My wife carried and birthed our two sons. Without wishing to diminish my own, stellar contribution to their inception, she really did draw the short straw.
The least I can do, now I make swimsuits, is design them in a way that restores her confidence in her body, I mean... after what our boys and I did to her tum!
By writing I hope to provide you a more accurate, and hopefully more illuminating, explanation of what a good swimsuit can do. That will lead to a discussion of what an exceptional swimsuit can do and the remarkable fabric it should employ.
First though, a few things Idon'tdo.
The don'ts of shape-control swimsuit design
I don't incorporate bows. Neither do I sew on mini tutus, faux skirts or any embellishments of that kind. To my mind, those tricks infantilise women and, well... just because a woman has had some, doesn't she has to dress like a baby!
A lot of designers aim to flatter tummies with ruching. While not the worst thing, ruching adds no compression (or more accurately, tension—an important distinction I'm about to explain). All ruching does is superimpose worse wrinkles and folds over those it is meantto be hiding.
My overarching objection to these tropes of shape control swimsuit design, is they burden women with fabric. Swimsuits are things we strip down to. If they are going to consist of flappy bits that aren't needed, we might as well swim in our clothes.
Shape control in swimwear boils down to "compression" - at least that's what thegarment industry calls it. In terms I understand, as an architect, thegarment industry have been muddling their terms... I suppose for the sake of a sales pitch. I hope by the end of this essay you will understand what "compression garments" do for your appearance, in terms drawn from engineering. It may seem pedantic, but using language refined to explain structural dynamics, I think, will help you choose the best swimsuit for figure control.
"Compression" is a misnomer.
In the language of engineering, a swimsuit is a parametric structure that puts every curved line and complex curved surface in tension. I'm going to shout it: TENSION.
The only reason clothing designers can talk about garmentshaving compression, is they are not required to study three years of engineering as part of a degree. When I studied architecture in the eighties, engineering was a crucible. We had to pass twelve maths exams about bridges and beams before we could get a degree.
Those of us who persevered, learned that in every object that is not moving, tensile and compressive forces counter each other inequilibrium. Tensile forces across the top half of a tree branch are countered by compressive forces crossing the bottom. The tension in tent fabric is countered by compression inside of tent poles. As for the tension within a swimsuit, that could only be countered by compression emanating from the body within it.
Unless it is through extraneous props, such as boning or underwire, there is no way a swimsuit can exert compression. Compression is the duty of flesh.
Compression in bodies looks vital
Bodies not ravaged by third trimesters, normally have tension through the skin of the tummy and abdominal muscles, and since all tension must be opposed, we know the organs are exerting compression. I'm going to have to wing it here for a moment, because among the world's softer substances, my education taught me more about soil than livers and gizzards, but I'll take a wild punt and say bodies, like soils, are more stable (less subject to movement) when there is compression within them.
Compared to jelly bellies, stiff tummies look vital. If Pamela Anderson's fame tells us anything, the same can be said of firm chests.
All people, but women post-child birth especially, can be tricked into thinking their vitality has been lost, when their tummy skin and ab muscles lose tension. In truth, a woman may be more vital, after the almighty workout she has just done, but if she believes she is not, her self image is in jeopardy. People who believe they are vital, eat and exercise in a manner consistent with that belief. People who think they are spent, start preparing themselves for the grave.
I would not advocate a compression (correction:tension) swimsuit as a permanent substitute to abdominal tone. What it is, is protection for your self-image, to get you through vulnerable times.
What makes a good tensioning swimsuit?
I guess the best tensioning suit would be a cryovac bag, but you couldn't still need to be breathing.
That leaves us with shrink wrap, or can we do better? Of course we can! The garment type exerting the most even tension, thus eliciting a compression response in the body, is a perfectly undersized gimp-suit, made from pure latex. It's just not very comfortable, is it!
One of the reasons nylon/elastane knit jersey (that most people incorrectly call "Lycra") is the fabric used in nearly all swimwear, is it feels nice to the touch. Swimsuits don't make it to change rooms, if they don't pass the finger-feel first.
