Make Your Own Active Wear

It's a great feeling to go to your exercise class or to the pool wearing your me made outfits... for me it's knowing no-one else has my gear..... my techniques work for leisure wear as well and you only need a sewing machine and an overlocker.......I also give you techniques just using a few stitches on your sewing machine.....You really can make anyhing with straight stitch and zig zag.
swim and yoga.JPG

Have you ever wondered if you can make your own Pilates, yoga, running, cycle and swimwear? I started making aerobics wear in the days when Olivia Newton-John wowed the world in her black Lycra one piece in Grease and Jane Fonda ignited the aerobics craze! I began making leotards, tights and costumes for my dance troupe.

The only pic I have from that time is this one taken in about 1984 at Derby Carnival.


Making clothes for exercising needs a fabric and techniques that are going to be put under much more stress than most casualwear. However, it's much easier than you might think. An overlocker is useful, but not essential and a coverstitch machine might be considered an expensive luxury and definitely not necessary.

I'm going to explain techniques that can be achieved using any machine with a zig zag stitch, plus those with built in stretch stitches and an overlocker.

Let's discuss fabric

As I'm focussing on clothing for cycling, Pilates, Yoga, dance, swimming, running and similar activities, you'll need a fabric with at least 60% stretch both horizontally and vertically. 10 cm of folded fabric needs to stretch to at least 16cm and return to it's original size.

My Stretch Fabric Ruler is it from my shop

In the UK knit fabric That stretches horizontally and vertically is referred to as 4 way stretch. The density of the fabric is important as you don't want an embarrassing experience when the fabric is stretched. For swimwear light colours aren't as opaque as stronger colours and need lining.

It can be difficult to work all this out if you're buying online, so purchasing samples is a good idea.(Download my Fabric Fact File to build your own reference file, it means next time you can feel your fabric samples and use the info about stretch and weight)

Most 4 way stretch fabric is knitted nylon, polyester or cotton blended with Lycra™, Spandex™ or elastane. Elastane is the generic term whilst Lycra and Spandex are UK and US trade names. Elastane can stretch to 7 times its length and immediately return to it's original length, a small amount when blended with other fibres means a knitted fabric will keep it's shape during exercise and let garments stretch when bending.

Technical/performance textiles that actively keep us cool, protect from UV rays etc are a major area of development, but mainly restricted to the major sports brands who have their own trademarked fabrics. If you're lucky you can find fabrics left over from manufacturing, but they're unlikely to be labelled.

Although many people will feel cotton/elastane to be superior to synthetic blends it's really only suitable for short periods of indoor exercise. Cotton is naturally absorbent, meaning it holds onto moisture and doesn't dry quickly. This makes it very heavy, causing chaffing and it can also cause the body can cool down too much in cold weather, ultimately contributing to hypothermia.

Supplex® is quite easy to find in the UK. It's a nylon Lycra® that has a soft 'cotton feel', it wicks moisture and dries quickly, is fully breathable keeping you cool and dry. Supplex® also offers protection from UVA and UVB rays. Easy care Supplex® maintains its properties wash after wash. Tia Knight have one of the best colour ranges at the best price I'm aware of.

Considerably easier to find in a wide range of weights, colours and designs is nylon/lycra The down side is that it doesn't breathe, but is perfect for swimwear and widely used in a whole host of garments. Contrado and Funki Fabrics can print fabric especially for you.

If you're close to south Yorkshire Walton's in Goldthorpe have a great selection of Lycra fabrics and power net. Tia Knight has a great selection as well.

Power net is available in different colours, weights and stability. It's widely used in bra making and dancewear. Its has great stretch characteristics and is great for ventilation in active wear like behind the knees in leggings.

Fleece backed nylon Lycra is great if you want a warmer fabric for leggings. It's available as the Thermo range from Funki Fabrics

My local pool is selling swimwear made from recycled ocean plastics. The fibre is produced by Econyl. Let's hope this is something that makes it way into our fabric shops. The closest I've found is this recycled cloth from Funki Fabrics

Patterns for Activewear

Jalie have a good range of patterns as well as Sew Direct Garments are often quite simple shapes with only a few seams. Different sports have different needs making the positioning of seams an important factor in your choice. 4 way stretch fabric is really forgiving so if you make a garment and decide you need to move a seam it's really quite easy as the fabric is going to stretch to your body shape.

