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November 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 38, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Need a New Wetsuit?

stretch, seams and other factors bring big changes

from the November, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

If your old wetsuit keeps you more wet than warm and you're in the market for a new one, a few things may have changed since the last time you went shopping. New technology and new materials have manufacturers touting benefits like more stretch, less bulk, more warmth and less hassle getting in and out of their wetsuits.

But when standing in front a row of them hanging at your dive shop, or viewing the lineup at an online store, it can be daunting to pick just one. From a price range from under $100 to nearly $500, what are you getting at each price range? Are they all cut from the same bolt of neoprene, or is the quality truly going up alongside the price tag?

Chris Moleskie, president of Wetsuit Wearhouse in Williamsport, MD ( ), told Undercurrent that wetsuit companies price their products differently, "but if there's only a price difference of $50 to $75, there's probably no difference in quality of material or components. However, if you're comparing a $100 suit to one that's $250 and up, then yes, you'll see a difference. You get a better quality of neoprene, more stretch and better seams, meaning more warmth and less water inside your wetsuit."

A Quick Wetsuit Primer

Your wetsuit keeps you warm by trapping a thin layer of water between your skin and the neoprene, and heating it up. That's why it's important to get a wetsuit that fits properly, otherwise cold water will keep flushing out the warm water. Neoprene contains loads of small air bubbles that provide insulation against cold, so the thicker the neoprene, the better the insulation..

According to John Bantin, Undercurrent's dive gear expert, neoprene now tends to be sourced from the same companies in China, and the manufacturing process is the same for every major brand of neoprene. While there are numerous grades of neoprene, and each manufacturer has a comparable grade to compete with each other, the basic difference between the grades is the density of the neoprene (amount used), combined with the amount and size of gas bubbles that are formed within the structure.

For semi-dry suits with the latest
in cutting-edge material, John
Bantin gives favorable reviews to
Xcel and Scubapro.

A decade ago, neoprene grades had a higher percentage of neoprene, making them denser and heavier. While that made wetsuits more durable, it also made them less comfortable and harder for various body shapes to squeeze into them. Now neoprene foam grades have become softer, lighter and much stretchier, says Sal Zammitti, owner of the Bamboo Reef dive shops in Northern California ( ). "With soft-stretch neoprene so you can fit a wider variety of body types. We were making two to three custom wetsuits per week 25 years ago , but now we haven't done one in a couple of years."

Some manufacturers use a mixture to allow for more flexibility, and even more eco-sustainability. Take Xcel, its green Thermoflex wetsuit, made of limestone neoprene (created in Hawaii by clean hydro-electricity) and boasting an ultra-stretch lining made in part from recycled plastic bottles. But with list prices between $290 and $380, the Thermoflex ain't cheap.

Another innovation is hydrophobic neoprene, also referred to as water-repellant neoprene, because it soaks less water into the skin. "There's no warmth factor there, but when you get out of the water, it weighs less, and it's less bulky to walk around in," says Moleskie. "But you'll only find that in a super high-end wetsuit, at $300 plus."

What to Consider when Buying One

The first criterion to consider - which many divers overlook, says Moleskie - is that the wetsuit be specifically a dive wetsuit. Surfing and general watersport wetsuits are made out of standard-grade neoprene, while dive suits are made of compression-resistant neoprene. Neoprene compresses, but less thickness equals less warmth. "If you're at 65 feet, you'll go from a 5-mm thickness to 3-mm with a standard wetsuit, but a 5-mm dive wetsuit stays 5mm at depth." Many manufacturers make wetsuits for different sports, so look at the tags to make sure it's dive-specific (O'Neill's dive series wetsuits have a scuba flag stitched on them, for instance) or ask a knowledgeable salesperson.

While you should consider neoprene quality, the main thing to consider is the percentage of stretch in a wetsuit. You want a wetsuit that gives enough to let you get in and, out, and move around in it easily. Some manufacturers tout material with as much as 400 percent stretch, meaning it really gives. "But super-stretch is now found at the mid-$100 price point, so it's becoming more affordable," says Moleskie.

The seams are another big deal when it comes to staying warm, comfortable and leak-free. There are various types, and each one has its pros and cons in different water and weather conditions. Flatlock stitching, with a zig-zag pattern similar to railroad tracks, is comfortable and flexible but because it's applied by sewing machine, it leaks. Therefore, it's recommended for warm-water wetsuits only. Glued and blindstitched seams (also referred to as GBS) are best for colder waters because the seams are glued, then stitched, meaning there are no holes for water to seep into.

At the top of the seam quality - and price - echelon is the sealed and taped seam. It has the same construction as GBS, then a rubber strip is applied over the top. The advantages: more flexibility and an airtight suit. You can test the quality by blowing into the arm of this wetsuit type - if it blows up like a balloon, you're ensured no water will come through the seams. Sealed and taped wetsuits are often referred to as "semi-dry suits," meaning they're the best non-drysuit choice for the coldest waters. The top-of-the-line wetsuit Zammitti sells at his Bamboo Reef stores is AquaLung's SolAfx, a sealed and taped wetsuit with 8-mil body thickness, 7-mil arms and legs, and liquid rubber seals covering the seals (list price $495).

Extra features to consider are fleece lining, which wicks away moisture and retains heat. This comes in handy for frequent cool- and cold-water divers, because when two divers may be wearing the same 5-mil wetsuit, one could be freezing while the other one is toasty. "While that feeling could depend on the wetsuit seams, it could also depend on your own tolerance," says Moleskie. The $250-plus wetsuits often boast a jersey fleece lining, but you can also wear a fleece rash guard under your non-lined suit for the same effect.

Nearly 10 years ago, we did a story "The Skinny on Wetsuit Shrinkage," about how wetsuits can truly shrink due to age, wear and tear. But Moleskie says that due to the latest decade of wetsuit tech advances, he never hears that complaint from customers. "The only time I see degradation in neoprene is when a diver blatantly ignores the wash-and-care instructions and throws it in the washer. If anything, wetsuit material today will stretch out a little bit. " Meaning you can eat a full breakfast before that first dive in your brand-new wetsuit and not feel a twinge of guilt.

To buy the right wetsuit, consider where you dive most. The warmer the water, the lighter weight - and less expensive - your wetsuit can be with you still feeling fine inside it. Wetsuit costs will increase alongside the thickness of the material, but the features you can shell out for - such as sealed seams and compressed thickness - are well worth it to stay warm. For semi-dry suits with the latest in cutting-edge material, Bantin recently gave favorable reviews to the Xcel Infiniti (list prices range from $200 to $360; ); and Scubapro's EverFlex suits (list prices range from $320 to $400; ).

- - Vanessa Richardson

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