I visited the ROKA headquarters some weeks back and saw a bunch of old "friends". Or relatives of friends. Hey, that machine’s made by U.S. Blindstitch! You guys have a walking foot double needle? Cool. How about a walking foot zigzag?
If you own a wetsuit brand and you don’t recognize the types of sewing machines I mention above best get yourself over to China and find out how your product is made. These are some of the tools used, and I owned some dozens of these when I produced the first commercially successful triathlon wetsuit. The same machines are used today.
Seeing these machines stateside is rare. Who understands the wetsuit business? Really understands it? Not many. I barely understood it myself. Yes, I had a stateside factory, which I built myself, and I spent time with my wetsuit manufacturing crew farting around with patterns. But I’d see my guys out in the back during break playing soccer with an inflated “ball” they made out of the rubber used to make our wetsuits. They’d make inflated “stuffed" animals out of rubber. How did they do that? That was way above my understanding.
One very big reason why one wetsuit is better than another is the patterns. Here is what I wrote 12 years ago describing a wetsuit we made a dozen or more years before that:
The beauty of a glued suit (which is then sewn with what is called a "blind stitch") is its ability to arc and shape the suit's contour through the joining of two dissimilar edges. When you glue these surfaces together, the arc'd surface is now concave or convex.
When I look at some of today's triathlon wetsuits this seems a lost art. This photo below shows the lower legs of a tri wetsuit that fits almost perfectly, with a concavity behind the knee and a bulge at the calf that comes quite close to matching the contour of the wearer's legs. Were you to see this wetsuit hanging on a rack, it would be constructed in this precise shape, with the rubber tapering to the ankle in the exact manner illustrated. It was an off-the-rack model made in my QR factory.
After writing the above in 2005 why am I praising today’s suits? Because a number of these wetsuit makers have since rediscovered the art of glue & blindstitch pattern making and then progressed in comfort, the zipper, the neck, well beyond my best efforts. Roka is a case in point.
Part of this is that some companies – De Soto and Roka at least – keep sewing, cutting, gluing operations at their headquarters for R&D purposes. (My preamble to this overview, and my pic of the sewing machines in Roka's headquarters, is evidence of an authenticity that means a lot to me.) Wetsuits are like bikes. You can subscribe to the wetsuit version of an “open mold” and then you get an okay, somewhat functional wetsuit but that suit is always subject to the law of entropy. You will have trouble. Your product will devolve, like natural selection but in reverse. The companies making wetsuits you'll want to buy (ROKA is one) are constantly pumping energy back into the system. What differentiates Roka's wetsuits (beyond what I've written so far)?
While they did not say (and I did not ask) it’s clear to me that ROKA paid some attention to blueseventy’s Helix and TYR’s Hurricane wetsuits. These suits swim similarly. They’ve got a light feel to them and I guess I’d say they swim close to what we had in mind back at QR in the 1990s. If you look at the image of our old wetsuit (above) I think you can see we wanted a suit that adhered to a fit body’s natural curves. Likewise ROKA, which is why swimming in the Maverick X makes me feel at home.
The hips are wider in the Maverick models than in the suits we made and I understand the thinking. The ROKA suit is a little easier to take off in transition. Aquaman, Orca, 2XU are all made with wider hips than the suits my company used to make. This might have been a design flaw in our own suits. We battled this not by changing our patterns but by putting an extra long (22” in the tallest sizes) zipper in our suits.
ROKA says of its Maverick X: "We inverted the existing paradigm and started with the arms up, the most crucial phase of the freestyle stroke.. Revolution X is a result of that unique patent pending process.”
But! Great minds think alike, and here is what I wrote about De Soto’s T1 wetsuits back in 2005: "The arm contour was rotated, such that the natural state of a T1 wetsuit is with your arms atop your head, such as during the catch phase of the stroke.” It’s the Maverick X, mind you, that has this, and this is what justifies the $200 up-charge from the Maverick Pro II.
