lisette swim sew-along: choosing fabric and trims

Hello there, sew-along friends! As promised, today I’ll talk you through swimwear fabrics and everything else you’ll need to participate in the swimsuit sew-along, which begins in just a couple of weeks. (For the complete sew-along introductory post, click here.)

fabric-selection

Choosing your Fabrics

As you undoubtedly already know, swimsuit fabric is not like ordinary woven or knit fabric. Although it’s a knit, it’s fast-drying because it’s lightweight and is made of nylon or polyester combined with spandex for lots of stretch. Lycra is the brand name for spandex, which was developed by DuPont. So all Lycra is spandex, but not all spandex is Lycra. Does it makes a difference? It probably depends on who you ask, but I’d say not really. Spandex allows the fabric to stretch, and it also helps the fabric to bounce back, or recover, after it’s stretched. It’s important to have spandex in your fabric, but the type or brand of spandex/Lycra isn’t crucial. A good swimwear fabric will contain approximately 10% spandex, and that’s really all you need to know about it.

What is important, however is that swimwear fabrics stretches in width as well as length. Some people call this two-way stretch and some call it four-way stretch. Whatever it’s called, you need the fabric to stretch in both directions. When you cut your fabric, you’ll be aligning the grain line arrows with the width of the fabric, which is because swimwear fabric stretches more in width than in length. Many knit fabrics, especially those without spandex like basic cotton jerseys, stretch mostly in width and don’t have much stretch in length, which is one reason (among many) that basic cotton jersey isn’t appropriate for swimwear. Swimwear fabric stretches in length and width, but it stretches a little more in width.

Sources for Swim Fabrics

Can I just say what a shame it is that the song “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” was ever recorded? I mean, polka dotted swimsuits are so fun and cute! And then you get all self-conscious when someone (inevitably) starts singing the song. It’s same the reason I’ll probably never wear a raspberry beret, or I wouldn’t have until a week or two ago. (Now I feel like we should all wear one to mourn the passing of Prince!)

Anyway, I guess you either have to ignore the song or choose a different fabric. Fortunately there are plenty to select from! For fabric sources, several of you helpfully suggested The Fabric Fairy, with which I was not familiar but does indeed carry a wide variety of swimsuit fabrics in both solids and prints. They also, helpfully, carry bra hooks and other things you’ll want in order to sew a great swimsuit. (I’ll talk more about that shortly.)

SwimFabrics

As I mentioned when I introduced the Lisette swimwear patterns, I also like Spandex World and Spandex House, both of which have a staggering array of printed and solid spandex fabrics. Spandex House has an especially interesting selection of prints.

And then, of course, Shelley made the wonderful discovery of Carvico Vita, which we’ll now all be scrambling to find. (Holler if you locate some, will you?)

It’s tough to choose a swimsuit fabric! Will you select a solid, a print, or a combination of both? Will you color-block the suit the way it’s photographed on the envelope cover? You could also make the suit in a single color or in a single print, so keep that in mind.

I chose the two fabrics on the right in the photo above for my suits (I’m making both the one-piece and the two-piece and I’m making them both from the same fabrics). I bought the printed pink and blue fabric at Spandex House a year or two ago, and the navy contrast fabric came from a store here in Madrid. Both suits are coming together nicely, and I can’t wait to show you how they turn out!

Lining

The pattern suggests power mesh for the lining. I love power mesh because it doesn’t sag when it gets wet and it sort of holds you in a little bit, like support hose. But a regular swimsuit lining will work fine too. Here are examples of both fabrics. The regular swimsuit lining is on the left, and the power mesh is on the right so you know what you’re looking at in the store. The important thing here is that you have a lining, since swimsuit fabrics can be a bit sheer and can wear thin over time. If I could, I’d choose a bright solid-colored contrast lining for my suit, but I was only able to find black and beige in my fabric store.

SwimLinings

Trims

Elastic: For both the one- and two-piece suits, you’ll need 3/8″ and 3/4″ elastic. You can use ordinary elastic, but if you want the suit to last (especially if you’re planning to wear it in chlorinated pools) you might want to consider elastic specifically designed for swimwear. This elastic contains rubber and doesn’t “burn” when it’s exposed to chlorine and sun, so it lasts longer. You can also find clear elastic, but I prefer the cotton/rubber swimsuit elastic. It’s just a matter of preference, I think.

Needle: You’ll want a ballpoint needle for swimsuits. In a pinch you can also use an all-purpose needle, but it can snag the fabric and, even worse, skip stitches. Ballpoint is much easier and safer for swimsuit fabrics.

Thread: Be sure to use all-purpose thread, which has polyester and stretches a bit. It’s also stronger than cotton, which breaks easily.

SwimNotions

Boning and/or stays: While the pattern doesn’t specifically call for it, most really good swimsuit tops include a small piece of boning at the side seams. This boning helps to keep the suit from buckling at the sides, and it looks so much nicer as a result. I’ll show you how to include it in your suit during the sew-along. If you want to purchase some, look for plastic boning at the trim store. It’s inexpensive and can be cut to size.

Bra hook: These come in a variety of sizes and materials. For this pattern you’ll need a 3/4″ hook.  You can get them on Etsy if you can’t find them locally. My hook is clear, but you can find them in lots of different colors.

Pins: Some people insist that you need to use ball-point pins or you should pin within the seam allowances of your pattern. Personally I’ve never had an issue with this–just be careful not to snag the fabric when you pin it. But if you’re nervous or just want an excuse to buy fancy ball-point pins, I won’t hold you back.

