Sewing a Vintage Swim Suit | 1940’s Swim Wear
Vintage swim suits are all the rage now a days, and I have been wanting to make one for some time now! In fact, I have had this particular pattern from Mrs. Depew in my stash for literally a few years now. It’s time. I finally recently finished sewing my 1940’s vintage swim suit, and in this video I will bring you along for the journey of how I made this!
If you are on a historical swim suit kick, I have another video from last summer of how I created an 18th century inspired corset swim dress out of modern swim fabrics. It’s very different from this summer’s swim suit, both in construction and the finished product and fit, and it would be interesting to compare these two!
In this video, I will be sharing the entire process of how I made this swim suit, including: how I altered the pattern to fit me better, made a mock-up, cut out my fabric and pattern-matched the stripes, added extra details like piping, and how I added a few special features to the bodice of the swim suit to help it to be more supportive and flattering.
Keep reading to the end to hear my final thoughts on the fit, as well as some major things I would do differently next time. Let’s jump into it!
Pattern and Mock-Up
So, what pattern did I use to make this swimsuit? I used a PDF pattern from Mrs Depew, who drafts and sells affordable vintage patterns for all kinds of garments, from many decades and eras.
This particular pattern only comes in the one size, with two different views - a two piece and a one piece swim suit (or swim dress, as the case may be). I opted for the two-piece version. Right off the bat, I measured the bust, waist and hips of the paper pattern, in order to adjust it to fit me better before even making the mock-up. The bust was the right measurement for me, but the hips were a bit small and the waist a bit large. Based on the amount I needed to resize the pattern, I divided this by the amount of seam lines and graded out the sides of the patterns to fit.
Upon making the mock-up, I found that the bodice needed a lot of work. Although the full bust measurement was correct, I needed to take it in everywhere else - above and below the full bust point, to create better contouring, and therefore, a snug-fitting and supportive bodice. I also took it in quite a bit at the top of the side seam, since the armhole was gaping significantly. More on that later. Since this swim bodice will be acting as a bra, it is ultra important that it fits snugly. You can see from the included photo of one of the bodice pieces just how I much I took off below and above the full bust point to improve the fit. I’m not sure how much of this is attributable to the fact that I have a small band size, while having a larger cup size, but it certainly could have been a big factor.
Now let's talk about the fabric I chose to use, a pattern matching dilemma, and how I worked out a solution.
Cutting Out and Prep
Ok. It’s time to talk about fabric for this swim suit. The pattern recommends using a lightweight, closely woven type of fabric - in other words, non stretch, unlike modern swim suits. I love woven fabric, so this seemed great to me. I had recently bought a cotton-poly blend of striped shirting fabric from my local fabric store. Not being much of a polyester fan, even in blends, I thought that using this fabric in a swim suit would be a great option, especially since this particular fabric seemed like it would be fairly quick-drying.
I chose to use cotton muslin for the inner lining of the bodice and for the inner body suit. Read to the end to hear my final thoughts on this choice and what I might change for next time. Since my main outer fabric had black and white stripes, I chose to mellow things out by using plain black fabric for the straps, bodice back ties, and waist-belt. I was lucky enough to have some leftover black silk from my Victorian corset reproduction, and that worked great for this purpose once it was interfaced.
During the cutting stage, it was time to figure out how I would pattern match the stripes. I opted to have the stripes going horizontally for the bodice, and vertically over the skirt. I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to have perfect pattern matching on all the areas of the swim suit, due to the princess seams. I tried to have the stripes matching where it seemed visually most important, and to offset to imperfect pattern matching I decided to add black piping into all the seams. I made this piping out of black silk bias tape cut from my corset scraps, and some linen cord that I had on hand. A plus of this kind of piping was that it added a level of stiffness and supportiveness to the bodice, much like corset cording.
For the waist band and shoulder straps, I cut these from black silk and interfaced with a medium weight woven fusible interfacing. The bodice back ties were also cut from silk, with an extra layer of cotton muslin that would be sandwiched between the two layers as an interlining.
