Making a 1940s lemon print beachwear set

In March, as the evenings got longer and the days a little warmer, I found my mind wandering to spring sewing projects. All the plans for warm wool skirts for winter were being shelved as I dreamt about bright printed cottons and summer dresses. After a really long and cold winter, I was truly ready for spring.

I was in this frame of mind when Textile Express posted some of their new spring and summer fabrics on their Instagram and I instantly fell in love with one of them: a sicilian lemon print poplin. At only £6 per metre it was an absolute steal and I knew I needed to make something from it.

The bright yellow lemon and delicate blossoms are just perfect for spring.

In the meantime, I had been delving deeper into the treasure chest of vintage patterns on Etsy. As my 1910s project drew to a close, I started making collections of digitised original patterns – I really have caught the historical costuming bug. It was on one of these trawls through Etsy that I found the perfect pattern for this lemon fabric: an original 1940s beachwear set sold by JemVintagePatterns. Originally I thought this pattern consisted of a playsuit with a matching skirt which I thought was genius – a dress and a playsuit in one! You can imagine my delight at discovering that the pattern was in fact a blouse, shorts and skirts which could be worn interchangeably – the outfit potential is endless!

This pattern design is just genius!

My next challenge was to choose buttons. With the shops closed because of lockdown and my desire to have authentic-looking 1940s buttons, I again turned to Etsy. I was really excited when I typed in 1940s buttons and found original button cards – I couldn’t get more authentic than that! I knew I wanted either green or yellow buttons to pick up accents in the fabric but I was really conflicted over which ones to choose:

I decided to consult my followers on Instagram to help me make a decision, either I would agree with the outcome of a poll or my disagreement with the poll would show me which ones I actually wanted! As it turned out, it was the latter which actually happened.

As every vote for yellow came in, I wished it was another result for the lighter green buttons – I thought the yellow buttons would get lost against the large lemons and I loved the shade of green. When the buttons arrived I was thrilled, they perfectly picked up the green in the leaves.

This combination is so pretty!

With all my supplies bought, I could get started on the actual making. One lesson I learned from my 1910s project was the importance of a mock-up and this was something I wanted to employ here. I figured I could make a plain white blouse out of an old bedsheet and use it as a practice run – and I’m so glad I did. As with a lot of vintage patterns, the instructions aren’t as thorough as modern patterns. I was surprised to find that all the instructions for this pattern fit on a single A4 page! As a consequence, some of the wording of the instructions threw me. One instruction that caused me more bother than it should was for the tucks which shape the blouse. I couldn’t figure out that they wanted the tucks to taper from 1/4″ to and 1/8″ below one of the markers!

This was a pretty minor issue but the mockup also highlighted bigger problems, one of which was the fit over the hips. On the mockup I simply added vents at the bottom of the side seams to create more space but on the actual blouse I added 1/2″ to each side seams, tapering from the waist.

My biggest issue in making the blouse was the construction of the lapel. I tried following the instructions but I found that I couldn’t get a smooth line from collar to lapel, I always ended up with a significant overhang. I tried it about 3 or 4 times with limited success before I tried something else. I cut a slit into the V where the facing and front of the blouse meet which I could sandwich the end of the collar between. This definitely worked better than my previous method but looked pretty messy from where I had worked the fabric so much.

Although it now looked presentable, I was feeling quite disheartened about the blouse as it had caused me so much trouble. Before making the real thing, I decided to give myself some space from it and work on the skirt and shorts instead.

The finished mockup.

I decided to work on the skirt next as I figured it would be much easier than the blouse – when I looked at the pattern it only had four instructions! However, I had already decided to make some alterations to the pattern by adding a lining and pockets which did make it a little more complicated.

I started out by making the lining as a mock-up. I didn’t anticipate having to make any alterations to make the pattern larger as the pattern is about a size bigger than me. As I expected, the skirt went together really quickly and easily (it was only two front and two back pieces) and the fit seemed pretty good! With the lining complete, I cut out the outer skirt pieces from the lemon fabric.

The outer skirt pieces.