Cutting your fabric: I prefer to use a rotary cutter when I cut swimsuit fabric. It’s so much easier than using a scissors and is much more accurate, in my opinion.

Hems and finishes: All of my favorite swimsuits are all finished with a simple zigzag stitch, so I’ve followed their lead and I don’t use double needles and/or Wooly Nylon for finishing my suits. If you’re interested in going the twin needle route, however, Shelley wrote a great post on this topic that will be helpful to you.

And that’s it! You absolutely don’t need a serger to sew swimsuits, but of course if you have one it’s very convenient. I’ll talk about various sewing techniques when we start the sew-along, but in the meantime, have fun selecting your materials!

OK? Questions? If not, I’ll see you back here on May 23. Can’t wait!

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15 Comments

  1. I have already bought my fabric and I have a question about my choice. My fabric has horizontal stripes and I intend to cut the pieces of the swimsuit both verticaly and horizontaly so that the front bottom will have horizontal stripes and the sides willhave vertical stripes.

    However, you say that I should aligne the grain line arrows with the width of the fabric. So I guess my idea isn’t so good? If I understand well how swimsuit patterns are designed, they have negative ease. Should I check how well my fabric stretches in the length? I don’t intend to make a muslim since the fabric that I would normally use for it won’t be a swimsuit fabric (Should I make a muslim??).

    Thanks for this sew-along, I cant wait to start to sew my very first swimsuit!!!

  2. Yes, I would suggest comparing the stretch. You might be able to get away with it if the stretch is similar and if the pieces are small.

    Here is what I told someone else the other day:

    “If you’re really concerned, I’d suggest starting with the bottoms and basting them together. Try them on and you can always adjust the seam allowances before sewing. That’s probably your safest bet to determine how much ease, etc.. There’s not really an easy way to make a muslin with swimwear, since you really need to use the same fabric for the “muslin” as you would with the actual suit. I usually buy enough fabric for two suits so I can make a test before I carry through on the final. If you assume you’ll want to make adjustments and don’t worry too much about the fit your first time through, you’ll find ways to improve it for your final suit. I find that no matter how much I plan, there are just things I want to fix in the final garment, no matter what.

    I’m a HUGE fan of the muslin for almost any sewing I do because it’s such a shame to make something and discover you wish you had done something differently on it. Your first suit MIGHT be a muslin, but in the end it should be worth it because you’ll be able to tweak things to exactly your preferences. I’m doing that right now on my suit. The first one was close to how I wanted it, but I decided I can make it even better to fit my body and preferences. The second sewing always goes faster than the first, too, so you work out all the issues on the first one and then you’re an expert—swimsuits exactly how you want them!

    I hope that helps. I know lots of people don’t want to hear that a muslin is needed because it’s extra work and extra fabric. But then again, how many suits do you try on in the store before you find one that fits and that you like? (I’ve been looking for a replacement for my favorite suit for over ten years—no kidding!)”

    I hope that helps. I’ll try to talk about this during the sew-along as well.

  3. I found a lovely wholesaler of the Carvico Vita in Aus, and they sent me the full colour card book. They’re gorgeous! Now all I need is a friendly fabric retailer to put in a special order for me
    In the states, this place in Virginia, has a big selection of spandex, including the Vita recycled fabrics: http://www.solidstonefabrics.com/products/cats/id/166/carvico-vita-recycled-fiber-tricot

    I also found some discussion on a fabric printing companies website about printing onto spandex. It suggested that it’s much easier/cheaper to print onto polyester tricot knit rather than Nylon tricot knit. Perhaps that’s why the recycled nylon fabrics are only available as solids.
    I’ll be making a recycled colour blocked swimsuit for next summer!

    1. Thanks, Lightning! I hope you can find someone who is willing to order the fabric. It sounds fantastic!

  4. Allene McDaniel

    Could a ponte be used for a swimsuit? It has both two way stretch and spandex.

    1. If the ponte has enough stretch in both directions you could probably use it, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ponte with that much stretch. But I guess I’d be more hesitant to use it because it isn’t really designed for swimwear. It’s much heavier and thicker and would take a long time to dry. And I’m not sure it would have enough recovery. After a few wears you might have a very saggy suit.

  5. Katie

    I’m making B6360 swim pattern and I can’t seem to figure out how much of each size elastic I need to purchase for the top or bottom. The envelope just states that you need 3/4 inch and 3/8 inch for both. If someone could help that would be wonderful! Thanks 🙂

    1. Yes, I’m not sure why the amount of elastic isn’t listed the way it is on B6358! I’ll look into that and let you know. Thanks for pointing it out.

    2. Katie, thanks for pointing this out! Butterick is working to correct the patterns, and I’ll have measurements for you soon.

  6. Ruqayyah Davis

    I love the information that you provided! I have made one swimsuit in the 16 years of sewing. I was curious if you could use other fabrics that weren’t labeled “swim fabric”. This has been helpful! Thanks.

    Ruqayyah (ReDpants Designs)

    1. I’m glad this is helpful, Ruqayyah! Regarding using non-swim fabrics, please see my answer to Allene above. Cheers!

  7. I’m planning to make the B6360 pattern. Do you have a place you would recommend buying the swim bra cups from? Do they differ from a normal bra cup? I’m so excited to start on this!

    1. Most notions stores carry the bra cups, Stacy, and they are different from other bra cups in that they’re thinner and dry faster. I haven’t purchased any for my suits, but I’ve seen them in notions stores that carry bra cups. In a pinch, you might find them on Etsy?

      1. Katie

        Just throwing out another idea. I plan on using swim bra cup from an old swim suit.

      2. Thanks for clarifying! I found some at Fabric Fairy.

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