Wednesday, May 29, 2013

SwimAlong 2013: Fabric for swimwear and where to find it

Swimwear fabric has a pretty specific job to accomplish. It has to be sturdy enough to withstand constant stretching and movement, not to mention the effects of chlorine, sand and sun.
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It also has to be soft and stretchy, with great recovery so that it will fit well and not sag or bag with wear. Ideally, it should also be attractive, in a print or color that flatters you.
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Fortunately for us, we live in the age of Lycra. Blended with other fibers, we can have that perfect fabric; soft, stretchy and with great recovery. Add to that the synthetic fiber, Nylon and you also have a chlorine resistant, color-fast fiber that is perfect for swimwear. You'll generally find it labelled "Spandex" even though in actual fact the spandex (the generic name for Lycra) content of the fabric is probably between 10 and 20%.
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When you are shopping for your spandex fabric for swimwear, there are a few things you want to look for. Not all fabrics that contain spandex will be suitable for swimwear. Ideal swimwear fabric should be a blend of nylon and spandex (lycra) and should stretch in all directions. This last part is tricky as some vendors will label this 4-way stretch and others will say 2-way stretch. When in doubt, call or do not buy. Fabric that only stretches in the horizontal direction will not make a comfortable swimsuit.
Like this print? Get it here.
I thought it might help to peek at a screenshot from a common spandex fabric vendor, just to see what we're looking for. Click the picture to biggify. The arrow points to all the vital information about this fabric. The fiber content is 80% nylon and 20% spandex, which is great. You can go as low as 10% spandex and still have a suit that fits and moves with you. The next line shows the fabric weight. The bigger the number, the thicker and heavier the fabric is. Personally, I find that heavier fabrics are a bit easier to sew since they're more stable and curl less, so if you're new to sewing spandex, go for an 8 oz weight. Anything less than about 5 oz weight is likely to be sheer, so be cautious of the lower numbers. The final thing to check is to be sure that the fabric stretches in all directions. You can see that Spandex World specifies that this fabric has 4-way stretch, so I can purchase with confidence.

If you are on Twitter and would like to chat with fellow sewists (including me) about swimwear fabrics, we'll be having a chat on Friday, May 31st at 4PM Eastern Time. Get all the info (including how to join us) here.
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So, now that you know what you are looking for, where do you go? There are quite a few online vendors that specialize in swim and activewear fabric, so I'll introduce you around. I haven't shopped at ALL of these vendors, but I'll let you know my experience with those I have.
Spandex World/Spandex House - I lump these together because they really are very similar. Both are located in the garment district, and both carry a whole lot of good quality spandex fabric at reasonable prices. I personally do my business at Spandex World, so I can tell you that I have always had a good experience shopping with them, but Spandex House customers say the same. - This company specializes in commercial sales of sporting grade spandex, but they do sell by the yard to the home sewist as well.
Designer Alley Fabrics - This West Coast based company specializes in selling stretch fabrics to the small designer. They have lots of interesting prints and stretch trims.
These are just a few of the numerous other online vendors that specialize in spandex fabrics. A google search for "spandex fabric" may turn up something that suits you as well. Be sure you type in the word "fabric" if you search though. A search for just "spandex" may be more educational that you want...
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Specialty vendors aren't your only option though. Many of the larger online vendors also offer swimwear fabric, but you do have to be more cautious about checking to be sure it is the quality you are looking for. When in doubt, call or don't buy. A few vendors that are worth checking are: - Their prices for basic spandex are a little higher than the speciality places, but the free shipping can even things out. One down side is that they don't generally publish fabric weights, so you may not be getting what you think, and they can be hard to contact, so you may not be able to ask.
The Fabric Fairy - This vendor specializes in stretch fabrics, but has a nicely curated selection of swimwear fabrics, including microfiber fabric for board shorts, which is notoriously tricky to find. Their customer service is top notch.
Cali Fabrics - This is a relative newcomer to the online scene and their selection of swimwear fabrics is small, but of good quality and the customer service is very personal.
Chez Ami - For those who have never heard of them, Chez Ami specializes in personalized, boutique style children's clothing, but also offer their fabrics for sale. Their Knit Tactel Jersey is one of my absolute favorite swim fabrics to sew. It has almost no curl, is not as slick as typical spandex and is heavier weight. The down side is that they only sell their fabrics in 2 yard cuts, and the prints skew toward the more juvenile. Worth checking though, as their prices are excellent for the fabric quality.
Michael Levine AKA Low Price Fabric - This LA institution has a large variety of fabrics, including an excellent selection of swimwear. There isn't as much information on their website as I might like, but their customer service is great, so just give them a call if you are in doubt.
Obviously, this list is no where near comprehensive, particularly for those who are not in the US. I'd love it if you would include your favorite source for swim fabrics in the comments, particularly if you are overseas. We always need more places to buy fabric, right??


Unknown said...

Is a lining always necessary? If so do you have recommendations of where to buy lining?

Brooke said...

A new spandex warehouse just opened in my area on the fabric warehouse street. I'm dying to go check it out - I heard they carry all kinds of knit and stretchy fabrics. =)

Jessica said...

For those living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fabrics R Us ( in San Jose has a great selection of swim/active/dancewear fabrics. They also have notions like hooks and elastic for really cheap.

Also, Hart's Fabric ( happens to be having a sale on their swim fabric this week. Their selection is small and not super cheap, but they have some cute ones in there. They have a retail store in Santa Cruz, but also sell online.

Jessica said...

For those who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fabrics R Us ( in San Jose has a great selection of swim/active/dancewear fabric. They also have notions like hooks and elastic for really cheap.

In addition Santa Cruz-based Harts Fabric ( happens to be having a sale on their swimwear fabric this week. Their selection is pretty small, but they have some cute things in there. They sell online and also have a retail store in Santa Cruz.