WETSUIT EVOLUTION | FROM WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
WETSUIT EVOLUTION | A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE WETSUIT
By Leo Hillary
At the dawn of surfing there wasn’t much need for a wetsuit. The Polynesian ocean and climate took care of body warmth requirements just fine with no one really bothering to explore what lay beyond.
But the spread of surfing took it to places where water’s ability to take the heat out of a person nearly 25 times quicker than air became a more pressing issue.
Faced with very short sessions or not even getting in the water in the first place, it was another occasion that human ingenuity would be needed to contest the elements. The need for a wetsuit was born
A single credit for the invention of wetsuits is hard to come by although there are a few claims.
Now considered the father of the modern wetsuit, Hugh Bradner, a Physician working at UC Berkeley, California, was experimenting with Neoprene as a method of maintaining warmth through the trapping of water next to the skin. But without a successful patent or viable enterprise the door was left wide open...
First through that door, in the early 1950’s, were the founders of two of the oldest and best-known surf companies.
Starting with flexible plastic foam and then neoprene in the cool waters of Northern California, Jack O’Neill summed up his motivation and driving force perfectly saying, "I just wanted to surf longer."
Bob and Bill Meistrell found their raw materials on the back of refrigerators. When their first commercially available wetsuits ‘Thermocline’ failed to shift they got some outside marketing help who upon hearing, “they fit like a glove”, came up with Body Glove.
THE FIRST WETSUITS
The first wetsuits were simultaneously both stiff and delicate. The single sheets of neoprene without backing material, could not cope with excessive stretching and movement, which in a surfing environment was somewhat problematical. Neoprene’s adhesive ability on skin also meant that surfers had to be liberal in the use of talcum powder.
The assembly method also had its drawbacks and effectively consisted of sewing together two overlapping pieces of the rubber. The needle holes enlarged when wet, allowing plenty of water to flow in and out of the suit. This stitching could also act as a perforated tear strip.
Something had to be done and nylon was the first saviour. Applied as backing to the neoprene it both strengthened the suit against tearing and made it easier getting in and out but what it didn’t do was address the needle holes.
With the seam the problem, taping and gluing were the next logical steps. Nylon tape covered with rubber and pressed on chemically or heat-sealed was effective but stiff and ugly. Gluing was an improvement but prone to tearing.
Combinations of these methods prevailed until the blindstitch method was developed. The curved needle allowed stitching to only penetrate part of the way through the fabric eliminating the water flow problem.
Double-backed neoprene appeared in the 1970's providing greater strength and durability along with the ‘design’ opportunity to move away from the traditional uniform black. Of course this culminated in the fluorescent 80's…
Today’s wetsuits benefit from advances in fabric such as spandex and lycra which in replacing nylon as the primary backing material has increased the stretch and strength of the wetsuit.
Computer controlled assembly and material cutting has increased precision and cut down the sizing and leakage problems inherent in the early and predominantly handmade suits.
Whilst the birth of the wetsuit was in California, the evolution has been worldwide.
Even in the early days, the French and English, being surrounded by cold water, were in on the act. But some major players were coming up in the other hemisphere.
The combination of quality waves and unappealing water temperatures also bore fruit in Torquay, Victoria. In 1970 the founders of Rip Curl, Doug Warbrick and Brian Singer, decided plenty of people were making boards but not enough were making wetsuits.
With the help of an old sewing machine and a lot of friends (including Quiksilver founder Alan Green) they started cranking out what would become the start of one of the biggest and best-known wetsuit companies around.
Of course surfers aren't the only group in need of some in-water insulation with everyone from divers, cavers, swimmers, water skiers and more getting rubbered. But surfers perhaps place the biggest challenge on the wetsuit in terms requiring the warmth but also the all over flexibility.
Rip Curl sees it as the biggest challenge in wetsuit design, “The balance between stretch and functionality. In particularly maintaining good fit and keeping the wetsuits water tight.”
Patagonia agrees and emphasizes the lasting factor, “Warmth, flexibility and durability. Flexibility and durability are generally contrasting forces in nature and you can see that in suits that expire quickly with use. Overall design excellence has to respect all three.”
And of course there's one more factor to consider: “Price, plain and simple. Any brand can make the most expensive suit on the market. That’s really easy, but to make a suit that not only is comfortable/durable AND cost efficient for the consumer…that’s a whole different ball game.“ Says Xcel.
PUSHING THE FUTURE
The boundaries are now being pushed with new ideas, materials and features.
In 2008, Rip Curl introduced the H-Bomb, with a non-metallic element and Lithium-ion batteries heating the suit to 50 degrees Celsius aiding surf sessions even closer to the Poles, North and South.
O’Neill sum up their goal for the future as, “Increased flexibility without sacrificing warmth”.
Xcel say, “we have yet to push the envelope of neoprene, there are no limits to design as long as there is a market for it.”
There's also an increasing environmental push as well.
As Patagonia state, “We would like to close the loop on wetsuit design, meaning that when its past its useful life we can see it as a nutrient rich resource that can be reused in its entirety as a future product again and again. It is a very high ideal but one we will continue to strive for.”
Effectively, without wetsuits, surfing as we know it would not exist. You could say that wetsuits really opened the door. They took surfing out of the hands of those blessed either by a superhuman resistance to cold or the luck of living where keeping warm is not too difficult.
This double-edged sword of surfing’s popularity has both driven the advances in equipment and technique whilst also significantly upping the numbers in the water.
And when that first big cold-water winter swell rolls in and you are sat in the line up all warm and comfortable, there might be pause to give some thanks to all those that came before.
- Share this: