Read along as Thandi takes us with her on a swimmie adventure! Not too keen on the idea of delving into a new swimwear project, she shares her brainstorming, sketching, and virtual try-on process that resulted in a renewed enthusiasm for swimwear and the perfect swimsuit to enjoy in the blue waters of South Africa. Armed with her MyBodyModel croquis and an array of patterns from her stash, she’s able to incorporate her own style, body shape, and preferences to create a beautiful virtual wardrobe of swimwear from which to choose.
It’s winter here in the southern hemisphere, which means that it is the perfect time to plan my summer wardrobe. I live on the south eastern coast of South Africa, known as the Sunshine Coast due to our record number of sunshine hours every year. That means that I spend a ridiculous amount of time in my swimsuit, it gets worn throughout the year and not just in summer. I made my first swimsuit four years ago and it has worked hard ever since.
I haven’t wanted to replace it because, quite frankly, making underwear and swimwear is my least favourite sewing project. To make it infinitely worse, South Africa has a severely limited range of swimsuits in inclusive sizes. What is available is either unaffordable or not particularly stylish.
My other problem is bust support. I fondly refer to my breasts as feral long salamis and wrangling them into a ready-to-wear swimsuit is a recipe for disaster. I need a lot of lift and a lot of support. This means that I have no choice but to make my own swimsuit (here we call them swimming costumes or cossies).
Based on the issues I’ve already mentioned, let’s take a look at my criteria for a swimsuit:
• Looks good
• Bust support
• Is not a total pain in the bum to make so that I give up halfway and cry over my sewing machine
I’ll also add that I don’t really want to buy a new pattern for this project. I want to be able to use patterns I already have (too many, Reader, she has too many) to hack the perfect swimmies. Additionally, I would like to integrate more sun protection into my swimwear as I splash into my forties. Not only is it important to avoid skin cancer, but some of my chronic medications make me more susceptible to sunburn.
Of course, if I had access to swimwear in my size, I would go to the shops and try on a range of different styles to get an idea of what I like to wear and what look I like. But that’s not possible. Luckily, I have MyBodyModel croquis and can, with a pencil and some printouts, try on swimwear virtually. Genius, I know.
To get inspired, I turn to that classic tool of serial crafters everywhere: Pinterest. On Pinterest I can see what swimsuits look like on bodies like mine and get an idea of what styles are out there.
To start, I print out some full page croquis to sketch on and come up with some designs. Once I’ve had my fun, I’ll narrow down which elements I like best and use the printout with three small croquis to draw them side-by-side. I only work in pencil, coloured pens and pencils give me flashbacks of not being able to colour in the lines in primary school, and usually print my croquis in teal to provide a nice contrast between the pencil line and the outline of my body. For this project I came up with five designs I liked based on RTW swimwear. I’ll go through each of them and then show you what I decided would be the best swimsuit for me.
This was heavily inspired by all the gorgeous surf wear out there for those small enough to fit in their ridiculous size ranges. It gives good sun coverage and is robust enough to guarantee that you won’t have a wardrobe malfunction in heavy surf. There is nothing worse than getting dunked by a wave and losing a key piece of your swimsuit, which is a real concern on our rough coastline.
I like a raglan sleeve both for fit and for customisation options. I could, for example, do the sleeves in a solid colour with the floral print on the body or keep the body black and brighten it up with a contrast colour sleeve. Raglan sleeves also prevent the swimsuit from looking like an adult onesie.
The long zip makes it easier to get in and out of a wet swimsuit. As a chronically ill person, I am always aware of how much energy I have to expend. I have learnt that I am less likely to go to the effort of going to the pool or the beach if it is difficult or labour-intensive to get in and out of my swimwear. I need to make sure that doing activities which bring me joy don’t wipe me out physically.
This wetsuit-inspired look also makes it easy for me to wear a bra with my swimming costume. I usually use a nylon lace bra for swimming. For the pattern I would hack a high waist panty and a raglan t-shirt pattern to get a good fit.
The Crossover Contrast
I love a wrap dress so why not make a cute wrap top with extra-long ties that tie in the front? It was at this point in my drawing exercise that I realised I can’t draw bows, but you get the idea.
This design gives ample bra coverage while still being a little sexy. It is astonishing how many people think that as fat women we don’t want to look hot, but we get to look any way we want to. I called it the Crossover Contrast with the idea that the ties and sleeve cuffs could be in a contrast fabric which matches the high waist bikini bottoms, but it would look great in a solid colour too.
I’d use the classic Cashmerette Appleton Dress pattern to hack the top and use my favourite self-drafted high waist undie pattern for the bottoms. Separates are a great option if you have accessibility issues with your swimwear. I have an autoimmune disease that attacks my large intestine which can make one piece swimwear awkward to wear with regards to bathroom access. A two-piece is much easier to get in and out of.
This is the perfect design when you want to express your inner teen goth witch without getting any new piercings. It has sexy, sheer sleeves and a bustier look using the Cashmerette Willowdale Bra pattern for built-in support. It’s so cute that you could wear it as a body suit, and no one would ever know you’re out and about in your cossie.
