Friday, 14 June 2013

Hitting the Beach With and In Your Knitting

Almost a month ago, I traumatized followers of the Facebook page for this blog by sharing this 1922 photo of a dripping wet Winston Churchill in a knitted bathing suit. I'm including it in this post to make sure all my readers see it, because that's the kind of blogger I am. Now that you've seen it (and can't unsee it), you know how it was that Churchill could vow so stirringly and memorably to "fight them on the beaches". The man knew whereof he spoke.

Slightly more seriously, the sight of this picture got me interested in knitted bathing suits, and after a little research to decide to do a post on knitted swimwear, which of course had to lead with that picture of Churchill. In this post I'm going to stick to the knitted bathing suits of the 1900-1960 period rather than include the more contemporary ones. Although there are plenty of knitted and crocheted bathing suit and bikini and monokini (don't ask) patterns available, believe it or not I found the Google results for "knitted swimsuits" more scarring than the sight of our Winston fighting them on the beaches. Too many of them look like they should be accompanied by a coordinating pattern for a stripper pole cosy, is what I'm saying. Although admittedly there are some really cute ones out there. I might do a post on contemporary knitted swimwear at some later date. But for now, let's delve into the evolution of knitted swimwear during the first half of the twentieth century.

Swimsuits were generally made from wool until the mid-1930s, because wool will keep a swimmer warm even when wet. When swimwear companies began manufacturing some suits out of the then newly invented elastic materials that were the predecessors of lycra and spandex in the thirties, swimwear manufacturers continued to incorporate some form of elastic into wool bathing suits, but the use of wool in commercially made swimwear steadily declined to nearly nil over the next two decades. The Vintage Fashion Guild has a pretty good, brief run down of the history of swimwear if you're interested in the topic.

Let's look at the typical swimwear by decade.

These are typical swimsuits from 1900, or as they would have been called, "bathing costumes". Neither are hand-knitted but both are wool. At the turn of the 20th century, women swam in not only dresses and bloomers but in wool stockings and canvas-soled shoes and also some kind of head covering: a scarf, a mobcap, or a hat. Though today we'd never dream of trying to swim in all that clothing, much less in shoes, these costumes probably seemed freeing and even daring to people used to wearing much more fabric in their daily costumes. At least until they were soaking wet.

A man and two young girls in their swimsuits in 1915. As you can see, bathing costumes haven't changed a lot in 15 years, though the man's pant legs are now past his knees, and for the women, sleeves may be shorter and the skirt is now optional. The black stockings are still required for women.

In 1910 a company named the Portland Knitting Company began producing knitted swimwear on sweater cuff machines and daringly offering them in their catalogues. In 1918 the Portland Knitting Company became the Jantzen Knitting Mills. These Jantzen swimsuits, which likely date from about 1920, look much more practical than any of their predecessors, though even so they could weigh as much as nine pounds when wet. Men's and women's bathing suits looked very similar all through the twenties, with the exception that women were still wearing stockings with their bathing suits well into the twenties, though they were no longer full length but could show the knee. The police patrolled the beaches and measured women's suits to be sure they weren't more than nine inches above the kneecap. Even men could be charged with public obscenity for baring their chests.

Three women's bathing suits from the early 1920s. The swimsuits of the twenties weren't all in black by any means. How cute is that navy and yellow number? I'd wear that now in a slightly longer version, as a dress. All three of these designs could easily be worn today over a swimsuit, as beach cover-ups.

As the twenties wore on, the top of the bathing suit became skimpier and more fitted overall, with lower necklines and thinner straps. The upper part of the suit became cut-away or racer back for the men, and manufacturers began to attach the trunk to the top part of women's suits.

This picture is of Marlene Dietrich and her daughter Maria Reiner on the beach in 1928, with Dietrich sporting the typical 1920s bathing suit. She's carrying it off much better than Winston Churchill, but then she's accessorized her look like the consummate performing artist she was, she isn't soaking wet, and oh yeah, she's Marlene fucking Dietrich.

