They say that next to your surfboard, wetsuits are the second most important piece of equipment in surfing. Try telling that to a guy paddling out in February in New Jersey with snow on the beach and a water temp hovering at 38 degrees. If you gave him the choice of going out without his board or without his suit, you can pretty much guarantee there’d be a bodysurf sesh going down.
Every year suits get warmer, more flexible, and more watertight. That’s great and all, but we want to help you understand why. When you go into a shop and plunk down $200, $300, or more for a suit, you should know what’s in it and what you should expect to get for your money. With that in mind, here’s a guide to the most important components of a wetsuit and what makes it tick.
You can get an $800 wetsuit, but if it doesn’t fit, it won’t keep you warm. Beyond the obvious fit issues, like a suit being too big or small, you should refine it down from there to find the suit or brand that fits your body type best. Different brands have different fits, so do yourself a favor and try on multiple brands. Also, each brand has a big range of sizes beyond the standard ones. If you’ve got short limbs, or you’re a walking keg on legs, don’t be too proud to move from a regular large to a large short. If you’re interested in doing some real-world testing, most wetsuit brands hold demos in the fall where you can actually go out and have a surf in a suit. Sounds like a chore, but if you’re dropping 300-plus bucks on a wettie, it’ll be well worth your time.
Suits are put together in panels, which both allows the designers to provide fit contours and also lets them place different thicknesses of neoprene throughout the suit. Areas that are subject to a lot of flex, like under the arms and shoulders, will have a thinner material, while areas like the chest and legs will have a slightly thicker material for warmth. So take a 3/2 for instance; typically it’ll have three-millimeter rubber in the chest and legs, while the two-millimeter rubber is reserved for the high-flex areas. Another key design component for mid-range suits on up is what’s called a barrier. It’s on the inside of the suit, a thin layer of neoprene that goes over your neck and keeps water from flushing into the neck and down your back.
Seams are what hold your suit together, and these days there are basically two kinds being used.
Blindstitched – This is the seam that makes up the vast majority of fullsuit seams. It’s also commonly called GBS (glued and blindstitched), and there are other variations like double blindstitched. The first step is that the two panels of neoprene are butted up against each other flush, and then glued together. The key construction component is that when the seam is threaded, it goes through only the top layer of the rubber and doesn’t create any holes through the material. In a double blindstitch, it’s threaded on both the top and bottom of the seam. It’s a superior seam, but it’s also more expensive to produce. In addition to the initial glue that binds the two panels together, in order to increase the watertightness, brands will also put tape or liquid glue (which can be called by all sorts of proprietary names) on one or both sides of the seam.
Flatlock – A flatlock seam (sometimes referred to as FL) is typically found on lower-end, or warmer-water suits. The neoprene is overlapped, and the stitch is sewn completely through both layers. The upside is that it’s inexpensive to manufacture. The downside is that because the stitch goes all the way through the material, it tends to let some water through. It’s best for warmer-water suits where keeping water out isn’t as critical, but is also a good pricepoint option for an entry-level suit.
The majority of suits are typically made of a sandwich consisting of three layers of material referred to as double layer, or DL. There’s the core, which is neoprene (also called “foam”) and provides the main insulation. On both sides of the core, a thinner material is laminated on top, typically made of different variations of Lycra, nylon, spandex, or blends. This outer layer provides additional insulation, comfort, and durability.
There’s a ton of different grades and names for both the foam core and the laminates, but for simplicity we’ve broken down into three basic categories based mostly on their elasticity. Companies describe it with their own names, but it can be summed up with these basic terms.
Entry level – Often called standard stretch, this is the base-level neoprene that’s used to make most of the panels in lower-pricepoint suits. Not as stretchy as higher-end stuff, but it is quite durable.
Mid-level – Often called super stretch, or a big variety of other proprietary names, this material has more air impregnated in the neoprene (so it insulates better and is warmer) and is more flexible than standard neoprene. It’s used in high-flex areas (like underarms and shoulders) for lower-end suits, and in all panels of mid- to high-end suits.
High-end and alternatives – There’s a range of high-end materials, from incredibly stretchy Japanese rubbers, to recycled stuff, to eco-friendly neoprenes, as well as limestone-based foams that are an alternative to oil-based neoprene. As well, companies are developing constructions with small air pockets or chambers enclosed in the sandwich for even greater insulation.