Before I could sew together the outer skirt pieces I had to draft my pocket pattern. I decided I wanted to make slash pockets rather than inseam or patch pockets. In order to do this I used a dress I already own as a reference for how the pocket is put together. First, I used the front pattern piece to draft a rectangle which mapped onto the side seam, approximately 10″ long and 6″ wide (to which I added seam allowance). Then I drew a diagonal line from the top of the pocket rectangle to the side seam at the angle that I wanted my pocket opening. I cut along this line and added seam allowance to each diagonal edge. The top triangle would be cut from the lemon fabric as it’ll be visible and the rest of the rectangle will be cut from the lining fabric. Then I traced the lower shape, increasing the height and width along the top and side seam so that the edge of the pocket lemon fabric on the inner pocket bag will be covered when the pocket is sewn together.

My pocket pattern pieces.

Constructing these pocket was far easier than drafting the pattern! First I seamed together the upper and lower pocket bag, pressed the seam upwards and topstitched it. Then I placed the lower pocket bag on top of the upper pocket bag and seamed it right sides out along the long edge and the bottom edge. Then I cut the corners and turned the pocket bag inside out and sewed the same seams again to form a french seam. Once I had pressed the pocket bag I lined up the upper pocket bag to the skirt (which I had cut a matching triangle out of) and sewed them right sides together. Then I pressed the seam and topstitched it.

With the pockets in, the rest of the skirt construction was plain sailing! First, I seamed together the skirt pieces with french seams – now is a good time to note that I used french seams throughout for a clean finish. I really enjoyed taking the extra time doing these seams because the pay off is so great!

An inserted pocket.

Next, I had to put the lining into the skirt and this did require a very precise method. First, I hem the skirt. I shortened the skirt by approximately an inch before adding a small hand-sewn hem as I didn’t want it to show underneath the outer skirt. I also cut off the allowance on the centre front for the fold back to form the placket to reduce bulk. Then I pinned the lining to the skirt at the waistband and basted it together. Finally, I folded back the outer skirt at the centre front to form the button placket and hand-sewed it in place.

Now I could move on to the waistband. I didn’t interface the placket as it had the extra layer of lining inbetween but I did interface the waistband for greater stability. I used a lightweight fusible interfacing and cut the pieces with net seam allowance to reduce bulk. First I pressed up the seam allowance which would sit on the long edge of the inner waistband. Then, I attached the waistband to the skirt, folded the waistband right sides together so that I could sew the shorter edges at the centre front, then folded it back on itself and slip stitched the inner waistband edge. Easy-peasy.

With the finish line of the skirt in sight, I just had to add the finishing touches. I hand-sewed the hem and added the buttons and buttonholes.

Once I had added the closures and tried on the skirt, I realised that it was a tad too big but I intended to simply add a belt and belt loops to draw it in. However, once I’d finished the blouse and tried on the whole ensemble I decided I really liked the how seamlessly the skirt and blouse went together to look like a dress – a belt would ruin the line of the outfit. So instead, I decided to take apart the back of the waistband and create a dart in the back seam of both the outer and lining skirt. This was a really quick fix and I’m so pleased with how the skirt looks now.

I felt like I was progressing in difficulty through this project, moving from the skirt to the shorts, and subsequently to the blouse again. As with the skirt, I used the lining as a mock-up for the shorts so that I could iron out any issues. One pre-emptive measure I took with the shorts was to raise the crotch by an inch. Something I noted in my Simplicity 8447 blog is that 1940s style trousers tend to have a longer crotch length than modern trousers, and I thought these shorts may have the same issue. I compared the pattern pieces from this pair of shorts and the Simplicity pattern and saw that the crotch length was pretty similar so I decided to raise the crotch on the mockup because I could always take it down again. In this fitting I also decided to take in the back darts by 1cm for a better fit on the waist.

As I was happy with the lining, I cut out the shorts pattern in the lemon fabric, took apart the lining, and used it to flat-line the outer fabric. This is a technique where you baste together the lining and outer fabric and treat them as one. Next I added pockets. I altered by pocket pattern slightly for the shorts, making the opening extend 1″ lower. The pockets on the skirt work just fine but adding the extra inch makes the pocket easier to use and more comfortable.

I did stray from the pattern for the first couple of instructions. The pattern wants you to sew the crotch seam before the inner legs seams which is the opposite of what I usually do. I’m sure this method would work just as well but as I’ve always made trousers by sewing the inner leg seam then the crotch seam, this is what I felt more comfortable doing. I also sewed this as a straight seam with a zig-zag finish as all my research told me that a french seam on a curve has to be very narrow and this is a seam which has to withstand a lot of wear.

