SCUBAPRO Sunday – History of Wetsuits
Wetsuits go back to the commercial fishing and salvage industries of the 1910s. Before wetsuits divers used grease to help keep them warm (tuff bastards) The development of the wetsuit started as military research in the early 20th century. The first underwater suit was the Mark V suit (I know there were other types thru the ages) It allowed divers to go deeper into the ocean than ever before. It was developed for the U.S. Navy, primarily for use in deep-sea and salvage operations. Early versions of the wetsuit proved to be useful insulation garments, but with the discovery of neoprene, resulting from research throughout the Second World War, there was a big leap forward and the real turning point for the wetsuit as we know them. After World War Two, sport diving became more popular in the United States. The popularity of movies like the “Frogmen,” (I have heard a lot of Vietnam Frogman joined after seeing the Frogman) the Cousteau book and film adaptation of “The Silent World” and the magazine “Skin Diver.”
The modern wetsuit dates back to 1951 – 1952. Hugh Bradner is mostly credited in invented it, (credited as the inventor of the contemporary wetsuit depending on who you ask) a physicist associated with the University of California, Berkeley looking to improve on the equipment used by the U.S. Navy. Early wetsuits sandwiched the relatively thin neoprene between layers of spandex or nylon. The earliest versions of the wetsuit worked by trapping a small amount of water between the body and the suit. The water is heated by the body’s temperature and acted as insulation. These modern wetsuits also had improved stitching and seams that kept the outfit watertight and prevented the outside water from entering the suit and cooling the diver. When Bradner first showed the Navy, they were not that happy with it. The Navy was concerned that the gas inherent in neoprene would make divers more visible on sonar.
This program was taken over Jack O’Neill in 1959; he started producing early neoprene wetsuits in his Santa Cruz garage. His company, called O’Neill began selling these suits in 1959 with the motto, “It’s always summer on the inside.” Around the same time, Bob Meistrell started producing a similarly-designed wetsuit under the company name Body Glove.
Bob & Bill Meistrell and Jack O’Neill (better known as the founders of Body Glove & O’Neill) have also staked their claims as inventors of the modern wetsuit.
The first neoprene suits were not easy to put on and could be easily torn by pulling and stretching. This led to the practice of divers sprinkling talc on their bodies before donning their wetsuit. After a few years, wetsuits began being lined with nylon so they could be put on easier. Many different techniques were employed over the evolution of the wetsuit design some of these were seam taping, seam gluing, and eventually blind stitching. Seam taping provided relief for some problems; this technique involved melting tape into the nylon which sealed the seam and prevented water from entering the suit. Seam gluing was another technique where they fixed the slabs of neoprene together, which resulted in a smooth, flat surface; however, the neoprene and the glue was often not a strong enough mix and easily tore. The eventual outcome was blind stitching, and this is the technique used predominantly in all wetsuit types and designs. The blind stitching technique is where a curved needle that is used for blind stitch sewing is designed not to go all the way through the neoprene but just under the surface of the material and comes back up on the same side. Using this technique, the neoprene is sewn together without having to puncture a hole through the entire piece of neoprene. As a result of this, no holes in the neoprene means no water flushing out the suit. Due to the nature of blind stitching, it creates a flat seam which increases the comfort of the wetsuit.
Body Glove designed the very first non-zip wetsuit, (there are two different years that I have found 1970 and 1989) But there are a lot more options today. There are several closure options to choose from (front, back & cross zip). Spandex, for flexibility and titanium and other thermoplastic materials, for insulation, have been introduced to the fabric for improved performance. Eventually, they became lined with nylon, which decreased the sticky texture of the neoprene; however, nylon decreased the flexibility of the wetsuit. It was not until the 1970’s that double-backed neoprene was being sewed together; it was simple but not very effective. The result of punching holes through the double layers of neoprene opened the inside of the wetsuit to the environment. This resulted in lots of flushing through the seams, so the result of this was new techniques in seam binding.
Even today’s wetsuits are mostly made from foamed neoprene and are worn by just about every person that is in the water for extended periods from surfers, spearfishes, divers, windsurfers, and a wide range of other sports. Wetsuits are also used to help prevent abrasion and provide thermal insulation as well as assisting in buoyancy.
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