Everything You Need to Know about Rhinestones
When I wrote the little section on how to crystal a garment that went into several of my spandex sewing manuals, it was just that - a little section.
Now, unencumbered by page space restrictions, I’m pouring everything you really need to know about it, into this blog entry.
Well, two entries, anyway - this one discusses the crystals themselves, then "Crystalling on Spandex" tells you everything you need to know about applying rhinestones to spandex garments.
The Various Meanings of “Crystal”
Before I get started, I want to address a source of annoyance for me, when it comes to the subject of blinging up a spandex garment:
There are 4 main ways that the word “crystal” is used - in this context - 2 nouns, an adjective, and a verb. FUN!
This is referring to when the word is used as a synonym for “rhinestone”.
A small, facet-cut (or molded) piece of a clear or semi-clear material, made to be a simulated gemstone. They are usually backed with a foil, though not always
In this case, “crystal” is used completely without consideration to what material was used to make it.
This is when referring to the material that a (high end) rhinestone is made of.
You can have a crystal made of crystal, and you can have a crystal made of glass... or acrylic.
Some brands use “crystal” as the colour name for their clear, colourless base rhinestones.
Swarovski, for instance, calls their clear rhinestone “Crystal”, and their clear rhinestone that reflects in colours (“Aurora Borealis” finish) “Crystal AB”.
Much like how “rhinestone” was often used as a verb, back in the day, “crystal” can be a verb now.
Ie: I am going to crystal that dress. Are you almost done crystalling that swimsuit?
SO - if you’re using a clear Swarovski rhinestone - you can crystal with a crystal crystal crystal.
Isn’t English fun?
Or, you know, annoying.
As I mentioned, back in the day we tended to use “rhinestone” for the first noun and the verb, “crystal” for the second noun, and “clear” for the adjective.
I feel like it made things a lot more simple, I’m not a fan of using “crystal” as a generic term for rhinestones, but... that seems to be the way things are going to be.
So, this post will likely end up using all 4 meanings of the term, but I hope to keep things clear in context!
Types of Crystals
When it comes to rhinestones, there are several variables that you’ll see:
Material / Composition
Rhinestones made of crystal are the premium option when it comes to composition.
Swarovski has traditionally been the best (and most expensive!), but with recent changes to their business*, they will become harder to come by, eventually impossible to find.
Preciosa is a popular Czech crystal option, and there are other brands of Czech or Austrian crystals available also.
* A new CEO has decided to concentrate on other products, and has discontinued their line of crystals for DIY projects.
Glass rhinestones are a step down from crystal rhinestones, both in quality and pricing.
However - especially in large quantities - glass rhinestones can have a ton of sparkle, and sometimes be hard to distinguish from crystal. (Especially at a distance, and depending on lighting!)
They are significantly better than acrylic rhinestones, in general.
Acrylic / Resin Rhinestones
Acrylic rhinestones are the cheapest, both in price and quality.
They’re molded - not cut - and the facets are not as sharp, as a result. This means far less sparkle.
Also, acrylic rhinestones are the type most likely to separate from their foil backing, so care must be taken in their use - more on this in a bit.
Faceted rhinestones are the default, and for good reason - facets are what give you the sparkle! More facets = more sparkle.
These simulated gemstones are glued or sewn flat to a garment.
I’m not 100% sure if cabuchons count as rhinestones, but they’re definitely in the same family, so here we are.
Cabuchons are fake jewels, much like rhinestones are. However, rhinestones are facet cut, and cabuchons are not.
I don’t tend to see a lot of “clear jewel” cabuchon use in spandex costuming, but there are nice opal and pearl type options that can really work well, on the right dress.
Cabuchons are used the same way as rhinestones are, in terms of application to the garment.
These are generally sewn as a 3d element that will move as the suit moves, rather than being affixed in one spot.
While Swarovski has discontinued theirs, there are other brands of crystal or cut glass beads out there.
Rhinestones come in one of three backing options. While not always labeled as to which it is, it’s obvious enough to discern by looking at the product:
These are crystals that have a silver (and, in rare occasions gold) coloured backing attached to the flat side of the crystal.
