Whether you're a runner, a cyclist or a gym bunny, or you're simply looking for the perfect pair of slouchy leggings for elegant lounging, this collection of sewing patterns is for you.
Learn all about how to choose the correct fabric for activewear sewing and discover expert tips on working with performance fabrics like lycra and spandex. Before you know it you'll have a truly unique workout wardrobe to wear while you work up a sweat!
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About the Author
Melissa relocated from the US to UK where she now lives in a houseboat on the Thames. She recently completed the London marathon in 3.5 hours!
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ACTIVEWEAR SEWING SKILLS
If you've sewn with jersey and other stretch fabrics before, then you may be tempted to skip this section – don't! Selecting the right stitches, edge finishing and fabric for your activewear makes is just as important as the pattern itself. What works for your average t-shirt won't necessarily work when you're sweating it out in the gym. Take the time now to experiment with different techniques on scrap fabrics or swatches of high-end activewear fabrics and it will pay off with better quality garments later on.
Most clothing is designed to look good when the wearer is standing or sitting and, apart from the odd walking vent, other movements aren't really taken into consideration. But the movements required by even the most sedate yoga session can put a huge strain on your clothing, with the seams usually bearing the brunt of the stress. Some of this is mitigated by the stretch and recovery of your fabric (see Fabric Selection), but you will need to construct your activewear using stitches that will stretch in every direction without breaking or causing irritation.
USING A SEWING MACHINE
If you only have a sewing machine, the narrow zigzag stitch will be your new standby (A).
Set the stitch length short and use this zigzag for all your basic seam construction, trimming the seam allowances close to the stitching after sewing. A walking foot is a fantastic investment if you do any volume of sewing with stretch fabrics – it ensures both layers of fabric move at the same rate and prevents the rippling you can sometimes see when using a regular presser foot. If you don't have a walking foot, be sure to loosen your presser foot tension (if possible) and do not stretch the fabric as you sew!
If you find that the regular zigzag is not strong enough, some other good choices for seams are: the stretch straight stitch (sometimes referred to as a "lightning bolt" stitch) (B) or the lingerie maker's favourite – the triple zigzag (aka the "Marcel stitch") (C).
USING AN OVERLOCKER
Many home sewists these days also own an overlocker machine (known as a serger in some parts of the world) which is a match made in heaven for activewear sewing. With an overlocker you can achieve a finish that is virtually indistinguishable from ready-to-wear (RTW) activewear and can be as strong and long-lasting as any high-end gear. The strongest overlocker stitch for sewing seams is the 4-thread overlock, which has two lines of needle stitching in addition to the two looper threads encasing the seam allowance (D).
This means that if you break the first line of stitching, you have another as a backup before holes actually appear. Another popular overlocker seaming choice is to use the 3-thread overlock (one needle and two loopers) to get a "mock flatlock" look where the threads are seen on the outside of the garment. To achieve this, remove the left needle and loosen the right needle tension as far as it will go. Keep the upper looper tension somewhere in the middle and tighten the lower looper as far as possible. Stitch with the wrong sides of the fabric together, and once stitched, gently stretch across the seam until the stitching lies flat. The right side will show the lower looper threads (E), with the needle threads seen as a "ladder" on the wrong side (F).
Since this stitch only uses one needle thread, you don't get the extra security of the additional needle as in the 4-thread overlock, but it gives a great decorative effect for highlighting interesting seamlines, and the side closest to the body is relatively flat with few threads to irritate sensitive skin.
THE FABRIC ON TOP WHEN SEWING A MOCK FLATLOCK SEAM WILL BE THE COLOUR THAT SHOWS THROUGH THE STITCHING. IF YOU'RE WORKING WITH TWO COLOURS, YOU NEED TO KEEP THE SAME COLOUR ON TOP FOR EVERY SEAM TO LOOK THE SAME.
Once you've sewn your seams, you can choose to topstitch them flat if you wish. This usually involves folding the seam allowances to one side and stitching close to the original seamline using either a zigzag, triple zigzag (G), twin needle, lightning bolt stitch, or other decorative stitch on your sewing machine.
Topstitching will make the seam allowances flatter and stay in place, but they can also cause waviness and add lots of time onto the process, in addition to adding extra thread against the skin (a common cause of chafing). Topstitching seams is really a matter of personal preference, both from a design and functional point of view. I've found that many beginner activewear sewists assume that any seam allowances left without topstitching will inevitably cause itchiness or chafing, but it's important to test these out for yourself in your chosen activity as you may be attempting to solve a problem that doesn't exist!
SEWING TEST SEAMS
Whether you're sewing seams using your sewing machine or overlocker, topstitching or not, it is absolutely crucial to test your stitches on scraps of your chosen fabric before starting on your garment. Aside from testing the usual tension and skipped stitch issues, you also need to check the strength of the stitches against the fabric's stretch and recovery. Take your fabric and stretch it hard along the length of your test seam; if the threads break then shorten your stitch length.
