The need for speed: saving the Speedo collection

92/1605 Women's swimsuit, 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, as worn by the Australian Team, nylon, Speedo, Australia, 1968. Collection: MAAS
Women’s swimsuit, 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, as worn by the Australian Team, nylon, Speedo, Australia, 1968. Collection: MAAS

Once proudly known as the great Aussie cossie, Speedo swimwear occupies an important place in Australia’s sporting and manufacturing heritage. From the company’s beginnings in the 1920s, its aim was to excel in the manufacture of competitive swimwear. Now owned by the UK-based Pentland Group, Speedo has been worn by more Olympic gold medallists than any other brand.

The Museum is privileged to house the world’s most significant and comprehensive collection of Speedo swimwear, primarily donated through former Speedo designer Gloria Smythe and an ongoing relationship with Speedo Australia. With competitive swimwear from the 1930s to the 2012 London Olympic Games, the collection highlights how innovation in design and textiles has been instrumental to Speedo’s success.

In the 1930s swimsuits were made of natural fibres. Fine machine-knitted cotton was worn for training, while silk – lighter but more expensive – was reserved for competition. After World War II new synthetic fibres such as nylon, polyester and spandex, were quickly adopted by Speedo to develop new swimwear fabrics. Strong, lightweight, quick drying and elastic these new fabrics brought significant benefits for swimmers. For the Museum however, they pose unprecedented challenges in terms of preservation and storage.

92/1665 Swimsuit, women's, 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, Australian Team, nylon/lycra, Speedo, Australia, 1986
Swimsuit, women’s, 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games, Australian Team, nylon/lycra, Speedo, Australia, 1986. Collection: MAAS

It was some Speedo swimsuits from the 1980s that recently alerted Museum staff to these issues. Textile conservator Suzanne Chee explains: “During a survey of the Speedo swimwear collection we found a group of 1980s swimwear that felt sticky, had lost their elasticity and, alarmingly, left oily stains on the acid-free tissue paper they were resting on. This was a dramatic finding because the conditions in our storage facility followed internationally accepted standards for a stable environment.”

After detecting signs that the 1980s-era swimwear was deteriorating, the first step was to precisely identify the composition of the fabric. “The swimwear was all labelled as 20% Lycra fibre and 80% Nylon fibre but we needed to know its chemical composition to assist in determining why they were deteriorating. Using the Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy instrument in the Conservation laboratory, we tested a fabric sample made in 1986 for the Commonwealth Games,” says Suzanne. “The result classed it as thermoplastic polyurethanes, a class of polymers commercially available since the 1950s. There are two groups of polyurethanes, PUR(ES) and PUR(ET), which have different properties and degrade differently. The polyurethane PUR(ES) has very poor resistance to moisture and we believed that this was the contributing factor to our deteriorating 1980s swimwear.”

A scanning electron microscope. Image : MAAS
Testing a sample of Lycra on the Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy instrument in the conservation lab. Image: MAAS

“To further our investigation, some fibres from a costume were sent to the University of NSW for analysis. The images taken by a scanning electron microscopic clearly show broken fibres that appear to have swollen and fused together. The stained tissue paper was sent to another university department for nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy testing. The results supported our suspicion that the polyurethane used to fabricate the Lycra fibre was undergoing slow hydrolysis” In other words, moisture in the atmosphere was causing the chemical bonds to break down.

The deteriorated Lycra fibre as seen through a scanning electron microscope. Image: MAAS
The deteriorated Lycra fibre as seen through a scanning electron microscope. Image: MAAS

The next step was to work out how to slow the deterioration. Conservation staff selected several pieces of swimwear for testing to see how they would respond to a low-humidity environment. “After two months in a small chamber with the relative humidity maintained at 30%, we noticed some positive changes to each garment. From these findings and supporting literature, we decided to permanently store the Museum’s 1980s swimwear in a low-humidity environment,” says Suzanne. Enter Melbourne-based company European Museum Technology, who designed and fabricated a new storage chamber to our conservators’ specifications. The new low-humidity chamber is now running smoothly and should help preserve this era of Speedo swimwear long into the future.

Conservator Suzanne Chee with the new low humidity chamber used to store swimsuits. Image: MAAS
Conservator Suzanne Chee with the new low humidity chamber used to store swimsuits. Image: MAAS

It is not just Speedo swimsuits in the collection that are at risk. ‘The House of Speedo’is an important photograph album that documents the planning, construction and official opening of the new Speedo mill in Sydney in 1955-56. It is part of the Museum’s Speedo archive of catalogues, scrapbooks, photographs, advertising and promotional material. Speedo designers and marketers regularly visit this archive seeking inspiration for their latest designs and campaigns, and it was during one of these visits that Museum staff noticed a dramatic change in the condition of’The House of Speedo’. It was immediately sent to the conservation lab for assessment.

2001/92/1-6 Photograph album, "The House of Speedo" Photograph Album, paper/cardboard/fabric/plastic/metal, Speedo, Artarmon, New South Wales, Australia, 1955 - 1957. Collection: MAAS
Photograph album, “The House of Speedo” Photograph Album, paper/cardboard/fabric/plastic/metal, Speedo, Artarmon, New South Wales, Australia, 1955 – 1957. Collection: MAAS

“Unfortunately, at the time these albums were put together, archival materials were not available,” explains senior conservation scientist and plastics specialist Sue Gatenby. “Both the album cover and plastic sleeves are made from cellulose materials that deteriorate and off-gas acidic vapours. Known as vinegar syndrome, this was causing the sleeves to pucker and sweat. The rubber cement used to glue the photographs in the album had also broken down and stained the photographs. Conservation intervention and stabilisation was therefore necessary. The photos were removed from the album and treated to reduce their acid levels. The glue was also removed. The photographs were then placed in an archival photograph album with photo corners, while the original album was placed into cold storage.”

These stories reflect how vigilant we must be about the objects in the Museum’s care. Many are made from materials, in particular plastics, that can dramatically change in a short period of time, despite being stored in a stable environment. Some require the design of specialised micro-environments to ensure their long-term survival.

Meanwhile the Museum’s Speedo collection continues to grow, as the company releases a new range with every Olympic Games. Over the last decade Speedo’s research and development team have created increasingly complex swimwear drawing on a diverse range of external expertise from NASA scientists and shark experts to biomechanics and nano textile producers. This will inevitably bring challenges for the Museums conservators as they grapple with increasingly complex and sophisticated textiles made from multiple synthetic fibres and surface treatments. How will they preserve a swimsuit designed to mimic the skin of a shark?

LZR Racer Suit with case, polyamide / elastane, designed and made by Speedo for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.
LZR Racer Suit with case, polyamide / elastane, designed and made by Speedo for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

Written by Glynis Jones – Curator, Suzanne Chee and Sue Gatenby – Conservators

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