I had been avoiding sewing my own swimsuit for years because people always talk about the speciality equipment and fabrics needed. But faced with a few beach holidays coming up, and not finding anything I liked enough to break my no shopping ban - I finally decided to make my own. Not having sewn much lycra before, I consulted a friend who I work with in one of my freelance jobs. Besides being one of the most talented machinists I have ever worked with, he is originally from Brazil, and his mother happens to make swimsuits for one of Brazils most famous swimwear brands. He seemed slightly skeptical of my skillset, and offered to sew it for me, however I was keen for the challenge. So, I drilled him for all the information I could, noted down all his tips and pointers and off I went. This is what I learnt...
Tools to make your life easier:
Ballpoint needles: Unlike regular or "universal" needles, ball point needles have a round edge, so the needle slips in between the weave of the thread without splitting the fabric. They’re much friendlier on knitted fabrics.
Rotary Cutter: So much easier to use than scissors, the fabric doesn’t shift or move, so it's far more accurate and much faster. (Also great for cutting silks or chiffons, so its not a one hit wonder in your sewing box.) Just remember to put some cardboard or a cutting mat underneath, otherwise you will leave marks on your table. Also, cut a single layer at a time. Lycra is so slippery that trying to cut two layers at once wont save you any work.
Thread: Don't use cotton thread. The natural fibres wont last as long in the salt water as polyester thread will, and chlorine is even worse, making them snap pretty quickly, leaving you with no support.
Fabric: Knitted/stretch fabrics either come in two way stretch or four way stretch. Two way means when you pull it, it stretches up and down. Four way means it stretches up and down, but also left to right too. You absolutely need FOUR WAY STRETCH fabric to make a swimsuit.
A swimsuit must be lined. The lining should be of similar percentage of stretch. Fit will be dependant on the less stretchy fabric, so bear that in mind when you are choosing your swimsuit lining. If your lining is far less stretchy than the outer fabric, the outer fabric might sag and hang off it a little. Most places that sell lycra, will also sell lycra lining. Failing finding something perfect, you can always double up and use the outer fabric as your lining too.
Before you start:
There are lots of great swimsuit patterns around, but I wanted a very simple, classic one piece shape, so I decided to trace around an old swimsuit I already owned. Tracing existing garments can sometimes be very tricky, but as a swimsuit pattern is flat, it's about as simple as it gets. It's basically drawing around a shape. A swimsuit is a good garment to start with if you want to learn the skill of tracing patterns from existing garments.
The biggest trick to tracing around garments is to make sure you weight the garment down well - however - only weight down the small sections at a time that can be easily pressed flat against the table. Trace the flat section, then flatten down the fabric next to that section. Flatten - trace - flatten - trace - etc. You cant flatten a whole garment down onto the table at once. Trying to do that, is where most people fail.
To begin, I flattened out the bottom half of the front swimsuit onto paper, put my weights down and traced it off (drew around the crotch and leg holes, up to the waist) then holding it in place securely (at the waist) I moved on to putting weights down on the top half of the swimsuit, not worrying that the bottom half has now sprung out of place because you have already traced that part off. Repeat the process for the back. Then add 1cm seam allowance to all the edges. Voila. Swimsuit pattern. You can use the same pattern for your lining as the outer.
Before sewing: Test your stitches on your final fabric. Test, test test. Every machine is different, every fabric has a different amount of stretch, the possible mix of combinations to reach the perfect finish are limitless, so my best advice is to play around and do a lot of swatches and test runs before you start. Test stitching down the elastic too.
The most straightforward method is to make up the whole swimsuit from your outer fabric.
Sew in this order:
- Side Seams
Then make up a whole swimsuit from your lining fabric - Place your lining inside your main swimsuit - wrong side to wrong side (as they would appear when they are finished)
Use a zig zag stitch to baste the outer and lining together at all the edges. This is a good time to try the swimsuit on to make sure its fitting ok.
My STRONG ADVICE here is: Do not be overly critical with your views on the reflection in the mirror. Its harder for some than others to stand in front of a mirror half naked. At first I thought the cut of my swimsuit was horrific, but it only took a couple minutes to remember that the way society has taught us to view our bodies is actually whats horrific. So instead of scrapping the whole project at this stage (which was my initial reaction) I decided to raise the leg holes a little higher and help my legs out with the illusion of an extra inch of length.
Elastic insertion: should be around 25% smaller than the hole it is going to be stitched to. So for example, measure your leg hole. Divide the measurement by 4 then times it by 3 to know how long your elastic should be: The non measuring way to do this is to run the elastic along the edge you are going to sew it to, then fold it in half, then fold your half in half so you have quarters and chop one of the quarters off.
Make your elastic for the legs, armhole etc "in the round" by overlapping the edges. I find the machine usually has a hard time doing this, so I put it under the presser foot and hand wind it.
How to apply elastic
Assuming your lining and outer are already basted together.
Pin your elastic to the INSIDE of the opening (for example inside your leg hole) and zig zag stitch or overlock it into place, giving the elastic a little pull as you go along. When pining the elastic, its a good idea to sit the elastic 2 - 3 millimetres away from the edge so that when it gets turned over, the elastic is completely hidden.
How to finish the edges
Turn the edge over once, folding the elastic to the inside of the body (now the elastic is hidden) Zig zag stitch the folded edge down.
Thats it - its the same two steps for all the other raw edges, so repeat the same process where ever you need to.
I had wanted to make a striped swimsuit, but I couldn't find any fun coloured striped fabric. Inspired by Matisse's artwork L'escargot I decided to make my own fabric collage.
Cutting panels into your swimsuit is definitely not as straightforward as making the garment from a single piece of fabric. Im not even going to elaborate on how tedious it is to change thread colour to match your panels every two minutes.
The first time I tried to make my Matisse inspired swimsuit, I concentrated mostly on my colour palate, however to achieve the colour combination I wanted, I used a couple different fabrics and they had slight stretch variations between them. I thought this would be fine - It wasn't. The different panels sewed together ok, but they didn't react well once stretched over a body. Some pulled and stretched, while other panels dragged and drooped and the overall effect was pretty ugly. I had also thought using power mesh (a very firm fabric which high stretch recovery) for the lining was a genius idea. Due to its supportive qualities I was hoping it would hold all my soft bits firmly in place like support underwear. The power mesh lining did turn out to be incredibly supportive, however when wet, the lycra had more weight than the power mesh and the fabrics separated from each other with the lycra sagging and drooping down making me look like a colourful Shar-Pei dog.
After the disappointment of the failed first attempt, It took a couple weeks for me to gather the willpower to tackle it again, but for the Matisse swimsuit version 2.0 I ensured I used all fabrics of the same quality, with exactly the same stretch composition. I also used a lining fabric that was much closer to my outer fabric.
With my previous attempt, I had all the speciality tools in my studio, I even used a Coverstitch machine (which is designed especially for sewing lycra). However, for the second attempt, I was already on holiday at my parents house so I didn't have much equipment with me. My mother has a Toyota domestic sewing machine, but no overlocker and certainly no Coverstitch machine. I did go out and buy a packet of ballpoint needles for her domestic machine, however I realised 3/4 of the way through that I had forgotten to even change the needles over. Despite not using any of the "necessary" equipment, this turned out to be a much easier and much more successful project. The phrase "A good craftsman never blames his tools" comes to mind and it reminds me that trial and error will always be more important than having the right equipment. You really can make almost anything with just one simple sewing machine.
I'm hoping to spend a lot of my future in the water, and I expect this swimsuit to get a lot of use this summer.