Tropical happiness cycling top

This is the first piece of activewear I have ever sewn. Well, unless you count a swimming costume and a bikini, but I think of those as more relaxing-wear than active wear.

I made it using Melissa Fehr's new book, 'Sew Your Own Activewear,' which as the title indicates is a how-to book dedicated to sewing clothes in which to do sport.

I've known Melissa for a long time on the internet and have had the pleasure of hanging out a little bit in the real world too. After I've spent time with Melissa, I inevitably come away thinking 'how does one person have so much energy?' so it is no surprise that she has funnelled some of that pizzazz into exploring how to create the best possible clothing in which to expend energy. Here she is with her book.

I have a 9 mile bike ride each way to work which I do at least 3 times a week. It's a pretty dirty ride involving canal paths and puddles of grey polluted London rainwater, and I tend to return home with a streak of mucky grit up my back.  I actually filmed my full ride as my Mum was worried about my safety when I moved further East, pushing my journey up to an hour, and I wanted to comfort her by showing her that only 10% of it takes place on a road. The rest is on towpaths and greenways, which is a real luxury in London, a city that does not value it's cyclists. So here is my 1 hour ride condensed into 7 minutes. I had a minor crash under a bridge on this particular day. Oops.

I don't normally care what I look like when I'm hurtling along at 7.30am, so my sportswear is shop bought, functional and unattractive. I need it to dry quickly if I get wet on the way in, and to keep me warm in winter or cool in summer. As soon as I started riding this route though, I began fantasising about snazzy custom cycle wear, such as this on show in Melissa's book.

Specifically I was fantasising about a head to to outfit that involved a fluorescent colour fade and silhouettes of alien faces. But... I couldn't find that fabric anywhere! I like to stand out while cycling, because essentially the more visible you are the less likely you are to die. I spent a long time on the Funki Fabrics website, searching through their garish prints. There is a lot to wade through. I hovered over a pink ice cream print for a long time, but I kept coming back to a luscious banana leaf print. It's somewhat reminiscent of the luxurious House Of Hackney, and I thought it could make a top that looked quite high end. So, even though as it's green foliage and could almost be considered camouflage, so pretty much the opposite of what I set out to make, I bought it.

Melissa's book is really interesting. It doesn't come with a pattern for each design, but a set of blocks and instructions on how to work them up into the designs shown. This is innovative - I've never seen another sewing book like this - and one of the main benefits is that there are no size restrictions. If you have a block you like, you can use it, and Melissa walks you through how to work with that to create her designs. It is very empowering.

I must say I rolled my eyes a little bit when I realised I wouldn't be provided with a nice easy template I could cut around. What a hypocrite - this from the woman who has written a book about total freestyle garment construction! I read through Melissa's advice and bought myself a roll of tracing paper online. Apart from that and a french curve, I didn't use any special tools. I just used my trusty metal ruler to mark out all the seam allowances.

I found the tracing process enjoyable and very straightforward. As it felt like Melissa and I were almost creating the design together, I felt really inspired to be creative and add alterations as I drew out my shapes. I chose the 'skin tight' block (there are options of skin tight or roomy fit) but I actually cut it a size bigger than my measurements came up, and I graded to the size up again at the waist, so there was less of a pronounced curve. What can I say, I'm not much of a skin-tight kinda woman.

I made other design changes too. I made the curved style line across the chest more pronounced by dropping it about 4cm on either side under the armpit. I also lowered the neckline a couple of cm compared with what is recommended.

I got into a bit of a pickle drafting the collar, as it was the end of the day and I didn't feel sure of myself. I felt I should angle the shoulder seams to give it a bit more room, as I know that I don't like things tight at my throat, but I wasn't quite sure what to do. In the end I just followed Melissa's instructions exactly.

These are my finished pattern pieces. Once I'd cut them I held them up to my body in the mirror and chopped about 3 inches of length off the bottom as they came up really long on me.

So, on to cutting into my delicious fabric. It's the Titan' weight lycra, which is fairly weighty and strong and sits exactly where you put it, so is a joy to work with.

I decided to experiment with an invisible zip instead of an exposed one as suggested. I thought if I added a zipper shield the area would start getting too bulky. I figured out the construction as I went along, so firstly I sewed the collar facing and collar together all the way to the centre front, then I unpicked about 3cm.

