How are wetsuits designed?
Wetsuit design process
The first wetsuits were designed to be used in the military in the 1930s and ’40s, so divers could stay in cold water longer. This was after neoprene rubber was invented in the 1930s by DuPont. Wetsuits changed and have been improved significantly over the decades. However, a modern wetsuit has to tick the right boxes to be a good product. This is a combination of panel layout and panel sizes, styling, neoprene thickness, neoprene type and quality, flexibility (foam elongation), softness, colour, seam construction and total seam length, and zip construction. These factors all influence the price of the final product. How are wetsuits designed? To create the ultimate wetsuit, a good design has to be combined with the right material choices that have to be made by the wetsuit designer.
Research and wetsuit types
Firstly, the designer defines the type of wetsuit he is designing. For this instance, we’ll discuss a 5/4 mm high-end chest zip wetsuit as an example. Market research is done to make sure the right wetsuit is designed with competitive features, performance, and price.
Panel layout and wetsuit styling
To design the ultimate wetsuit, a good design has to be combined with the right material choices. The design process starts with (analogue or digitally) sketching out the seam of the wetsuit. This can be done on paper first, but quickly becomes a digital 2d, or sometimes 3d drawing. This drawing shows different views of the wetsuit to visualize the panel layout. This includes zip placements, an indication of the main features and logo placements.
The seam placement defines the final panel layout and the generic styling of the wetsuit. Seams are not there to make a wetsuit look good, they are strictly functional. They can, however, make a wetsuit look good or bad. Seams are strategically placed to avoid irritation or rash on the inside of the seams. The best seam placement is developed to avoid restriction while moving around. Seams are used to make up the panel layout, which is influenced by the neoprene thickness used in different parts of the body. Thinner neoprene is used in areas that need more flexibility, such as the armpits. Thicker neoprene is used on the chest, back and upper legs to keep the body warmer. No one likes an ugly wetsuit, so styling has a big impact on the panel layout, but when designed right, form follows function.
After the panel layout and styling have been finetuned, it’s time to select the right materials for the wetsuit. There are multiple types of neoprene foam, neoprene outside and inside lining to choose from. The type of foam and linings selected are the main factor in the price calculation of the final product. High-end wetsuits use extremely flexible, soft and light neoprene foam laminated with ultra-stretch lining types. The lining colour has to be selected, this is most commonly black, as black absorbs the heat from the sun the best. So a black wetsuit is warmer than a light-coloured one. Black also doesn’t get dirty and doesn’t fade over time, so you look fresh a lot longer.
After that, the seam construction has to be defined. A basic winter wetsuit will have glued and blind stitched (GBS) outside seams without any reinforcements. A more high-end wetsuit will have a rubber sealed outside seams applied on top of the blind stitch seams. For extra seam reinforcement, a neoprene inside tape can be added on all or some seams. This prevents seam rash to the skin. Reinforcement patches can be used to strengthen certain stress points or areas where multiple seams or different panel thicknesses come together.
Wetsuit patterns are templates used to cut the different panels out of a sheet of neoprene to make up a wetsuit. The pattern determines the seam placement and thus the panel layout. Patterns are digitally drawn in CAD, based on the designs of the panel layout. Thereafter, digital patterns are transferred onto paper and cut out. The first paper patterns are used to create the neoprene panels for the first wetsuit samples.
The flattened out wetsuit panels or patterns should be laid out on a sheet of neoprene to calculate the yield rate. This is the cutting efficiency and determines the amount of waste material, production efficiency and cost. The bigger and more complex each pattern, the more material waste. Smaller, more rectangular patterns make for a better yield rate and less waste. There is a fine balance between minimal seam design, price and waist yield rate. Wetsuits with fewer seams have a lower probability of causing seam irritation and this leads to fewer seams potentially starting to leak. But fewer seams mean bigger panels and more waste material so a higher price. Small panels mean less waste material, but more seams. This takes longer to stitch, so the labour cost will go up and there is more room for error and leaky seams over time.
The ultimate wetsuit
The right balance of seam placement, panel layout, and panel size will make the ultimate wetsuit. Patterns are used to size grade the final wetsuit design into different wetsuit sizes. This is done digitally by skilled pattern makers to ensure each wetsuit size fits the right body type.
After the designer is happy with the design, seam placements, colours and logos, the wetsuit starts its prototyping phase. A prototype is made based on the final design for the designer to review. The factory will be in close contact with the designer to discuss problem areas or changes that are required to ensure the best possible product that is optimized for future bulk production.
The testing phase is a time where prototypes of each wetsuit are put to the test. Firstly, the static fit is tested on a fitting model with the right size to fit the wetsuit prototype. After the fit is confirmed or pattern changes are noted, the wetsuit is tested by a surfer in various conditions. The wetsuit tester checks for water leaks, seam irritations, excess materials or tight areas, etc. The wetsuit will then undertake a durability test to ensure that the wetsuit lasts over time. The feedback will be collected and discussed with the designer, who then will finetune his design and patterns. The updated design and changes will be discussed with the wetsuit factory. The factory produces a new prototype that will undergo the same testing phase. This process will be repeated multiple times until all potential problems are solved and the wetsuit is ready for production.
Wetsuit performance and comfort
Wetsuit performance is mostly determined by the amount of flexibility and the ability to keep you warm. A high-end wetsuit is extremely flexible and doesn’t restrict you in your movements in the water, even when thicker neoprene is used to keep you warm. The more flexible and soft a wetsuit is, the higher the comfort. But the right fit, thickness and panel layout of your wetsuit are important factors too. Comfort and performance play a big role in how wetsuits are designed.
Proven panel layout
How will future wetsuits be designed? Wetsuits have been around for years and have been perfected and redesigned in both styling, function and durability over decades. A proven panel layout has learned from its previous generation wetsuits through testing, trial and error and hours spent in the water to perfect a certain panel layout. You as a surfer can give valuable feedback to the wetsuit brand by sharing the experiences you had with their product, positive or negative. This allows the brand to use your feedback to improve their products. This makes for an ever-evolving wetsuit design that keeps getting better and better with your help.