I ended up being able to use the cotton muslin mock-up fabric for the inner lining of the finished swim suit! Let’s move on to how I created a supportive lining for this swim suit, with a few improvements of my own contrivance . . .
Time to sew the cotton muslin lining for the swim suit! For the inner bodice, I chose to supplement things with some boning. The boning would improve the structure and supportiveness of this bra-top, especially for a larger busted person. The best part? It would also be totally invisible from the outside. How did I do this?
After sewing the bodice seams together, I sewed woven fabric tape over each of the seams, into which I would later add boning. The only channel I decided to leave boning-free was the princess seam directly over the bust, because I didn’t want to flatten it and it also had some support from the linen piping. Since these boning channels were sewn to the inside of the lining (the part that would be sandwiched against the inside of the outer layer) these channels would be completely invisible from the outside and the inside of the swim suit.
For the body suit lining, it was comprised of two front panels, two back panels, a back gusset, and a crotch gusset. The crotch gusset allowed this body suit to fit like a pair of panties, and the back gusset was, in theory, supposed to allow the inner body suit to be independent of the back skirt zipper, while still being able to get on and off and cover the skin of the wearer in case the skirt flies up. Did this actually work out for me? Keep reading to the end to hear my take on this body suit set-up.
After sewing in the gussets, adding the leg-hole elastic, and trying on the body suit, I realized something serious was wrong. While I could barely get the body suit on and off, it was tight and constricting in the hips and bum, especially when trying to bend over or sit down. Obviously, I should have sized up the hips more than I had! I fixed this problem by literally cutting the side seams open up to a certain point, and stitching in a triangular godet of fabric into these openings, on both sides. Much better! Keep reading to see how this body suit ended up fitting once it was attached to the skirt!
Now, a word about seam finishing . . .
How Did I Finish These Seams?
Vintage garment makers didn’t view seam finishing the way we do today. I have no doubt this was partly due to their lack of access to modern sergers and zig zag stitching, and having to make do. I also think in the modern day we tend to over-worry about garment fraying since we have never experienced how real garments with raw or semi-raw seams behave.
All that to say, that in this swim dress, I experimented with leaving these seams semi-raw, apart from an extra line of straight stitching down the seam allowance of all the seams. This was actually what Mrs Depew’s instructions said to do, and I was more than ready to try it out, since 1) this was just a swim suit and b) I was ready to avoid the hassle of french or flat-felled seams. Side note: I don’t own a serger, have no current plans to, and don’t like the look or feel of zig-zagged seams either.
After stitching the double line of straight stitching, I trimmed the seam allowances closely to this line.
Back to the swim suit construction!
Sewing the Outer Swim Suit
Time to sew together the outer striped swim suit! I began by marking the stitching line onto my fabric panels, which allowed me to match up the stripes as accurately as possible, while pinning the panels together. I also sandwiched the black piping into these pinned seams, and stitched them together with a zipper foot to get right in next to the piping.
I stitched the seams of the bodice in this way, as well as the skirt seams, leaving the centre-back seam halfway open for the invisible zipper. After the zipper was in, it was time to attach the outer bodice and skirt to the inner lining and inner body suit!
Putting it All Together
Let’s talk about the bodice. At this point, I had an outer bodice, and a boned bodice lining. Both had their respective black back ties, one set of which was interlined with muslin.
I sewed the inner bodice to the outer bodice by stitching around the top neckline with right sides together, with the black shoulder straps sandwiched into this seam. Then, I trimmed this seam allowance, pressed it, and under-stitched. I sewed all around the borders of the black back ties, turned them right side out, and topstitched. I finished off the bottom edge with a hand-stitched hem.
Although the original swim suit has a closed front, I opted for a centre-front hook and eye closure so this swim suit would be breastfeeding accessible. So, at this point, I cut open the centre-front, added my hook and eye tape, and inserted boning into the hook and eye tape, just like in my 1950’s longline bra.
To attach the skirt to the inner body suit, I basted around the waistline of both, attaching them firmly, and then added my waist belt to these. The waist belt was made from interfaced black silk, stitched into turned rectangle, with the open bottom edges pressed under in such a way that the inner edge came down a couple mm lower than the outer bottom edge, ensuring that this waist belt could be machine stitched on in one pass.
