Last summer I got some new gear, a Finisterre two piece: big pants and a zip-up long-arm top, made out of Yulex, a natural rubber that is a cleaner alternative to non-renewable neoprene. What I hadn’t expected was that I’d soon have new swim habits to go with it: quiet solo dawn and dusk breaststroke swims up and down my stretch of river, with time to watch the damselflies mating on the lilypads, to identify otter runs and the hunting perch of a kingfisher. I am easily chilled but with cold no longer a concern I did a lot more idle, purpose-free swimming: not for fitness, not as a family, just for me. Having my legs out led to an exponential rise in head-up breaststroke. I liked being warm, but still in contact with the water, still feeling very much free and unencumbered by a suit.
For female swimmers particularly at the moment, wetsuits and swim options have evolved massively, in shape, sizes and materials, and our swimming options are evolving with them. There are now neutral buoyancy wetsuits and breaststroke wetsuits where the buoyancy is designed to enable breaststroke – traditional wetsuits are too buoyant in the legs, making breaststroke hard and torquing the knees. There are also semi-suit options so you can have your legs out or your arms out, depending on where you most like to feel the water or which limbs you like free.
Two piece suits are also growing in popularity: tall swimmers can be compressed in standard wetsuits, leading to back ache in the water and difficulty extending fully in their strokes, which two pieces neatly address, giving a much needed extra inch or two in the body. Anyone with a top and bottom that are not the same dress size also have more freedom in two pieces. And they’re just much more easy and casual to put on, you can mix and match, wearing either part when you need it – even adding or removing a layer mid-swim.
As for thickness? That is very much up to the swimmer and what they want in each season – there are many options between a thick costume (the Davy J approach) and warmer and thicker neoprene.
*** Nieuwland 2e One Piece and Two Piece: SEMI-SUITS BEST IN TEST
We tested the two piece (Nieuwland 2e Pant £50 and Long Sleeve Top £95) and one piece (Nieuwland 2e Long Sleeve Swimsuit £125) in black, and this offering from B Corp Finisterre was undoubtedly the best in test for long sleeve wetsuit style. The suits are super flexible, adapting to all body shapes to create a smooth wrinkle free fit (even on the photographer who is seven months pregnant). Everyone – with all our various shapes – looked like it was made for them and it performed brilliantly in the water: ‘really comfy’, ‘really warm’, ‘fab fit’. ‘Really nice cut,’ said Rosie who owns one at home, ‘I got tumbled around in waves the other day and it didn’t move at all.’
The two piece was preferred by the taller testers (5ft 8″ and 5ft 9″) and while the one piece fitted the 5ft 4/5” crew like a glove, there were various difficulties getting the shoulders off the one piece post swim, involving huge breast exposure (in both senses of the term), and conflicts between nipple rings and zips. The takeaway was: you might want to wear a bikini top under it.
Sizes available: 6-16 (however, reviews on the Finisterre website mention some women sizing down to a 12 or 14 from a 16 for the pant).
** Long Sleeve Suit: BEST LOOKING
Davy J is the home of some serious swimwear crushes, with many of us eyeing up their 1mm combos for years. We tested the Long Sleeve Suit and the Long Sleeve Top (£110) and Super High Waisted Jones Brief (£65), all 1mm.
We only had one Long Sleeve Suit between us (M) which is reversible, turquoise or black. Everyone – literally everyone, despite our variation in shape, size, height and choice of dryland clothes – looked amazing and felt amazing: how Davy J made something so universally flattering is close to a miracle.
The big pants (M and L sizes) were also a big hit: super snug on all of us, and something everyone wanted to take home. The Long Sleeve Top did not pan out for any of us: we tried a L based on bigger boob size (14 and 16 across the bust) but it was bizarrely baggy on the arms and trunk, like wearing your big brothers wetsuit you will grow into in two years.
The gear didn’t get quite such good reviews in the water: the arms have thumbholes but were baggy, and people felt the arms caused drag. ‘They were like carrier bags,’ said someone with a lot of extra fabric, ‘they filled up with water which didn’t empty out.’ At just 1mm there are minimal warmth benefits.
Further pro: the turquoise long sleeve suit was the most visible of everything tested in the water.
Sizes available: Super High Waisted Jones Brief 8-16; Long Sleeve Top and Long Sleeve Suit XS-2XL (approximately 6-20, see size guide on website).
