You know that feeling when you see a cosplay so good you do a literal double take?
Outfits that give me what I call the Cosplay Tingles feature crisp sewing, artfully battle-worn armor, and a cosplayer serving serious attitude. At last year’s Katsucon, as my photographer friend Cameron and I traversed the halls looking for cosplays to take photos of, no one gave me the Cosplay Tingles more than a woman dressed as a Sister of Battle (Warhammer). She was standing outside in the February cold, posing for a gaggle of photographers.
I clutched Cameron’s arm. “We’ve got to take a photo of her.”
He nodded. “I know.”
Which is how we ended up with this picture of a cosplayer who goes by Sayakat.
A few weeks ago, I was at MAGFest 2019, bopping around to panels, workshops, and shows. MAGFest, a gaming convention that focuses on music, takes place in the same convention center as Katsucon. When I showed up at a foam armor molding workshop, the instructor looked familiar. As she walked us through the art of shaping EVA foam into a bracer, it hit me: this was the Sister of Battle who had given me the Cosplay Tingles.
Making cosplays from scratch is hard, and detailed weapons and armor can massively complicate the job. As an amateur cosplayer, I was curious to know how Sayakat had gotten so good at the most difficult part of the process.
When Sayakat finished the workshop, I hid my crappy bracer behind my back and introduced myself. Would she be willing to let me interview her?
She was. A week later, we were on the phone, talking about her path to becoming a full-time cosplayer.
Elizabeth Ballou: Making cosplay armor and weapons is your full-time job, right?
Sayakat Cosplay: Yes, it is!
EB: Is that what you were doing before I called?
SC: Yes. I was actually working on commissions. One of them is a Mega Man X commission, and I’m making the helmet and leg pieces. The other is a KonoSuba Aqua staff that I’m making for someone for Katsucon 2019.
EB: How long do those projects take?
SC: It really varies. Smaller items may take me eight hours. The staff is taking a little bit longer – it may take me fifteen to twenty hours. A big suit of armor will take forty hours and up.
EB: That’s a full work week right there.
SC: The amount of time I spend crafting on any given day can vary from 4 to 6 hours up to 12. I normally spend four to six hours per day crafting, because there’s responding to emails and managing social media. My work days don’t really start or end at any given time. I get to set my own schedule.
EB: If I were to commission one of the more complex builds, like a full set of armor, how much would that cost?
SC: Probably $2,000 to $2,500, depending on how many hours it takes. I like to take my time and make sure everything is really clean and made from materials that are going to last.
For a lot of commissions, that’s probably more expensive than a lot of people are willing to pay, but I try to build to competition level quality. If you wanted to take it to a competition and compete it, it would do well (competing something you didn’t make is a no-no, though).
There are plenty of commissioners who do stuff for much cheaper, and they can, because they do it as a hobby. But I’m doing this as a job, so I need to be able to charge what I think my time is worth.
I have a lot of repeat clients because I’ve been commissioning basically since I started cosplay.
EB: Let’s talk about how you got into cosplay initially. When is the first time you remember wanting to cosplay?
SC:It’s a weird path into cosplay. My mom taught me the basics of sewing and my parents encouraged to me to be arty. Ever since I was eight or nine, I made my own Halloween costumes. Starting around late high school/college, I would plan all year what I was going to make.
Even in college, when I was home during the summer, I would plan so that I could make the costume, then bring it to college. The costumes kept getting bigger and more elaborate. And then – this is how much my family knows me – when I graduated college, one of my graduation presents was my sewing machine that I still use. It’s about twelve years old now.
EB: Wow. What kind of sewing machine is it?
SC: I have a Janome. I still work with it, and I have a serger now, too, but the Janome is still my main sewing machine.
EB: When did you start making costumes for events other than Halloween?
SC: In 2012, I made Commander Shepard (Mass Effect) armor for Halloween. A friend asked if I wanted to go to the 2013 Baltimore Comic Con, and I said, “Okay, I’ll go for a day and wear my Shepard costume, that will be fun.”
At the con, I got all this attention. I got interviewed. I got in the news! People kept saying, “Can I get your photo? This costume is so great.” I thought, “I can wear my costumes outside of Halloween!”