The sad thing is nylon/elastane knit jersey is hardly like rubber at all. It has fine rubber-like fibres that go by three names: elastane, spandex and the brand name Lycra. Those stretchy fibres are knitted together with nylon with the same kind of loom that knits fabric for T-shirts. When that fabric type contains nylon and elastane, you can stretch it until the nylon strands straighten. When you let it go, the rubberystrands help draw the fabric back to its original shape.
Theproblem with this type of fabric, if your aim is to generate tension, is the elastane fibres never really get a chance to apply tension. They're so bent in the knit, they barely get straightened, let alone stretched. All they're really doing is herding nylon fibres beside them, saying, "come on nylon fibres, get back into shape."
1973 Pirelli Calendar
It's as if our model rubber swimsuit were covered in pleats. It's like fashioning a slingshot from a coiled phone lead. When it is looped in this manner, the most marvellous thing about elastane, the way it goes "ping" when you stretch then release it, isn't exploited.
That's not to say you can't make a beautiful swimsuit with nylon/elastane knit jersey. If you make it 10% smaller than the body inside, and double up thefabric (line it with itself), you can start to see tension all over. Bust darts will help even the tension, and thick rubber in the seams willanchor it all into place. I'm very proud of the conventional swimsuits I make, I just wouldn't claim that they give the body compression, when I know of another kind of fabric that does the job much, much better.
Stretch woven swimwear.
Trigger warning: the fabric I'm about to describe would take most buyers of swimwearto a new price range, because it costs a lot more. The cost to the manufacturer can be double or triple that of the bestnylon/elastane knit jersey.
However, that doesn't necessarily put it out of the reach of consumers. If you're already buying ethically made clothing—clothing made in countries with the same workplace protections that protect you—you'realready absorbing labour costs greater than any fabric in swimwear. If, on the other hand,you areused to buying heavily advertised brands from bricks and mortar locations, you're already absorbing advertising, rent and shop staffing costs, totalling more than labour and fabric combined.
With those economies in mind, you might see how a tripling of the quality of the fabric you're wearing, should not mean paying three times as much for a swimsuit. It should only cost you a third more. However, that is for something three times as effectively, as I am about to explain.
If you really want a tummy that is exerting compression, because it is having to resist tension applied by an item ofswimwear, you need to be wearing a swimsuit made using stretch-woven fabric. In fabric like this, every,single, fibre, is elastane, with fluffy wooly nylon around it.
Here are some fibres I pulled from a swatch. The elastane core is transparent, so very hard to show in a photo, but you can see the fluffy nylon and how the weave it was in, has compressed it.
The mere process of weaving these composite fibres into a flat woven fabric, pre-tensions the elastane. Think about that: within a flat piece of fabric, pre-tensioned elastane, in everylast fibre, is being resisted by compression in the woolly nylon around it. The elastane is already stretched by as much as it will ever be stretched in a knit.
Getting into such a swimsuitislike stretching thousands of nylon-encased rubber bands overyour body. The effort required tells you thatall thatelastane isin tension. The laws of physics now tell you, that your body is pushing back with compression—stabilising and vital looking compression.
Unlike in a knit, the elastane in stretch woven fabric doesn't only run sideways. The warp strands (the ones that run up and down) have exactly the same constitution. A copywriter might hear that and say that the fabric is holding you up, as if it had hooks in your skin. What is actually happening with fabric that is behaving like rubber, in every direction, is it is seeking out the hollows in your body and applying tension to those as well.
Compression in the flesh above your sixth rib, resists compression in your breasts, adding to the compression in those. You're not a sack of fluid, so this is not the place to cite Pascal's Law (I'll leave that tomedical researchers) or draw analogies with tubes of toothpaste. All we're talking about is flesh with compression vectors within it, adding compression to neighbouring flesh.
When you're wearing tight rubber, or fabric that behaves the same way, you're compacting the soil that will be your building's foundation.
Other advantages of stretch woven fabric for swimwear.
You might be wondering why a type of fabric that seems perfect for swimwear, is rarely used for it. Does it fall apart quickly or take forever to dry? The answer to both questions isNO!
The weakest links in a swimsuit are the fine fibres of elastane. In nylon/elastaneknit jersey, these can actually be seen on the back side of the fabric when you stretch it. In stretch woven fabric, those fine elastane fibres are fully encased within nylon. Assuming you rinse your swimsuits after each use, the elastanein your stretch woven swimsuits will actually have less exposure to salt or chlorine. Those fibres' encasement also means they are 100% protected from abrasion, the reason swimsuits perish fastest where you sit down.
