Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Getting Deeper Into My Drawers

My life, it sure is hot stuff.

In case you missed the previous installment, I'm setting out to knit myself a pair of late nineteenth-century gentlemen's bathing drawers whether you like it or not.


It's a bit of advance fun for this: a Nautical Knitting Caribbean cruise with Melissa Leapman. Melissa has caught the fever and is pelting me with illustrations and photographs of vintage knitted suits, though none quite so old as my intended.

We're having such a good time that we've decided to make this a challenge for all the cruisers. (If you're not yet on the passenger list, the link above will tell you how to become one.)

If you're one of the happy souls who will be sailing with us in December, knit or crochet yourself a piece of cruise wear. It can be any sort of cruise wear–not necessarily a bathing suit.

We're easy–it can be a cover-up for over your bathing suit, something to lounge in on deck, something to wear that's got a nautical theme to it. And we're going to award prizes.

Here in the workroom, I have been puzzling over what level of historical accuracy is called for with this piece. Chief among my concerns is the choice of fiber, which at the time would have been wool. Period. Until the arrival of springy, waterproof artificial fibers, most bathing costumes were made of wool–knitted or not.

It was the best choice–but that doesn't mean it worked perfectly.

Since I announced this project, I've been deluged with tragic tales of wool bathing suits. They sag. They itch. They fill up with sand. They refuse to dry out. They were replaced by synthetic suits quickly, completely, and for good reason.

In 2013, wool's not my only option. I could, for example, choose a yarn like Cascade Fixation that blends cotton and elastic. With elastic, I might create a suit that won't sag to my knees and expose my goodies the minute it hits the pool.

But it won't be a Victorian suit. It won't even be close.

The point of this, and there is one, is that I want to experience an original suit as nearly as possible, and that means wool. Furthermore: unlined wool. If I find the knitting of this suit is enjoyable, and decide to knit another, I'll see about trying something more modern next time.

With that question settled, I had to determine what weight of yarn to use. Nobody carries the "Baldwin and Walker's super fingering" the pattern specifies. Ain't it always the way? You pick out the pattern and find the yarn is discontinued.

I thought I'd write here about how I've determined what yarn to use, but with a caveat: mine is not a nice, tidy, organized brain. I seldom go from Point A to Point Z in a line of reasoning without detours and switchbacks. I thought about trying to make it seem otherwise, for pedagogical purposes, but I realized very quickly that worrying too much lately about making these entries polished and pretty is the number one reason you haven't heard from me.

So if you want more, and you seem too, I'm afraid you'll have to put up with the eccentric paths my projects always take.

I didn't know much about the yarn, but I did have a needle size: seven. Remember, of course, that we're talking about a British publication from before the turn of the twentieth century–so their seven is unlikely to be anything like a modern US seven.

However, I own three English needle gauges contemporary with the pattern. I checked out what a seven meant at the time–roughly, a modern 5 or 6. Roughly, because when an old size corresponds exactly to a modern size you may count yourself fortunate.

With a five or six, what sort of yarn would I need to produce a fabric that looks akin to what's shown in the engraving?

Also, with a five or six, what yarn would give me a garment of approximately the correct size?

We can only guess at the size the Weldon's suit came out, because the editors only tell us this:

For a medium, cast on 96 stitches.

That cast on is at the waist. How far around do those 96 stitches have to go? Halfway. I know this because I sat down and worked the pattern in my head, start to finish, scribbling an annotated schematic as I went. Here it is.


Not exactly complicated shaping, which I appreciate.

So for a men's medium, we need 192 stitches to wrap around the medium waist. We don't know how big the waist is, as there's no measurement given for that designation. Anywhere. Ever. Nor do they give us a desired gauge–they never do. The earliest mention of specific gauge I've ever run across was from the 1930s.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that a medium waist was considered 32 inches. You have to start somewhere. That's a medium waist in modern men's clothing construction, though more often than not it'll be vanity sized as a 30 or even a 29 waist. (Men: If you haven't actually measured your waist lately and think the number on your Levi's tag is your true measure, you're in for a nasty shock.)

