Sew Over/Under: Sewing Swimmingly

Photo of the writer, smiling into the camera.

Hey, y’all. I’m Kristina, aka @kehdeebee.

When Gillian graciously hit me up and invited me to contribute this month for Sew Over/Under, I quickly said yes. I’ve been planning for YEARS to make myself a coat, and this would be the perfect opportunity!

EXCEPT: this is high summer in New Jersey, a tiny state with a number of actual bonafide swamps scattered through it, and it is entirely too hot and humid out to even TOUCH coating fabric, much less imagine making a coat. The heat index is regularly above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity is perpetually set on Smother. Iced coffees flow like water and people look like they will break into tears (or fisticuffs) at any moment. Coats? Coooooats? What even are coats? That clearly would not do. But you know what IS appropriate, and fun to make to boot? SWIMWEAR!

Even though I rarely actually get to the Shore in the summer, and the majority of my water time is spent swimming with a local Masters team (which requires suits that are more functional than cute), I’m picky about my swimsuits. I currently have roughly fiftyleven of them, in just about every style you can imagine, with one piece or with two. (Fun fact: once upon a time I had a three-piece swimsuit, thoughts and prayers for it because I dunno where it is now.)  I’ve even sewn a couple, carefully following the provided instructions. So for this project I decided the only way to justify sewing up yet another swimsuit was to do something a little different. I hit the internet, and I landed on this number from 1967:

Pattern envelope for Stretch and Sew pattern 1395, a “Ladies’ One-Piece Bikini” from 1967. Envelope features a cartoon of the Stretch and Sew mascot and a line drawing of a woman leaning against a column in a monomaniacs.
Why thanks, don’t mind if I do, actually

I was SOLD. A MONOKINI?!  FAAAAAAAAAM. Talk about what I never knew I needed!  It’s a one-piece with a two-piece look! It’s the best of both worlds! And who doesn’t want to go prancing about the beach like a 2019 Lola Falana? Don’t YOU? (You can say no, but I won’t believe you.) Into the cart it went and off to the mailbox went I to wait for it.

Photo of the pattern traced onto tracing paper by the previous owner.
Looks like this pattern is pre-loved—this was still in the envelope!

Now this cute little pattern had one problem: it’s, um, kinda small. The biggest size is 1-2 sizes below what I usually use as a starter.

Photo of the back of the pattern envelope for Stretch and Sew 1395, showing the measurements for sizes included in the pattern and a list of supplies and fabric needed to make the suit. The largest size, 38, corresponds to a 38 inch bust.

And these sizes are it–there is no larger version out there. Now, normally that’s a smooth, crisp “thank u, next” from your girl. If I have to grade it myself to have a decent starting point, I’m not buying it. However, this was the only vintage monokini pattern I could find available online that was even CLOSE (and believe me I spent daaaaaays looking after finding this one) and I wasn’t finding anything similar in contemporary patterns. And now I had a vision, and there was no going back. I was ALL IN on this late-60s aesthetic. So if I wanted it, I’d have to work for it: I’d have to do some winging it to get it to fit. Uggggggggh!

But alas, dear readers, this is simply the reality of vintage sewing. After a few deep and dramatic sighs and perhaps a hand-wring or two, I traced out the largest size, the 38.

Photo of swimsuit pattern, traced onto pattern paper and cut out.
…and so it begins

I figured I’d probably need to grade the pattern up a bit, but could not decide where to start. What technique to use: slash-and-spread? Add equally to the side seams? Pivot and slide? And how much to add? Swimsuits require negative ease to fit–how much likely depends on the fabric–but I didn’t know how to start calculating. So I measured the suit to see what kind of ease it had already, and was surprised to find it had. . . none! The bottom portion measured about the same as the intended hip measurement for the size: about 40 inches. What? Before grading up, I decided to compare with a couple of patterns that I have already made up–and was shocked to discover that they were about the same width! So maybe I didn’t need to grade there at all?

Photo of cut-out pattern for Friday Pattern Company Vernazza Swimsuit bottoms in XXL on top of the Stretch and Sew pattern’s bottom, showing that the two are equivalent.
Hmmm. (The outer edge is the size 38 cutting line.)

I sewed up the pattern in a lightweight swim fabric just to check, and indeed the bottoms were ok–but the top was too skimpy. I did a full bust adjustment, adding more width, length, and depth. Normally for a swimsuit I’d just slash across the front to make the bust area longer, but this pattern actually includes a dart so I just used that for a standard FBA.

Photo of the traced pattern with the bodice cut off and cut and spread for a full bust adjustment.
slash away, slash away, slash away all

Muslin time again! This was better but there still wasn’t quite enough coverage for my liking, and I also felt the back waist was a smidge low and the straps were a bit thin, so I added 1″ to the edges all over the bodice of the suit and to the back waist and straps.