I considered doing a floaty, mesh bishop sleeve, for extra witchiness obviously, but then I remembered that the point of this swimsuit is to actually swim in it and all that wet sleeve would be sticking to me as soon as I got out the pool. No thank you to that.
The pattern would need a careful combination of the bra pattern with a high waist panty pattern to make it comfortable and to make the transition more seamless than it appears in the sketch. I have some ideas involving either a hidden rib band and back clasp, or some boning and a longline bra hack.
The Addams Family at the Beach
I love the idea of off-the-shoulder tops and dresses, but strapless bras are not made for the pool or the surf. I added broad straps in the darker stripe colour to provide coverage for my bra straps. I love a good stripe and will never let anyone tell me that I shouldn’t wear horizontal stripes. A narrower stripe would have a chic French Breton feel, but I wanted to play up the broad stripe and the three-quarter sleeves which are reminiscent of the swimsuit Wednesday wore in Addams Family Values (a true 90s style icon) mixed with the classic Pugsley stripe. I have an off-the-shoulder Simplicity bodysuit pattern which would be perfect for this suit.
The Cheer Captain
I wanted to experiment with the idea of a swim skirt for those days when body positivity is hard. I think swimwear is difficult for most people, regardless of body size, with so much of ourselves on display. A flirty little mini skirt could be fun while adding some extra coverage. The square neckline and wide strap have an elegant feel which is transformed into something more frivolous by the enormous ties on the shoulder (badly drawn bows not to scale). The broad straps are long ties that can be tied any way you like, providing bra coverage for whatever kind of bra you want to wear underneath.
This design was voted “Most Likely to be Lost in a Big Wave” and has the least sun coverage of the lot. I would be very particular about the colour choice as I think a demure colour could make this look a little frumpy. I would go for a bold raspberry or a rich red. Trim it in white for some “C-U-T-E! This suit wants to party!” cheerleading vibes. This pattern would probably be something I would be able to draft myself with some careful measuring and using the Peppermint Maxi Dress as a base for the neckline and bust fit. The pattern is designed for wovens, but by choosing my size carefully I can still get a good fit.
Refining the Designs
Now that we have looked at each individual design, let’s see which bits I’ve kept in our side-by-side comparison sketch.
On the left we have the Contrast Crossover looking mostly the same. I excluded the bow this time to save my sanity and drew one sleeve long to see what that would look like. I really like both views. It looks cute, comfortable, easy to get in and out of, and gives adequate sun and bra coverage.
In the middle I have the Modified Wetsuit. I loved the idea of the Wetsuit, but the thought of having to get in and out of the entire suit every time I wanted to use the restroom sounded like a horror movie. The zip runs the full length of the swim top. I also added a zip to the bottoms. Not only would it look cute with the zip on the top, very Sporty Spice for the millennials in the audience, but it helps get me in and out of my swimsuit quickly.
On the right is the two-piece version of the Morticia. This one has the most ‘traditional’ bikini elements. The top, with its built-in underwire bra, has a sexy, pin-up feel to it when combined with the high-waist, low leg bottoms. I sketched in a mesh top with long sleeves on half the sketch to see if the Halloween Queen look translates to the two-piece version. It’s cute but, realistically, I don’t think I would get much wear out of it. The original Morticia was a great idea, but I think it would be exhausting to make and to get into. This swimsuit would be more like putting on underwear.
In the end, I like all three of the finalists. The first two are suits that I will definitely make for this summer, while the third one will be an aspirational make for a day when I want to really stretch my skills.
The magic of two-piece swimsuits is that you could make one pair of bottoms and a variety of simple, cute swim tops and have swimwear for every mood. And I think that’s exactly what I want to do. Even a simple t-shirt in a suitable fabric can turn an old bra and a pair of bikini bottoms into a swimming costume. I made a cropped tee out of scuba last summer, using the Cashmerette Concord t-shirt pattern out of sheer desperation for a new cossie, and wore it with my trusty swim bra and my old swimsuit bottoms
I was so comfortable the whole summer and didn’t get my cleavage burnt once. Now that’s real magic.
It’s striking how much more comfortable I am with my fat body when that body is itself comfortable. It doesn’t matter how cute my outfit is, if I’m constantly pulling at straps or waistbands or necklines, I’ll feel self-conscious and awkward. My body deserves comfort, it deserves the cool water and easy movement of a swimming pool, it deserves the rush of salt and wave.
When I look at my sketches, I don’t see a body that should be ashamed of enjoying the sun and the water, I see a woman who looks great in everything she tries on. And that is a feeling a sweaty fitting room will never give you.
Thandi is a PhD student living in South Africa with four birds, a fabric addiction, and a very patient partner. She had always loved making bags and things for her home, but after making her own wedding dress in 2015 she realised that she could make clothes that fit her plus size figure, rather than trying to make her body fit into RTW clothes. You can find her, and her birds, on Instagram at @ohasusualdear, crafting and sewing to keep the thesis madness and chronic illness blues at bay.