This is a knitted swimsuit pattern from the 1930s. The skirt has become a "modesty panel" over the legs, and the stockings are finally gone. This pattern is available for free on Ravelry.

During the 1930s, it very gradually became acceptable for men to go bare-chested on beaches. This is a swimsuit from this transitional phase, made with a "topper" that was fastened to the trunks with a zipper, giving the wearer the option of taking it off.

These three patterns are for authentic thirties-era women's bathing suits, republished in A Stitch in Time: v. 1: Vintage Knitting & Crochet Patterns 1920-1949, by Jane Waller and Susan Crawford. You can get a better look at and more details about these patterns on their respective pattern pages on Ravelry.

In the 1940s, men's swim trunks became standard. In women's swimwear, the modesty panel was removed from their suits (though of course it's still possible to buy a panelled or skirted bathing suit even today), and the two-piece bathing suit was introduced. The pattern for the blue and white striped one-piece is available for free on Ravelry. The man's swimming trunk pattern can be bought here in the event that you really want it, but I trust that you don't want it. Knitted swimwear for men just isn't a good idea. I can't be thankful enough that at least that pattern is belted and would have stayed up when wet.

Swimwear in the 1950s didn't look all that different from that of the 1940s, as the one-piece suit had more or less reached the form it still has today. The two-piece suit did gain some ground and become a little smaller, though it wouldn't become the bikini until the sixties. These swimsuits are from the June 1957 issue of Everywoman's magazine which offered the patterns in its pages, and I would totally wear them if I could be sure they wouldn't sag to my knees once they got wet.

If you'd like to try creating your own vintage swimwear, you might like to check out The Retro Knitting Company or Vintage Visage for patterns. There also do seem to be a number of vintage bathing suits, such as those made by Jantzen, on eBay.

I don't believe I'll be knitting anything for the beach but a cover-up or beach dress myself. There's a reason why swimsuits aren't made with wool any more, and as much as I love vintage styles, I expect my vintage-style creations to have the comfort, practicality, and convenience of contemporary clothing design. If you decide to try knitting your own swimwear, please feel free to tell us about us in the comments, though I must ask you to please use some discretion when it comes to linking to pictures of you modelling your creations, fabulous as I am sure you look in them.


  1. I was knitting on a plane once and a passer by asked me if I ever knit bikinis. I think if I had said yes, she would have commissioned one on the spot.

  2. My father, all the time I knew him had two pairs of Jantzen men's woollen trunks - one navy and one very dark maroon, with modesty panel, and a white webbing belt.
    In the late 50's and early 60's I had a baby shit yellow woollen Jantzen costume (again complete with modesty panel) - it weighed a ton when wet, and dragged so heavily on the shoulders. Oh, the memories (shudder!).

  3. Hallo!

    The Augusta Auctions 1890-1910 men's bathing suit I believe was advertised as BEING knitted. In any case, I'm making one right now that will look (hopefully) identical to this:

    Yeah. I know. They don't sell wool flannel in wide navy/white stripes anymore. Who knew? BUT it probably will fit better knit.

    My current dilemmas are:

    Firstly, all the patterns I have seen (though I will say that they are all 20s-40s, so that may be why) call for a gauge of about 7 sts/9 rows per inch on 2.75 mm needles, placing it firmly in 'fingering'. There are some of my acquaintance who have seen some originals, however, and swear blind that they were closer to 15 sts/inch and couldn't have been on anything larger than a very fine lace weight yarn.

    Secondly, the yarn itself. It should be wool. All very well. Now- how, given their purpose, do they not felt and shrink with so much agitation in water? I suppose one could use superwash wool but this isn't a garment one would want to get baggy when blocked. Maybe using a blend would negate that somewhat.

    Well, I suppose I shall find out. I'll let you know how it turns out! :P

    1. I hate to trouble you, as I'm stumbling across this post 5 years later - but how DID it turn out?

      I'm plotting a similar project and there is precious little information on it! I, too, am concerned about the felting issue...

  4. I made a crocheted suit. It was near my knees after 30 minutes of wear. Total fail :(