The shine from this foil backing is what provides the base sparkle. Light shines on the garment, passes through the clear part of the rhinestone, and reflects back off the foil.
That reflection is broken up by the facets, and you see sparkle.
Unfoiled rhinestones are rhinestones that only have the clear material of the rhinestone, with no metallic backing.
The lack of foil makes for less sparkle, so it’s more like a clear glass bead. It will take on some of the colour of whatever it’s glued to.
Unfoiled crystals provide a small amount of shimmer, and are used more for texture and a bit of subtle visual interest, rather than for *bling*.
Note: When using unfoiled crystals, it’s especially important to use a glue that dries clear!
Sew-On Rhinestones are pretty rare to see in spandex costuming these days, but it's still out there.
Way back when I started costuming 30 years ago, rhinestones were generally either sewn on or set in with a prong setting.
The sew-on options of today are pretty much the same as they were back then - a crystal that's pre-set in a prong setting. The prong setting has a couple of channels molded into it - beneath the stone - that allow needle and thread to pass through, to secure the stone to the garment.
Crystals come in one of three finishes:
These are crystals that are a distinct, clear, single colour. They reflect that colour, with no special finish applied.
Aurora Borealis / AB / Volcano Crystals
These are the crystals you see that have a base colour (or lack thereof), but shimmer in a multitude of different colours.
As you tilt these stones, they can end up looking like completely different colours sometimes, depending on the particular finish. This is especially true of those sold as “volcano” stones.
These stones do NOT allow light to pass through them. Their shine / sparkle comes entirely from reflection off the outer surface.
Hotfix vs Non-Hotfix
This option refers to an optional glue coating on the back of the stones.
Stones sold as “Hotfix Crystals” have a thin coating of meltable glue on the back.
As a note: HotFix Crystals tend to just come in glass and crystal, as far as I've ever seen. I would imagine that the acrylic ones wouldn't hold up well to the heat wand?
Anyway, Hotfix crystals are applied with a heat wand that picks up the stone, melts the glue, and allows the designer to place the stone on the garment.
The glue cools and hardens, securing the crystal to the garment.
Hotfix stones are easily identified by looking at the back of the stones. A smooth, shiny back will be non-hotfix.
Hotfix shows up as a hazy, fine pebbled surface on the foil.
Non-hotfix stones are - surprise! - stones that do not have a glue coating on the backing.
Sometimes they’ll be labelled “non-hotfix”, sometimes they’ll just be sold with no mention of glue.
As a Note: I’ve seen a few instances of “glue on” being used interchangeably, both to mean “These are to be glued on with your choice of glue” and “these are hotfix stones that will glue on with heat”.
So, that’s fun.
Crystals come in a wide variety of sizes, which are labeled in one of two ways:
Man, it feels gross to type that, these days... but “ss” stands for “stone size”, and it’s the industry standard way of referring to the size of round rhinestones.
The sizes range from ss5 (1.4-1.5mm in diameter), to ss48 (10.9-11.3 mm in diameter), but most crystalling done on spandex costumes uses these sizes:
ss12 / 3 - 3.2 mm
ss16 / 3.8 - 4 mm
ss20 / 4.6 - 4.8 mm (The most popular size)
ss30 / 6.3 - 6.5 mm
While you’ll sometimes see actual mm measurement referred to alongside the ss when it comes to round stones, this measurement is more popularly used when it comes to shaped stones.
If the stone has radial symmetry, you’ll be given this as one measurement.
If the stone has an obvious length and width, you’ll be given this as 2 measurements - Length x Width.
While the basic round shape is by far the most popular - pretty much to the point of being the default - crystals come in a variety of shapes.
In general, you’ll tend to see the shapes based on actual gem cuts used in spandex costuming. These are the rounds, squares, emerald cut (rectangle), ovals, pear / teardrop.
The stars, hearts, animal shapes, and other novelty shaped rhinestones do not tend to be used in spandex costuming.
