Up-Cycling Your Old Wetsuits

By Claire Smail

Once my wetsuit is inevitably too old or irreversibly damaged instead of hanging it up at the back of the cupboard until my next big clear out there are in fact several options still left to extend the life of a wetsuit.  As I mentioned in 'New Year, New Wetsuit' you can pass your suits on to a new home like Reed Chillcheater Ltd or The Wave Project and then someone else could enjoy it for a bit longer.  On the other hand, you could also explore the infinite potential of up-cycling! 

If you are feeling crafty you could get into up-cycling the high quality, long lasting and technical neoprene fabric and fastenings into something new.  Over the years my old wetsuit have been made into a whole host of things including patches for repair of newer, damaged suits, knee/arm support bandages, arm warmers for my brother, during his pre-race cycle warm-up, and the zips used to repair bags and holdalls. 

Firstly, I have found it best to wash the wetsuit on a rinse cycle with some fabric softener and then leaving it to dry before starting any up-cycling project.  Then I have found there is a couple of different ways of going about preparing your wetsuit. If you are not sure what you want to make out of the fabric you can prepare it by deconstructing the wetsuit, by cutting along the main seam and cutting out the zip.  This will ‘open out’ the suit and show you how much neoprene you have got available.  This is good technique if you want to make a larger item out of sections of neoprene sewn together.  The other method is to pre-plan what sections of the suit are already about the right size for the things you want to make before you cut anything up. I find this takes a bit more thought but it allows me to be more creative, can save time re-sewing seams and usually means there is less wastage at the end.

Today I have found one of my old Alder 5.3 winter suits.  This suit is years old but I have kept it in the cupboard because, even though it is too warm to wear in the winter and always seems too thick for the summer, it is still in good enough condition to be up-cycled.  There are several things I want to make with this suit as the thickness of it makes it perfect for creating protective, insulated and flexible items, such as; hair ties, glasses, fin cases and tablet cases.

You will need...

  • One clean and dry wetsuit
  • A good pair of fabric scissors
  • Measuring tape
  • Tailors chalk (pen)
  • Dressmaker’s pins
  • Hand sewing needle
  • Sewing machine (optional)
  • Good quality cotton thread (in your choice of colour)
  • Velcro (I have used sticky backed velcro)
  • 1 shoe lace, cotton taping and/or ribbon (your choice of colour and thickness)


To make hair ties…

I’m going to start by making hair ties by cutting no thinner than 1cm strips out of the arms and ankles.  Both these areas have extra taping to control the stretch of the fabric so they make strong and durable hair ties perfect for wearing surfing.

Next I want to make a sunglasses case as last year I lost mine on holiday.  I can save sewing a completely new case by using a section of one the sleeves to make use of the existing glue and blind stitched seams. 


To make sunglasses case…

Place the glasses on the sleeve to check the size.  Leave about 2cm of extra fabric around all the sides and bottom, then measure 5cm above for the top edge.  Mark each of these measures with chalk onto the neoprene. Cut out the section of the sleeve.

To sew up the bottom of the case you need to turn the tub of neoprene inside out and then using a straight stitch on the sewing machine or a simple over-stitch (using a hand sewing needle), sew up the bottom. If using the machine your seam needs to be 1cm up from the raw edge.  I did find my trusty sewing machine only just coped with sewing the double layer of 3mm neoprene and if it had been any thicker there is no way it would have worked at all.  So you might want to check if your machine is capable and if not I would use hand stitching instead. Try to sew a close and even over-stitch, encasing the two raw edges together.  If sewing by hand I would try to use double thickness thread or embroidery cotton so the stitches are stronger.

To create a fastening at the top and working on the principle that neoprene does not really fray I am just going to make a simple draw string opening. I can do this by measuring down from the open edge by 1.5cm (mark this with a line of chalk) then I am going to snip ½ cm hole every 3 cm long this line (so around the whole top edge of the case).

The create the draw string I then simply thread the show lace (if using cotton taping/ribbon you might need to use a tapestry needle) in and out through each snipped hole until both ends come together on the outside of the case. Now I should find if I pull and then tie the remaining ends into a simple bow the top of the case will have gathered in enough to hold the glasses safely inside. Ta da!


To make tablet case…

We start in a similar way to the glasses case by placing the tablet on the leg of the wetsuit to find the best section to make the case out of.  I found the best part in terms of width to hold the table was at the knee. This also seemed the perfect part of the suit to use as the knee pad added a lot of extra protection. The sides are already sewn so you only need to focus on the top and bottom edge.

Place the tablet on the fabric and measure then mark with chalk 1cm below the bottom edge onto the neoprene. Cut along this mark so you have cut out the bottom edge of the case from the lower leg section of the suit.

Next it’s time to do the top and create the opening to the case.  As I am mainly using the area covered by the knee pad and the 5mm neoprene is definitely too thick to sew with my sewing machine, I had to think about how I wanted the case to close. (I could have done another draw string but that would have used a lot more of the neoprene and not ever closed fully. I could have just made one of the top edges longer and so overlapped it and then fastened with a button and tie or press studs).  I want mine to fasten using Velcro as I feel this would be the most secure. This means the back panel of the case needs to be cut 1cm larger than the tablet and the front panel needs to be at least 3cm longer.  As I am using the whole knee pad, I have chosen on the front to cut the 3cm top fold curved so it follows the shape of the pad. To create the lower curved shape on the back Ijust cut slightly above the back of the knee seam (originally put in the suit to make it easier to bend your knees when surfing).

Now that you have the case cut out, it is time to start sewing. To form a strong and neat bottom edge of the case I decided to use some cotton taping. As I only had 1inch wide pieces, I stitched two together to give me a 2 inch wide strip (as I want the taping to fold over both the raw edge to create a casing instead of a seam for the lower edge). Using strong cotton thread and an over-stitch, I attached the taping first to one side and the over to the next.  I could then fold in the small raw edges of the taping at the sides and just quickly stitch up them up.

To create the top of the case, I first folded over the extra front fabric and marked how far down it overlapped the back panel. I then cut a length of pre-glued Velcro and because the top is curved I cut it 2cm smaller than the opening. So that the Velcro could ‘fan out’ and curve to follow the edge of the opening, I cut a ½ cm incision every 3cm along the length of the bottom edge.  As I am using sticky Velcro, I then just removed the backing and stuck one side of the Velcro down, just slightly above the chalk line I have drawn earlier on the back. I then removed the other back and shut the case by folding over and down the front edge. After applying pressure for a few second to ensure the Velcro has stuck, I could then open and check the case.

To finish it off and make sure it will last a long time I decided to do two things. Firstly, to make sure the Velcro was firmly and hopefully permanently attached I used an over-stitch to sew all the edges to the neoprene. Then to make the top edge of the case look better and be stronger when used, I cut the wetsuit’s zip pull off and used a length of that taping to encase the folded over edge (in the same sewing technique that I used for the bottom of the case). 

Now the only thing that is left to do I decide what I am going to keep in it, as now that I have made it I feel it would also be a perfect travel bag for my surfboard fins…well there is another leg of the suit, looks like I had better get the scissors out again!