first place. You can prevent problems by getting into to habit of buying and using alternative non toxic products and by refusing to use dangerous materials when safe ones are available.
I discovered this rather obvious fact back in 1988 when I was first hired as the costume designer at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. In Alaska I had, as most of us do, an unventilated costume shop space without a paint booth. In all my experience in the lower 48, when a costume shop did not have a paint booth, it was perfectly simple to go outside for a naturally ventilated work space. In Fairbanks, where temperatures are below freezing nearly the whole school year, and were actually -30 to -60 through our busiest production period, this kind of outdoor work is totally impossible. Therefore we simply could not use any toxic products: no spray paint, no barge cement, no F.E.V. So, I looked for as many non-toxic low tech substitutes for toxic products and techniques as I could find. Finding them can be a challenge.
If you are unsure about the safety of a product, (or even if you are not,) legally, you need to write to the manufacturer for a Material Safety Data Sheet (“M.S.D.S”). An M.S.D.S will tell you under what conditions the product is safe or unsafe, how to dispose of it, and what dangerous ingredients (if any), it has. It is now required by law that companies provide these sheets to consumers. It is also required by law that you have on file (available to employees and students) copies of the M.S.D.S for every chemical product you use in your shop. You are also required to provide employees and students with proper safety gear (gloves, respirators, goggles, ventilation, etc.) for any toxic products you do use, or face heavy fines. Therefore it’s in your best interest to use as few toxic products as possible.
For years I have been attempting to comply with the M.S.D.S law, unfortunately, the suppliers have not. One supplier informed me that his company’s legal council indicated that since his product (a) was not an industrial product, and (b) contained no toxic ingredients in any case, the company was not required to supply M.S.D.S’s. Cosmetic products come under the jurisdiction of the FDA, which only approves non-toxics, and so are not required to supply M.S.D.S’s. Several others simply did not reply to inquiries. My campus Risk Management Office, which is supposed to assist in getting M.S.D.S forms for all products used on campus, had no better luck in forcing M.S.D.S’s out of manufacturers. Often it is the least offensive products that are M.S.D.S-less. Companies with products that are not toxic, are certified as non toxic, and which are sold without restrictions, for home use, rarely get requests for technical documents on their safe handling. For instance, it is impossible to get an M.S.D.S for Karo corn syrup because it is a food product.
However it is still desirable to get M.S.D.S’s for non toxic products when possible. They are informative. For example, even harmless RIT dye contains enough salt to be a strong skin irritant, and most non toxic acrylic paints, if inhaled in a poorly ventilated space for hours, cause respiratory irritation. Obviously, eating either wouldn’t be especially good for you, and an M.S.D.S will also detail what to do if someone does. For a basic start, begin by looking for products that are clearly labeled as non toxic. The best place to look for new non-toxic products is in the children’s craft/art supply area. Often when a company invents a new weird product that it doesn’t quite know what to do with, it tries to sell it as a “toy.” Many of these products are non-toxic and are sold in small, cheap quantities that facilitate trying them out without breaking one’s budget. You should still check for the markings of “Non Toxic” on the packaging, since many “children’s” art products do not conform to safety requirements, such as rubber cement, airplane glue, oil paints, turpentine and many other older products. However, this area has consistently yielded the most creative non toxic materials for my shop. After obtaining a new product, experiment with it on a variety of fabrics to determine it’s best use. If you find that it is in fact useful to you, write the company for an M.S.D.S. What follows are some of these non-toxic substitute products, and the techniques we have used with them in Fairbanks. Many of these substitutions you may have discovered for yourself already. Others you may not:
Outlining: Instead of using toxic permanent markers, we did stripes and outlining on fabric with Pentel Fabricfun pastel dyesticks. These cost much less and have a nice, rough illustrative “texture” to the lines. Since 1988, several marker companies have developed non-toxic permanent markers. Most notable are Dennison Mark Master broad tip permanent markers, which come in neon colors with 3/4″ tips. Look for “Conforms to Astm D4236″ on the label.
Distressing/f.e.v.: Instead of using French enamel varnish (composed of shellac, denatured alcohol and leather dye,) we sprayed with a mixture of liquefied RIT dye, water and acrylic glaze (shiny) or simply diluted Rit (matte). These colors tend to fade and run when washed, but are very cheap. Substituting diluted tulip dye for the RIT makes a more permanent, if more expensive mixture.
Distressing/Bleach: Instead of spraying diluted bleach on fabric (used to cause fading), we “faded” by diluting white acrylic paint with Phlexglu and water and spraying it on. For temporary fading, we used diluted white tempera paint on smooth fabrics, or brushed cornstarch onto woolen fabrics.
Barge Cement: Since we couldn’t use Barge Cement or other normal rubber cements to hold down leather, we substituted Tanner’s Bond Craft Cement, which, for leather, works just as well. Foam, which will not stick together with craft cement, can be held together with “cool-melt” glue.
Shoe Paints: Naturally we couldn’t use Magix shoe spray inside, so we made do for most of the year with plain acrylic type paints. These peel and crack, and generally are a last resort as a substitute. However, we finally discovered Fiebeng’s Acrylic Dye, a new product which works substantially better, although it requires brushing, not spraying on, and doesn’t work on suede. Tulip fabric paints, when thinned with water also stretch with the shoes and somewhat resist cracking.
Metal Finish: When in graduate school in the mid 1980’s I was introduced to the “Bratislava Cookbook” method of making a metal finish introduced in Theatre Crafts during the 1970’s. It looked great, but used large globs of rubber cement sprinkled with loose bronzing powder. Bad idea. Instead I carefully (with respirator and gloves) mixed bronzing powder into a solution of Phlexglu. In solution with the glue, the powder is rendered essentially harmless. In addition, the glue, unlike commercial shellac bases, is not toxic in itself. The mix can be manipulated with a paint brush to be as rough or smooth as this other older recipe. (Warning: Mix up only as much as is needed for the job at the time. The mix tarnishes in solution, and produces gas. Because of this a tight lid on a can of leftover mix is likely to blow off after a few days and injure someone.)
Hat Stiffening: We brushed diluted Phlexglu onto buckram instead of using hat size. This is also good for stiffening felt for hats or armor, without making it brittle.
Procion Dye: Procion dye powders are rumored to be carcinogenic (this has never been proven) but hitherto have been the only really strong fiber-reactive dyes available. Now Cerulean Blue, Ltd., has come out with Liquid Procion H fiber reactive dyes which are safe for use without a respirator and are perfect for painting on fabric.
Tattoos: Instead of expensive and irritating (to the skin) temporary tattoos, we stenciled hypo-allergenic make-up on the skin. The stencil was made by Xeroxing the tattoo design onto overhead transparency plastic and then cutting out the design with a rotary knife. Makeup was then sponged through the stencil.
Marbleizing: Instead of marbling fabric with oil paint thinned with turpentine floating on water, we used Neopaqe paint thinned with water on a surface of carrageenan. This is a really interesting fabric painting technique, although time consuming to do. For a detailed description of how to marbleize fabric, read “Marbling Fabric,” Sunset Magazine, August 1988, pp. 66-70.
Leather Finish: As with the “metal” finish, again we used Phlexglu, this time with brown RIT dye and a little brown acrylic paint in the mix. The slight translucence this causes gives the “leather” added shine and texture. The glue can be brushed, while wet, into a rough or smooth texture, as desired.
Wet Mud: To make a quick change costume in Curse of the Starving Class, with total “wet” mud covering, we covered the costume with a mixture of approximately equal parts of acrylic paint, Phlexglu and sawdust. We varied the mix’s color from batch to batch, and sponged it on the costume in layers, giving texture. After drying, all the “mud” was coated with Hyplar Acrylic Transparentizer (acrylic glaze) to give a permanently “wet” finish.
