As a last treat for the Historical Sew-Fortnightly ‘By the Sea’ week, I thought you might enjoy seeing the one piece* of vintage swimwear in my collection: a late ’30s, or 1940s knit wool swimsuit from the Canterbury of New Zealand. (*Actually, that’s not entirely true. I do have a couple of late ’50s/early ’60s swimsuits – but this one might be as early as 1938, so replicating it would be within the HSF guidelines).
NZ, as a major wool producer, had a number of its own woollen mills and manufacturers in the 19th and throughout the 20th century. One of these was the Canterbury Woollen Mills, based in Ashburton, just south of Christchurch, in the Canterbury region of the South Island. The mill was actually known as the Ashburton Woollen Mills from its founding in 1885 until 1890. I am relatively certain that it was this mill that produced Canterbury swimwear (just like the Roslyn Woollen Mill produced Roslyn swimwear)
Protectionist laws throughout most of the 20th century made importing clothes prohibitively expensive, so instead of bringing in brands like Jantzen, NZ shoppers bought local versions, and swimsuits by Canterbury and Kaiapoi and Roslyn are much more easily found at antique stores and auctions.
I found my swimsuit at a small antique store in Nelson over Christmas. It’s made from a midweight wool knit – it’s quite a fine, nice wool, not at all scratchy.
Although the swimsuit is made of knit fabric, all the shaping is achieved through sewn seams, allowing it to fit snugly to a woman’s curves – that, along with the materials used, logo font, construction and overall aesthetic, help me to date it to no earlier than the mid-1930s, and no later than the end of the ’40s, when cotton and synthetics started to be used in NZ swimwear, and the logo changed.
The swimsuit label states that it is for a 40″ bust, so too big for me. It’s quite generously sized: the bottom seems shaped for hips around 44″”, and the waist isn’t particularly defined.
The bust area is fully lined with heavy unbleached cotton, shaped to support the bust.
The bust is held snug against the chest with a line of elastic run through a line of twill tape from underarm to underarm. The twill tape is hand stitched down at the bottom, and may be a later addition, or the elastic may have been replaced at some point when the original elastic perished.
The swimsuit is held up with two long straps which fasten to buttons on the back. The straps each have four worked buttoholes, allowing the straps to be fastened in an X across the back, or straight down from the shoulder.
The buttons are simple white two-hole buttons. They appear to be original, and to be made from an early plastic.
All of the interior seams of the swimsuit are finished with overlocking. Overlocking machines were actually invented in the 1880s, and were commonly used for commercial knitwear from the early 20th century, though they would not become common for home seamstresses until the 1970s.
The edges are all finished with overlocked and double-stitched single-turn hems.
The crotch area of the swimsuit is protected by a layer of white cotton knit which, as part of the crotch-piece, is sewn into the princess seams at the side fronts of the false skirt front.
Other than the bust area and crotch, the swimsuit is unlined, but the wool was so fine that I did not find it uncomfortable to wear around the house for a couple of hours (just to see – as it is a vintage piece I won’t be swimming in it, though I’d love to know how it would react).
The swimsuit is generally in quite good condition, and is totally wearable, but it does have a number of small holes that have been carefully darned.
The holes are located mostly in the midriff area. I have a soft spot for mends and darns, and rather like garments that have them more than garments that are in pristine condition. A mend tells a story of wear: of a garments used and loved and needed.
I wonder who the woman who bought and owned and wore, and hopefully swam in, this swimsuit was, with her 40″ bust. Did she like black, or was that just the cheap, practical colour? Did she feel pretty in this swimsuit? Confident when wearing it? I hope so.
Someday I’d like to find a model in the right size to do a very careful, gentle photoshoot in the swimsuit.
It’s been a long time since I did a Textile on Thursday post, and I thought it was high time I resurrected the practice and showed you a few bits more from my collection (also, you are probably well tired of posts about paniers and want something different!).
This item began with a totally unexpected parcel, and what may be my favourite-ever opening paragraph to a letter:
You know when you inherit a period piece of clothing and don’t know what to do with it? And then you recall you have a pal who is a fashion historian? Exactly.”
It was from the wonderful Theresa, model and friend.
She went on to explain that the dress had belonged to her aunt’s husband’s family in Winnebago County, Illinois. She had no personal connection to it, could I do something with it?
For a few months my ‘something’ was just hoarding it and petting it and drooling over how pretty it is, but now it’s time to share it, and someday soon it will be time to re-create it (I even have the fabric).
The dress is of white cotton muslin, with a cotton net bodice lining. Based on the construction, materials used, and overall silhouette, I date it to between 1914-1916. It still has elements of earlier Edwardian fashion, but the skirt is becoming fuller, and is only calf-length, and the rigid body shaping is giving way to the looser ’20s silhouette.
It’s a true size 8-10, with a slight pigeon breast front, and a slightly higher than natural waistline.
Theresa suggested that the dress may have been a graduation frock, as it is similar in style to photographs of her family in graduation gowns at the same era and in the same part of the country. I agree that that is a distinct possibility – there is something very youthful about the dress, and the size and shaping hint at a young, teenage figure.
One of the most interesting aspects of the dress is the intriguing triangle shaped sleeves, with their narrow forearms, and shaped uppers decorated with beautiful wrapped-thread bobbles.
