Siân Jenkins, a regular outdoor swimmer based in South Cumbria, has been sewing for as long as she can remember. Here are her top tips for anyone wanting to try making their own swimwear, including a downloadable beginners’ guide, and a discount code for a sewing pattern she recommends.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and why you started making your own swimwear.
Living where I do, I’m completely spoilt for swimming spots. Windermere is half an hour away, as is Coniston. Grasmere and Rydal are ten minutes further and there are hundreds of other lakes, tarns and rivers within easy reach.
I’ve always liked being in or on water but wasn’t a regular outdoor swimmer before moving to the area. I started dipping in lakes on and off one summer, really enjoyed the feeling of swimming outdoors and eventually joined an unofficial club. The social aspect of the club kept me coming back for more and before I knew it I’d swum through my first winter.
I’m not sure I can remember when I started sewing. When I was small my Mum used to make clothes for me and when I was a bit older we started making things together. (When I say ‘together’ I promised to help and then got bored half way!) I really got into making my own clothes after I left university, and over time I’ve tried to push the boundaries and make things you might not think were possible at home. When I was looking for a new sewing challenge, swimwear was, unsurprisingly, top of the list!
Were you happy with the swimwear on offer in the shops, or did you start making your own for a different reason?
It was mostly the challenge that attracted me, and the fact that I could make something I would actually use. However, I’ve always struggled to get swimming costumes to fit and once I’d started making my own, I realised how bad the ones I’d been buying actually were. Being able to make something that fits you exactly the way you want it is such a luxury.
When you started, what were you already used to sewing, and what challenges did swimwear bring?
Most of my sewing was with woven fabric, so the move to super-stretchy lycra was a bit of a shock. It’s also difficult to get hold of swimwear fabric in the UK, so you end up buying online with mixed results. There were definitely some fabric disappointments when I first started.
When we review women’s swimwear, we often notice things like bust support (or lack of), coverage and where the straps sit. These are very much personal preference and can be as much about geometry as measurements! Do you find some patterns fit better than others, and do you adapt them to suit you?
Yes, the pattern fit can definitely be hit and miss. Things like the leg rise, how tight you want the armholes, how tight across the shoulders, how far apart you want the straps to be, do you want bust support built in or not…the list is endless.
The lovely thing about swimwear is that it’s stretchy, so you can make fit adjustments relatively easily and you don’t have to be too accurate. For example, if you make the waist on a cotton dress smaller, you have to get the new measurement perfect because the fabric doesn’t give you any leeway if you get it wrong. On a swimsuit, you can eyeball it and it’ll probably be fine because the stretch will compensate for most errors.
I’ve managed to find two or three patterns which fit me well, which I now adapt depending on what I want in each individual suit.
Could patterns be adapted for women who have had a mastectomy?
Absolutely. If you’re lining your swimming costume, it would just be a case of sewing pockets into the lining before assembling the suit. I’ve never had to do it myself but I found a review online of the Cottesloe swimsuit (which is the one I’ve recommended in my beginners’ guide) from someone who had added pockets to hers. She didn’t post pictures of how it was done but it sounded straightforward.
Are there patterns suitable for distance swimming as well as dipping?
Yes to this one as well. I make most of my suits for swimming rather than dipping (although for me, a mile is a long-distance swim). I swim in a basic scoop-back suit with no problem at all but if you’re looking for a sportier suit, Jalie sell a few good patterns.
How long does it take to make a swimsuit, and how does the cost compare to a similar one in the shops?
For a basic swimsuit it probably takes me about 3–4 hours, start to finish. I’ve obviously got faster over the years but I made my first as part of a one-day workshop and came away with a finished cossie.
If you buy cheaper fabric, you could probably make a suit for about £20. If you want to buy the fancier stuff, you’re probably talking closer to £50. I’d really recommend making your first one out of a cheaper fabric to check the fit. It’s very difficult with swimming costumes to alter the fit as you sew and there’s no going back once you’ve cut into your very expensive fabric.
Do you have in your mind a dream swimsuit that you haven’t made yet?
The thing that makes any piece of clothing for me is the fabric. I love patterns but I’m really picky about which ones I’ll wear so I’m constantly on the lookout for that perfect print. It’ll turn up one day!