Wig Lac Quer/Hair Spray: Hairspray is the most annoying “irreplaceable” item we have to use. Most often, actors use mousse or molding “mud” for their real hair when possible, but for big stiff wigs for period shows, these substitutes won’t do. For these, we dilute Phlexglu with four parts water to one of glue, put it in a laundry sprayer, and treat it like lacquer. This makes a permanently stiffened wig that needs few touch ups. For a milder hairspray look in wigs, we dilute the Phlexglu down to 1/10 of the mix. Don’t use Phlexglu on real hair since it does not wash out. When we have to spray real hair with hairspray, we use pump sprays which put less vapor in the air than aerosols.
Colored Hair Sprays: To give someone the kind of strange colored “punk” look of brightly colored hairspray, we dilute liquid makeup 50-50 with water, and squirt it on with a laundry sprayer. Test your mix on a hair sample first, because some kinds of liquid makeup are easier to wash out than others. For wigs on which we want to do a permanent color, we dilute Tulip Fabric Paint or Liquitex Concentrated Acrylic Color with water and spray it on.
Masks: Instead of demonstrating celastic masks in the costume crafts class, we made masks from plaster bandages. These have the advantage of being able to be directly molded on a Vaseline pre coated face. We then built up the masks with foam pieces, and covered the foam with more plaster bandage. Spackle or gesso for smoothness, then paint with acrylic paint. Another wonderful substitute for celastic is the new thermoplastics sold by Unnatural Resources, most notably Veriform (A.K.A Hexelite) and friendly plastic. While these products are prohibitively expensive for many theatres, they are unquestionably superior to the product they replaced. Thermoplastics, as the name implies, are molded by heat (hot water or heat guns) not toxic chemicals. They can also be remolded multiple times. For theatres with very low budgets, the ancient arts of paper mache and muslin mache can provide excellent results with only wallpaper paste and scrap materials.
Resist Dying: When we had to do resist dying for Rosalind’s wedding dress in As You Like It, we avoided Inko Dyes, and brushed on liquid R.I.T instead. R.I.T, being a weaker dye, did not produce as bright a color as the alternative, so two applications were required. If we were to do this again, I would use Tulip Designer Dye which is newly available in craft and sewing stores. It works much better and goes onto the fabric almost exactly the same color as it finishes. Another note: When you live somewhere you can’t find gutta resist in stores, use Karo syrup or mucilage instead, all three work fine. (We used Karo.)
Miscellaneous: While this isn’t a substitute for anything in particular, we did make lots of use of another non-toxic product which is available nearly everywhere: Slick Pens (A.K.A Paint Pens, Fabric Paints, Paint Your Shirt, etc…), the little squeeze bottles of paint or glue and glitter that children use to decorate T-shirts and sneakers. In a town with incredibly limited fabric choices it allowed us to decorate unassuming polyesters into glittering brocades with complete ease. In addition, these products are completely safe in the washer and dryer, and Do Not Require Heat Setting, even when thinned out and used as a fabric paint and not simply as squiggles. (Don’t treat this stuff as a joke because kids use it!)
Phlexglu Spectra Dynamics Products 415 Marble N.W. Albuquerque, N.M. 87102 (505) 843-7202 see also Flexible Glue
Fiebling’s Acrylic Dyes &Tanner’s Bond Craft Cement The Leather Factory 2750 N. Clovis Avenue P.O. Box 8338 Fresno, C.A. 93727 (209) 291-5533
Liquid Procion H,& Neopaque Paint Cerulean Blue, Ltd. P.O. Box 21168 Seattle, WA 98111-3168 (206) 443-7744
Tulip Designer Dye,& Slick Pens Brooks and Flynn, Inc. P.O. Box 2639 Rohnert Park, C.A. 94927-2639 (707) 584-7715
- Dyeing and Painting Costumes at UAF
- Art Hazards, Theater Safety, Theater Hazards, Art Hazards – ACTS