Wetsuit Craftsmanship, with a Look at Orca

Can we have the “wetsuit design” talk? How and why wetsuits are made as they are? I’d like to talk about this in the context of Orca Wetsuits for reasons that may become apparent. In my mind, wetsuit companies – and really, just about all companies making stuff for us – are features-oriented. Overly so. Often rather than craft-oriented. Why? Because features are easy. Craft is hard.

Of everyone in this discussion, I only know of one person who owned rows of sewing machines, who built his own cutting and gluing tables, and whose wetsuits went from sheet stock to finished product all within 100 feet of his desk. Moi…! Sounds like a lot of hassle, doesn’t it! Easier just to email an order to a factory in Asia! Well, yes.

But there were real advantages to making your own wetsuits. Not only could you build your inventory as you needed it, but you could make good patterns. Making patterns isn’t a one-time thing. It’s a lot like what I do now. When I started Slowtwitch – 3 weeks after I retired from the wetsuit making gig exactly, to the week, 20 years ago today – I thought you just wrote some code, website done, ready… set… go! It took me some years to finally realize that you never stop writing code (or paying others to write it).

Likewise designing wetsuits, working on patterns, and exploring materials – it’s never finished. You realize that one size of your wetsuit just doesn’t fit right. You’ve got to tweak the pattern, just like today I’ve got to tweak the code.

Problem is, nobody makes their own wetsuits anymore. And if you don’t make your own wetsuits, how do you work on patterns? When you sub in new materials, how does this change the way your wetsuits fit? What alterations must you do to your patterns to normalize for the different stretch characteristics of that new material?

When I started, in 1987, I didn’t intend to make my own wetsuits. But I couldn’t get sufficient quantities from my contract factory, and I felt like I couldn’t move my product forward if I just ordered wetsuits. But I didn’t want to poach workers from my contract factory. So I asked those who worked deep in the bowels of my contract factory, “Who’s been fired from here? Who are great craftsmen who just have attitude problems?”

That’s who I hired. The Dirty Dozen (eventually the Dirty Two Dozen), workers who really knew the craft, and who just needed guidance. It wasn’t always easy. More than once I stood in front of a judge to keep a worker out of jail, promising to employ, mentor, and keep an eye on him. If you own a Quintana Roo wetsuit made in the 80s or 90s, this is the crew that made your wetsuit. Brilliant at making wetsuits; not always brilliant at life; nevertheless we all grew up as people, which was its own separate reward.

And boy, were these men and women wizards! Every week we catered in Taco Friday, and I’d see them out there kicking around a soccer ball. Made of wetsuit rubber! How did they do that?

Making wetsuits is about the hardest cut-and-sew operation there is. It’s also a material that gives you opportunities. When I post images here of wetsuits that look like they have the Invisible Man in them (below), those wetsuits either look like an empty sack when they’re limp on a hanger, or they look a little like they do in these images, with curves that conjure the human shape. You can do that with rubber. If you know what you’re doing.

Triathlon wetsuits today are made in Asia almost exclusively. The workers in those factories are very good, much like the workers I used to employ. There are crackerjack pattern makers over there. The craftsmanship is excellent. Mind, it wasn’t always. I remember a wetsuit factory manager from Asia visiting my factory in San Marcos, California. It was a funny conversation. “You can’t glue & blindstitch 1.5mm smoothskin rubber,” he said. “Yes, you’re right,” I replied, “and yet you and I are watching it being done right now, are we not?” “Yes,” he said, “but it’s impossible. It can’t be done,” as he spectated one of my craftsmen doing it in front of his eyes.

And I think that’s a good segue to Orca, because their wetsuits feature glued & blindstitched 1.5mm smoothskin rubber, a skill the Asian factories learned from my misfits and castoffs.

This company makes a lot of styles, and prices them to meet just about every budget. They make longjohns (sleeveless wetsuits), but rightfully emphasize fullsuits (long arm suits). Let’s put this to bed now, shall we? Because you’re going to see comments in our Reader Forum and perhaps below each of these articles in this series (I wrote about wetsuits yesterday and I’ll write about them tomorrow, and over the next 2 weeks) explaining why I’m wrong, that longjohns are perfectly appropriate. To that I have to say this: Find me anyone, anyone – anyone – who earns a living from this sport who races in a longjohn. I’ll pepper each installment with images of swim starts and finishes and you just won’t find any. That should tell you something.

Now, look, in the beginning, the true swimmers said the same thing about fullsuits that true cyclists said about aerobars: “Sure, they work for triathletes. But that’s because triathletes don’t know how to swim (or ride). I must retain the ‘feel of the water.’” But eventually the feel of getting dropped overcame the feel of the water for these folks, and what you see today is what we told these true swimmers in 1987. It just took some years for them to get over themselves.

Today we have a new generation of experts who need to learn their lessons. Look, the less rubber, the more natural it feels. For that reason, Orca makes a suit called the Alpha. It’s a beautiful suit, pictured above, and again below, to the left. Fewer seams, very flexible, and you won’t find a bit of 5mm thick rubber in it. It’s for the “natural” swimmer, Orca’s parlance for those who come from a swim background. It sells for $699 and its price point analog is the Equip, to the right of it, selling for $329. (Samples of both mens and womens versions of Orca's wetsuits are shown throughout.)