Secret Finishing Touches
Let’s talk about the “secret finishing touches” for this swim suit. I will start with the basic finishing touches and move on to the “secret” improvements that I personally chose to add to my swim suit.
The first finishing touch was adding a buttonhole and button to the waist band. This was my first time using a vintage Singer buttonholer, and I absolutely loved it! The buttonhole came out much nicer than my modern sewing machine is capable of.
Then, it was time to finish the skirt hem. I opted to do this with black bias tape, first so I wouldn’t lose length, and second to add visual interest and tie everything together. I stitched this on in two passes at the machine.
Now on to my secret touches! The first “problem” I had noticed with the bodice was that despite my alterations, the armhole area was still gaping. Based on looking at modern bras and camisoles, it seems this is a common problem with this kind of garment, which is why elastic is often used in this area. I used basic 1/4 “ wide elastic, which I zig-zag stitched to the inner lining at the armhole edge (while gently stretching the elastic). Later, I created an elastic channel here by using invisible hand stitches to better integrate this elastic with the outer layer.
Next was a trick to increase the supportiveness of this bra top and prevent “slippage”. I used the same 1/4 “ wide elastic and zig zag stitched it to the underbust area of the lining - two strips, one on each side. Again, I was gently stretching the elastic as I did this. Upon perusal, it seemed these strips were sitting a bit high, so I added another strip of elastic on each side, just below the first ones. This created a shirring effect on the inner lining, which can be very supportive to the bust, but was totally invisible from the outside!
Finally, I added a placket of interfaced fabric under the hook and eye closure at the centre front. This protects my skin from showing through, and from rubbing against the hook and eyes.
How Do I like It?
Overall, I love how this swim suit turned out! It definitely has the vintage “look” both in its stripey pattern as well as the overall shape of the swim suit. This swim suit is a good mix between feeling chic, elegant, and relatively covered at the beach compared to most modern swim suits, but still feeling comfortable, summery, and free to move.
Now, on to my criticisms, or things I would change next time. I want to reiterate some of the fit problems I had in the lower half of the swim suit, particularly, the body suit portion under the skirt. Part of this is due to my own body type- I have a relatively high hips to waist ratio, meaning that in order for the body suit to fit snugly over my waist, I can’t get it over my hips to get it on and off.
I actually had to remove the back gusset on the body suit. In theory, the back gusset was a good idea, because it allows the zipper of the skirt to operate freely from the body suit, while the body suit is still completely covering you if the skirt ever flies up. However, the gusset still didn’t give me enough room to get this on and off. It was literally impossible, which is why I simply cut it out. I have since basted the triangular opening of the body suit to the zipper opening of the skirt to prevent any awkward patches of skin from being visible if the skirt flies up.
If I could do this again, I would also consider constructing the body suit out of a stretch fabric, if only at the side panels, for extra comfort and ease in getting on and off. The woven fabric is nice to have in the front because it helps smooth the silhouette, but some stretch at the side panels would have helped enormously with the fit and comfort. The leg openings also tend to be not the most comfortable, but they aren’t terrible either. Perhaps all of this would have been fine if I had simply sized up the body suit part, who knows!
Another point that is awkward but necessary to mention for any of you planning on making a similar swim suit is . . .Bathroom accessibility. I didn’t realize this until after finishing, but in order to use the bathroom, one has to unzip, unbutton, and pull down the entire skirt and body suit. It would have been nice to have some kind of button flap instead, or just have the inner body suit be entirely separate from the skirt, or simply make the skirt only and wear it over a pair of modern high waisted yoga shorts, like I did in my 18th century swim dress. Something to think about for next time . .
Thanks so much for joining me on this swim suit making adventure! If you liked it, share it with friends, and leave comments and questions below! If you are on a historical swim suit kick, I have another video from last summer of how I created an 18th century inspired corset swim dress out of modern swim fabrics.
Would you ever make or wear a swim suit like this? What are you currently working on?
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