THE KNITTED SWIMSUIT PROJECT                                  

Back in 2008 a quiet obsession began to grow. I knitted three swimsuits from the 1930s for the first volume of A Stitch in Time, published later that year. Over a number of years I have collected a considerable number of knitting patterns for swimsuits from the early 1900s through to the 1950s. As I began to study  the construction of these suits a particular interest in swimsuits hand knitted from commercial knitting patterns and their functionality began to develop.

























The photo features Kay’s grandmother at the right of the photo to the back in a hand knitted dark navy blue wool swimsuit. Kay believes her grandfather, to the left at the back actually knitted the swimsuit as he was an accomplished knitter and goes on to tell a little more about this:


“ My granddad's family had been sailors for generations, and at least since the 1870s had owned and sailed cargo ships on the Great Lakes in the US. Granddad was born and grew up on one of them, educated by his parents. After cargo was offloaded and new cargo loaded, he developed the annoying habit of not being back at the dock when it was time to sail. His dad finally told him that if it happened again he would be left behind. The inevitable happened in 1886 when grandad was 16; he got left behind, which made him so angry that he joined the merchant marine and sailed all around the world. He learned to knit from one of the other merchant mariners, as a way to pass the time. He returned home about 1912, got married, had two sons, knitted all kinds of things for the family, and after that, as he said himself, "never did anything interesting again”. In the 1930s when my parents were dating, my mother learned all sorts of knitting skills from granddad (her own mother only knit socks and mittens).

This was long before my time but all of us heard about how uncomfortable it (the swimsuit) was, how long it took to dry (the humidity is high in Michigan), how impossible it was to put back on if it wasn't all dry, and its regrettable tendency to sag.

Knit your own swimsuit using one of these downloadable patterns.

The photo was taken in 1925, when my grandparents lived in a small cottage on Ackerson Lake in Jackson, Michigan. My grandad the knitter is William Henry Pierce, my gran is Edna Charters Pierce, the taller boy (my dad) is William James Pierce, and the other boy is Kenneth George Pierce. They are all gone now, of course, and I still miss my granddad, who was one of the most interesting people I have ever known. He ended his merchant marine career after only a few years by getting drunk in Liverpool and, while still under the influence, joining the British Army. He fought in the Boer War, became chief signalman to Lord Kitchener, later guarded prisoners to internment in Ceylon, and served until about 1912 in India. No wonder while raising a family in a little town in Michigan he thought that he never did anything interesting again!”

I just love this story from Kay and as an aside, how amazing it is that this one photo of this unremarkable hand knitted swimsuit sparks off such a rich memory for Kay. Also in Kay's story is the first mention of the dreaded hand knit swimsuit problem – a tendancy to sag!


I then spoke to my father in law who was a young boy in WWII, and he recounted a story of having a pair of hand knitted trunks with straps which came up over the shoulders to hold the trunks in place. When he went in to the water in these trunks they filled with water, the straps stretched and stretched and he had to haul himself out of the water holding the trunks up with both hands as water poured out from each leg! This is the sort of incident no one ever forgets and certainly adds to the huge body of anecdotal evidence about swimsuit accidents.


However on probably the third time of asking my father in law to tell me the story an additional piece of information finally came to the surface. The trunks had not been knitted for him. They had belonged to his uncle Jack – a grown man – and the straps had been hoisted up over his shoulders and tied in a knot to shorten them. In addition there should have been a belt around the waist to further support the trunks but this was too big for the young Roy so it wasn't worn. This added snippet really got me thinking. How many people with dreadful stories of humiliation in knitted swimsuits were actually sporting the 'wrong' swimsuit.


Which brought me to the next stage of my research. So, what factors could cause a swimsuit to become the wrong swimsuit? This is a list of some mitigating points which just maybe, are the real culprits behind the sagging swimsuits:


  1. 1.The wrong size swimsuit was knitted for the intended wearer.

  2. 2.Tension was wrong on the knitting. Both of these points would result in the sizing to wearer not being right, causing insufficient or no negative ease - or even positive ease!