And yes, yes, yes, "people were smaller in those days." Smaller, yes. What they were not, in general, is miniature. The amount of growth from then to now is often greatly exaggerated. Judging from extant examples of men's fitted garments and tailor's drafts, a waist of 32 inches would not have been either very large or very small. It would have been sorta average. You know, medium.

192 stitches divided by 32 inches equals...six stitches per inch.

Six stitches per inch is a little large for a yarn designated as "fingering," but this yarn was called "fingering" more than a century ago. Definitions change. And as you know if you've been knitting longer than a week, even now they frequently mean nothing.

A quick check of my trusty 1882 Dictionary of Needlework reveals an entry about "fingering" that confirms this was a stocking-weight yarn. Okay, fine. We recall that our particular defunct yarn was actually called "super fingering." Super, at the time, was often a designation meaning "more" or "larger." It's not out of the question, in fact it seems likely, that Baldwin and Walker were producing a yarn that was kinda like fingering, but fatter. I would have called it Baldwin and Walker's Fat Fingering, but they didn't consult me.

Here's where things get confusing. I have been able to establish with reasonable certainty the size of the needle–at smallest, a size five. A modern heavy fingering knit with a size five, even in the hands of knitter so uptight that he bends steel needles like marzipan, is going to produce loose fabric.

Loose fabric is not what is shown in the engraving, loose fabric is not theoretically desirable unless one is a late-Victorian flasher (and one is not), loose fabric is certainly not advisable in a garment that we know is going to stretch like mad anyhow.

This is where I decided to stop thinking and start knitting. With a size six needle, what would I get if started knitting with, say, a light worsted-weight wool? As luck would have it, I had some in stash.

I got a loose fabric of five stitches to the inch. Too big for the medium-sized suit, and positively transparent with even a little stretching.

So I went down a needle size, to our other possibility, a size five. I got a noticeably firmer fabric, and a gauge of five-and-a-half stitches to the inch.

I am a loose knitter. When looking to achieve the suggested gauge for a pattern, I usually go down a needle size. So I did.

I got six stitches to the inch and a very, very firm fabric. Still supple enough to wear comfortably (comfort being relative, of course) but not droopy.


If I go by needle size, the yarn I need ought to be worsted or perhaps sport weight. Any lighter, and I'll have to significantly reduce the needle size or face the possibility of indecent exposure the minute I put the drawers on. I can only assume that the super fingering was fat enough to qualify, in our time, as a sport weight. Either that, or
  • the Weldon's sample knitter had the tightest tension ever recorded;
  • the pattern gives an incorrect needle size;
  • or all three of my needle gauges, one of which is identical to the model printed in an earlier issue of Weldon's, are incredibly wrong.
Still with me?

And Finally (For Now)

Some of you were rather insistent that these could not have been meant as drawers for swimming. They're too revealing, you said. They must have been made to wear under a swimsuit or to wear while you were being bathed (as in, given a bath) by a servant, for reasons of modesty. No Victorian would ever have worn these alone to swim, it was suggested, because they didn't cover the swimmer from neck to knee.

Well, no. These were meant for swimming. I was planning to post this link to the Brighton Swim Club by way of illustration,* and was amused to see that commenter "Backyard Notes" beat me to it. We have some peculiar, popular misconceptions about "the Victorians" these days, often quickly dispelled by a look at the historic record.

These may not have been intended for mixed sea or pool bathing (you don't see any women in the Brighton group photo), but they certainly weren't for the bathroom.

Weldon's was a magazine for the middle class, not for the upper crust. It may seem in our servantless era that having a live-in maid must have made you superfancy; but it didn't. It made you solidly middle class. To retain a valet or gentleman's gentleman, you'd have needed a level of income above that. Your wife and daughters might have knit, but they probably didn't look to Weldon's for practical knitting patterns.

Only an odd and anomalous nineteenth-century man who would have put on knitted drawers so his valet could wash him.

That level of attendance would, in the first place, have been unusual. A servant (most likely not the valet, but a scullery maid or housemaid with access to the boiling water) might have filled the bath, if the house were not equipped with running water or fitted bathtubs. He might have attended the bath, in the sense of being ready, nearby, with a towel and dressing gown.

The valet might well have shaved the gentleman. Not uncommon.

But, if everything I've read is true, the valet would not have flung around the soap and cloth unless his employer were very young, very elderly, or very infirm.

Moreover, by definition a personal servant saw you at your worst and at your most naked/vulnerable. They laid out your clothes. They got you into and out of them. They packed and unpacked your cases, handled your jewels and watches, and in some instances assisted in your extra-marital (or pre-marital) philandering. You would not knit and wear special underwear to keep your valet from seeing your winkie unless you were a decidedly odd fellow indeed.

And listen, I know from odd. I'm knitting a damned pair of bathing drawers.

*Note to self: Must buy top hat.


Kate said...

love the top hats and swim suits
great article

Cara said...

I love the way your brain works.

Anonymous said...

For historical interest: I had an elderly patient who was born on a Louisiana plantation and sent to the nuns in New Orleans for a proper education. She said they had to bathe under a heavy canvas sheet, lest their body be exposed...to themselves! Now THAT's modesty! :-)

Elizabeth said...

You don't own a top hat already?

Unknown said...

I especially like the gentleman with the beard who is standing stork-like. If you do get the top hat, you must also pose likewise so as to be authentic. *wink*

Emily said...

I love the "eccentric paths" your thinking takes. Thar's why I read you.

Seanna Lea said...

It sounds like you are well on your way to making yourself an old fashioned bathing suit. If you like your experiment, you should use them at Squam next year. For those that think the water is cold, woolies might be just the thing!

Alexis said...

You certainly must buy a top hat indeed. I for one am glad you'll be posting more often and find nothing lacking in the polish of your posts.

eve said...

My daughter found a pair of wool swim trunks retrofitted with a nylon "jock strap". I guess modern men are just more sensitive :-)

Pam Sykes (aka Pretty Knitty) said...

I love the way you write, Franklin! And I have a new view of the Victorian man-servant to mull over...thanks for that! Happy knitting, and (for your sake) I sure hope they don't knit too much...

Sally at Rivendale Farms said...

It would also seem a stripe or twelve may be in order.

Renee Anne said...

I cannot imagine ever wearing a knitted wool bathing suit in any way, shape, or form. It just seems so wrong. But, I suppose at the time you worked with what you had.

With that said, I find older patterns fascinating and I think that you knitting yourself a bathing suit is fun, though not practical.

Sandy said...

Victorian gentlemen wearing their bathing panties AND a top hat.

And we think we're weird.

Godspeed, you crazy bastard.

PS: Please post modeling photos. I can't afford a cruise but I gotta see the finished product!

Anonymous said...

Please, please, please can you ensure that the finished product is worn with a crushed top hat and a Nipple Grasping Tree Pose?

Liz said...

Found this on the National Archives site. "Baldwin and Walker, manufacturers of knitting wools were established in 1836 and ceased production in 1974 when the premises were purchased by Halifax Corporation to build a dual carriageway." Another thing the 1970s have to answer for.

Nice pants.

Liz said...

Really, you shouldn't fuss about producing polished blog entries. Just get on with making us smile!

The Foggy Knitter said...

Interesting photos from Brighton, they almost seem to suggest that the Victorians grew more prudish as the century went on, given the swimming suits of 1891, though it might have been to do with more women bathing.

These bathing drawers are considerably more modest than the naked bathing that had preceded, including in Oxford at the wonderfully named "Parson's pleasure"!

I cannot help feeling that a jaunty boater would suit your very classy knitted swimwear far better and would have been fashionable at the time Weldon's Needlework was first published. Although it is hard to go too far wrong with a topper.

Lester's Mama said...

I have too much to do in December to go on a cruise. However, I am considering cancelling Xmas just so I can attend and see you in your swimming suit and top hat.

Evelyn said...

That is the most alarming display of male pulchritude I have ever seen.

The Foggy Knitter said...

Ah just read that page some more, with the Victorian pictures, and it suggests that smaller drawers were worn where men alone were bathing, but less revealing garments were expected for mixed bathing, which might explain things?

Sara said...

You do recognize how much Elizabeth Zimmermann would have loved both your mind and your writing, don't you?

Florence said...

Delightful! I needed a giggle and you provided it tonight. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Why hasn't anyone made some suggestive/naughty comments about short rows?

jenann said...

I do hope we will see photos of you sunning yourself on the deck, wearing your new bathing suit. as to the top hat, a great idea - but could you crochet one?
Have fun. these old patterns are a delight. So sad my parents threw away the collection I inherited from Grandma whilst I was at college. Now all those 20s to 60s patterns would have come into their own.

jenann said...

Sorry, me again. FYI my little knitted swim suit, though stretchy wen wet I wasn't itchy. I loved it for playing on the sand as it gave super insulation from hard pebbles, sharp shells etc. Also, at the same time, my friends in their posh, wonder material bri-nylon suits had other problems, salty sea water quickly eroded them and they became see-through after a few wearings! Wool for ever!

Jean said...

Paton's "Collection of Knitting and Crochet Receipts", 1908, by M. Elliot Scrivenor, needlework correspondent of the "Queen" newspaper, makes some references to gauge. She recommends "knitting to measure" -- i.e., making a gauge swatch. The patterns contain such sentences as (p.82) "The knitting, if worked according to the measures of 5 stitches to the inch in width, without any stretching, and 7 rows in height, will measure 17 inches across the front of the sweater..."

Katie said...

"And yes, yes, yes, "people were smaller in those days." Smaller, yes. What they were not, in general, is miniature."

Thanks for the chuckle! I work at a historic house museum and get comments about "how small people were back then" nearly daily, as if we have doubled in size in the last 150 years. I just might use your line next time!

marjorie said...

My grandmother was married in 1910 and her entire wedding outfit was kept at our family cottage, where occasionally us girl cousins were allowed to try it on. None of us could fit into the dress or shoes when we were past the age of 10. So yes, people are a bit bigger now--not necessarily a good thing. Knit on bravely, Franklin, and may your Victorian underpants behave perfectly in the swimming pool. Thank you for all the things we learn from your blog.

Franklin said...

Marvelous! Thank you for this, Jean.

Anonymous said...

I love catching one of your ideas before it is published. I love reading your adventures through the patterns, the history, the knitting, and finally, the reward of the new-and-improved pattern that I can make myself. I cannot wait to knit some drawers!! I'm totally making some for my kids and hubs. ;-)

Peggy said...

From your schematic this looks like a diaper, hmmm. But wool might be a good idea if you've ruled out elastic. There are suits made in what is called 'tropical weight' wool, and wool holds its shape better than, say, cotton, when wet, though I am trying to keep that image out of my brain.

Lynne in Florida said...

It would appear to me that the young man 5th from the right in the front standing row is wearing the very bathing costume you're knitting.

Anonymous said...

I'm loving this, Franklin. Maybe use a worsted spun yarn instead of a woolen spun one. Can't wait to hear updates and the final big reveal (Sorry, bad word choice).

Fe said...

Franklin, I delight in your blog. Thank you for taking me through the excursion called "knitting your own manly bathing trunks." As usual, I much enjoyed the essay. I really appreciate you, who you are, and what you do.

One other thought, as one artist to another, if I may presume so far: if you try to do it perfectly, you will get nothing done at all. That applies to your writing just as much as to your knitting.

MargaretP said...

Love the swimming drawers...called
"trunks" here in Australia, back in the day (early fifties), my Dad and uncles had woollen swimming trunks,with a modesty panel across the front, (just like the ladies) and they were belted at the waist, as were all their trousers, a much smaller measurement than where todays pants are worn low on the hip.

