Can bringing back wool swimsuits from the 19th century help reduce microplastics in water? | PBS News

Woollen swimwear was popular in Australia a century back. It could soon be back on the beaches.

Swimsuits worn at the water’s edge or in the crashing waves changed from natural fibers to sleek, high-performance synthetics over the 20th century. Over the course of the 20th century, swimsuits used at the edge of the water or during a crashing wave were transformed from natural fibers into sleek, high performance synthetics.

Woollen swimsuits could become the new swimwear in the future, as microplastics are being a cause for concern and sustainable alternatives are being sought.

WATCH Why microplastics may be more prevalent in your food and drink than you think

Swimsuits that shrink and shift

In the early 20th century, many people enjoyed a day at the beach fully clothed. Men often wore three-piece suits to the beach, and women wore gowns that reached their ankles.

In the early 20th century, many people went to the beach in full clothing.

Photo via National Museum of Australia

Women who went into the water wore belted bathing suits that were knee-length and had bloomers attached to cover their legs. The two-piece bathing suits for men revealed more. A top that extended to the thighs was paired with shorts up to the knees.

READ MORE. Laundry is the leading source of microplastics pollution. How to wash your clothes sustainably

In just a few decades, swimming suits have undergone a radical transformation. As attitudes towards the exposure of body parts relaxed, so did styles.

Both men and women were modestly dressed for swimming.

Photo via State Library of Queensland.

In the 1930s, men began to bathe without a top as they adopted swim trunks. Some had half-skirts in the front and many wore belts with buckles that kept them on the waist.

Women’s swimwear now revealed their arms, legs, and back. Then even more when bikinis were first seen on Australian beaches in the 1950s. Shock rippled along the sand.

The swimwear industry has taken on a new dimension.

As the decades passed, bathing suits got smaller. Photo by Mark Strizic via State Library of Victoria.

Wool on the Beach

Knitted wool, rather than woven cotton or wool, fitted swimwear snugly on the body and helped it shrink in size.

This knit was a comforting and liberating choice for those who wore Foy & Gibson wool suits, which were evocatively called in the 1920s and 1930s.

Speedo’s late 1930s knitted trucks were designed to slim men’s figures. This led to the slogan “Next to your figure, Speedo looks the best!”

READ ABOUT: A poll shows that most Americans would be willing to pay more if they could avoid plastics.

In the 1980s, knitters could create their own swimsuits using instructions such as those found in Australian Women’s Weekly.

In the 1930s, rubber yarn ” Lastex ” was introduced to woollen suits. This led to a more form-fitting fit. They exuded an entirely new glamorous appeal, elevating swimwear to ” seaductive“, as one newspaper columnist put it.

Synthetic swimsuits revolution

Synthetic fibers were introduced to the Australian market and the Australians quickly embraced them. Wool was in short supply and used for uniforms, blankets and second world war soldiers.

In the 1950s, swimwear was made from the “miracle fibers”: nylon and polyethylene. In the 1960s, swimsuits began to be made with ” LYCRA ” (also known as elastane or spandex). This made the suits more sleek, slimmer and satin-like.

By the 1960s, bathing suits were more streamlined and made with synthetic fibers.

Photo by H. Dacre Stubbs via State Library of Victoria, CC BY.

Neoprene is a foam material that was first used in wetsuits in Australia in the late 1950s. This increased the possibilities of winter surf. In the decades that followed, wetsuits were improved dramatically. They kept their wearer warm because they trapped a thin layer heated by their body.

READ ABOUT: A new nanotech can help to clean up Earth’s microplastics

Our Olympic swimmers have tested new fabrics in the pool. At the Sydney Games of 2000, the Speedo ” Fastskin” was worn by the athletes. It had a compression fabric that replicated shark scales and streamlined their bodies in the water.

Swimsuits made of recycled plastic, such as bottles, bags, and other plastic waste, have recently emerged as an environmentally-friendly choice. However, some question just how eco-friendly the recycled swimmers are, when it comes to reducing plastic consumption.

Why Wool Again?

Woollen swimsuits of the first decade of the 20th century may be dismissed as uncomfortable or unpleasant to wear. We might also find them unflattering because they sagged after being wet.

Wool is a natural material that can be worn in water. The new Merino Boardshorts are designed to dry within less than seven minute. Wool regulates body temperature and helps maintain a constant temperature.

Wool options are becoming more available. While we throw away clothes at an alarming rate, many have turned to natural fibers as a sustainable and renewable alternative.

Today’s knitted bathers look quite different to these. Photo via Museums Victoria.

Wool biodegrades, returning naturally to the earth and feeding it, unlike synthetics which can take hundreds of years to decompose. The landfills are a haven for clothes made of artificial fibers, which can have devastating effects.

This shift is also driven by our growing awareness of microplastics, tiny fibers released when washing which pollute maritime and other environments.

The Conversation

This article was republished by The Conversation under Creative Commons. The original article can be read.