I sewed the zip to the centre fronts and front collar (hard to show this) then I folded back the ends of the collar facings so they are tucked just behind the teeth of the zip.

I thought I'd done a pretty bad job on the collar and was dead set on ripping the whole thing out and replacing it with some black ribbing, so I got my boyfriend to take some photos so I could show what it looked like before I altered it. Having seen the photos, I thought it looked pretty smart so I decided to keep it!

A guts shot so you can see what's going on on the inside. As of yet I haven't trimmed the invisible zip down. I probably should?

I finished the bottom edge by sewing a strip of fabric to the right side of the garment then flipping it to the wrong side. I cut my strip too short so I added a little extension.

I stitched the bottom edge and the sleeve hems with a twin needle, one of the techniques outlined by Melissa in her book. It gives it a lovely professional finish.

Ta da, the results are in.

And I love it!

I am a badass.

Bit of a close up on the zip detail and the curved style line across the chest.

But this top is for cycling in, not for standing around in! Me and my boyfriend gained newfound admiration for sports photographers while trying to shoot this top in action. Obviously they have huge expensive lenses, but it still must be hard getting focussed shots of people moving.

Unfortunately I live in a fairly bleak part of London so there is no gorgeous scenery to show you. This is a children's nursery, even though it looks like an airplane hanger.

I don't consider myself sporty at all, I land firmly in the 'nerd' camp. I had my hand up to answer all the questions in geography class at school, and was mostly laughed at in PE (physical education) as I was so tiny and feeble. Let's just say, javelin is not the sport for me. In my teenage years I tried to have all my orthodontic appointments scheduled during netball lessons.

However, when I moved to London 10 years ago it seemed like a quite a large and overwhelming city through which I could only move sluggishly, sitting on buses and waiting for them to shuffle along in solid traffic, or popping up from the underground in unconnected locations. My housemate persuaded me to try cycling and my Mum & Dad saw an advert for a free bicycle that had been languishing in someone's shed in Somerset. They picked it up for me and brought it to Hackney. And that's the bike I am still riding today. 

Taking to the streets on my bike made me feel free and allowed me to truly get to know and love my city. At first I mostly pottered round my local area, to the post office or to pick up ingredients from the Vietnamese supermarkets. This was before the days of smart phones and mobile GPS mapping so I was always armed with a trusty A - Z.

I never thought I would be travelling long distances, but when I got a job that was either a 50 minute ride away or a 1hr 15minute tube journey, I had no trouble making a choice. Sometimes it's a treat to sit on a train and read a book, but day-to-day I would rather get out in the weather and make my own way using pedal power.  I feel quite proud of myself for being a weedy, book-ish person that gets some serious miles in on a bike. See my 'Sporty Nerd Face' below!

Cycling is part of me now and it makes me really happy. I feel great in my new top and conquering my first piece of cycle wear has opened up a new realm of homemade fun and freedom. I look forward to light summer evenings when I can zoom home along the canal paths saying hello to ducks and swans clad in banana leaves.  I have some of the fabric left and have already started cutting out a long sleeved swimsuit, but I have an urge to make matching cycling leggings though so I can be head-to-toe tropical. 

Hell yeah DIY activewear!


  1. I love your top and love of cycling! I'm a very fairweather cyclist, currently Iride from home to the tube to get to work but i'd love to do the whole journey... maybe when spring comes along...

  2. Hello! I live just outside of Washington DC and my husband commutes about 45 minutes to work downtown, so I feel your mom's worry! How clever to make a video though, I really liked it! I come from a cycling family, so I've used Green Pepper patterns cycling jersey patterns for both men and women, and they were quite good and made good gifts, I would recommend if you want to try a slightly different style. They have patterns for cycling shorts too, but I have not attempted that yet. Your top looks marvelous though, and I hope you stay safe during your commute!

  3. Great to know that you have sewn this active wear. It is that good if you don’t tell anyone then no one is going to know it. That print on the top is amazing. I too have to buy new workout apparels because I am not able to sew just like you. Would like to invest in the ALO yoga sets.

  4. You really need to make matching pants. A full body leafy biking suit would be amazing!


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