All About Swimwear Fabrics
Swimwear is one of the most unique items of clothing to sew. To be functional, it needs to be able to withstand harsh environments and a lot of water. That makes choosing the right fabric for your swimwear sewing project key to getting great results – and making a swimsuit you’ll wear all summer long.
Characteristics of a great swimwear fabric
In order to make a comfortable swimsuit that will last for more than a season or two, there are a few characteristics you’ll want to make sure the fabric you choose has.
- Durability: You’ll likely be wearing your swimsuit in environments that most clothing never have to deal with. It will need to hold up to saltwater, pool chlorine, abrasion from beach sand, as well as intense sun. This is why it’s important to choose a fabric that won’t start to quickly break down and degrade in those conditions.
- Quick drying: Imagine going for a swim, then coming out of the water with a soggy swimsuit; you’ll want your swimsuit to dry as quickly as possible after you leave the water. No one wants to sit around shivering in a dripping swimsuit for long! Make sure to pick a fabric made from fibers that dry quickly and don’t hold onto water.
- Stretchability: Of course, swimsuits need to stretch! They are usually made to fit tightly to the skin, meaning the fabric needs to have a good amount of stretch both horizontally and vertically so that you can pull your swimsuit on. For best results, go with a 4-way stretch fabric with at least 50% stretch in all directions.
- Holds its shape when wet: You’ll want your swimsuit to keep its shape and stay tight-fitting when wet. Some fabrics tend to hold on to water and lose their shape when soaked, you’ll want to make sure to choose a fabric that will stay nice and form fitting no matter how wet it gets.
- Elastic recovery: It’s extremely important to choose a fabric with good elastic recovery. If your fabric doesn’t recover well, it will quickly get permanently stretched out and won’t quickly snap back to its original shape after being stretched. Selecting a fabric with at least 8% elastane content will ensure that it will have great elastic recovery.
- Compression fit: The fit of your swimsuit is a very personal choice, so this one is optional. Some people prefer their swimsuits to have a compression fit that holds the curves of their body in place. If that’s the kind of fit you want, you’ll need to consider the weight of the fabric and the strength of the knit to create a compression fit. Choosing a fabric labelled as “compression” or going with a heavier weight swimsuit fabric will help you get that tight hold.
History of swimsuits and the fabrics that made them
While all of the characteristics we just mentioned are important for swimwear today – it hasn’t always been that way. Swimsuits, and the fabric used to make them, have evolved immensely throughout history to bring us to where we are today.
The time before swimwear
Prior to the 1700s, swimming wasn’t much of a recreational activity. When women did swim, it was typically in women-only bathhouses, where they would swim and bathe nude.
It wasn’t until swimming started to gain popularity as a fun pastime in the 19th century that swimsuits were invented.
The first swimsuits: 19th century
The very first swimsuits were known as bathing gowns and were usually used to bathe in the sea, which was thought at the time to have some health benefits. These gowns were loose-fitting dresses made from often heavy fabrics that did not become transparent when wet. Weights were often incorporated into the hems of these bathing gowns to preserve modesty and prevent the hem from floating up in the water.
Swimming becomes more popular: 19th century
By the mid-1800s, swimming had become a popular activity for both men and women – for the fun of it rather than the supposed health benefits. During this time, modesty was a very important consideration for women. This led to the use of bloomer-style swimwear.
These bathing suits consisted of a belted bathing dress over baggy pants called bloomers. They were usually made from wool or cotton flannel, which became very heavy and unwieldy in the water, making any sort of vigorous water activities challenging.
Annette Kellerman helps make swimwear more practical: early 20th century
By the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, swimming had become a popular competitive sport. In the 1912 Olympic Games, women were allowed to compete in swimming events for the first time.
Annette Kellerman, a talented competitive swimmer from Australia, rejected the idea of competing in heavy bloomer-style bathing suits and instead wore a tight-fitting swimsuit that showed the lower portion of her legs. While she faced extreme stigma for her swimwear choices, even being arrested for wearing her swimsuit while competing in Boston, she helped pave the way for less restrictive, more streamlined swimwear.
However, though these swimsuits were much more practical and were made from stretchy knit fabrics, they were still usually made from wool, which didn’t hold its shape well in water.
