How Today’s Biggest Swimsuit Companies Got Their Start Knitting Wool

Besides being some of the biggest manufacturers of swimwear today, Catalina, Cole of California, Jantzen and Speedo have another striking thing in common: They all got their start as wool knitting mills.
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Women in wool knitted swimsuits in Atlantic City in 1922. Photo: Library of Congress

Women in wool knitted swimsuits in Atlantic City in 1922. Photo: Library of Congress

This summer, more than a dozen of America’s top swimmers — including Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, Nathan Adrian, Natalie Coughlin, Jessica Hardy and Tyler Clary — will suit up in Speedo’s latest performance-driven swimwear for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Fastskin LZR Racer X and Fastskin LZR Racer 2, which run skintight above the knee on both men and women, claim to offer a variety of athletic enhancements centered around "compression, construction, sensitivity and support."

Like Nike, Under Armour, and many other athletic outfitters, Speedo's image is centered on performance and innovation. But its origins were not always so high-tech. In fact, it and several of today’s other biggest swimsuit companies, including Jantzen, Catalina and Cole of California, got their start in a much more traditional industry: knitting wool.

Long before the invention of lycra and spandex, women wore swimsuits of fine ribbed wool to the beach. Typically shaped like a knee-length romper, or featuring a vest or short-sleeve top with shorts, they bore little resemblance to the skin-baring, ultra-elastic confections worn today — particularly when you added shoes, double-layered stockings and other accessories (including skirt overlays) deemed necessary for modesty's sake in the first two decades of the 20th century. They were only available in dark colors, with a minimum of decoration: perhaps some stripes around the knees, buttons on the shoulders or a tie at the waist.

Women wore multiple layers of stockings and shoes to Los Angeles beaches in 1918. Photo: Library of Congress

Women wore multiple layers of stockings and shoes to Los Angeles beaches in 1918. Photo: Library of Congress

That may not sound very appealing, but they were a great improvement on the "bathing costumes" women were permitted to wear in decades prior. During the Victorian period, for example, women often wore long-sleeve, full-length dresses over bloomers with socks and shoes into the water. Their skirts were weighed down with lead lest an ankle go exposed, according to Sarah Kennedy, author of "The Swimsuit: A History of Twentieth-Century Fashions." Unsurprisingly, this resulted in more than a few drownings. Men were able to wear fitted woolen suits into the water, similar to the ones women started wearing in the early 20th century.

Australian swimmer, diver and performer Annette Kellerman was an early champion of one-piece bathing costumes for women. Photo: Library of Congress

Australian swimmer, diver and performer Annette Kellerman was an early champion of one-piece bathing costumes for women. Photo: Library of Congress

One-piece swimsuits for women began to take off, ironically, after long distance swimmer and diver Annette Kellerman was arrested in Boston in 1907 on the grounds of "indecent exposure" for wearing a sleeveless woolen version that revealed most of the thigh. She would go on to champion and even design her own one-piece bathing suits for the next few decades, explaining, quite reasonably: "I can't swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline." Savvy owners of wool knitting mills in Europe, Australia and the U.S. soon began manufacturing women's swimsuits alongside the sweaters, socks and sweaters they'd been producing for years.

For several of these mills, swimsuits quickly became the most important part of their business. Portland Knitting Company, which began offering swimsuits called "Jantzens" in its catalog in 1915, changed its name to Jantzen Knitting Mills three years later. These swimsuits were advertised with matching stockings and stocking caps, promising a rib stitch that "gives that wonderful fit." By 1927, the company had diverted all of its efforts to swimwear. MacRae and Company Hosiery, in Sydney, Australia, became Speedo Knitting Mills in 1929, a year after introducing its first racer-back suit with the slogan, "Speed on in Your Speedos." Bentz Knitting Mills became Catalina; West Coast Knitting Mills became Cole of California.

Jantzen advertised its swimsuits with matching stocks and stocking caps in 'Vogue' and 'Life' magazines in 1921. Image: Jantzen

Jantzen advertised its swimsuits with matching stocks and stocking caps in 'Vogue' and 'Life' magazines in 1921. Image: Jantzen

Wool suits were far from ideal for swimming, tending to sag very unflatteringly (and often revealingly) when wet. Starting in the mid '20s, swimwear companies began to weave elastic, known as Lastex, into the suits, offering a far more flattering fit (and for Speedo, which from its early years was focused on racing wear, suits that promised water resistance). "[It] was considered a miracle yarn because it stretched both ways," says Jantzen staff archivist Carol Alhadeff. The companies quick to embrace the technology — Cole, Catalina, Jantzen and Mabs of Hollywood among them — thrived. Many went on to patent their own versions of Lastex (Cole's was called Matletex). Later in the decade and into the '30s, these companies began to experiment with synthetic fibers, namely rayon (and later, the great game-changer, nylon), and introduce more colorful and stylish suits, including strapless styles. Wool didn't disappear entirely, and Jantzen continued to use it in suits through the '40s. Big-budget advertising campaigns that often featured Hollywood celebrities helped these swimsuit companies become household names synonymous with glamour. Speedo made itself the competitive swimwear of choice by outfitting Olympics teams.

Bill Norton, a bathing beach "cop," measures the distance between the hem of a woman's swimsuit and her knee on a Washington, D.C., beach in 1922. Photo: Library of Congress

Bill Norton, a bathing beach "cop," measures the distance between the hem of a woman's swimsuit and her knee on a Washington, D.C., beach in 1922. Photo: Library of Congress

Still, social mores held swimsuit design back. Even into the '30s, police officers in the U.S. and Europe patrolled the beach with tape measurers, fining women who showed too many inches of leg. Though the navel-baring bikini was introduced in 1946, it was generally considered too risqué for wear until the '60s.

Today’s swimsuits are largely machine-made from stretchy synthetic fibers. Lycra (also known as spandex or elastane), nylon and polyester are the most popular, though you’ll also see designers, such as Lisa Marie Fernandez, experiment with more unusual materials like terry cloth. While you can no longer pick up a wool knitted swimsuit at your local department store, the fiber hasn’t disappeared from swimwear entirely, as knitwear enthusiasts continue to make — and even wear — swimsuits knit at home. You just won't see them in Rio this summer.

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