Swim Suit Season is Here!

Being reminded of swim suit season is not something women my age are usually excited about.  It started me thinking, though, about the evolution of swim suits, remembering that they were once knit from wool.  Yikes!

According to the Women’s Sport Foundation, not until 1912 were women allowed to swim in the Olympic Games.  Australian Fanny Durack won the 100 meter women’s freestyle – and guess what she was wearing?  A long wool skirted swimsuit!  This is even more impressive when you learn that her time was the same as the winner of the men’s 100 meter freestyle.  Translation for non-swimmers:  Subtracting the drag time from the long wool skirted swimsuit means Ms. Durack’s time was better!  (Reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw:  Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did – only backwards and in high heels.)

So last night I perused Making Waves: Swimsuits & the Undressing of America (1989), by Lena Lencek and Gideon Bosker.  (My daughter, a competitive swimmer when young, received this book as a birthday gift years ago.)  Then I went back to the family photos.

This is a picture of my grandfather and grandmother with my mother standing in between them.  It was taken sometime in the late 1930s.  My grandparents are wearing “maillots” knit of wool.

Here’s a picture of a bathing costume from the late 1890s.  It’s made of wool, and the idea of wearing that while walking on a sunny beach makes my skin crawl – and I like wool!  Given the amount of water wool absorbs (one-third its weight), I imagine this get up would have been rather dangerous if you wanted to really swim or got pulled out by a wave and really had to swim!

A few years later (1916), and here is another woolen bathing suit.  Harvard was not matriculating female students at that time, so I’m not sure what “H” stands for – though the color (crimson) is right.  I am sure this isn’t a man’s bathing suit.  Though men’s suits needed a sort of modestly “skirt,” that was accomplished by a long top that came close to the bottom of the shorts, not a dress.

I think this is pretty snazzy:  A woolen bathing cover up from 1925!  This would be worn over the maillot, ensuring a modest attire.  Notice the pompoms … I can imagine them soaking wet, coated in sand, swinging in the wind and hitting the wearer in the face.  I can’t tell for sure, but is that a large hood hanging down the back?

Of course, this woolen coverup might be quiet handy for members of the Dolphin Club – the group in San Francisco that regularly meets to swim in the oh-so-chilly waters of the Bay!

This suit from 1930 is also woolen.   From what I read in Making Waves, given the size of the armholes this suit would have been worn by a man.  (I doubt I could get Thor to wear it.)  Yes, I agree it seems rather effeminate … but have you seen the swim suits for men as well as the idealized male form from the ’30s?

A parenthetical paragraph:  By the way, it was once illegal on most U.S. beaches for men to appear in only swim trunks.  Some of men’s swim outfits had tops that zipped to the bottoms … perhaps for those daring men who risked unzipping and running bare-chested.  🙂  It wasn’t until 1935, in fact, that men were allowed to wear “topless” suits in competition.

In 1943, the U.S. government ordered a fabric reduction in swimsuits that led to the first two piece swimsuits.  Subsequently and in combination with the advent of synthetics created for use during World War II, swimsuit design and fabric exploded.  Imagine – stretchable fabric that wasn’t wool!  Stretchable fabric that didn’t absorb enough water to make swimming dangerous!

The red two piece women’s suit on the right is from 1949.  Rather cute, yes, but it is knit from wool as well!

I found a couple of great patterns for knit and/or crochet bathing suits (a whole ensemble, actually) from the 1930s on Etsy.  Take a peek at two: here and here.  I also found a 1949 knitting pattern for a bathing suit.  The pattern uses Lastex – a yarn made from various fabrics (e.g., silk, cotton, rayon) with an elastic core.  If you prefer more modern styles, take a peek at these!

Anyone up for starting a vintage knit/crochet swimsuit group?  Or is there already one on Ravelry?

I think I like the two-piece red one from 1949 the best.  What about you?

Now a plea:  Okay, please tell me that I’m not the only one who remembers crocheting and wearing skimpy halter tops in the 1970s!

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About sweatyknitter

Fiber art devotee, author, and amateur artisan bread baker.
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30 Responses to Swim Suit Season is Here!

  1. Yes, differences between terms used artists who use American English vs. British English can be tricky! I love the red two piece too! I asked my daughter if I knit a vintage bathing suit would she model it for my blog. She’s in!