EB: Let let me get this straight. You had never cosplayed to a convention before until you showed up in a professional-level suit of armor.
SC:.Oh, yes. In 2013, I was still getting a PhD in biology, which doesn’t allow a lot of time for hobbies. I was limited to making one costume a year. Plus, you don’t make a lot of money as a graduate student, so I had to budget. I could only afford to make one costume.
I graduated in 2014, and I thought, “I want go back to Baltimore Comic Con and compete in the costume contest.” The year before, people had asked me if I was going to be competing and I had no idea what it entailed. In 2014, I made Tyrael (Diablo III) and entered it in the contest. I won my division, so I thought, “I’m good at this, apparently.”
In 2015, I started going to more than just Baltimore Comic Con. I went to Katsucon and had no idea what I was walking into. [A/N: Katsucon has a reputation as a hub for the best cosplayers.] I brought my Commander Shepard and people were asking me about my social media. I was like, “What the heck is this? I don’t have social media!”
EB: You didn’t have any public-facing social media at the time?
SC: No. After Katsucon, I made a Facebook page and an Instagram. And everything’s gone down the rabbit hole ever since. So 2015 is when I consider myself to have started to be – I hate the term – a professional cosplayer.
EB: Why do you hate that term?
SC: I don’t like the delineation between “professional cosplayer” and “cosplayer.” Everyone cosplays differently, so I don’t like that terminology. It’s not a good descriptor because cosplay is cosplay, no matter what you’re doing. You’re always creating a persona – it’s a different aspect of yourself.
EB: As you are putting on a cosplay, do you think about putting on that persona?
SC: Oh, yeah. Getting ready can take a long time, so you can mentally prepare for the onslaught of attention that you’re gonna get. And some of that attention is going to be great, and some of it may be negative.
EB: People give you negative attention?
SC: Yeah. People ask you to do things you may not want do for photos. If you say no to photos, people get an attitude.
I’ve had people touch me inappropriately. Not anything super bad, but it gets really annoying when people put their hand around your shoulders or on your waist. I’ve had someone try to pick me up before. You gotta prepare yourself for people to not behave well. That’s just something that happens at conventions.
You get a lot of the general public who don’t know how to ask for photos, they don’t know to keep their hands to themselves. And it’s not just about people putting their hand around your waist. Some people start touching your costume and man-handling pieces.
EB: That’s not okay!
SC: No, it’s not. I’ve not had anything of mine broken, but plenty of my friends have had things broken by people grabbing. You have to assume a certain amount of risk when you take these costumes out in public. Costumes can be very fragile.
EB: There’s been a lot of conversation this past year about the way fans act in these person-to-person interactions. Has there been any change in the way that people approach you?
SC: No. Sometimes fans perceive themselves as friends. And I have had fans that have turned into friends! But that happens organically. Some fans want to have a conversation and then, unfortunately, they might take that as, “I can hang out with this person!”
And that happens to a lot of cosplayers, where their fans will start to just hang around… It can lead to some really dangerous situations. Especially if fans think, “I have the possibility of having a relationship [with this person].” In Los Angeles there were seven cars set on fire because a male cosplayer was stalking a female cosplayer and set her car on fire at the convention.
EB: I’m gonna throw something out the window. That’s the worst thing I’ve heard in a long time.
SC: It’s an aspect that a lot of people don’t necessarily think about, especially for female cosplayers.
I’m not afraid to speak up. If I see someone staring at my friend who’s very scantily clad, I’ll say, “Hey, what are you doing?” I actually flipped someone off at MAGfest because they kept taking photos without asking. I was like, “No, no, you’re not doing that.”
I’ve gotten to a point where I tolerate very little in terms of inappropriate behavior. I might get a reputation for being rude, but I would rather speak up for myself and for other people. And it’s easier for me because I’m tall and my cosplays are big. They have a lot of armor.
EB: Right. A lot of your cosplays have complex suits of armor, or a really complex weapon or prop.
SC: Yeah, I do have some that are smaller, or what you might consider sexy. I do that too. But what fascinates me are those big complex builds.
