In the swim

The last swimwear I made, I realised today, was stitched from a 1950s pattern my mother had, in blue and white striped woven cotton. I wonder what happened to the pattern? I’ve made hundreds of garments, but no other swimwear. So I’m trying to work out the construction from scratch, reinventing the wheel and getting it a bit wobbly.

First, I overlocked the crotch seams in the outer fabric (olive green) and the lining (red).

At this stage, I was convinced that the pattern was wrong – it looked huge. Turned out it was spot on …. mirror mirror on the wall

Next, I zigzagged elastic round the legs, on the wrong side of the outer fabric, the lining and outer RS together. You’ll spot that I just have ordinary elastic, no special swimwear elastic available. I fretted about this for a while, then remembered how swimming cossies used to be … saggy scratchy woollens buttoned at the shoulder, knitted by the style of this one, a pattern on knitsomuch’s etsy shop. You’d be  grinning like this when you  put it on and rushed into the sea. Emerging wet from the waves, the crotch would be worn at your knees, and an itchy wet wool rash would be springing out in all sensitive areas.  These handcrafted delights were superceded to everyone’s great joy, by costumes in woven cotton stitched diagonally in diamonds with shirring elastic to give some stretch.  The elastic  popped in several places each time you pulled them on. By the end of the summer holiday they’d be covered in warty bumps where the fabric escaped the shirring.



couldn’t find a picture of these but the end result was a bit like this





Leg elastic calculations

Brian Remlinger’s video demontrates the technique of stretching elastic as you sew on a regular sewing machine better than a paragraph of waffle. If you’ve never done this before, it is much easier than you think it will be, just pull the elastic from in front of and behind the pressure foot as you go. The only tip I’d add is mark the elastic and the length  you’re sewing it to. Fold the elastic and fabric to find the halfway point, repeat to give yourself as many marks as you think you’ll need. The first time you do this, having  marks about every three inches (8cms) or so is reassuring. Three inches is about what you can easily control in front of the machine. After a few tries you’ll find you can get away with a couple.

To work out the elastic length on the leg I followed the advice in Helen Joseph Armstrong’s book, ‘Patternmaking for Fashion Design’, having the elastic 1:1 on the front leg and shortening it by an inch on the back. This doesn’t sound like much stretch, but it worked out perfectly. The sewn piece is turned through next, rolling the turnings so the lining just sits inside.

Black elastic sandwiched between the outer and the lining and stitched again. First construction error here too. I stitched this with the pieces flat. Should have stitched the side seams first. That would have avoided unpicking a bit, stitching the side seams and redoing the unpicked bit.



Brian’s video about swimwear elastic, shows a different but useful method, if you don’t have a lining. When he turns the elastic tot he WS he uses a straightstitch for the top stitching on the right side of the garment. I don’t know how he gets this to be stretchy enough. A good yank at straight stitching on my lycra outer fabric popped it immediately. Just like the elastic shirred costumes of my childhood. I went for a zigzag.

Next the waist elastic, stitched to the WS of the outer.  I stitched the lining RS together just above the elastic, trying to get it really close leaving a turn through space.   Why  didn’t I think to do this step before the elastic was in the way?



What I should have done

It would have been cleverer to have left a space in one lining side seam and so been able to join round the whole waist. Why, when I’ve made a zillion lined jackets, leaving a bagging out space in the sleeve lining, didn’t I think of this?

As it is, the waist is not the neatest finish. 

I used elastic a couple of cms wide, it could definitely have been narrower. Pants finished. They’re fairly high waisted, sitting about an inch below the natural waist.




The top has two main pieces, with four shaped band pieces. I cut the main pieces in the olive and the red for lining, and the band pieces twice in the lining fabric, and once in the green, to act as interfacing. The pattern for the main pieces, still at working pattern stage,  no turnings and lashed up with masking tape,  is in this photo.

The front is on the left, and the darts have been swivelled to the top and translated into tucks  where the band will join.

The band is shaped. Pattern makers will recognise that the dart fullness is closed off in the yoke/band, so you get a curvy piece to stitch to a less curvy piece.

I pinned the tucks first and used a straight stitch to machine tack them, then applied the band with an overlock, after pinning and machine tacking. This is the short side of the yoke pieces, one side applied the other half pinned to the curve. The front is on the left, tucks going into the band. The back, which I’m pinning here, has the green interfacing piece on top, and the band facing piece machine tacked on, just peeping out under it.

I left machining the yoke side seams until I’d got them fitted and machine tacked in in case the stretchiness of the fabric gave problems. Actually, it worked out ok, so on the longer side, I did the side seam first, the logical way.

Next picture is the short curve with the band on and faced back.

The red fabric is lighter weight, so its interfaced with a piece of the green.

If I redo this pattern as a deluxe model I’ll get 2 colours of lycra, so it doesn’t need interfacing. This is the cheapskate version.



The larger band extends into ties on one shoulder. Here it is, part finished a bunch of pins controlling it.


About jay

I design and draft patterns
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