How to Choose Crystals for Your Project
Choosing the right crystals for your project can be a surprisingly complicated matrix of decision making. Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Cost can be a huge consideration when it comes to crystals, as - between the wildly different costs of crystals, and the huge number of crystals that can be required in a project - it’s something that can vary, well... wildly.
Some skating dresses will see thousands - or even tens of thousands - of crystals on them.
A small per-gross price difference can literally add up to hundreds of dollars difference, when looking at the final purchase!
Swarovski is the most expensive option, though there are other brands that are just as / almost as good, much cheaper. Preciosa Czech Crystals are a super popular option, for instance.
Brand, material, and facets are the main determining factors for pricing.
Swarovski will be more expensive than anything else.
Crystal will be more expensive than glass, which will be more expensive than acrylic/resin.
Even within a single brand, crystals with more facets will generally be more expensive than those with fewer facets.
Within a brand, coloured crystals will be more expensive than clear, AB finished crystals are generally going to be more expensive than those that do not have such a finish. Volcano finish will usually be a bit more expensive than AB.
A cut rhinestone will be more expensive than a poured / molded rhinestone. (Both on account of labour and materials)
Budget Hack: When you’re crystalling a suit with many crystals, you can cheat a little and bulk out your design with more than one brand / grade of crystal.
Have your larger stones be higher quality, but supplement with matching stones of a lesser grade thrown in.
This technique works best when you’re doing swaths of “random” stones, tightly spaced, scattered, or a mix. It does not work so when doing discrete patterns or design elements, IMHO.
The colour of the garment you are crystalling, what kind of a design you’re planning to make, and what the intended effect is are all considerations that should be taken into account when choosing the colour(s) of your stones.
You may choose to use a single colour, several colours that are very similar, or - on the other end - very disparate colours.
Colour will also play a factor in determining whether or not to use an AB finish crystal.
Most people will tell you that you should always use AB, as it “has more shine”, but - IMHO - that’s not always the case.
AB looks great on most colours of fabric, but - TBH - a clear AB crystal usually looks weird on red spandex, and I’m not usually a fan of the way it looks on black.
Also, not all AB reflects the same way - even a clear/ “crystal” AB, across brands.
I find that some have more of a pink / pink-orange range of shine, while other brands can be more in the yellow/green range.
It seems like such a small thing - when you’re talking about crystals that are essentially the same base - but the difference can be striking.
A pink dress with a pinkish AB finish clear crystal will look very different than that same dress with clear crystals that are reflecting more of a lime green colour.
So, be sure that the colours reflected in a particular AB are right for your fabric colour / project!
A Note on Colour Availability: Simply put, some colours of stones are only sold by some brands.
The further from the basic colours you are looking for, the more likely you’ll need to go to a higher end brand to find them.
Obviously, your design will impact your choice of stones in several ways. A few things to keep in mind:
Size of the Garment / Wearer
Proportion matters! Huge stones will look out of place on tiny athletes, and tiny stones can get lost on a larger garment.
Distance from Audience
The further away from the audience the performance will be, the more sparkle you’ll need in order to show up.
This can mean more stones, bigger stones, more expensive stones with more facets... or a combination of those elements!
Conversely, some people go the opposite direction when it comes to name brand, expensive stones.
In this case, they’ll use the good ones when the suit will be seen up close, go more budget when from a distance.
A Note on the use of colour from a distance:
Super complex, tiny, multi-colour designs will not show up as actual patterns from a distance, more of a sheen with the suggestion of colour variance.
For this reason, it’s best to either use largest stones if you want a specific, clear design pattern to show up... or use more random colour/design if it’s going to be small stones.
Type of Lighting in the Venue
If your particular sport or use involves crappy lighting, there’s not a ton of point in investing a ton of money in Swarovski stones, or investing a ton of labour in the use of super tiny accent stones.
Just my opinion, your mileage may vary.
Principles of Design
An earlier post on this blog - Spandex Costume Design Principles - covers a lot of topics that also apply to choosing crystals for your design.
Colour Theory for Spandex Costuming would also be a good post to check out.