As to drying time, that is the third horse in a troika of reasons for choosing stretch woven fabric for swimwear. Knit jersey has depth, so traps water. Woven fabric has the depth of one fibre. Water has nowhere to hide.
One thing designers don't like about stretch woven fabric, is it doesn't feel silky to touch. In retail settings, buyers feel fabric before taking garments to change rooms. Stretch woven fabric feels thin and crinkly. Many liken the feel to that of crepe paper. If more stretch woven garments made it to change rooms, more people would know it feels lovely when worn, and if more people wore it for swimming, they would know it is the most comfortable fabric, of any, when wet.
Still, the greatest disadvantage, the drawback stopping stretch woven fabric becoming the norm, even though it is substantivelybetter, is that it costs more. For that reason alone, it will probably never find a place in fast fashion.
Understanding the cost of stretch woven.
Fast fashion is like a yacht race. The biggest boat wins.
In a world where countless factories produce nylon/elastane knit jersey, most on the cheap, flooding the market with so much of the stuff that manufacturers can sometimes get the real shoddy stuff for just about free, stretch woven fabric is not in the race. If you watch this video from my supplier in France, you will see there is simply too much involved in the milling, for more suppliers to enter the market.
Couple a surplus of cheap knitted fabric with indentured labour (the mode of employment in Bali), then add to the equation really cheap thread and wafer-thin rubber, and you can see how whole swimsuits can be made for two bucks—that's the kind of price that big brands, with purchasing power, are seeking. (A personal bugbear of mine, are small brands who buy the same swimsuits and sell them as "ethical and sustainable" when they didn't even see them get made!)
Mills making stretch woven fabric get more business from firms making medical stockings (they help people with chronic venous insufficiency), than they get from swim brands such as mine. Maybe blog posts like this will increase market demand, and the cost will one day come down? In the mean time I'll make them as cheaply as I can, as a small scale producer, while staying true to my values around ethical labour and the minimisation of waste.
The most cost effective way I can help you into a stretch-woven, tensioning swimsuit, is to make one for you in plain black. I use the heaviest available stretch woven fabric, in double layers. This gives you the seamless front panel with thick rubber concealed between the self fabric and lining. You also get bust darts to increase fabric tension across that sixth rib.
Without profiteering, I can do something else, too. For the sheer love of making beautiful things, I have been having stretch-woven dobby weaves milled, especially for Pride, in runs of just 4 or 5 meters.
The ability to weave it, means these composite fibres can be made into fabric on dobby looms. Those are the looms used to make fabric with all manner of colours and textures that aren't printed, but are integral to the actual weave.
Since the stretch properties are virtually the same with a dobby as the thick woven fabric I use for plain swimsuits, I can marry exclusive fashion fabric to black fabric as lining, to make you a tensioning swimsuit you will never see someone else wearing.
I get hate mail and "cancelling" when I offer women advice about swimwear, but I only need one woman to thank me (and my wife has already) to stick my neck out like this again. It's not as though I'm blind to the sensitivities and outright despair surrounding these issues. The reason people get triggered, is it sucks getting older. It sucks knowing people might think you're less vital or sexy. But there are ways to view ageing that make it a game you can win at.
The first step is accepting that you will spend most of your life being older than you would prefer, and that as old as you are now, you're about to get older. No fancy swimsuit can change that.
It won't strip pounds from you either. Just as one of the two queues either side of yours at the supermarket checkouts has a 66.666% chance of moving faster, the odds don't suggest you will spend your life being thinner than you are now. Diet and exercise, by all means, but look on the bright side as well: without a little padding, you would be less likely to swim in the Winter!
The day you stop cutting yourself up about your body's collapse, is the day you can enjoy its real strength. Endurance increases as we get older. We have more past experiences against which to calibrate pleasure and pain in the moment. Our appreciation of everyday joy becomes richer. For most of us, too, rent and bills become less of an issue.
Slip your happy self into a tensioning swimsuit, and I swear you will feel better about your body, right now, than you felt about it in your youth.