Then stretch your fabric across the width of your seam; if threads break here, use a narrower zigzag or overlocker stitch.
If you're using an overlocker and see a "ladder" of threads along the seam even after you've stopped stretching the fabric, then you should tighten the left needle tension. The takeaway lesson to remember is that if the stitches break, you need to increase the density of the stitching in that direction.
What if you have skipped stitches in your test scraps? Skipped stitches occur where the needle goes into the fabric, but a stitch isn't formed, resulting in a stitch which looks longer than all the rest (H).
Skipped stitches are almost always a sign that the needle needs changing; either to a fresh one of the same type, or to one better suited to your fabric choice. Activewear fabrics come in a wide range: to select the best needle for your fabric, start with a universal needle type (suited to the weight of your fabric) and if you get skipped stitches, try switching to a ballpoint needle for jerseys or a stretch needle for most elastane fabrics. This advice applies to overlockers as well as sewing machines – I sew so much elastane on my overlocker that I changed my universal needles for stretch needles and saw an improvement in my stitch quality almost immediately.
TWIN NEEDLE OR ZIGZAG
If you're familiar with sewing casual knit clothing, then you're probably aware of your options for finishing basic hems, where the hem allowance is simply folded to the wrong side and topstitched in place. Using a sewing machine, you can achieve this either by using a zigzag stitch (narrow or triple zigzag), or by using a twin needle (I).
Most sewing machines can support a twin needle so long as there's an extra spindle to place a second spool of thread. Take the thread from both spools through the usual guides on your machine until the very end, where you thread one through each needle. This results in parallel rows of straight stitches on the right side with a zigzag stitch on the reverse. When using a twin needle you'll need to loosen the bobbin tension to prevent unsightly "tunnelling" (where the fabric between the stitching lines creates a ridge), and be sure to match the needle type to your fabric to prevent skipped stitches, just as with regular needles.
If you're lucky enough to own a coverstitch machine, then you have an array of choices for finishing off your hems, be that a 2-needle narrow (J), 2-needle wide (K), or 3needle (L) (with three lines of topstitching).
Beyond the needle placement choices, you can also decide to flip the garment over and topstitch on the reverse in order to get a "mock flatlock" effect on the right side, showing off the looper threads (M).
Standard turn-and-stitch hems are suitable for some edges, like the bottoms of shirts or leggings, but in very close fitting garments, the fabric needs to be held closer to the body requiring the addition of elastic. Look for knitted elastic that feels soft and always pre-stretch it (like you would a balloon) before sewing.
Waistbands are probably the most common use of an elastic edge and my favourite method keeps the elastic firmly in place while you move (no more elastic twisting inside a casing) and has no elastic against the skin (see Basic Bottom Block: Construction for detailed instructions on how to achieve this finish).
NECKLINES, ARMHOLES AND HEMS
Waistbands aren't the only places where you need an edge to be held close to the body – the neckline and armholes of sleeveless workout tops are another place where it's important to keep the fabric against you as you move. See Vest Top: Construction for detailed instructions on how to achieve this finish.
Sometimes you need to keep hems in place more than a standard elastic edge can provide and for those extreme cases silicone elastic is the answer (N).
Most commonly seen on the hems of cycling shorts or tops, silicone elastic has dots or lines of clear silicone applied to provide an extra "grip" against the skin. In this case, the elastic must be attached in such a way that it is in contact with the skin, but be aware that this can cause skin irritation for some people when worn for long periods of time. Silicone elastic can be fiddly to sew due to its inherent stickiness, but a Teflon or walking foot, or tissue paper placed against the machine bed can all help to prevent the silicone from sticking to the presser foot or machine bed while sewing (see Cycling Shorts: Construction for detailed instructions on how to attach silicone elastic).
OTHER EDGE FINISHES
So far we've covered edges where only the main fabric is used, but there are also circumstances where you will want to use a separate piece of fabric to finish an edge; either for design choices or due to the curve of an edge, such as on a neckline. If you don't need your neckline to be held in place with elastic, you can create a simple banded edge, such as those seen on most t-shirts (O).
To finish straight edges, the band length should be cut to the same length as the opening edge (minus any seam allowances). For curved edges like necklines and armholes, the band should be slightly shorter to prevent it standing away from the body – I prefer a band that's 85-90% of the opening edge length but this can vary based on the severity of curve and fabrics used. When calculating your own band, the width of your fabric strip should be double the finished band height plus 2x the seam allowances (see Basic Top Block: Construction for detailed instructions on how to sew a banded edge).
Instead of a banded edge you can choose to have a bound edge, where a strip of fabric is wrapped around the opening edge, completely concealing it with no exposed seam allowances on either side (P).