The other noteworthy feature is the beautiful soutache-work trim on the yoke, waist and skirt above the ornamental grow-pleats.
The skirt ornamentation echoes the Greek Key / meaner motif, while the more elaborate bodice decoration is reminiscent of Eastern European designs, and foreshadows the ’20s fashion for Orientalism.
I particularly love that the designs on the centre-front and back sash pieces aren’t symmetrical. It’s very subtle, but clever and unexpected.
The soutache trim is also made of cotton, and was machine sewn on – clearly the work of a very patient and skilled seamstress. I’m going to need a lot of practice and freehand machine sewing before I can have any hope of recreating this work!
The back of the dress is almost identical to the front, but without the pigeon breast effect. The back is above, the front below.
The dress fastens on the proper left side with a series of hooks and snaps (domes), which are partly concealed by the sash which wraps from front to back and then hooks on at the back.
The hooks and domes continue all the way to the neckline under the decorative yoke, facilitating dressing over an elaborate full hairstyle, or up and over a petticoat.
The dress would have been worn over a white cotton dress-petticoat, as it is too sheer to be worn without one. If it was (as we suspect) worn by a teenage girl, it probably would have been worn without a corset.
While the dress is essentially unlined, and would have needed petticoats underneath for modesty, the bodice has a full underlayer of cotton netting (now slightly damaged), which provides support and structure. It helps to create the pigeon breast shape, and also gives enough substance to hold up the elaborate soutached yoke.
The whole dress is a beautiful example of later ‘teens fashion, and the transition from Edwardian fuss to ’20s simplicity.
(also, seriously, I have the best friends ever).
One of the most glorious pieces I got to see at the Honolulu Museum of Art was a formal 18th century man’s suit, complete with breeches, waistcoat and coat. I suspect the outfit is French, and dates from about 1760, but menswear isn’t my area of expertise, so if you have a better idea, please let me know!
The coat is of a three-dimensional pile fabric, probably a type of ciselé velvet, with wine coloured velvet areas surrounding indented corded rectangles in muted gold. This type of fabric seems to have been very common in mid-late 18th century menswear. There is a similar but slightly later jacket here, an earlier jacket and waistcoat at the LACMA, another full suit at LAD, and a suit with a slightly confused dating was sold by Augusta Auctions in 2011.
The embroidery is worked mainly in satin stitch with highlights in stem stitch and french knots. The silk embroidery threads are in shades of pale green, pale peach pink, sky blue, cream, aqua & yellow. It features roses, cornflowers, and sprays of white flowers that I haven’t identified.
Embroidery on the coat
Sprays of flowers & a leaf garland
Embroidered buttons on the coat
Embroidery around the shoulder and collar
An embroidered button
The embroidered pocket flaps and peek of buttons
Embroidery around the pleated back panels of the coat skirt
The embroidery at the top of the pleated coat skirt panels
The inside of the coat is lined in a combination of ivory silk-satin (the same fabric as the waistcoat), and a mix of linen fabrics. Some of the interior stitching is rather rough: the focus was clearly on making the outside of the coat look beautiful – the inside would never be seen.
Rough stitching holding down the back pleats of the coat skirt
The stitched down pleats of the coat skirt
The join of the silk lined coat body, and linen-lined sleeves
The breeches are made of the same fabric as the coat. They feature a flap-front closure – usually the sign of an earlier garment, or one made for an older, more conservative man. After 1775 single placket breeches with a closure similar to modern button-front pants became more common.
The flap-fronted breeches
The button-front flap opening
The cuffs of the breeches are decorated with a simple form of the coat embroidery.
The embroidered cuffs of the breeches
The buttons that fasten the cuffs of the breeches
A glimpse of the velvet selvedge in the cuffs of the breeches
The breeches are the only part of the outfit that show obvious signs of later alterations. A triangle of heavy silk has been added to the centre back of the breeches, making the breeches larger and covering the earlier fastenings which would have closed the back of the breeches. The addition is quite roughly done. Silver buttons, probably to fasten to suspenders, have also been added to the breeches.
The back of the breeches with the triangular gore
The fabric used, and the techniques used to make the alteration, both point to a late Victorian alteration. The breeches were probably adapted either for fancy dress wear, or for theatre use. A number of items in the Honolulu Museum of Art were given by local theatre groups.
The gore sewn over the back of the breech fastening
The original tabs of the breeches, and the black silk sewn over the metal clasps the tabs would have attached to.
The waistcoat of the suit is made of ivory silk satin – lighter, softer & more supple than a modern duchesse satin, but much heavier than a silk charmeuse. It’s a very similar weight to most of my silk obi, or to the ivory satin I used for my tea gown.
The embroidery on the waistcoat coordinates with that on the jacket and breeches, but it isn’t the same embroidery. The shades of green and pink anre similar, but there are more shades of pink, additional touches of brown, there is no blue, and the flowers are much more stylized. The rounded, controlled roses provide a nice counterpoint to the more flowing, naturalistic embroidery on the coat.
The embroidery on the waistcoat
The embroidery on the waistcoat pockets
Embroidered flower sprays and buttons
The hand-worked buttonholes, done after the embroidery was finished
Like the coat, the waistcoat is a mix of silk and linen.
Silk meets linen in the interior of the waistcoat
I took some images of the hand-stitching for reference in my own sewing.
Whip stitching around the collar
Whip stitching and running or back-stitch around the collar
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