Sewing 4 Way Stretch Fabric.

For years I made and sold dancewear using an overlocker and a zig zag industrial machine. However, domestic machines have moved on and offer a range of stitches you can use making it even easier to make your own work out gear. It's even possible if you only have straight stitch and zig zag.


Nylon fabrics can slip on each other, you can use pins or wonder clips to hold the fabric together at regular intervals. Wonder clips are good when overlocking, it's too easy to damage the cutting blade by letting a pin get under it!

Use any offcuts to experiment with, give them a really good pull in both directions to make sure the seams aren't going to pop.

Which Stitches to Use
Stitching Seams
Overlocking is my preferred method. You need a balanced stitch, with the widest seam width. It's the needle threads that are most likely to snap so it's important to do a sample on the same number of layers of your fabric. I sometimes have to adjust the right needle tension when I move on to stitching a single layer before hemming. Using bulked thread in the loopers gives a softer seam against your skin, however it doesn't change how stretchy it is.

Domestic Machine Seams.

Your options will depend on the make and model of your machine. I can make almost anything with the stitches on this key pad. The one useful exception is a lightning stitch.

All my suggested settings can be adjusted to get the effect you prefer. When making samples always pull the seam open like it will be when stretched during exercise.


Numbers in brackets in my instructions will refer to this photo

1.A small zig zag stitch(05), width-1 length-2. Top seam in the picture.




2. Lightning stitch I use the default setting. The stitch goes backwards on alternate stitches creating slightly more stretch than zig zag and I find it lies flatter. Bottom seam in picture.

3. I like to add strength by using either a bigger zig zag(05) or a 3 step zig zag(06) next to the first line of machining. Stitch through both layers parallel to the seam and trim off the excess fabric close to the stitching.
4. Many machines have an overcast stitch(07) and a foot that helps to stop the fabric scrunching up. It works well on the edge of the fabric.
Flat Finishes 
Many people want flat seams to reduce chaffing, especially for running and cycling for long periods of time.

1. Flat locking using an overlocker is the closest stitch to one made by a coverstitch machine, however it only uses one needle thread, so isn't as strong. I've used it on seams that don't take excessive strain. Check out the tutorial 
2. Mock coverstitch has to be my favourite flat seam.
Stitch an overlocked seam with wrong sides together. Lay the seam flat and topstitch with a twin needle. This is really strong for seams that take a lot of strain like the centre back body seam on swimwear and leggings.

3. There a couple of options using a domestic machine.
RS                      WS
WS                        RS



Stitch the seam with either a small zig zag or lightning stitch. Topstitch from the right side through the body fabric and the seam allowances.

a) 3 step zig zag

b) Twin needle

On the wrong side you can trim the seam allowances close to the stitching.

Finishing Waists and Edges

I use elastic for armhole and neck edges. Not only does it stop them from stretching it also stops gapping easing in excess fabric.
There are 4 main types of elastic:


Braided is probably the most common where the ribs run along the length of the elastic. It gets narrower when stretched and can roll inside casings. However it's strong and has good recoil.

Knitted is softer and smoother and stretches more than braided elastic making it best on lightweight fabrics. It doesn’t get narrower when stretched and stands up to being stitched through. It has to be cut considerably shorter than finished size to its high stretch.

Woven is a much thicker elastic with much less stretch and is good for waists as it doesn’t roll, but tends to be bulky.

Solid this is either opaque rubber or clear. Both are advertised as swimwear elastic, but I find the clear perishes and is too stretchy. Also stitching through this solid elastic perforates it. If you have to undo stitching you need to use new elastic. 
I prefer braided elastic for active wear as it holds edges and waist lines in shape and leggings feel safe without too much bulk.

You can get Swim Elastic if you're concerned about it perishing. I feel it's only necessary if you're going to spend a lot of time in a swimming pool. My own swim wear is worn to train at least twice a week and is still going strong.