  3. 3.Incomplete or incorrect construction. Many of the patterns I have studied don’t provide complete finishing instructions and show reinforcements on straps etc which aren’t explained in the instructions. Alternatively many swimsuits may not have had all the reinforcements because the knitter ran out of time, wool or just couldn’t be bothered making them.

  4. 4.The wrong yarn was used - ie. not the yarn weight or composition as specified in the pattern.

  5. 5.Re-used yarn used - particularly during WWII when ‘Make Do and Mend’ was at its peak, yarn from worn out clothing was very likely to have been unravelled and used to make swimwear as this would certainly not have been a priority item. This yarn would possibly have lost some of its powers of recovery and would therefore have been far more prone to sagging.

  6. 6.Poorly or wrongly washed swimsuits. It is unlikely that swimsuits were given care and attention when being washed and dried - many hand knitted, woollen swimsuits were no doubt hung out on a line to dry after being spun dried or run through a mangle all of which would result in stretch, distortion and damage to the fibres.

  7. 7.Hand-me-down, pre-worn swimsuits were worn. Clothes were routinely passed on and in addition to the swimsuit being handed down already being worn out, it could also have also had any one or number of the other factors mentioned too.


So what next? I went on to establish what factors a successful swimsuit really needs to have, and they are:


Negative Ease

Correct Tension

Support

Stretch

Recovery

Stability

Strength

Coverage

Movement

Fit

Appropriate Material


Therefore if a hand knitted swimsuit was knitted ensuring that as many of these factors as possible will it stand up to being worn when swimming?



The Call of the Sea  
(PDF pattern only)       £3.00
AS SEEN ON KNITTING’S GOLDEN AGEThe_Call_of_the_Sea.html
Knitted Two Piece  
(PDF pattern only)       £3.00
Knitted_Two_Piece.html
Sea Waves & Sunny Days 
(PDF pattern only)       £3.00
Sea_Waves_and_Sunny_Days.html
Men’s 1930s Trunks  
(PDF pattern only)       £3.00
Mens_1930s_Trunks.html
A Dashing Little Swimsuit
(PDF pattern only)       £3.00
A_Dashing_Little_Swimsuit.html

There were a huge number of knitting patterns written for swimsuits from around 1932 to the late 1940s which then began to fade away in the 1950s. In fact the hand knitted swimsuit was so popular that yarn manufacturers began to create yarns especially to knit swimsuits with. Yarns branded with names such as “Miss England” by W Briggs and “Ocean Wave” by George Lee and Sons of Wakefield began to appear apparently with properties which made them especially suited for this use.


Many variations were designed, some with matching skirts, jackets, even hats. Others were knitted using Fair Isle or textured patterns but despite these variations, I found that most patterns had the following design features:-


Negative Ease

Stretch

Coverage

Movement

Fit


All of these design features are still incorporated into manufactured swimsuits to this day. I then looked at what these design features actually mean in relation to hand knitted swimsuits:


Negative Ease


Negative ease is when a garment is designed to be smaller in size than the intended wearer. In swimsuits this is a pretty essential design element as without it the garment is almost guaranteed to let in excessive amounts of water and therefore sag.


Stretch


Most of the patterns I have found suggest 100% wool as the recommended yarn for knitting the swimsuits in so naturally these will have stretch. This is particularly important when you think that the suits are being knitted with several inches of negative ease. Without any stretch it would be particularly difficult to even get into the suits. Occasionally patterns also recommended knitting in cotton which will also stretch.


Coverage

Swimsuit patterns of the period I examined usually provided good coverage. Bottoms, tummies, and boobs were usually well contained, making the swimsuits a very practical and comfortable item to wear in this respect.


Movement

The stretch in the knitted fabric itself ensured movement was unrestricted, but additional construction details such as gussets and skirt/short combinations being knitted together all helped to make movement easier.


Fit

The swimsuits were generally designed to be well fitted and instructions usually included a working tension and desired finished measurements to ensure this. A good fit is a really important part of a successful swimsuit construction.


Next I began to ask people for stories and photos about their experiences of hand knitted swimsuits. I received many from all over the world but here is one of my particular favourites courtesy of Kay Smith: