When planning upcoming sewing projects, we tend to take many options into consideration:
- What designs interest me?
- Will this pattern fit my lifestyle?
- What alterations will I need to make?
- Will this fabric be suitable for the garment?
- Is this color or pattern attractive to wear?
Some of us might also start to think about when the garment may be worn, and if, say, whether a pullover will be warm enough to be worn in winter, or if polyester might be too clingy in humid conditions. For the most part, these questions are largely either about the pattern or the fabric, but rarely are they about the activity being undertaken while it’s worn. Very few sewists actually think about the body movements involved when a garment will be worn, and it’s largely only those who encounter repetitive movements throughout the course of a day, such as a teacher continually raising her arms to write on a board, or a woman using a wheelchair and therefore constantly in a seated position, who might notice ways in which future garments could be improved.
For the most part, casual wear garments do a pretty good job at allowing general movement, and even formalwear these days is designed to work well while standing, sitting, and dancing (though let’s not forget that the traditional cocktail dress was designed to only be worn while standing!). But when it comes to creating garments for exercise, movement must be considered as a priority at the beginning of the design process, and patterns and fabric may very well need to be carefully chosen in order to prevent discomfort, chafing, overheating, and most embarrassing of all, wardrobe malfunctions during the course of your exercise.
In this article, we’ll take a look at five common types of activities and examine the movements involved in each. We’ll also examine fabric considerations and some great pattern suggestions to get you started on building your own-sewn activewear wardrobe, no matter what gets you moving.
Running may arguably be the most challenging sport to design clothing for, due to its unique combination of high impact, repetitive motion, and high aerobic intensity.
Flexibility, stretch, and recovery are all important factors when considering a fabric to be worn while running. If you’ll be running for a long time or in hot and humid conditions, a breathable fabric that wicks sweat away from the body is key to feeling comfortable and dry, as well as helping to prevent chafing. In absolutely no circumstances should you use cotton fibers for running or other activities that cause you to produce a lot of sweat. Cotton will hold onto moisture, which can cool very quickly once you’re done exercising.
Another, more aesthetic point to consider when shopping for fabric is that running garments will ideally be close-fitting, so your chosen fabric must hold its print and opacity when stretched, or else the areas most stretched around the body will appear either faded, or even worse, transparent! The fabric must also have excellent recovery; otherwise, long areas, which move the most, like the knees, will become stretched out and saggy. Some people are more prone to chafing than others, but chafing can be reduced at the planning stages by altering pattern seamlines away from areas which can rub and cause problems (like between the upper thighs or underarms). You can also avoid this by merely making seams as flat as possible or avoiding thick seam intersections.
Cotton is extremely hydrophilic, holding up to twenty-five times its weight in water, and takes an exceptionally long time to dry. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of wearing jeans to a waterpark, then you know they can still be damp at the end of a day! Once wet, cotton can lead to chafing in hot weather, or even worse, hypothermia in cold weather, which can cause death. Avoid cotton in all your activewear including socks, as it can lead to nasty blisters.
Even the smoothest of professional runners bounce as they run, and keeping the bounciest areas of your body from moving and becoming damaged over time should be a primary concern. For all women (yes, even the least-endowed), this means wearing a sports bra, which eliminates all movement in the breast tissue. If you can see movement as you jump in front of a mirror, you need to buy a more supportive sports bra, whether it’s the traditional compression style, or the more engineered encapsulation style. Before selecting your pattern size for any activewear top, you should also re-measure your bust while wearing your sports bra, especially if you prefer the compression-style.
Cyclists face many of the same challenges as runners—repetitive movements over long periods of time with high-cardio activity, but since speeds on a bike can reach far greater than those on foot, wind is also a major factor in choosing fabric.
The breeze created from cycling can be a bonus when riding in warm weather, but cycling in cold weather can result in very cold extremities if a wind-proof outer layer is not used. Many cyclists choose to dress in layers, with a breathable, wicking layer closest to the body, which keeps the sweat away from the skin, as well as a wind-breaking jacket or cape to keep the body heat inside.
Like cyclists, equestrians are largely in a seated or semi-standing position, and can experience windchill while moving at high speeds. As such, equestrians may choose to take the same approach as cyclists when selecting fabrics, choosing breathable and wicking base layers combined with a warmer or weatherproof outer layer.
What could be more relaxing and fulfilling than a good yoga session? Unless, of course, you’re spending it worrying whether the person next to you can see down your top as you downward dog, or whether your crotch seams can withstand the monkey pose you’ve spent months achieving!
The low-impact nature of yoga may mean that there are a wider variety of suitable fabrics and design styles available, but you’ll still need to consider all the movements your body goes through in an average class in order to anticipate your own garment needs.
Humans have been climbing for as long as there have been mountains to scale and cliffs to dangle from, but the modern climbing and bouldering scene has considerably risen in popularity in recent years. Go to any climbing wall and you’ll find men and women climbing in just about every style of clothing imaginable, from T-shirt and jeans (albeit specialist climbing jeans!) to head-to-toe Lycra and everything in between.
The most important thing to consider when sewing for your climbs is whether you’ll be using harnesses. Many climbing centers only offer walls up to five to six yards high, and therefore don’t require any ropes or safety harnesses to be worn over top of your clothing. This means you can wear just about any clothing that doesn’t impede range of motion or contain loops or wide openings, which may cause clothing to get caught on grips as you jump or fall. For such bouldering centers, you can really just concentrate on fabrics that work for the temperature of the center and allow your limbs to move freely. Like yoga, look for leggings or trousers with a crotch gusset to allow freedom of movement, or incorporate one into your own favorite casualwear pattern to make them climbing friendly. Some ready-to-wear climbing pants have gussets reaching down to the knees on either side to allow wide split motions in non-stretch fabrics.
Most people associate climbing with a lot of upper body and arm strength. While most climbers use their legs just as much as their arms and core strength, after a while, climbers can develop strong upper back and shoulder muscles not dissimilar to keen swimmers. As such, they may find crossover-back styles that don’t impede the trapezius muscles are more comfortable than the standard racer-back.
There isn’t space to cover every sport or activity, so if your favorite way of getting sweaty wasn’t covered here, you can still apply the following principles and questions to get started sewing your own perfect activewear for the task:
- Think about the environment you’ll be exercising in, and what sort of properties your fabrics will need to have.
- Think about the posture and movement used during your activity, and what sort of motions your garments will need to go through. Adjust your base pattern accordingly.
By taking these two principles into consideration alongside your usual, personal design aesthetic, you’ll be well on your way to creating your own custom-fit activewear that’s up to the task at hand.