This can be achieved in two steps with a sewing machine. First sew the unfolded band to the opening edge, right sides together, then wrap the band to the inside, folding the seam allowance under and topstitching from the right side through all layers. Alternatively, use a binding foot, either for your sewing machine or coverstitch machine, which will bind and stitch the edge in one step. Another option to bind the edge is to use Foldover Elastic (FOE), which can be identified by a characteristic groove running along its length. FOE comes in a variety of colours, prints and finishes and is applied by simply folding the elastic around the opening edge and topstitching with a zigzag stitch. If binding your edges, no seam allowance is needed on the opening edge.
When I first started sewing my own activewear, finding appropriate fabrics was a real struggle. There were only a handful of suppliers with limited colour choices and supplies went out of stock quickly with no ability to order more, but as more and more people began to sew their own exercise clothes, fabric stores started to offer more choices. Today, the home sewist can choose to have anything they wish digitally printed onto activewear fabrics, in addition to a wide variety of colours, textures, weights and fibres. It really is a golden time to start sewing your own activewear!
KNITTED VS WOVEN
The first thing to consider when selecting fabric for your activewear is whether you require a knit or a woven. Just like other sewing patterns, with activewear you can't just swap a woven for a knit, and starting off a project with the wrong fabric can doom a garment from the start. Woven activewear fabrics do have their place, in outerwear layers in particular; but the overwhelming majority of activewear garments are designed for knit fabrics, including all of the designs in this book. You're likely already aware of the differences between knits and wovens, but if you're unsure have a close look at the structure of the fabric itself – wovens are formed with threads running in a cross-hatch or twill pattern, whereas knits will usually have tiny ribs running the length of the fabric (either on one or both sides).
FABRIC NAMES TO LOOK OUT FOR
Many activewear fabrics started life in the Research & Development departments of big sportswear brands and so have trademarked names, like Supplex, Tactel, Lycra, CoolMax, and Dri-Fit. When searching for fabrics online, it's also useful to look for generic, untrademarked names like elastane, spandex, wicking, sport and, well, "activewear"!
By far the most important aspect when shopping for activewear fabrics is the stretch; the ability for a fabric to grow larger than its resting state. If the stretch content isn't already listed, you can work this out for yourself by measuring out a length of doubled fabric and measuring how far it stretches against a ruler. The difference between the two measurements is its stretch percentage.
I find it easiest to start with 10cm (4in), because if it stretches to, say, 15cm (6in), then that's 50% stretch (to 18cm (7in), that's 80% stretch and so on). Be sure to check the amount of stretch both widthwise as well as along the grain of the fabric. Most activewear styles require stretch in both directions (usually called "two-way" stretch, unless a high elastane content is included, in which case it's usually called "four-way" stretch), while others only require stretch in one direction. If your fabric only has stretch in one direction, place this so that it's going around the body and be aware that you will probably have to add extra length to account for the lack of lengthwise stretch. For best results, however, use fabrics with the suggested stretch indicated by the pattern. Note: confusingly, some stores may also label "two-way" stretch fabrics as "four-way stretch". If in doubt, check the label and ask!
The flip-side to a fabric's stretch is its recovery – the ability for a fabric to return to its original state after it's been stretched. Recovery is nearly as important as stretch, especially for tight fitting styles, otherwise you'll find that your garment may grow throughout the day, or the knees on your leggings are baggy when you stand up! Most fabrics that contain even a small amount of elastane will spring back into place after being stretched, but others may remain stretched out.
You can test a fabric's recovery the same way you did with the stretch test and ensuring the fabric returns to its original size. Activewear fabrics with low stretch and poor recovery can still be used, but keep these to looser fitting styles where they are less likely to become distorted through wear.
Now that you've examined the structural properties of your potential activewear fabric, it's time to think about what your fabric is made of. Many sewists can be natural fibre snobs, but the vast majority of activewear fabrics are made from synthetic fibres which can withstand the rigours of exercise and have been developed specifically for this purpose, so it's best not to judge based on fibre content alone!
If you're unsure of the fibre content of a swatch, you can perform a quick "burn test" by lighting a small scrap on fire and observing the results. Intricate flowcharts for determining precise fibre identifications are available online, but in general, natural fibres will burn or ash, while synthetic fibres (including any elastane content) will melt. Remember that fabrics can often be blends, so you may get both burning and melting in the same sample!
If you're looking to exercise in natural fibres, bamboo or merino wool jerseys (with elastane for improved recovery) are by far the best performing and quickest drying, as well as having natural anti-microbial properties. The main thing to remember here is to avoid cotton at all costs – cotton fibres retain moisture and hold on to it like a sponge. This is the opposite of a wicking fabric and keeps all your sweat against your skin, which can cause irritation, chafing and blisters. For cold weather exercise, holding this excess moisture against the body can even lead to hypothermia. Keep your cotton fabrics for lounging around, not for serious workouts.
Excerpted from "Sew Your Own Activewear"
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Table of Contents
ACTIVEWEAR SEWING SKILLS,
How to Use this Book (includes size charts),
Sport-Specific Design Considerations,
Basic Top Block,
Winter Base Layer,
Basic Bottom Block,
Warm Up Bottoms,
About the Author,