Neck and armholes

The elastic is going to be stitched onto the edge of the fabric so it's important to trim the seam allowances to the width of your elastic, I use 8mm wide braid elastic.

The elastic needs to be stretched slightly as you stitch it onto the wrong side of the fabric. It’s important to keep the fabric moving smoothly through your machine otherwise just pulling the elastic will break the needle.

Hold the fabric behind the foot and with your other hand stretch about 10cm of elastic to approx 12cm, I like to tension it around my fingers, see picture. Keep your hands an even distance apart as you sew, this means the fabric and elastic move through the machine at the same speed. Rather like having your fabric in an embroidery hoop.

With an overlocker keep the edge of the fabric and elastic level with the edge of the plate, you might want to disengage the knife to avoid cutting the edge off the elastic.

Using a sewing machine select either a zig zag or 3 step zig zag to stitch the elastic to the fabric.

Turn the elastic over so the fabric wraps tightly round the edge.

Topstitch from the right side. I use a twin needle, but a zig zag or 3 step zig zag works really well.

Fold Over Elastic (FOE)

This gives a decorative edge, but some FOE can be a bit rough against the skin especially ones with metallic threads in them.

Trim the seam allowance off the edge of the garment as the folded edge of the elastic makes the finished edge so should line up with the original stitching line.

Put the wrong side of the fabric against the wrong side of the elastic with the cut edge against the inside fold of the elastic.
Don't fold the elastic over. Stretch the elastic slightly, use a small zig zag stitch to machine the edge of the elastic to the wrong side of the fabric.

Fold the elastic over to the right side and machine from the right side. Use either a small zig zag or twin needle.
Finishing The top of Legging
One of the easiest and best finishes is to use a wider braid elastic and attach it in the same way as I neaten armholes. I use approximately 2.5cm/1" wide elastic and cut it to fit my waist minus about 1"
If you use a wider elastic to stop it rolling up you'll need to sew the other edge to the fabric with a narrow zig zag before folding over.

One commercial pattern I made relied on a really tight band of the fabric added to the top. It does work, but never felt very secure!

If you prefer a deep band this method uses a separate band with a wide braid elastic inside.

I use 7.5cm/3" wide elastic.

Cut the band twice the width of the elastic plus seam allowances (18cm) and the length of the top of the leggings.

Cut the elastic so it fits snuggly round the waist.

To join the elastic bring the cut edges together on top of a piece of tape. Use a 3 step zig zag to stitch the elastic to the tape. This makes a strong and flat join.

Divide the elastic into 4 equal parts and do the same with the band, match these points to evenly distribute the elastic. Put one edge of the elastic onto the wrong side of the band lined up with the middle.

To stop the elastic rolling inside the casing stretch the elastic and stitch both edges to the fabric with a very small zig zag stitch. This stitching will be on the inside when wearing.

WS band

Fold the band in half over the elastic and machine baste the edges together.


Put the right side of the band against the right side of the leggings, matching back seams and centre fronts. Stitch together with a stretch stitch and overlock or zig zag in the seam allowances.

If you want to add a cord for extra security make two buttonholes just either side of the centre front before stitching in the elastic.

I like to reinforce the buttonholes with a piece of woven fabric. This will be inside the casing so won't show. To make a small buttonhole measure between the two plastic pieces on the side of your automatic buttonhole foot. The distance needs to be the size you want the buttonhole to be. You don't need a button, but you do still need to pull down the buttonhole sensor lever on your machine.
You can make a flatlock hem if you have an overlocker, I explain how to do that here
I think a twin needle hem looks professional, however a zig zag or overcast stitch is just as good. Use your sewing machine to create a hem using either a twin needle, zig zag or overcast stitch. I like to overlock the edge first, but check your tension to make sure the fabric stretches enough.

Its always easier to stitch a deep hem on knitted fabric, at least 2.5cm/1" and pin at right angles to the edge. Machine from the right side stitching on top of the neatened edge as the bulk helps to stop tunnelling.


Always do a sample, especially using a twin needle to check the tension allows the fabric to stretch.