Ageing, Distressing & Dyeing


We look at others and make judgements about them based on the clothes they are wearing. In the hands of a Costume Designer this becomes a tool to define a character. We do everything from spotless heavily starched and pressed to so dirty you can’t tell the original color hanging on by one last thread. It is the costumer’s job to facilitate the Designer’s vision.

Ageing refers to the amount of wear the costumes shows. There are many ways of making clothes look older than they really are and that means breaking down the threads that make up the cloth. we’ll divide it down between mechanical and chemical.

The first step with chemicals is usually to wash the costume is a strong cleaner, like Trisodium Phosphate (TSP). The reasoning is to remove any sizing or any other stain protecting chemical the manufacture may have added that would affect later processes.

There are enzymes that begin to break down threads in denim, silica based softeners, acids and the list goes on. It’s not so much the chemical as what it does to cloth. Choose what achieves the desired outcome and that can usually best be determined by samples.

What ever chemical is chosen, it usually must be countered to halt the process. An acid wash will continue to break down cloth until the ph is neutralized, for instance. Whatever the process, it must be completely harmless with no smell when it is finished. It must be assumed the actor will have extremely sensitive skin. It should also be able to be washed with no serious effect to the work.

Mechanical techniques follow the general rule of ageing/dyeing of starting with the least and working to more damaging. It is easy to make the costume more distressed, but hard to reverse the process. Putting clothes in a dyer with tennis or golf balls for about 15 minutes just makes it feel like it’s been washed 20 times. Lightly hand sanding with fine sandpaper would start to break down fibers. Constant approval before the next step taken would be advised.

Color can be added to show age as well. Sweat stains around the neck and pits, color added and removed to break up a solid panel, or bright colors muted are all needed skills. A little dye in a spray bottle is a good example of adding color. Whatever is done should be able to withstand a washing or two when it leaves the shop.

Distressing is what the clothes have gone through that damages them. Horror shows could have all kids of rips and tears depending on how people get killed. What would not be there is any aging on the rips because they would have just happened in the story. A construction workers worn out jean knees would have very worn treads around the hole. Distressing is the history of the clothes.

Sometimes that history is established before the event due to filming out of sequence. Sometimes there are layers of distress that are tied to the timeline of the script and still shot out of sequence. In that case distress meant adding substances to imitate things, like bird poop. Whatever the effect, it must be nontoxic.

Ageing and distressing on set is usually due to matching action that happened in front of the camera. Greese rags, spray bottles, schmere and a host of other tools are used to instantly produce results. The difference is nearly everything added on set washes out, quite often intentionally.

It has happened that clothes come back from the set and the job is to produce multiples. It is not unheard of for an ager/dyer to prepare kits for the set crew.

Costume designers use color to provoke emotion, clarify personality, control focus, and emphasize alliances and conflicts among characters and the worlds in which they move. (Costuming for Film, H Cole & K Burke) a couple of the recommendations for more color study, The Book Of Color, Jose M. Parramon, Color Choices: Making Sense Out Of Color Theory, Stephen Quiller.

It is not a common as it used to be, but designers can be very picky about what color blouse best compliments an actress’ face and hair, for instance. How do you lighten a color, or warm the hue for instance?

Three elements of color are:

– Hue- The name of the color
– Tone- Also called the value, refers to lightness or darkness.
– Saturation- It’s vibrancy or intensity.

Most all hues can be mixed using the primary colors of red, blue and yellow. Mixed in pairs they create secondary colors; red+blue=violet, blue+yellow=green,yellow+red=orange. Mix a secondary color with either of the primary colors and you have tertiary colors (like yellow orange or blue green). These are the colors that make up a standard color wheel.

If secondary colors are mixed with the one primary color they do not include (violet+yellow, for instance) both colors are neutralized into a grey. Colors that do this to each other are called complimentary colors. Pure, fully saturated hues mixed with a pure, fully saturated complimentary hue will result in a perfectly neutral gray. has formulas for mixing any color with their dyes.

If we were to create a value chart, the values of the hue that would be changing are the tone and the saturation. To create the range of values, the color is mixed in a progression. Increasing shades of black darken the shade, adding white changes the tint of the hue. Mix it with it’s compliment and the greying tones may stay at the same tone level or value, or they could get lighter or darker moving to grey. Playing with a dark chocolate, deep blue, dark purple or dark green can deepen a color and make it more vibrant.

Teching is done usually with a hue of tan or grey. The goal is not to change the usually white color, but to darken the tone with a warm saturation. This is done to lessen the contrast with skin tones for the camera. The process for creating a value chart is the same for other colors.

Pure colors are hard to find and sometimes can be hard to mix. Even the same dye color from the same company can be different depending on the batch. Different types of dyes are sometimes mixed due to the different blends of fiber in the fabric. When you hear someone ask “What is cotton nowadays?” it’s because cotton cloth is rarely pure cotton anymore. All the protectants and even differences in fibers affect the way dyes work.

In my experience the best way to work the craft is to go slow, with incremental steps. That way you can track color changes to see if you are headed toward the desired results. You can always add more dye. Taking it out when you add too much or the wrong color can be a problem.

There is more than dye that can change the color of cloth. Teching is done with tea, for instance. Sometimes it is a search for the right coloring material. Sometimes dyeing cannot do the job. But most of the time we can come close.

A fun project is to dye a tshirt with bands that match a quarter of the color wheel.

© 2017 by K. DREW FULLER. All rights reserved and nothing can be copied or republished without writer's explicit consent

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