** Thermocline One Piece: MULTIPLE USPs
Fourth Element’s ocean positive focus is leading to many swim fans, and we tested similar options to Finisterre: a zip up Long Sleeve Top (£147.50) and Shorts (£79.50), and a one piece Long Sleeve Swimsuit (£169.50) in the same Thermocline material. Interestingly with this brand, the one piece won out over the two: the shorts of the two piece are real shorts, rather than big pants, and felt bulkier than needed and were not so popular as a style. The one piece (despite some issues with the hemline, below) felt like overall a better fit.
The Thermocline material has a fleecy inside which felt super cosy and soft pre-swim (ideal in winter we thought), and also makes it suitable for those who suffer from neoprene allergies. It is great in the water, but really heavy when wet, so felt cold to stand around in post-swim – it does, however advertise itself on the speed with which it dries (an hour). The sleeves have long arms but tight cuffs so they worked for all arm lengths and even where there was some bagginess around the wrists it was still warm.
Thermocline doesn’t have the stretch of neoprene so the tops are made with a lot of shaping in the bust, shoulders and back. This accommodated different heights and curves really well – it seemed to fit us all – but there is more adjusting into place, and wrinkles in fabric once on. Around our shoulders and waists this didn’t bother us, but we did notice it on our bottoms – smaller butts found the bottom a bit baggy, like a flared skirt, while bigger bottoms sported more of a thong look (not necessarily unpopular).
Size available: XXS-XXXL
*** SUPER FUNCTIONAL
We tested the Neoprene Kneeskin (£115). Laid out on the grass, where it looked a bit shiny and basic with functional zig zag sticking around the arms and neck, this option was the last item to be picked up by anybody. Then we put it on and everything changed: ‘I feel like an Olympic athlete,’ said someone who wasn’t, looking down at her now sporty silhouette. ‘Perfect buoyancy’ said the Olympic breaststroker, when out in the water. It was universally really well liked for buoyancy and comfort, and coped with the full range of heights (which the swimming costume version of the same range did not).
In terms of having arms out, many swimmers felt a long arm swimsuit was a better option for them than this – that it’d keep them warmer. However, we could all see it’d be great for beaches in summer, and Zone3 say it can be made into a base layer under wetsuits.
Sizes available: S-XL
We tested the Terrapin Natural Swimming Wetsuit (£129.99). Designed to create a natural position in the water, with thinner more flexible neoprene, this is not as warm as Alpkit’s other offers, but great for breaststroke as well as crawl, and a popular go to for people who don’t really like standard wetsuits altering their stroke, but do want extra warmth at times. Like all Alpkit suits, this has baggier legs than most wetsuite, which make it easier to get on and off and probably doesn’t lead to much heat loss, but it is a bit ‘different’ to a standard fit. In the water, our testers said it had ‘good flexibility’ , ‘good movement’, ‘great comfort’, and ‘I loved it’.
Sizes available: S-XL, including “Short and Strong” and “Tall and Strong”.
We tested the Aspect Breaststroke Wetsuit (£169). This suit is the first of its kind designed for both breaststroke and front crawl. It’s super stretchy so fitted everyone really well – the only downside of that was the febrile neoprene already had a nick in it by the end of the session, from someone struggling to get it on (yes, we all tried to use fingertips not nails!), so might not be robust enough if your swimming also involves clambering around trees and rocks.
But for performance in the water, comfort and fit: three stars. ‘I really liked this, felt completely the right angle in the water,’ said Jamie.
Sizes available: XS- XXL
ABOUT THE TESTING: We called in nine variations from six brands, in two sizes. We took a very pragmatic approach to sizes called in: we needed one set that fitted me as chief tester so I could test them all, and a second size that would include a maximum number of swimmers in the photographer’s social swim group who were also able to fit in the session around their work and family commitments. No one was more surprised than us when Olympian breaststroker Jamie Ormshaw turned up (she swam in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics).
It is not practical or ecologically desirable for brands to send a full set of sizes, but it is important to get as many people as possible to test the same gear so the review can uncover objective truths not subjective opinions about the kit. On the day, in height we varied between 5ft 4″ and 5ft 9″, in dress size between 8 and 14, in bust size we varied enormously but in other dimensions of humanity we lacked diversity. We did not test plus sizes but they are listed.
ABOUT ALL THE 3 STAR RATINGS: It’s not a puff piece (and definitely not a paid piece!), this gear was just good. We put our most critical selves in the water, and found that in this instance, most of the manufacturers are getting it very right.