Photo of adjusted traced pattern with an additional 1” drawn onto all edges
Also by now I just couldn’t deal with untaping and doing another FBA, so…

This fit even better, but I was still slightly uncertain when I decided to cut into the final fabric. The muslin fabric wasn’t a perfect match for my intended final fabric–which was beefier and less stretchy–and it is also always a bit hard to see how things will really look without the elastic in, as it’s such a vital part of the fitting. (But the nice thing about sewing swimwear is that “close enough” usually comes out to “perfectly fine.”)

Photo of cut out fabric with underlining attached and darts drawn on.
All cut out and ready to sew! The pattern did not call for lining so I underlined it with swim lining fabric.
Photo of swimsuit with darts and side seams sewn.
And sewn! Time to finish.

And indeed, once I got it all sewn up and tried it on, it was mostly fine; the biggest problem was that I noticed right away that it was harder to pull the bodice and straps together. The straps extend from the side bodice, cross on the upper back and are supposed to hook onto the opposite side of the front bodice. (Fun fact: the pattern envelope offers no pictures of the back, so this was a surprise.) The beefier knit plus the swim lining underlining made the resulting suit even less stretchy than I’d expected, so it fit more snugly and was less flexible–it was difficult to pull the straps to meet the bodice fronts. The pattern instructions recommended inserting swim cups by attaching them to a square of powernet and sewing that into the suit. I didn’t have the template recommended in the pattern, and I didn’t want to further reduce the stretchiness of the bodice by adding powernet, so for this version I decided to skip it and just hand-stitch the cups to the lining. In order to make sure the bodice stayed in place, I stretched the elastic as I sewed around the bottom of the bust area instead of sewing it in without stretch as recommended.

Photo showing elastic being sewn onto the edges of the swimsuit.
I kind of winged this, tbh.

Additionally, the pattern calls for attaching the straps to the bodice with swim hooks, but since those are so small I worried that that would require stretching the straps to their limit and putting too much stress on them (and my poor shoulders!) Instead of cutting longer straps, I decided to use large gold O-rings to connect the two pieces, wrapping the fabric around and stitching them down. I’m still able to shimmy in and out of the suit without difficulty, and the result has a nice element of “utility, but make it FASHION” about it. (At least I think so.)

Because it’s not a project of mine until I’ve breached the realm of Doing the Absolute Most, I also decided to jump on the OVER part of the prompt and make a little cover-up dress from the same era. I considered several, but eventually settled on this one: it’s a Simplicity “Super Jiffy” pattern, pattern 1100. I made it using a netting that I’ve had for a few years now; it’s soft and floaty and nearly weightless and drapey and stretchy and translucent. Immediately upon removing it from the stash I thought it would be excellent for a fall blouse and almost put it back but tough-loved myself into sacrificing it for this, as it is otherwise perfect for beach/pool wear and I do actually need more coverups. The pattern consists of only one piece; the finished item simply wraps around you and ties behind your neck. I sewed it as-is, straight out of the envelope with no adjustments. I wasn’t sure if I had enough fabric for the maxi version, so I made the shorter version with a few extra inches at the hem. It took me longer to hem it than it did to construct it!

So here ’tis, the finished ensemble:


Photo of writer on a beach, wearing a large floppy hat and halter-style beach coverup dress.
Photo of the writer facing away from the camera, showing the halter back of her coverup dress and crossed straps of her swimsuit.

and under:

Photo of writer in off-white bathing suit. The suit has cutouts on either side and is backless. She also wears a large floppy black hat and holds her coverup dress in her hand.
Photo of the writer in an off-white swimsuit, hands on hips and smiling at camera.

In hindsight, I probably should have graded out the bottoms a smidge–at least cut the leg holes a bit bigger–but they are not uncomfortable as they are so I’m not particularly worried about it. If it does bother me it would be pretty easy (if fiddly) to unpick the elastic and recut (although maybe you’re the sort of person who would do this? Can’t be me, tbh). If I were to sew this again in a similar fabric I would cut the legs a little larger; in a thinner fabric I’d leave them as is. Also, I love the look of the gold rings, but I have to figure out how to get the suit on without twisting the straps up! My only regrets on the cover-up are that 1) I didn’t make it longer and 2) I can’t make one for every day of the week.

So there you have it, folks! Another vintage sewing adventure in the books, and I’m now all suited and booted for an afternoon in the sun. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think a beach mat and a good book are calling me. . .

Kristina is a Southern transplant and professional book nerd living in the Garden State with lots of books, lots of clothes, and one really excellent 19-year-old cow-cat. When she isn’t running around trying to see ALL THE PLAYS or working towards her Olympic skating and swimming dreams, she is a self-taught sewer and quilter, sewing up clothes for work and quilt tops that might someday become finished quilts, maybe. She can be found on Instagram sometimes (usually blathering about clothes, plays, or African American history) at @kehdeebee.