History of Wetsuits: Keeping Us Warm Since the 1950’s

You can find many milestones and great inventions in the history of surfing. But when you start thinking about it, the one that had the greatest impact on the sport of surfing and the one that helped shape the surfing world into what it is today is the invention of a wetsuit. Wetsuits are the reason that today – surfing is a worldwide sport with worldwide audience. Only after surfing became possible on almost every coastline, no matter the water temperature, surfing could spread around the world and become THE lifestyle sport of today. Think about it, without wetsuits surfing would stay limited to those few countries and coastlines that are lucky enough to have waves and warm water at the same time. And even there it would only be a summer sport. By being so limited it would never get popular, no surfwear company would ever grow into multi million dollar bussines, surfing would never appear in commercials, pro surfers would never get payed the way they do today. Crap you might think, bloody wetsuits ruined it all :). Well, we are sure you won’t be mad any longer after you drop into the first wave of the autumn / winter swell warmly tucked into your steamer. So how did it all began?

HISTORY OF THE WETSUIT

First Wetsuit

Wetsuit is one of those inventions that are hard to pin on a single person. The guy that created the modern wetsuit is actually made out of a couple of people that were doing the same things. First in 1951 Hugh Bradner (navy) got the idea that a thin layer of water that is trapped under “something” could be an insulator against the cold water. A friend of his suggested that neoprene would be a great material to replace that “something” in the before sentence. On the brink of discovery Hugh Bradner let it go since he was not actually interested in wetsuits and water sports. But he still is the first person that we can confirm (a letter dated June 21, 1951) was playing with the idea.

Most people would put Jack O’Neill in the shoes of the first wetsuit inventor. But did you know that his brother Robert O’Neill was the one in the O’Neill family that created the first wetsuit designs? Or that Bob and Bill Meistrell who founded Body Glove started experimenting with neoprene suits in 1953.

 

They were all oblivious of each other so they can all be named the inventors of the wetsuit.

 

Jack O’Neill

Jack O'NeillJack O’Neill explains: “I always liked surfing, even when I was doing other things. Years ago I was working in San Francisco and on my lunch break I would go body surfing at Ocean Beach. Then I’d go back to work. I always felt great after spending time in the ocean, but a lot of times my sinuses would take on a lot of water. My very last job was selling architectural aluminum. I called on engineers and architects – people who designed and built buildings. Now this was back in the days before computers, and a set of architectural renderings or blueprints was very difficult and expensive to duplicate. I think you can see where this is going… One afternoon after my surfing break I was leaning over a drafting table with one of my architect clients and all that water in my sinuses poured out all over the set of original drawings we were examining. I lost that job a couple of days later and decided to go into the surfing business. I went out and bought a load of balsa wood so I could shape some surf boards and opened the first Surf Shop. I also kept looking for better ways to stay warm in the water. I made a few vests and people bought them and I just kept going.

Back then, San Francisco wasn’t the most ideal market to open a surf shop. There were only a handful of die-hard surfers in the area and it was actually illegal to go in the water on Ocean Beach at that time. But I was doing something I liked to do and it all worked out.

 

It worked out all right! There are only a few places on Earth where you can surf the whole year without a wetsuit and there are only a few people that are willing to surf freezing cold water only in their trunks. So without a wetsuit, surfing wouldn’t be anywhere near to where it is now.

 

Surfing in the 50s was great,” said Jack. “You knew everybody and we often took turns on the waves.

 

Sound great but how about this – you could only make short surf sessions since the water was to cold for your boardshorts, you surfed in a wool sweater, in a navy jumper… anything to keep warm. An advanced way to improve the performace of a wool sweater was to soak it with oil so it would repel water for a while. You could top that off with an old bathing cap. Sounds great, doesn’t it? So great that Jack constantly experimented with ways to keep himself warm. He took a pair of shorts or a surfing vest a stuffed it with unicellular plastic like PVC, but PVC was to hard to work with. So he turned to plastic foam that didn’t quite work either. Finaly Jack O’Neill found neoprene that is a really good insulator, it is buoyant and flexible.

 

So O’Neill started producing wetsuits: a short john, a long john, a spring suit and a full suit. He even designed those beaver-tailed jackets that close under your crotch. Jack remembers that he got a lot of laughs from the surfers that came from the south and saw his creations.

 

But neoprene did not solve all the problems. Fist wetsuits were stiff and did often not fit very well. They were uncomfortable and you were constantly getting fresh cold water into your wetsuit. Wetsuits were made out of raw foam-rubber neoprene that was unlined. That king of neoprene is very sticky and very fragile and you can tear it just by pulling your wetsuit on to hard. Surfer used talcum powder to slip into the wetsuit. When nylon was developed it was a perfect solution for a backing materials. A layer of nylon was applied to one side of the neoprene making it much more resistant and easy to work with (sewing). A much improved version of nylon is still used today (at first nylon was not very inflexible, so the wetsuit were also quite stiff).

Double lined neoprene that has nylon on both sides was “invented” in the 1970s. That further improved the durability and tear-resistance of the neoprene and wetsuits. The other great thing about the outside of the wetsuit being lined with nylon? Colors!  Red, yellow, pink… you name it. Wetsuits did not have to be black anymore.

 

History of wetsuit making

At the beginning the sewing process was really simple. You take two neoprene sheets, put one edge over the other and sew them together. The results sucked by todays standards. First problem was overlapping of neoprene panels. It created an edge which made seams pretty uncomfortable. Second problem were holes. By sewing straight through both neoprene panels you made holes go all the way through into your wetsuit and stitches became the main source of flushing. And third was the neoprene itself. Before the invention of single lined neoprene the holes from the sewing got bigger and bigger because of the stretching. And even after single lined neoprene was invented, holes were still there. So wetsuit manufacturers had to figure out another way to sew wetsuits.

 

Seam taping

The first solution that helped stop water from entering through stitches was seam taping. After the wetsuit was sewn together seams were taped with a strip of nylon that sealed the seam and stopped the water. By applying heat the tape was melted into the neoprene.

Seam Gluing

Another solution was to simply glue neoprene together instead of sewing it. A cool thing about this method was that seam were completely flat an in theory waterproof. Why in theory? Neoprene panels used to make wetsuits were cut by hand and if they didn’t match perfectly you would still have holes. Even bigger problem was durability of glued seams. Glue was not strong nor flexible enough to keep the wetsuit together for a long time.So finally wetsuit companies cam up with…

Blindstitch

After nylon-backed neoprene was invented, the blind stitch sewing was also developed. The name come from the fact that you can’t actually see the stitch because the curved needle never completely penetrates the neoprene. Needle goes into the neoprene and turns just under the surface and comes back out on the same side. This way wetsuit has no holes that would go all the way through. No holes – no water. Blindstitch seams are also flat and more comfortable.

This is they way that today winter wetsuits are sewn together with some new ideas to make seams even more waterproof. A blindstitched wetsuit is called a steamer.

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