Speedo, the world’s principal competitive swimwear designer and manufacturer, has a close association with Willoughby City, as the firm opened its new head office and factory at 239 Pacific Highway at Artarmon in 1957.
The Scottish emigrant Alexander MacRae established his first knitting factory in Regent Street, Sydney, in 1914. The operation moved to larger premises in Camperdown in 1918 and became a limited Company, MacRae Knitting Mills. A larger factory was established at Newtown in 1922 and the firm produced its first swimming costumes in the late 1920s. The name ‘Speedo’ was first used in 1929. The slogan ‘Speedo’ became so successful that the company changed its name to Speedo Knitting Mills Pty Limited in 1942.1
The Speedo headquarters and factory at Artarmon was promoted as one of the most modern sportswear factories in the Southern Hemisphere. With 73,000 square feet of floor space under one roof, it was capable of making the company’s products from raw yard to finished garment. It housed the Speedo Holdings head office, a machine floor, a cutting floor and a packing and dispatch section.
When working for Speedo Holdings in 1959, the artist Peter Travis came up with the idea for what became the company’s iconic ‘Broadband’ male swimmers — better known as ‘Budgie Smugglers’. Travers was a keen surfer and he designed a brief costume to sit on the hips, not the waist, and cut only a few inches deep for maximum movement and comfort. By 1960, “the nation’s best loved stretch of nylon” had boosted the company’s sales by 50 per cent and Speedos were well on their way to becoming an Australian legend.2
The workforce at the Artarmon factory was predominantly female. Annette Dimmock worked in the canteen at the Speedo head office and factory in Artarmon from January 1969 to July 1979. At this time the company had another factory at Windsor and later, one at Taree. She recalls that they served morning team and lunch for the machine floor and cutting floor. On the former there were about 30 machines on which the women sewed swimwear, Jockey underwear, T-shirts and dresses. The cutting floor consisted of long tables on which they laid out the fabric in layers. They then cut the patterns with electric cutting machines. The canteen also served morning tea and lunch for the MacRae brothers, Alasdair and Bill (joint managing directors), Jim (a director) and Duncan (manager of the Artarmon factory).3
As competition from manufacturers in developing companies became more intense, the Artarmon factory closed in 1979 and the business was sold to overseas investors, who sifted the manufacturing base offshore. The Speedo company was noted for the loyalty of its employees, and when Belle Campbell retired after 57 years service, a special staff function was held in November 1978 to mark her record. Bill and Jim MacRae, were in attendance, together with long-serving employees Elsie Court (48 years) and Jessie Simpson (46 years).4
The StorageWorks facility, which opened in 1993 at 269-279 Pacific Highway, Artarmon, is built part of the former ‘Speedo’ knitting mills site. The firm displays historical photos of the Speedo building and of its opening ceremony in its office.
The museum is keen to obtain further oral history accounts of working lives and experiences individuals who worked at the Artarmon office and factory. If you know of any people who worked there, please get in touch with us.
1 The Speedo Story, Artarmon, Speedo Knitting Mills, 1957.
2 Inner West Courier, August 2010, ‘Half a century of budgie smugglers’.
3 Annette Dimmock, Letter to the WDHS, 27 February 2011.
4 Textile Topics, April 1979, p 23, ’57 Not Out-.