Liz said...

O thank you! I chuckled, then laughed out loud. (needed a good laugh right now) Will be waiting anxiously to see final results.

Unknown said...

Still love all this, the blog your semi-random thoughts which do not seem that random. If any one says so they are "crazy." I follow you because you are way special, and I understand your need to do the "old school thing." I still say if you do wool, be prepared it sags and as it dries it itches. But I understand your need to do it right.

Angi said...

The Swim Club picture is Hilarious! I hope each of you have Too Much Fun on your cruise! Hope you will post pictures of all the winning knitwear!

Deb said...

May I echo Elizabeth?

You don't own a top hat already?

lookingglasssheep said...

Regarding man servants, there was a story much reported in the press over here a few years ago, that Prince Charles has his squeeze out his toothpaste for him. No idea if it's true or scurrilous rumour put about by republican, but we enjoyed a disloyal snigger as we pretended to believe it.

stash haus said...

Once again, I second what Liz said!

Also, love it when you include historical info.

Mary deB said...

How come those men don't have hair on their chests? Are they all 12? They are certainly immodest looking, aren't they! Love it all!

Elena Jardiniz said...

I would strongly suggest you measure across your bum as well as across your front at the same horizontal - because the back and front dimensions sideline to sideline are not the same. Even though knit is far more forgiving than woven fabric, it will make a difference. Especially as this garment must be snug or it will be... unpleasant...

I really hope you post pictures, with a live model, once you've got it finished!!

Unknown said...

My aunt, in the south of France, collected bits of yarn from everywhere during the war and knitted herself and her two sisters bikinis. Maybe it was only the bottoms (did they go topless back then?). She's in her 80's today and is still knitting!

Overstap said...

When I was a very little boy....I was put into a red knitted bathing suit-something to take a dipp into a sink tub....so embarrasing in 2 ways...
it was a girls bathsuit from my niece....
guess what happened when it touched water and became heavy...soaking for knitwear is great...this one also became GREAT in another way..luckily wasn't blocked afterwards with steel pinns..

Somewhere must be a picture of it...but I promise...YOU WILL NEVER EVER SEE A GLIMPS OF IT!!

Terese said...


Are you knitting a marble bag???? ;)

Anonymous said...

We want to see you modelling them Franklin...........

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I think you might benefit from some short rows up front. I did Carol Feller's short row class on Craftsy and now I can't get the image of her using you and your trunks as a visual out of my head. Are you at all concerned that too much vigorous swimming in a warm pool may trigger felting that could bond with the natural fiber that God gave you?

Kata Mutiara said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Patricia said...

I'm just catching up on my blogs! Found myself looking at the schematic going "why is it going to require knitting until December 24th?"

Um - decrease to 24. Got it.

Patricia said...

Just catching up on my blogs! I was looking at the schematic and thinking "Why do you have to knit until December 24?"

Um - Decrease to 24. Got it.

Sewicked said...

One, a question, are they buttoned at the top of the leg?
And two, that's not the bathing costume I 'saw' in an old photo. The photo is in the former gym at my college, and they painted trunks on before putting up the picture.

Anonymous said...


Have you seen this? Thought of you immediately!

Sir Stitches said...

I love this, and admire your dedication to really getting the "authentic" experience by staying away from modern blends and sticking with wool. A good quality, light worsted merino should remedy any possibility that there could be abrasion in and about highly sensitive areas. I know I'm the proverbial "day late", but factor in the reverse ease you'll need to allow for the trunks to expand in water whilst still having enough remaining elasticity to cling to you without the worry of any embarassing sagging going on.

As a side note, I had to wear passed-down bathing trunks that belonged to my father whilst we were on a family holiday sometime in my mid-teens. They were a machine-knit woollen fabric with a "supporter" sewn into the crotch area. They even had a small pocket to hold either a key, or a few coins (I presume). I don't recall the material being scratchy or stretching badly when it became wet.

I hope your venture was as much fun as I imagine it was, and a complete success. Happy Knitting!

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