Swimwear becomes fashion: mid-20th century
By the 1920s, slim fitting one pieces used in competitive swimming had begun to make tight swimwear much more acceptable, even for the general public. It was during this time that the term “swimsuit” started to replace “bathing suits” to describe swimwear.
It was also during the 1920s and 1930s that fashion brands such as Vogue started to advertise swimwear as a piece of fashion that could make a woman glamorous or sexy. Knit, one-piece swimsuits became popular and started to incorporate fun colors and fashionable details, making them more about style and less of a strictly functional garment for competitive swimmers.
In 1931, the invention of Lastex yarn, an elastic yarn with good recovery, further improved the functionality and wearability of swimwear. This meant that swimwear would hold its shape when wet and could be combined with synthetic fibers to make a stretchy fabric with good elastic recovery, durability, and that would hold dyes well. This paved the way for further advancement in fabric for swimwear, such as the invention of elastane in the 1960s.
The first bikini: 1946
In the 1920s and 1930s, there were some two-piece swimsuits on the market, but they covered almost all of a woman’s midriff. It wasn’t until 1946, when two separate designers, Jacques Heim and Louis Réard, both released two-piece designs that were shockingly revealing, that the modern-day bikini was born.
Since then, swimwear has only become more of a fashion statement with new styles and cuts coming to the market every year.
Swimwear fabrics today: innovations in swimwear
Today, swimwear fabric is both functional and fashionable, with innovations constantly improving the wearability and durability of modern swimwear.
Fiber composition of swimwear fabric
These days, swimwear fabric is very rarely made with natural fibers like cotton and wool. While this may be a difficult thing for a sustainability-minded person to hear, there is good reason for the shift to synthetics for swimwear.
Natural fibers tend to soak up and hold on to water, resulting in soggy swimwear that stretches out of shape when wet and takes ages to dry. Also, synthetics usually hold up better to the harsh environments that swimsuits are often used in.
Most swimwear today is made from either nylon, polyester, or polyamide, which is then blended with elastane for added elastic recovery. There are still some cotton swimwear fabrics on the market today, though they are best for making retro swimwear or swimsuits that won’t be worn extensively in the water – they’re great for lounging in the sand at the beach!
Quick Dry fabrics
Quick Dry fabrics are treated so that they wick sweat and water away from the body and quickly dry, evaporating the moisture off. This is a huge benefit for swimwear, since faster dry time means you’ll be shivering in a wet swimsuit for less time after your swim.
To create Quick Dry fabrics, the manufacturer must treat the fabrics with chemicals during the dyeing process to add moisture-wicking capabilities. However, keep in mind that the industry only requires that the Quick Dry properties are tested at 20 washes – so your fabric may lose its Quick Dry capabilities over time and after many washes.
Fabrics that help to protect you from UV radiation are a great advancement in swimwear fabric technology. When you’re out at the beach or the pool, you’re likely soaking up lots of rays from the sun – which isn’t great for your skin, no matter how nice the warm sun feels!
Fabric manufacturers can now treat some of their fabrics with chemicals, usually included in the dyes, that allow the fabric to absorb or block UV rays from reaching your skin. If you plan to spend long hours and days out in the sun enjoying aquatic activities, making a full-coverage rash guard from a UV protective fabric will help you keep those harmful rays off your skin.
Fabric sourcing for swimwear
Sourcing great fabrics for all your swimsuit sewing projects couldn’t be easier. We offer a huge selection of different types of swimwear fabrics – we have a range of colors, patterns, textures, and fiber compositions.
Sustainable fabrics for swimwear
Even though most of the swimwear fabrics available are not eco-friendly, we have some sustainable alternatives for you:
- Recycled polyester or polyamide. Choose a recycled synthetic to help reduce the amount of nonbiodegradable materials being sent to landfills. These recycled materials are made from either old fabrics or plastic waste, such as plastic water bottles collected from the sea. Try our recycled polyamide tulle as a great swimsuit lining or our Seaqual™ recycled polyester swimsuit fabric.
- Choose a cotton swimwear fabric. If you typically use your swimwear more for beach-going and less for swimming, a cotton swim fabric is a good natural fiber choice. Our performance cotton rib swimwear fabric will give your swimsuit a great texture and a fashionable look.
Can you print your own design on swimwear fabric?
If you have something unique in mind for the swimwear in your fashion line, you can get swimwear fabric printed with your own custom print or pattern.