After testing Patagonia’s first-ever completely neoprene-free R1 a couple years ago, we called it the ‘Tesla of wetsuits’, an impressive synergy of design, craftsmanship, and eco-innovation. But only now do we fully appreciate that comparison given its obvious — though, little discussed — shortcomings. Yulex 1.0 was by almost all accounts — including our own and of those who designed it — not nearly as flexible as neoprene.
Yet, that was a mere footnote among the near universal praise. Indeed, going neoprene free is an incredibly meaningful act of environmental stewardship for a surfer and, for many of them, that alone justified purchasing one — even if there were a few bugs. Ironically, Patagonia itself cast the harshest light on those bugs with the launch of its Fall 2018 line — wetsuits that are so close to perfection they make the previous version seem like a prototype.
It turns out that the fit and flexibility issues could be traced to an error. Patagonia wetsuit line manager Hub Hubbard says a slight variation in the manufacturing process, between test-suits and production suits, resulted in less flexible Yulex. “It sort of blindsided us,” he admits. “But a similar thing happened in the 90s when Patagonia decided to go a hundred percent organic cotton.” In other words, Patagonia sees setbacks like these as an acceptable side effect of the pace at which they innovate. And perhaps all that really matters is that the difference between the feel of Yulex 2016 and Yulex 2018 is remarkable.
Patagonia wetsuit re-design runs in two-year cycles, in which small tweaks are made mid-cycle and major revamps happen bi-annually. The 2018 line is the first to use the latest version of Yulex and will appear in all suits until Fall 2020. In testing Yulex 2.0, we actually decided to spend some time surfing in three different suits: the original Yulex model (an R1 Lite), the current one (an R2, to match chilly Spring conditions), and a regular neoprene 3-2 suit from one of the major brands.
The difference in feel between the old and new Yulex is obvious the minute you hold the new Patagonia suit in your hands. Putting it on is also an entirely different experience, the sort of effortless rote task you can do while studying the setup (which made wiggling into the old suit seem even worse this time around). The old suits did have a fit so precise it felt painted on, but that was likely more to do with its inflexibility than cut. Aside from reformulating the Yulex — still a natural rubber, harvested from sustainable Havea tree crops — Patagonia also “opened the suit up” about a centimeter. For us, this was most noticeable in the crease between our chest and shoulders, an area where there even seemed to be a little too much space. Perhaps the enhanced flexibility obviated the need to add room.
Surfing in the new Yulex suit is not massively different than surfing in the original suit. The flexibility is most noticeable on the paddle and pop-up, and, overall, the suit is slightly more comfortable while just sitting in the lineup. And it’s not just the Yulex-to-skin feel. Patagonia says they also softened the inner chest lining (our original thinner suit didn’t have a lining). However, after a session wearing our old neoprene suit, we’d say there is still a tiny bit of room for improvement in the feel department.
That said, we wouldn’t wait for Yulex 3.0 if you don’t own one yet. Patagonia suits are superior to mass-production suits in almost every other way — strength, flushing, thickness-to-warmth ratio. An odd rating system can make it a little difficult to do an apples to apples comparison — Patagonia now has a cheat-sheet with the actual thickness on the inner cuff — but there’s no doubt the chill of the unseasonably cold spring sea seeped into our “spring” neoprene suit faster than it did our R2, a suit Patagonia calls its best “all-rounder”.
Finally, it must be pointed out that even after eliminated chloroprene from the manufacturing process — which became an even more meaningful milestone when the EPA recently announced that chloroprene likely causes cancer — Patagonia is not quite ready to take a victory lap on their environmental achievement. For Chouinard and co, there is always more work to be done. This time around they used solution dyed fabrics, vastly reducing the amount of water needed in production, and the entire Yulex line is now fully fair trade. Patagonia also still maintains that their technology is up for grabs for any company that is ready to make the switch. Hubbard says that while margin-sensitive big brands have been slow to the party, a few smaller brands such as British company Finnistair and women’s wetsuit maker Seea, have taken them up on the offer.
Meanwhile, the sheer number of people bobbing around in the lineup these days wearing that little flying fish logo speaks for itself.