One recent late-October morning, shortly before the rulers of the world arrived in Glasgow for another responsibility-shirking climate summit, we received a pallet bearing the new Patagonia winter wetsuit range. Supple natural rubber in various shapes and sizes, ready to accommodate the large and the small and the in-between.
Completely neoprene-free, based instead around a main ingredient of Yulex® natural rubber, the wetsuits in the new range feature an improved lining for added flex, plus even greater seam protection than we’ve seen in previous editions. Read on to find out why all of that is important, but if you’re looking for a wetsuit that keeps you warm, allows you to perform, lasts for a long time and leaves a relatively small environmental footprint, the Patagonia Yulex® range is where you’ll find it.
Many-times national champion and legend of the north east Gabe Davies, who is also the Patagonia European Surf Manager, talked us through a few of the particulars.
In terms of actual material, the biggest component in any wetsuit is the foam rubber core. In terms of environmental impact, too. On either side of it you’ve got the linings – jersey fabric or the fuzzy thermal stuff – but the foam core is the most important part.
In most wetsuits, that foam rubber core is neoprene, which is made either from petrochemicals or from limestone, dug from the ground and then crushed, heated and liquified at around 2000 °C. It may also contain some proportion of scrap rubber tyres, upcycled into “carbon black”, but no more than 30%. When you hear talk about recycled wetsuits or recycled neoprene, it’s only partial and/or referring to the linings.
In a Patagonia wetsuit, this foam rubber core is a blend comprising 85% natural rubber and 15% synthetic rubber. That natural rubber, tapped from Hevea trees, is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
“Why buy a Yulex® wetsuit and not a neoprene one?” we asked Gabe.
“You instantly reduce emissions, reduce energy use in the process and help preserve biodiversity, carbon capture and forest health,” he replied.
Yes but what about performance?
“Using a Yulex® suit will not affect your cutback!”
It turns out that natural rubber latex is used in many products that rely on rigorous performance standard – surgical gloves, airplane tyres, various other things you wouldn’t really want to go wrong. From the feel and flex of the new Patagonia wetsuits, you wouldn’t know it’s not neoprene. Not that flex is all it’s cracked up to be, as Gabe explained:
“The more flex you bring, the more you limit the durability of the product. We want our suits to last at least a season longer than the rest, so we’ve never aimed at building the most flexible suit. We have been conservative with flex in the past, to edge towards greater durability, but season on season we push the flex as our confidence in Yulex® grows and to make sure our suits continue to perform in the water. We have added more flex in the foam, in the liners and also in our external and internal tapes in our new suits, so there is a combination of features that create a more surfable suit.”
Patagonia has been using natural rubber in its wetsuits for over ten years now. Still, wetsuits from trees… it’s hard to get your head around. How does it work? How many trees does it take to make a wetsuit?
“In terms of rubber per tree,” says Gabe, “it goes something like this: once a tree reaches an age of 6 or 7 it can start to be tapped for its natural raw latex, which is then refined by the Yulex® company. A tree can produce around 1L of natural latex rubber every morning, when the tree sap runs more freely – that natural rubber latex is roughly equivalent for what goes into a suit. The tree growth continues and produces rubber for around 35 years, after which cuttings are taken to grow more trees, and the tree becomes useful end-product wood. All that time, the trees are capturing carbon and producing the highest-grade rubber you can find. That boils down to ~80% saving of CO2 by using Hevea in our wetsuits compared to standard neoprene.”
One thing you’ll notice about these Patagonia suits is the robust seam construction: fully taped on the inside, powerseams on the outside. How does this factor into the stretch-warmth-durability matrix?
Gabe: “The first point of failure is usually the seams. If the seams stay watertight and don’t restrict flex, then you have a winner. Again, this is a balancing act of using technical features. It’s designing when and where to use powerseams, triple glue, blindstitch and tape. For example, in our new generation of suits for 2021, we have upgraded our external power seams, and our internal tape runs through 100% of our seams, not just the high-stress areas.”
Another thing about the seams, and Patagonia wetsuits in general: they’re Fair Trade Certified ™ sewn. Several years ago the brand got together with the Sheico Group, in whose factories most of the top surf brands have their wetsuits manufactured, to make this possible. Patagonia now pays a small premium on each wetsuit made. The option is available to – but typically declined by – other brands, too.
What does Fair Trade Certified ™ mean in practice? What happens to the small premium? It goes directly to the workers at the factory, who decide how to spend it.
“In each factory,” says Patagonia, “a democratically elected committee of Fair Trade workers decides how the funds will be used. Workers have chosen to use the premiums to fund community projects, like health-care programs or a child-care center, to purchase products they could not otherwise afford, like a laptop computer or a stove; or to take a cash bonus.”
Seams that last longer, by workers who are paid better. Sounds like a good idea to us.
Patagonia don’t do multiple wetsuit models with snappy marketing names, there’s no bewildering line-up of high-end and entry-level and mid-range options, subdivided into “comp” and “pro” versions and so on. If you’re going to go to the trouble of making a wetsuit, make it as well as you can. If there’s a feature that can be added to extend its lifespan, don’t withhold it.
So there’s only one thing really to get your head around here and that’s the thickness. The Patagonia wetsuit range starts at R1 and goes up to R5, but note that the number doesn’t correspond exactly to the suit’s thickness in millimetres.
All full-length suits (with the exception of the R1 Lite) feature the same robust seam construction; the same non-corroding Salmi® zipper (made to be replaceable, because longevity is key); the same internal wrist seals; and the same “inverted microgrid” thermal lining on the inside, extending from the chest down to the knees to keep your core toasty.
Patagonia’s own temperature guide suggests you get slightly more warmth per millimetre than you would from a standard neoprene equivalent, which tallies with my own experience. If you’re after a wetsuit for the European winter, you’re probably looking at the R3 and upwards, depending on your exact requirements.
The R3 full suit, which is also available as a hooded full suit, is 4.5mm in the body and thighs, 3.5mm in the arms and lower legs. The brand recommends this wetsuit for water temperatures in the 9-13 °C range.
The R4 is 5.5mm thick in the body and thighs, 4mm thick in the arms and lower legs, 3.5mm in the hood. Recommended for water temps between 3 and 9 °C, it’s only available as a hooded full suit (if the water’s cold enough for the R4, realistically you’ll need a hood too).
Likewise the R5 hooded full suit, which is 6.5mm in the body and 5mm in the arms and lower legs. It’s among the warmest wetsuits available, and is intended for use in the most extreme cold.
They’re all colour-coded, too, but just the bit where it says the size and thickness at the wrist, and on the inside around the ankles. Classic Patagonia, that. Yellow is R3, red is R4, the R5 is turquoise (ankles) and silver (wrists). On the outside, they’re all black for extra style points.
Gabe’s based in the north east of England, where in winter the water’s pretty flippen cold. What’s his go-to?
“In the winter, if I am surfing quickly, I’d jump in using the R3 hooded, with R4 round-toe boots and R3 Gloves. It doesn’t feel too heavy and if you are high-energy and keep moving, that is a solid winter suit for most people. If I have a longer epic session planned, or for cold mornings, I’d dive into an R4 hooded, which is my bombproof suit that will keep me warm for 2hr+ sessions in the depths of the North Sea.”