While this is not applicable to most sports, it’s one that’s a big deal in roller sports, lately:
The maximum size of the crystals used is now a regulated issue, in at least one discipline/federation. As this is an evolving issue, I encourage you to look up the costuming regulations for your particular sport/federation.
... Generally a good practice anyway, there can be some weird rules for costuming in general!
While not always specifically regulated, safety can be a consideration that should be taken into account.
For figure skating dresses, a crystal that falls on the ice can stop a blade dead in its tracks - it’s incredibly dangerous. For that reason, it’s good to hand sew on anything bigger than an ss20 sized stone.
The bigger a stone is, the more risk there is of it popping off when worn, or when brushed past, hit, etc.
Personally, I like to glue AND sew the larger, more fancy stones.
The placement of stones can be a consideration for the type of stones you’re using. A few examples:
High Stress Areas
High-stress areas - such as an elasticized strap - will do better with smaller stones.
Larger ones are more likely to pop off under repeated stretching and releasing.
High Friction Areas
High friction areas - such as the armpit and surrounding area - will do better if uncrystalled.
If you must crystal in the armpit or close to it, consider using smaller, possibly lower-profile stones... ideally with fewer facets.
These will be more comfortable AND more likely to hold up against the friction they’re subjected to.
Areas With a High Risk of Snagging
A lot of the time, these will be the same areas addressed in the last point, but not always.
Consider the movement of the wearer and the fabrics used in the garment.
If you have a fabric that can easily be snagged - chiffons, illusion, etc - consider using lower profile stones in the areas that are highest risk for snagging.
Also, remember: fewer facets = smoother stone, and a reduced possibility of causing snags.
Estimating Number of Stones Needed
As you crystal more and more outfits, you’ll likely eventually develop an ability to just sort of KNOW about how many crystals you’ll need for a project.
Until then, you’ll need to come up with a system for estimating.
I’ll usually mock up - either with crystals, or an actual-size diagram - of a section of whatever I’ll be doing.
Usually, this will be about 4" worth of banding, or 1 couple inches worth of “spray” - it’ll depend on what the design is.
I’ll count out the various sizes and colours included in that sketch, then mulitply it by however many times needed.
For instance, if I do a band of crystalling around the neckline and down the back, I’ll measure that out on the actual pattern, and divide it by the 4" length (or whatever I did) of mock up.
So if there’s 28" of band, I’d multiply the numbers on my mock-up by 7.
When it comes to actually ordering, though... order more. I’ll usually order about 50% more, just in case.
The extras are good to have around anyway - and I’ll usually send a little packet of them along with an order, so they can be replaced in case of any mishaps with the suit.
What is a Gross?
A "gross" is a unit of measurement. 1 gross = 144.
The term originated as a partial translation of "gross douzaine", which was a very old French term for "Large Dozen". It's 12 dozen, after all!
Rhinestones are generally sold by the gross, so you can buy 144 stones as 1 gross, two gross would be 288 stones, 10 gross would be 1440 stones.
Where to Buy Crystals
There are many companies - around the world - that specialize in selling crystals. We have many of the most popular options linked in our Resource Section.
Aside from that, there are a few other options:
* I'm not in love with their clear AB colour. Maybe I got a weird batch, but they weren't anywhere near as nice as the other stones I've purchased from this brand.
You can get glass or crystal rhinestones from a number of different brands, but be aware: Sellers do tend to use "crystal" as a keyword, even when it's a glass rhinestone. Definitely look at reviews before buying, and definitely buy a small amount as a sample, before making a huge purchase!
If you have an Ebay account, you probably already know that it's a great place to find unique items.
It can be hit or miss at times, in terms of quality... but sometimes you can find some really great deals, unique colours, or hard-to-find sizes/shapes.
Always read reviews to have a good idea of what to expect!
Etsy isn't just for buying finished arts and crafts, it's also a decent place to find supplies!
Not only can you find basic rhinestones in a variety of colours, finishes, and materials, you can also find all kinds of fun shapes, and funky composite jewels and findings.
Share the Love!
Well, the published nonsense, anyway!