Pinning the crotch seam.

The next part of the shorts construction was the placket, something which really indimidated me but which turned out to be really straightforward! I’ve made plackets before but this one is unusual in that it has a overlap and underlap with diagonal edges. Firstly, I interfaced the placket pieces with a net seam allowance to reduce bulk in the seam (this is a great technique which I use all the time now) and pressed in the inner edges of the facing as the pattern instructs. I also clipped into the seam allowance where the crotch seam meets the placket seam, as the pattern instructs. Then I sewed the placket to the centre front edge on the overlap and underlap right sides together. I clipped the corners and turned the placket right sides out. Once I had pressed the plackets, I topstitched them for a crisp edge. I also topstitched the lower edge of the placket, stitching the underlap and overlap together, for greater stabililty. I finished the placket facings by hand.

Now that the placket was complete, I could attach the waistband. I did this exactly the same way as I attached the waistband on the skirt.

And with that I was once again on to finishing touches. I hemmed the shorts by hand, as I had done with the skirt and started testing out button placements. At first, I used to guide offered by the pattern but I thought the shorts were more secure and looked more balanced with an extra button.

Once I’d sewn the buttons and buttonholes, the shorts were complete!

Finished shorts.

Now that the skirt and the shorts were complete, I could not put off returning to the blouse any longer. However, in the meantime, my friend Bella (@rougeyourknees on Instagram) had suggested another way to tackle the lapel that had been causing me so much bother. She said she’d sewn a 1930s blouse which had a similar design on the front but had a separate facing rather than one attached to the blouse front. After spending so long fighting with the facing that was part of my pattern, I was keen to try this other method out! Rather than taking a leap of faith, I decided to do a very mini mockup: I cut out a section of collar and the front blouse and new lapel and made them up. It worked perfectly the first time!

With a new battle plan, I was ready to get started on the blouse but there was one more problem: I ran out of fabric. I had estimated that I would only need 4 m but I think I mistakenly thought that the fabric was 60″ wide when it’s actually about 44″ wide. I was able to get away with ordering just one metre more of the fabric but I had to cut the undercollar in two pieces. This really wasn’t an issue as the undercollar is never seen anyway!

I ended up constructing the body of the blouse in quite a convuluted way so that I could finish the armhole seam by folding the lining over it, achieving a really neat finish. Basically, my intention was for the outer and lining blouse pieces to only be attached by the darts and the hem to leave the armhole seams free. This may seem like a lot to go through for one simple bit of construction but it was really worth it. For the first two steps, I dealt with the outer blouse and lining separately. First, I sewed together the tucks and gathers on the front and back of the blouse respectively, then sewed the back yoke and shoulder seams. I pinked the seams rather than french-seaming them to reduce bulk.

Next, I laid the outer blouse and lining on top of each other, wrong sides together, and pinned the darts in place on the back and front. I made sure the lining and outer blouse were lining totally flat on top of each other so I wouldn’t get any pucker or wrinkles. I also pinned the centre of the dart first so that the darts were equal in the lining and outer fabric.

The next step was where things got more complicated as I wanted to sew the side seams separately. The lining was pretty straightforward as I could just fold the outer fabric out of the way. I didn’t french-seam the side seams, I just pinked them and pressed them open to reduce bulk. Sewing the outer blouse side seams was more complicated as the lining was in the way, I ended up folding the lining over the blouse towards the front to get it out of the way.

With the side seams done, I could fold everything back in the place and see how the blouse was taking shape!

I love the shaping on this.

Next I decided to work on the collar, I was really excited for this step now I knew how make the collar and lapel behave! Before I could start I had to decide how I wanted to interface the collar, or if I wanted to interface it at all! I hadn’t used any interfacing in my mock-up and I was really pleased with the drape of the collar; however, the lemon poplin was a slightly lighter weight than the cotton I used for my mock-up so I was worried about it being too flimsy. I knew I didn’t want to use a fusible interfacing, as this would make this collar too stiff, so I decided to compromise and interline the collar with the same fabric I used for my mock-up. When I first sewed the layers together, I messed up and ended up with the interlining on the outside but this didn’t set me back too much. I just had to make sure I laid the pieces together in the right order: the lemon under and upper collars right sides together, then the interlining cotton below that. Once I’d done that, I clipped the corners, turned the collar right sides out and finished it with top-stitching to keep the edges crisp.

