Understanding Wetsuit Design
In the 1950’s Jack O’Neill was a surfer in Santa Cruz, California. In Central California the water temps rarely get above 60, and in the winter is often in the 40’s. Jack wanted to spend more time in the water and began to experiment with crude neoprene rubber. His early research has led to the high tech wetsuit designs of today.
Wetsuits are a product that we, as surfers, use to keep ourselves warm in the water. The wetsuit is constructed of neoprene (in most cases) and consists of various different construction types and styles. Whilst this article is designed to be fairly comprehensive we have tried to create it with a beginner surfer in mind.
Wetsuits are categorized by thickness from 0.5mm right up to 7mm. The measurement refers to the thickness of the neoprene which represents a higher or lower degree insulation depending on the water temperature.
Some wetsuit manufacturers will mix the measurements with a thicker measurement on the torso and thinner on arms and or legs to provide a double measurement. An example of this would be a 3/2, this would represent 3mm on the torso and 2mm on the arms and legs.
Full Suit : Represents neoprene covering the whole body. Some thicker full suits might have an integrated hood to insulate the head. This style of suit would be more suitable for more frigid water temperatures.
Spring Suit / Shorty : The Shorty or Spring Suit incorporates neoprene to the just above the knee and can either have neoprene covering the whole arm finishing at the wrist or half the arm finishing just above the elbow. This style of wetsuit would most applicable in water temperature less frigid than a Full Suit.
Farmer John: The Farmer John features neoprene covering the whole leg and with a shortened sleeve covering that finishes at the shoulder. This style of wetsuit would be best suited to less frigid water temperatures.
Short John: The Short John features neoprene covering to the shoulder and to just above the knee. This style of wetsuit would be more applicable to warm water.
Vests & Shorts : For warmer waters it is possible to obtain shorts and vests made made of thin neoprene that provide either a slight amount of heat insulation or geared more to UV and rash protection.
Wetsuits are made from different ‘body shaped’ pieces of neoprene that can be of varying thicknesses, materials and shapes. These pieces need to be put together and there are varying different methods. Here are the most common.
Blind Stitching: This the most widely used method of joining panels in the industry as it results in no exterior needle holes. The two pieces of neoprene are placed next to each other and a sewing machine with a special curved needle penetrates just deep enough into the materiel to get a fix but not create a hole all the way through. This makes for a incredibly strong and waterproof join.
Tape: In the early days of wetsuits, before blindstitching, the joining process would make holes through the neoprene. This created two clear problems, the first was a degradation in the strength of the suit as a whole and the second was to allow a lot more (cold) water to penetrate, thus compromising the suits warmth considerably. Eventually tape was introduced, which was made out of neoprene cloth that was either heat welded or glued over the stitching holes thus helping to make the suit more effective as regards to the previous points.
Glue: Around the same time that taping seems became an industry standard it was found that glue could be used to replace stitching. Glue on its own, however was found to be less durable and normally is accompanied by tape.
Overlock : This is a type of seam that creates a seamless effect on the outside yet has quite a lot of material left on the inside, which is where the seam is stitched. More uncomfortable but more waterproof. Normally taping would be applied to the inside seam.
Flatlock : This type of seam is weaker and less waterproof, it is the basic seam which involves material edges being placed next to each other and stitched in parallel. The strength and waterproof issues can be combated using glue and tape. This seam is more comfortable than the Overlock option.
Gloves: Covering of your extremities is important and can sometimes be imperative. Wetsuit gloves can be attained for this purpose and, similar to wetsuits, can be graded in different thicknesses depending on water temperature.
It is possible to purchase webbed gloves which may improve paddling while the general standard is the generic five finger gloves.
Boots/Booties: Standard Boots are footwear made from neoprene and are made to insulate the feet. Boots or booties can come in a varying thickness as with the suits themselves and generally feature a sole for greater traction. Reef booties are generally used for purposes of protecting your feet against reef or rocks. These tend to be thin and have a thick sole. Both types of boots and booties can come as full feet boots or split toe. The split toe model accommodates the big toe in a separate compartment to the rest of the toes. This is said to improve balance and warmth. Wetsuit socks are generally worn underneath fins or flippers to insulate feet. They will have no sole and come in varying thicknesses as with boots.
Hood: The Hood is a necessity in colder waters and helps to insulate the head from frigid waters and wind. They can come integrated into your wetsuit, attached to a thermal vest or acquired separately. Hoods can feature a built in visor to shade your eye from the sun.
Neoprene : All wetsuits are made from chemically treated neoprene and while there are many different manufacturers that incorporate more environmentally conscious treatments, the neoprene remains a constant in wetsuit construction.
Features and Characteristics
Getting into a wetsuit can be a struggle the first time you do it, this is generally because the wetsuit is dry (brand new) and wants to suck the water from your skin, and coupled with a heated shop you are looking at a struggle. Don’t despair though as this process will only get easier the more you use your suit.
Entry systems: There are three main styles of entry system, it is more of a personal preference which you use while there are some clear benefits to each. The full back zip and the ¾ back zip are with out doubt easier to get on and off while the evermore popular chest zip provides greater flexibility and warmth.
Key Loop / Pocket: A low tech feature which allows a key to be attached to either the inside of a designated zip pocket or concealed place on the suit.
Titanium Mesh Panels: In early cold water wetsuits, this featured very heavily as the panels are said to increase warmth and keep out frigid air in windy conditions. The drawback is that this are a far less flexible material and can have integrity issues along the seams.
Understanding the Jargon
Most of the world’s wetsuits are produced in the same group of factories across China and Taiwan using similar fabrics and cuts. Some manufacturers focus on warmth, some on flex and some on longevity. It is important to note that while you will be bamboozled with features and terms, those three things are what is important.
As regards to the fit of a suit, all the manufacturers are slightly different as are all bodies. After trying a few of the manufacturers you will learn which make suits closest to your body type.