1910s Yale Knitting Mills Bathing Dress

I’m in the process of photographing some of my swimwear for another project, and I found something interesting about this swim dress from the 1910s.  The dress would have been worn with bloomers, which you can barely detect in my photo.  The white trim at the hem is appliqued silk, as is the collar and the white  piping.  Even though this was made by the Yale Knitting Mills, the fabric is actually a fine woven wool.

What makes this interesting is that the seams were finished by an overlock stitch, a technique that is more associated with clothing made in the 1970s and later.

The overlock machine, or serger, was invented by Joseph Merrow in the 1880s, and it was manufactured by his company,  the Merrow Machine Company.  They have been making overlock machines ever since.

Even though the overlock machine has been around a long time, it was not until the 1970s that the use of it to finish seams became prevalent in the sewing industry.  Before the 1970s seams were often pinked, or they might have been turned under and stitched like a little hem.  Shirts and blouses often had flat-fell seams, and lingerie and blouses often had French seams.

Because overlocked seams are so seldom seen in older clothing, it can be confusing when you do see it.  Years ago, when I was pretty new to buying old clothes, I found a really great sarong style Hawaiian print dress at a thrift store.  It looked so much like a 1950s dress, but there was some serging in the construction and because I could remember when serged seams started appearing in clothes in the 1970s, I was really confused.  But fortunately I did buy the dress and then did a little research and determined that the dress was from the 50s.

Since then I’ve seen lots of examples from the 1960s and earlier, but this 1910s swimdress is the earliest example I’ve ever seen.  What is interesting is that swimwear seems to be one of the industries where the overlock was more commonly used.  I’ve seen quite a few older swimsuits that have overlocked seams.

The Yale Knitting Mills were owned by brothers Isidore, Henry and Joseph Hirschmann, and was located at 512 Broadway in New York.  They made wool bathing suits, sweaters and golf vests.

A sad note: Brother Joseph died at the age of 38 in 1916, as a result of “a complication of diseases.”  Brother Henry evidently drowned himself a year later, leaving a wife and eight children.  According to brother Isidore he had been suffering from melancholia for several months.  The last mention I can find of the company is in 1922.

The bathing dress has buttons on the side front to make it easier to slip over the head.

Great detailing on the sleeves.

32 Comments

Filed under Collecting, Sportswear, Summer Sports, Vintage Clothing

32 responses to “1910s Yale Knitting Mills Bathing Dress

  1. Wow! This is amazing! It’s also incredibly cute!

    Thanks for the info regarding sergers! I had no idea when the machine/method was actually made! But I do use the technique to date items, often writing off many items that have it. But, like you have experienced there are exceptions!

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  2. The design is incredibly cute, especially the button details.

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  3. Fashion Witness

    This is a really flattering (for the time) swimsuit, with that shaped midriff. Thanks for sharing it! (P.S. When I was a grad student in the 1980s, some people still referred to our five-thread industrial overlock as “the merrowing machine.” I don’t know when it became a “serger.”)

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    • I actually tried to find out exactly when the machine became known as a serger in the US, but could not pin it down. I’m thinking it was in the 1980s when they were being heavily marketed toward the home sewer. “Serger” jusr sounds so fast! I actually prefer the more descriptive, “overlock.”

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  4. It is always nice to see such attention to detail and design in antique clothes. But, it is hard to imagine swimming in wool and silk! How interesting that an overlock stitch was used this early.
    I wonder why they named their company ‘Yale.”

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    • There were actually 3 different “Yale” clothing companies in the early 1900s. One was in Yale, Michigan, so that makes sense, but the other 2 were in NYC. The family was recently arrived from Austria, settling in Brooklyn, and as far as I could tell, they had no relationship to the University.

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  5. Lizzie….I really enjoyed this blog….Maybe because mention of the french seam and also flat felled took me back to my high school sewing class in the late 40’s. In fact one of my projects was a sild slip and a pair of panties and the teacher made me do the french seams. You have so much knowledge…just like reading an encyclopedia on sewing. (I know I spelled encyclopedia wrong….sorry).

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  6. As usual, you find something so interesting to write about. For most bloggers, just a picture of this lovely bathing suit could have constituted an entire post but you take it to another place. Very interesting and a good thing to keep in mind!

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  7. It’s amazing this bathing suit has remained in such remarkable condition for its age, especially the silk applique.

    Thanks also for the information about overlocking. I’ve seen this seam finish on clothing pre 1970s, and often thought it looked quite modern. I didn’t realise the overlocker was invented such a long time ago! 🙂

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  8. What a wonderful piece! And I’m fascinated to see something so early with overlocking. I’ve seen a few 60’s pieces with overlocking b ut nothing earlier.

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  9. Lisa

    Wow! This really would have confused me, if I’d found it. I will never instantly dismiss a serged seam as too new– or fake vintage—ever again! Very interesting! Thanks, Liziie

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  10. Thanks for this informative post! Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that overlock machines were old…but I had never noticed them in use until the seventies, or so. Now I’ll pay more attention.

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  11. Teresa

    So interesting! I’ve seen this seam finish on some pre 1970s pieces but never thought it was used that early on.

    Thanks for sharing Lizzie.

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  12. If you think about it, the early use of overlockers being limited to garments like bathing suits makes sense. An overlocked seam is almost impossible to alter, and people used to expect to be able to do that with their clothes. It was in the ’70s that we pretty much started relying on knits and elastic and spandex to do what seams and darts had previously done – or just not worry that much about fit, period.

    But knits, since they ravel so disastrously, have always had firmer, less alterable seam treatments. And that leads me to wonder – are they called sergers because one uses them for sewing serge?

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    • Jessamyn, Interesting thoughts, and I agree about the fit issue. It was also in the 70s that so many garments began to be sized S,M,L, and XL for the same reason.

      As for the origin of serger, I looked for an answer, and the word serge is a verb meaning “to finish a seam by overcasting.” That was from my old 1970 Webster’s, which was before the term serger became commonly used. I’m going to consult my old sewing manuals to see if I can find it used in that way.

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  13. ourdailydress

    Not only did I learn in this post, but I also got to see the adorableness of vintage bath-wear. I would wear that today with joy, unlike how I feel when I put on any modern swimwear.

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  14. The bathing dress is pretty enough to be a dress worn anywhere today!

    The first professional draper/cutter I worked with called a serger a Merrow machine and would ask me to “merrow the seam allowance” on certain pieces. I never really thought about where the word “merrow” came from – I think in the back of my mind I knew it was probably a name. Thanks for the history lesson! =)

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  15. Fabulous, who’d have thunk the over locker was available in the late 1880s!

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  16. Pingback: 1910s Yale Knitting Mills Bathing Dress | Costume History | Scoop.it

  17. Jean

    Thank you so much for this post! I recently came across a woman’s pink linen suit with a long A-line style skirt with multiple hooks & eyes and large cloth-covered decorative buttons, and a very fitted jacket. I was thinking it may have been from about 1912 or so but then I noticed its seams are serged and it really confused me. Your posts clarified a lot for me.

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  18. Margery weinberg

    Henry Hirschmann was my grandfather who owned Yale Knitting Mills. My mother was 9 when he died. Marge Weinberg

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  19. Libbie Merrow

    Merrow machines are still being made by the Merrow Sewing Machine Company and sold around the world. Joe was my great uncle and George, his brother and Treasurer of the company, was my grandfather.
    George Merrow

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  20. What a beautiful dress! I am in the process of dating a tea gown that’s been finished with a serger inside. I think it dates from about 1908-1912. This blog post has been really helpful in dating it! Thanks!

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