Guide to Rhinestones

By Aditi,  27 March 2019

many teardrop shaped rhinestones resting on a black velvet background, they are clear with an iridescent finish

As a dance costume designer, I frequently work with sparkles of all kinds, and they can add a lot of visual punch and interest when incorporated into cosplays or other costuming and prop contexts. This article will give a short history of rhinestones, some info about the different types and qualities of rhinestones, as well as some tips to use each type most effectively.

The Rhine is a river in Germany famous for its naturally occurring rock crystals, and the first rhinestones were made from those crystals. In the modern day, rhinestones are primarily made from lead crystal glass, similar to the kind of glass used in crystal glassware made by manufacturers such as Steuben or Waterford. They can also be made from acrylic plastics or other materials. The raw material is cut into one of many faceted shapes, and then coated with a metal backing (also known as “foiled,” referring to both the process and backing) and/or a surface treatment to amplify the natural refractive properties of the material.

The most expensive and well known rhinestones are those made by Swarovski in Austria. In addition to being some of the sparkliest of rhinestones, this brand has the highest number of facets along with the largest variety of colors and finishes, and is often on the cutting edge of new techniques to improve the complexity and shine of rhinestones. Another well known brand is Preciosa from the Czech Republic and are comparable to Swarovski in price and quality. Rhinestones from Korea known as known as diamante machine cut (DMC) are of very good quality and much less expensive than their brand name counterparts. I would recommend these for the vast majority of makers and their projects. In addition, some sellers have their own in-house lines of less expensive and good quality rhinestones. You can find rhinestones on eBay and Etsy; as well as, bead suppliers like Fire Mountain Gems, Dreamtime Creations, The Rhinestone Guy and Shipwreck Beads, among many others.

The easiest rhinestones to begin working with are sew-on rhinestones, as they only require tools found in a sewing kit. There are two subcategories of sew-on rhinestones, flat back and point back, and both can range from small to very large. Flat back rhinestones are exactly what they sound like, rhinestones with a flat back which have several holes drilled into them. Needle and thread are used to affix the rhinestone to a garment, looping several times at each hole for the most secure attachment. Point back rhinestones have a metal housing with holes to account for a more three dimensional shape and are attached in the same way, by threading through the holes in the back of the metal housing. For both varieties of sew on rhinestones, I prefer using doubled or quadrupled thread and a thin beading needle.

eight red rhinestones resting on a purple velvet cloth, five are teardrop shaped, one large and four small, and three are flower shaped with a hold in the middle
Several teardrop and marguerite sew on rhinestones in siam red

Glue on rhinestones are also aptly named. These are flat back rhinestones that are attached to garments, props, or accessories using one of various glues. They can range from quite small to a medium size and are usually circular but can be found in other shapes. The most common glues used for fabric are Gem Tac and E6000 while those for less porous materials are GS Hypo Cement and Beacon 527. A maker should always use safety precautions when working with glues, but this is especially the case with E600, GS Hypo Cement and Beacon 527, which require the use of respiratory protection that is rated for vapors, dusts, and aerosols. Additionally, anyone working with any glue should do so in a properly ventilated area and avoid prolonged contact with the skin. When gluing, I have found success with applying enough glue that a small amount will surround the diameter of the rhinestone. I would also recommend placing the glue on the base material before using a Krystal katana or wax tipped stick to place the rhinestones on top of the glue. It is also important to note that using superglue or epoxy type glues may damage or “eat” the metal backing on foil back rhinestones over time, causing the stones to go cloudy, lose their shine or fall off and that dry cleaning garments with glued rhinestones might affect the glue color or effectiveness.

Hotfix rhinestones also involve glue, however in their case, the glue is already attached to the back of the rhinestone and is heat sensitive. They come in a range of sizes and shapes similar to those of glue on rhinestones. They can be used on porous and non porous materials. A heating tool is required to melt the glue backing, allowing the rhinestone to attach to whatever base material you are using. On the very inexpensive end, a maker can use a soldering iron with a pointed tip to affix hotfix rhinestones, however because of the extremely high temperature it is very easy to damage the surrounding base material if you slip while applying pressure to the surface of the rhinestone. A nicer but still inexpensive option is a rhinestone heat setting tool like the Darice, which melts the glue backing as you pick up and hold the rhinestone, making it easy to place rhinestones quickly and securely. Hotfix rhinestone appliqués are another option, and a common clothes iron can be used to melt the glue backing of a large amount of rhinestones at once. It is also possible to arrange rhinestones on a larger area by hand, cover with parchment or freezer paper and then melt the backing, which is particularly useful for scatter patterns on larger garment pieces like skirts.

many small round rhinestones rest on a dark purple velvet, they are clear with an iridescent finish
lots of 3mm

Rhinestones can also be found in other forms, like chains or studs. Rhinestone chain is frequently used in jewelry applications; however, they can also be hand sewn to a garment as a trim. Rhinestones imbedded into studs (also sometimes called nailheads) have metal prongs in the back and either pliers or a prong setting tool can be used to attach them to thicker fabrics, leather or faux leather. Rhinestone chain is most useful when you want a line of rhinestones to move fluidly together and do not want to individually apply them, such as in jewelry, headpieces or garment edges and hems. Rhinestone studs work best with thicker materials and in cases where the garment or accessory will experience a lot of wear and abuse.

With this information, I hope you’ll feel encouraged to use rhinestones in your upcoming crafting projects. They can provide a lot of eye catching attention and depth to your costumes and crafting ventures. If you have any questions about using rhinestones, feel free to reach out to me in my social media accounts below, and please tag me to see any projects you may make using this information.

Aditi is a professional belly dancer, costume designer and cosplayer. You can find her work on Instagram and follow her dance streams on Twitch.

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