What I like to do is figure out how everything fits together. Getting to dress up is really fun and the attention is fun, but for me, the most fun part is the actual building. That’s why, as a full-time cosplayer, commissioning is fun for me.
As an example, the big Kerrigan costume (Heroes of the Storm) that I did in 2017, for BlizzCon – engineering those wings was pretty tough. I was building it with a friend of mine, and she kept getting discouraged when something wouldn’t work. But I was like, “It’s gonna work out. We can do this!”
It’s training from my PhD, which is that things will fail. It’s okay, it will work out. That Kerrigan cosplay took a couple of iterations, but we did it.
EB: Is that the piece that you are most proud of?
SC: That and Diablo (Diablo III), probably. And Tyrande (World of Warcraft) is award-winning.
EB: You mentioned that you use a lot of EVA foam and Worbla [A/N: these thermoplastics that many cosplayers use to make armor and props]. What were some of the hardest lessons to learn when you started working with those materials?
SC: It’s not necessarily working with materials that is difficult. It’s the patterning that is difficult. Working out what things are going to look like is one of the hardest parts of cosplay. My creative background means I have an inborn talent for sizing things. But even with that, I sometimes have to pattern something, make it, and then re-pattern and remake it. I may even do that a third time.
EB: How do you pattern something that you are going to make out of foam?
SC: I literally will build a mock-up out of trash if I have to make something that’s a three-dimensional shape. I just did this for the KonoSuba staff. The staff head is a flower bud, and it would be hard to freehand. I took newspaper and masking tape and started building a three-dimensional shape that looked like the finished staff. When I was happy with it, I covered the whole thing in Saran wrap. Then I covered it in another layer of tape so I could make a pattern piece.
Sometimes I just make pattern commissions.
EB: Is pattern commission a lot of the work that you get?
SC: No, it’s usually for full items. I would love to do more pattern commissions because they’re one of my favorite things. But I will take commissions for anything from wigs to coats to full costumes to armor and props. I’m a do-it-all type of cosplayer. I know how to sew wigs, I know how to do makeup.
EB: It sounds like your business is doing well!
SC: Yes, but it’s definitely difficult. I don’t have a large social media following or a Patreon. It’s a different business model than someone who does have a large social media following, but each full-time cosplayer does it differently.
The other day, someone asked me, “How do you do this full-time?” There are many different ways to do it. You can be a model, you can be a commissioner like me, you can write books, you can be a full-time streamer.
EB: Yeah, I saw that that you have a stream for making things. What has that experience been like?
SC: The [creative streaming] community is pretty large, so I’ve gotten to know some creators I wouldn’t have interacted with otherwise, like Punished Props and Evil Ted. And we tend to get less trolls than the game community, which is really nice.
I have been streaming on Twitch for about three years now, and it does make a little bit of money for me. But what I like is the community. I get to talk to people in real time and they can ask me crafting questions. I’ve actually started a Discord community as well, which I’m trying to grow. People ask questions, and then not only me, but my other community members can answer.
I really do find [Twitch and Discord] to be very, very positive.
EB: What’s next? What cosplays are you going to be wearing for the rest of the year?
For Katsucon, I’m making Howl from Howl’s Moving Castle. And my mom wants to cosplay with me! She’ll be Sophie – the older version. She’s never been to a convention, so it’s going to be trial by fire.
There are a couple of different projects for the rest of the year. I’ve been wanting to cosplay Princess Mononoke for a while, so I might start that. Maybe Abel Nightroad from Trinity Blood. And then BlizzCon, Maghda from Diablo III.
EB: Last question: any tips for cosplayers making their first suit of armor?
SC: You just gotta keep making stuff. When you make something, you learn from it, and then you make another thing. Some people say, “Oh my gosh, I could never get as good as you.” Yes, you can! You just have to keep doing and trying.
A lot of people start a project and never finish. But you have to deal with the failure if something’s not working out. And you might get mad. You might cry, you might be super frustrated. But go back to it. There are many cosplays where I’ve had to completely scrap what I was doing and start over. It’s part of the process.