What do I think? Do not buy these suits. Is that clear enough? These are wetsuits built for swim specialists who value how the wetsuit makes them feel when they swim rather (which may run contrary to what the clock says when they exit the water). Few of you will go faster in this suit than you will in some I’ll show you below.

The suits I’ll write about below “correct” bad body position by floating the parts that sink. Natural swimmers don’t like this, because they’ve spent decades correcting their body position. But just like aerobars, that allow you to rest your upper body skeletally, allowing you to ride with a flat back for a long time – a skill cyclists mastered before aerobars – adult onset swimmers and johnny-come-lately cyclists benefit from late-coming tech. Sorry to harsh somebody’s high, but the same tech that benefits newbies also benefits natural single-sport athletes. You punish yourself if you don’t take advantage of what’s available, even if it feels like you’re paddling a surf board when you swim. Let’s just go straight to the Orca wetsuits I like the best and for almost all of you it’s neither of the suits above.

I like Orca, and I’m beginning with Orca, because as I was building my factory a couple of competitors popped up, Orca one of them. These guys took wetsuits seriously. They’ve been around a long time, more than 25 years, so they’ve paid their dues. They never looked at wetsuits as a commodity. They took pride in what they made then and they still do now. But as you see, I’m not an advocate – for you – of every style they make. Let’s talk about the styles that I do recommend.

Orca has a system. It says swimmers are either Natural (come from a swim background), Total (very accomplished adult onset swimmer), or Progressive (newbie). I don’t care about any of that. What I want are good patterns, good flexibility and a lot of flotation. There is one wetsuit out of the Total Swimmer series that I like a lot and it’s the Predator (above, to the left). Then there’s one out of the Progressive series and it’s the 3.8 (above right). These aren’t exactly cheap at $899 and $599 respectively. But they’re really good suits.

The 2019 version of the 3.8 is entirely new; it’s updated from 2018; it’s going to be very comfortable to swim in. It’s almost entirely made of Yamamoto #39 smoothskin, has a very floaty trunk and thigh, and is going to feel more flexible in the chest area than just about every other wetsuit you might choose. Why? Because it’s got 3mm #39 in the chest. Here’s the benefit: If you ever feel or think you might feel claustrophobic in your chest, as regards breathing, this is the rubber you want. Not very thick, very flexible. Here’s the downside: Because it’s not very thick, it’s not as floaty in the chest. But the hips and thighs are very floaty, and this is where you want most of the float. The 3.8 is the most buoyant suit overall that Orca makes. I think it’s the sweet spot in the lineup. It’s not horribly priced, and it’s pretty much got everything you need.

Note our friend Sebastian Kienle; you can pick him out of the start line above, and then exiting the water (just above). I say “our friend” though I don’t know him well, but I follow him because he’s a thinking man’s pro. I watch his equipment videos, and then I closely watch when he races to see if he’s actually riding what he pimps (he does). He makes wise and thoughtful tech decisions. We’ll be writing a lot about his decision to move to road tubeless (Schwalbe) tires, SRAM 1x electronic, and I’m going to pester him to explain his Speedplay pedal choice, not because I don’t know why, but because he’s one of the few pros who can explain to you why. Note the wetsuit he’s in here.

More precisely, note the wetsuit he’s not in. The action pics above are from Challenge Heilbronn, which he won recently, and he’s seen on the start line and exiting the water in an Orca Predator. The athlete further above exiting in the Orca Alpha was at the same race, and that athlete probably came from a swim background. He may well have been in his perfect wetsuit. But Sebi is no slouch in the water either, yet he chose the suit with more flotation. This is the Orca suit you probably want, if you don’t end up in the 3.8.

This leaves the S7 ($239) and the Sonar ($449). The S7 (above right) is a perfectly fine suit, but it’s not quite as buoyant and I would not buy the S7 unless you were in a position to try on multiple sizes before the purchase. The rubber in the torso isn’t as stretchy as these others, and it’s not going to be as forgiving. The Sonar (above left) is more forgiving, but I’ve noticed that the Orca size chart is one of those I wrote about yesterday, where you get the suit and it feels a bit tight if you simply refer to Orca’s size chart.

I would size up from the chart, or at least err on the side of the larger size if you find yourself between sizes. I do find that Orca’s What’s My Size? prescriber a better predictor than you just looking on the size chart. Orca produced suits in 9 mens sizes and 5 womens sizes.

Orca is a multi-channel seller. You may find its wetsuits at your local store. Otherwise, you can buy a suit from Orca, or from a number of mail order resellers. I might recommend Justwetsuits.com, because I’ve developed a relationship with its owner Brian Suddarth and I’m amazed at how patient he can be with me (no easy feat), which tells me how patient he would be with you. One thing about wetsuits in general and Orca in particular. Orca’s lineup is all new for 2019. But not their model names. You may find a 3.8 or a Sonar for less if you shop around, and that may be fine. But it’ll almost certainly be last year’s model, or the year before, or…? And this may be okay for you. But wetsuits don’t always age well. Forewarned is forearmed.

If you do choose to contact Brian, ask him about Orca compared to the other 8 brands he carries. He’s on the front lines. He takes no pleasure in shipping you a wetsuit only to have it returned because it’s the wrong size, so, Brian is more likely than I to give you good sizing guidance.

Read more about Orca Wetsuits. Or visit Justwetsuits.com. If you click that link Brian will know you arrived from Slowtwitch (which may accrue to your benefit… or not!). I mentioned that Orca is one of the few brands that does have a robust community of local dealers, which you can search.