Editor Ella Foote embarks on a two-day course with The Swimming Seamstress, Amanda Bowden, to learn how to make your own swimsuit.
Swimsuits, an item of clothing that sends us all spiralling. There is a long history of what women wear while swimming and while men can have issues with swimwear, it is women who face the biggest problems. Finding something supportive, comfortable and also stylish for your body comes with all sorts of issues and emotions. Ask any swimwear designer and they will explain how impossible the task is. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to be able to make your own? Well… sort of.
The Swimming Seamstress, Amanda Bowden, found her way to the water through sewing. A trained textiles teacher, she offers a variety of dressmaking and craft skills at her home sewing school. When an English Channel swimmer attended her dressmaking class and asked about making a swimsuit, it sparked a collaborative project and also encouraged Amanda into the water.
Now Amanda is training to swim from Jersey to France this summer and has her sights on the Channel herself. When she isn’t training in the North Sea you can join her swimming costume making workshops at various locations around the country. After featuring in our March Swimterprize, Amanda invited me to make my own swimsuit with her at her home sewing school in Felixstowe, Suffolk.
Endless choices for all sewing abilities
While I can creatively turn my hand at many things, sewing is something that has always left me puzzled and quite literally, unravelled. I haven’t used a sewing machine since school and I can just about sew on a button. A swimsuit seemed complex as well as made from challenging material too. After explaining my lack of talent and skill with Amanda, she assured me she was an excellent teacher and that I should certainly attend. I popped the date in my diary, a long way off and thought nothing more of it until Amanda was chasing me for my body measurements and to remind me to order some fabric.
Once enrolled into a class Amanda sends detailed and simple instructions on how to measure your body and the type of fabric to order. These need to be done ahead of your class, Amanda will prepare a paper pattern to your body shape and size based on a scoop back or racerback design. When choosing fabric, you are given instructions of the technical requirements, but the colours and pattern is left for you to choose – the choices are endless!
Armed with my reef printed recycled fabric and an attitude to learn, I arrived at Amanda’s beautiful home. A stained-glass swimmer hung in the window and I knew I was in the right place. I was welcomed alongside four other swimming sewers, each with our own workstation and sewing machine – you can take your own machine if you prefer. Button biscuits and tea in sewing themed mugs were served before getting down to business. I was in a room with more experienced sewers and immediately felt out of my depth, yet Amanda was quick to remind me that I could swim and had plenty of support.
Time to experiment
The workshop started with a lesson in how fabrics are formed and how they perform as a garment, we were encouraged to experiment with different stitch techniques on the machine to understand how to work with technical fabric used for swimming. It was fascinating and I found a new appreciation for the swimsuits I already own and how they came to be made. We were taught about different elements of a swimsuit, from elastic to the stitch choice. I failed at the first hurdle, not being able to prepare my sewing machine but a fellow classmate came to my aid and helped me. Working with the fabric is difficult, I bodged up the fabric scraps and wondered how I was going to tackle the actual suit.
We were each given paper patterns, full written instructions and loaned extra materials like specific needles and swimsuit lining. After learning about technical elements it was time to cut the fabric into the pieces that formed the suit. We worked in pairs to prepare each other’s fabric, of course there was more tea and plenty of swim chat. At the end of the first day, I had the back of a swimsuit with two panels that I had put together myself. I felt mildly optimistic that my own swimsuit, made with my own hands, was possible.
A soft second skin
Day two was a lot quieter, all of us head down putting pieces together. The more advanced sewers got as far as fitting, we started to see swimsuit forms hanging from each other’s shoulders. Halfway through the second day I was ready to fit into my suit too. With a history of struggling to fit into standard suits and things not really fitting, but making do, my new homemade swimsuit felt alien to me. It slipped on without struggle and felt like a soft fabric second skin. Amanda helped me pin and adjust it, we decided to add extra leg and bust panels, because we could! I watched in amazement as Amanda knocked up extra bits of paper patterns in minutes. I cut out further fabric as she helped pull it altogether.
At the end of two spirited and exhausting days we each had completed suits, mine came together with a lot of help from Amanda. It seemed only natural to head to the beach and plunge into the sea. As I swam I half expected the suit to slip off into the sea, my stitches unravelling as I swam, but of course, it didn’t. Amanda is a super teacher, patient, funny, talented and incredibly skilled. It feels special to own a homemade suit. I now have the pattern and knowledge to make another suit, whether I have the talent is still up for debate!
Find out more about The Swimming Seamstress. Join an upcoming workshop focusing on body confidence and sewing your own swimsuit.