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  2. Mlle Michelle says:

    Attempting to crochet a bikini was the first project I started when I wanted to take up fibre arts again after many years away. I got 2 patterns from the 1970’s and went to work, but alas it was a complete disaster. I realised later that there is a difference between US and English crochet terms. I was crocheting a US pattern with UK stitches! Ooops. I think I’ve gotten a bit better now, so I’d better get on a try another time as it is getting warmer here and I have some pool side time to look forward to this summer. I love the red 2 piece!!

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  3. Haha. Hopefully she would appreciate how amazing a gift it was and immediately go swimming.

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  4. I am SO tempted to knit one of the vintage suits. Can you imagine the look on my daughter’s face to open her birthday box and find that? 🙂

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  5. But you tried something unusul and challenging! And it became a mother-daughter project!

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  6. Chela Noto says:

    I attempted to knit a bathing suit in middle school. Wool, bad tension, adolescent patience… soggy and unpleasant mess for mom to clean up!

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  7. Curls & Q says:

    I stand corrected! LRH (Laughing really hard)

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  8. The red one is for sure my favorite! My wife and I both swoon over a good wool swimsuit. I may have to knit up one of those old ones someday.

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  9. I am still tempted to knit a vintage one! Not for me but for my daugher to model and then I could post it on this blog!

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  10. I am glad you enjoy theh posts. And no, I cannot imagine swimming with all that wet wool! No wonder women were portrayed as needing help standing in the surf!

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  11. I had one that was orange and green! (I shudder at the color combo now.)

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  12. Good point – I never even thought of the smell! I guess women could have always claimed the lanolin smell was really sunblock!

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  13. I am glad you enjoyed it … what do you mean we THOUGHT we looked fab? We WERE fab! 🙂

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  14. handstitch says:

    I think I had some crocheted bikini ones but never a wool knitted kind. Oh mine…as much as I love wool, can’t think of me in them…let alone knit them!

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  15. Karen, your posts are always fascinating! Can you imagine trying to swim competitively with 10 pounds of wet wool hanging around you??

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  16. idthornell says:

    I agree, Kids are way bigger now. I didn’t want to go quite that far…

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  17. iknead2knit says:

    No, you’re not the only one. I had pink and white crocheted string bikini that you couldn’t even think about getting wet!

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  18. Preteens weren’t the only skinny ones … when I was a teenager we were all slim … the heavy teen was rare. I had a problem with the crocheted tops b/c while I was very thin I was curvy and the crocheted bikini tops didn’t exactly provide much support. 🙂

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  19. I am seriously thinking about getting a pattern for one of the vintage suits and knitting it. I could get my daughter to model it. 🙂

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  20. kate says:

    great post! I love the red one and as I’ve gotten older I wouldn’t mind a bit more covering, but yikes, wool! I’m sure the smell was interesting too…..sheepy saltwater!

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  21. idthornell says:

    Love the drowning comment, and Yes, I crocheted summer tops. They were easy to make because preteens were so skinny then. I have a collection of old crochet books and all of them have swimsuits.

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  22. It is REALLY hard to imagine how awful it must have been to swim in them – or even wade through the surf!

    Sent from my iPad

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  23. I think so too … I am tempted to knit one of the vintage suits. I am sure daughter (the athlete) would model it for a pic … and maybe add one of those voluminous beach cover ups like the one worn by Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce!

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  24. Thanks for reading them!

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  25. Looking at that suit makes me wonder how many women drowned wearing them and how many men drowned trying to rescue them!

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  26. Now, I like a bit more coverage than most suits today have to offer, but that suit from 1890 looks like hyperthermia waiting to happen! 🙂

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  27. Curls & Q says:

    Oh boy, flash back. I do remember the crocheted halter tops! And didn’t we think we looked fab! I have pics of mom and her sisters in wool. And the funny “trunks” guys had to wear. This post is a hoot! Thanks!

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  28. Claire Quillici says:

    Your posts are always so interesting and educational! I look forward to every one!

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  29. jenyjenny says:

    Amazing post! I’d never stopped to think that swim suits were once knitted of wool, but of course they were.

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  30. Ella V says:

    The red two pieces is wonderful.

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