Born out of frustration, Liz Chirles turns to sewing high-quality swim wear
When performance swimwear wasn’t performing well in the waves of Folly Beach, surfer Liz Chirles took things into her own hands.
“I had a hard time finding a suit that stayed on and that fit me the way I wanted it to fit. And when you’re surfing, you don’t want any malfunctions out there,” says the 35-year-old James Island Elementary School counselor.
So in 2007 Chirles, who grew up sewing, decided to make her own swimsuit. It was a disaster.
“I just said, ‘Oh, this is terrible.’ It looked horrible and didn’t fit right. I didn’t dare try to surf in that one,” says Chirles.
But while failure discourages some, it only motivated her.
She realized that she needed a different sewing machine, one that would work with stretchy fabrics and threads. Because there’s little instruction online, she bought some books from the 1970s and studied techniques. She experimented by making suits for her surfing buddies and other friends.
“They were wonderful muses. They had different body types and needs. With practice and experimentation, it started going really well,” says Chirles.
A Facebook page ensued with the birth of Coral Custom Swimwear, all from “the factory” that took over the dining room of Chirles’ home on James Island.
While she’s not about to quit her day job, Chirles spends about six to eight hours a day during the summer working on custom suits and ready-to-wear suits for McKevlin’s on Folly Beach. During the school year, she enlists the help of seamstress Vanessa McKibben of Johns Island.
“She’s awesome,” says Chirles of McKibben. “It’s been a really fun process to work with someone. We collaborate. I’m mostly the energy and creative force, but if something’s not working and I’m about ready to pull my hair out, she offers a solution.”
In all, Chirles makes about 100 suits a year and admits that Coral sometimes cuts into her surfing time.
“I don’t have a lot of idle time. I sometimes miss that. My friends will call and say it’s time to close the factory. It’s time to go surfing. ... Sometimes I have to turn off the machine and walk away from it.”
Local surfers can vouch for the quality of the home-grown swimwear, which sells for $120 to $160.
Perng Chen, women’s clothing buyer at McKevlin’s, says she and other female surfers often have issues with swim bottoms when they “duck-dive” under a wave while paddling out to catch one.
“With Liz’s suits, I have never had to worry about my bottoms coming off,” says Chen, noting that Coral suits are made with thicker fabric than most.
Chen took only Coral suits for a two-week trip to Puerto Rico last December, and they held up in 15-foot waves.
Similarly, Laura Butler Peirano owns three Coral suits and has worn them surfing in Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and here in swells caused by tropical storms and hurricanes. “Her (Chirles’) suits stay on better than any other suits” and are more durable than ones that are often mass-produced overseas, Peirano says.
“I’ve worn them (Coral suits) like crazy, and they still look brand-new,” says Peirano, who is 34 and has been surfing for 20 years. “Not only are they good suits, but I think it’s super exciting to support a local person who I always really liked a lot.”