With the collar complete, I could attach it to the blouse and attach the facing. I did attach a light fusible interfacing to the facing as I knew it would need more structure to support the weight of the buttons. It also creates a crisp edge at the front of the blouse. I also pressed in the seam allowance and pinked the edge of the long edge of the facing so that I could slip stitch it to the lining later on. When attaching the facing to the front of the blouse, I drew pencil lines indicating the seam allowance and the edge of the collar, and used many pins, to make sure I was following the correct line as I sewed and didn’d end up with any awkward overhangs. I clipped the corners, turned the facing right sides out and pressed.

Although the lapel and collar were not properly finished, I decided I wanted to work on the sleeves. I absolutely love the construction and shape of these sleeves as it’s something I’ve never seen before: in order to achieve the boxy shape of the shoulders that was popular in the 1940s, the sleeves are shaped at the top by three darts. The pattern advises you to put shoulder pads in the sleeves to hold the shape, and the darts are intended to accomodate these, but I didn’t want to add shoulder pads and I was pleased with the shape achieved just with the darts!

I decided not to line the sleeves as I didn’t need more opacity for modesty’s sake and I wanted to maintain the drape. I french-seamed the sleeves for a neat finish and attached the sleeves just to the outer layer of the blouse. I finished the edge by cutting in notches and pinking the edge. Then, I finished the armhole by cutting notches into the lining, folding the seam allowanced under and slip-stitching it to the armhole seam, encasing the raw edge of the sleeve.

The next step of the blouse construction should’ve been easy but it caused me a great deal of turmoil: hemming the sleeve. The pattern gives you a hem allowance of 1″ but on my mock-up I had use a 2.25″ hem allowance and was quite happy with it. However, once I got to the real thing I wasn’t sure which to use, or something in between! As I couldn’t decide, I took photos of a few trial lengths and consulted Instagram to see what other people thought.

In the meantime, I thought I would carry on with other part of the blouse. First on my list was the bias strip to finish the edge of the collar. At this point I was really running low on fabric but I was pleasantly surprised to find a scrap long enough that I could actually cut a strip of fabric on the bias! I cut a strip 17″ long and 1″ wide. I pinked the short edges of the bias strip and the neckline edge then sewed the two together. I pressed under the edge of the bias strip then slip stitched it to the yoke. Then I finished the front edges of the the blouse by top-stitching them.

Next, I finished the edge of the front facing by slip-stitching it to the lining and hand-sewed a narrow hem at the bottom of the blouse.

The last step on my to-do list before I couldn’t avoid the sleeves any longer were the buttons. By this point, I’d already sewn 11 buttons and buttonholes so sewing 4 more was no problem at all!

buttons and buttonholes.

Once I’d finished all these other jobs, I’d left the poll for quite a while so checked in to see what the results were. As you can see, it was a very mixed bag but the 2″ hem allowance won out. However, I was still not convinced.

As the blouse was now virtually complete, I was able to try it on with the shorts and skirt to see how the ensemble looked all together and see how the proportion of the sleeves looked in relation to the other pieces. I tried out another sleeve length, with a 1.5″ hem allowance, and had a long chat to my mum about it. In the end, we decided that the 1″ hem allowance looked the best. As a few people pointed out to me, the 1″ hem allowance looked more authentic to the 1940s – which makes sense as it what the pattern recommended! And with that, the set was complete!

Comparing a 1″ (left) and 1.5″ (right) hem allowance.

I absolutely adore this set: the print is perfect for the spring and summer, and it looks so authentic! Lining the garments with cotton has given them the right opacity and also a really nice weight, it’s lovely to wear. I also love how I have so many options for how I can wear this set, both together and with other clothes I own! It would be perfect to bring on holiday somewhere warm and sunny! Using this pattern makes me really excited to use more original patterns from the 1940s and other eras, it was a great challenge. I’m also already considering making a long sleeve version of the blouse and matching skirt for the autumn and winter. I’ve put a selection of photos below but there will be more on Instagram!

3 thoughts on “Making a 1940s lemon print beachwear set

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