I have a Maverick X and a Maverick Pro II and they both swim great. In fact, if ROKA has a strategic problem is that it’s wetsuits are quite good all the way down to their lowest price points. The Maverick X sells for $900, the Pro II $700, and these suits are made out of Yamamoto #39 and #40 with some Aerodome in there. The Elite II is $500 and the Comp II is $300. These latter two suits are made with Yamamoto #39 and #38. I wrote about TYR that its Hurricane Cat 3 wetsuit at $550 costs too much (by $200) for a Yamamoto #38 wetsuit. As you see, the ROKA Comp II is $300.
The two most elite ROKA wetsuits feature the "Ultralight stretch-woven panel” whereas the two lower priced models only have the "Standard neoprene panel”. Piffle. I can’t find a difference between these panels. I’ll give anybody a buck who can show me why the fabric panels we find in ROKA’s and blueseventy's high-end suits are better than standard neoprene forearms. These fabric panels don’t seem to be any worse either. I just can’t find a difference.
I heard of some warranty returns on our reader forum on a batch of ROKA wetsuits sometime back. I didn’t have this trouble, neither with the Maverick X (above) nor the Pro II (in among 3 of the wetsuits pictured below), nor have I ever had any trouble with ROKA’s seams or rubber quality. If there’s anything to this I suspect it was just a bad production run. Lord knows I’ve had some experience there. Once we had a batch of bad sliders in a 500-count box of YKK zippers. That’s 500 wetsuits we made where, at a race, at the start, as you were zipping your wetsuit up, your pull cord came off in your hand with the slider on the pull cord (and no longer on the zipper).
ROKA has a floaty ankle (thank you ROKA!) but with a thinner (2mm or 3mm) back panel piece for easy exit. Very well made. Makes the suit easy to get out of, but less delicate than TYR’s ankle.
ROKA takes it up to the line with how it coaxes good technique out of the swimmer with its waist-up flotation scheme. Some wetsuits are just too cute here, by floating the hips and sinking the chest (depending on where its floatiest rubber is placed in the suit). They design themselves right out of contention because their suits don’t float (either from the waist up or from the knees down). ROKA touts its "patent-pending 1:3:5 buoyancy profile with 1.5mm up top, 3mm in the core, and 5mm in the hips and legs.” ROKA’s scheme does make the suit very light in feel when swimming (you actually swim in the suit rather than paddle the suit); but the suit is still fast because there is just enough 5mm rubber in the chest to keep the thing above water.
It’s very easy to make a bad fullsuit. (Fullsuits have long arms; longjohns have no arms.) It’s also very easy to make bad batches of fullsuits, because many or most factories and factory workers are automatons and when there is a mutation in the manufacturing process it tends not to be a one-off; every suit made repeats that mutation until it’s fixed. ROKA does a very nice job of nipping these mutations in the bud. This isn’t a feature. This is an attitude. A few wetsuit manufacturers have this attention to detail which makes all the difference. There might be a half-dozen wetsuit companies that sit up there on the top rung, with great patterns, materials, features, service, packaging, attention to detail.
Do I think the Maverick X is worth $200 more than the Maverick Pro? That’s a harder call than asking me whether TYR’s Freak of Nature is worth $450 more than its Hurricane Cat 5. (Not!) The Maverick X is ROKA’s best suit, but I think the value gets better as the prices get lower. (You could say that about most brands.) There is no suit ROKA makes that doesn’t deserve to be purchased.
Which ROKA should you buy? Personally, I would not buy any longjohn made by any company unless I got really hot in a wetsuit while swimming. I would always only buy and swim in a fullsuit. While the Pro II is going to fit you just as well as the Maverick X, each of these two highest-end suits will be slightly more forgiving, fitwise, than the Elite II; and it will be slightly stretchier than the Comp II.
One final note. This is a consumer direct product. In my opinion they did themselves and the brick & mortar retail class a favor by choosing this sales channel. ROKA makes twenty sizes of wetsuit (or thereabouts), half of them women's sizes. This is a massive effort. The SKU count is monstrous, something well over 100. ROKAs extremely liberal return policy; its warranty; it’s packaging; its customer service; the fact that swimmers made these wetsuits for swimmers; make this a really great brand for consumers looking for a safe purchase of a high-end product.
Here is where you will find, read more about, and buy Roka's wetsuits including size charts and ordering prompts.