Noah Field Team: Stitchbox Wetsuit Repair - Cover

Noah Field Team: Stitchbox Wetsuit Repair

This is Noah’s third season making wetsuits. We’ve gone to great lengths to make them some of the best on the market, both in terms of how they’re constructed and the quality of neoprene we use. However, if you got one of our first wetsuits from SS21 (or even our Front Zip Wetsuit Jacket from way back), there’s a good chance it may be ready for some basic upkeep or repairs, to keep it in the water and out of the landfill.

Wetsuits are put through some grueling paces. They’re stretched, pulled, and yanked when being put on or pulled off. Combined with lots of activity, and exposure to sun and salt water, the wear and tear adds up. But the idea of repairing a wetsuit, believe it or not, is a relatively new concept. Most often, a tear or material breakdown affects one part of the suit, and, due to the lack of available repair options, it’s rendered useless. The thought of rehabilitating a damaged suit doesn’t even cross most people’s minds.

Enter Chris “Buddy” Pendergast, the founder and owner of Stitchbox Wetsuit Repair, and Noah’s newest Field Team member. Stitchbox was founded in the fall of 2019, after a trip Buddy took with the Worn Wear Patagonia crew, repairing wetsuits on the Eastern Seaboard. Upon his return, Buddy rented a studio in Rockaway, NY’s fabled Marina 59, and set up a repair shop to service the local New York surf community. Life happened, things changed, and he packed up and moved to Ventura, CA, where he currently lives and works.

The Noah Field Team is a diverse group of individuals from outside our industry whose physically active, engaged lives give them a unique perspective on the world. Hearing what they’re up to gives us a chance to step outside our day-to-day worlds and learn things.

Photos by Ryan Struck

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How did Stitchbox Wetsuit Repair start and why?

The start of this journey came during the spring of 2019, when I joined the Patagonia Surf East Coast Worn Wear tour. I was managing the Bowery surf shop for Patagonia at the time, and they invited me to help run the month-long tour, which spanned from Outer Banks, NC to Portland, Maine. It was this trip that really lit the proverbial lightbulb in my mind.

The opportunity to see high-quality wetsuit repair happen showed me two key things: 1.) quality repairs ARE, in fact, possible, and 2.) the surf community at large really had no viable resource to provide them. It was amazing to see people’s shocked faces, in so many different surf communities, when they got their suits after they’d been repaired. There were constant exclamations of thanks and joy. Favorite suits that carried memories–and that were headed for the trash–were brought back to life.

An estimated 250 tons of neoprene are tossed into the landfills every year. 250 tons! I remember digesting that statistic and thinking, as surfers and stewards of the environment, there must be a better way. That was it: the fire was sparked for me.

How did you get your start? Did you have a mentor or apprentice with anyone?

Everything really came together during that tour. Hector Castro and Gilberto Bello were the rubber magicians on that tour, who gave me my first lessons in wetsuit repairs. From there, I dove in, and acquired my own hand tools, materials, and stitching machines. The early days in Rockaway were a lot of trial and error. I learned as I went along, with many Facetime sessions with the west coast team. COVID sent so many plans sideways, and after spending the early days of the pandemic with family on Long Island, I went out to work with the Patagonia wetsuit team full time in January 2021. It was quite a personal journey, and it evolved my repair skills incredibly.

Talk us through what it takes to repair a suit from start to finish. Are you replacing panels, repairing stitching, or re-sealing seams?

Each wetsuit repair is really unique unto itself. Every approach to the material, and to each repair, calls for something a little different. Repairs range from re-sealing seam blow-outs to drafting fresh panels. In some cases, you have to start from the ground up.

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Are there any over-the-counter repair kits that you’d recommend before people come to someone like yourself?

Sadly, there are not enough resources for surfers, and not enough surf companies stepping up to offer repairs in a seamless and timely manner. As far as I know, there aren’t any pre-made repair kits like you could find for say, ding repair. But hey, this question is sparking some new ideas for Stitchbox!

Do you have any DIY wetsuit repair tips or techniques you could share?

I love a good DIY initiative, and at the end of the day, the goal is to keep our gear in use for as long as possible. My advice on using Aquaseal, the classic DIY rubber, is to be sure to use it sparingly. When it hardens, it lacks elasticity, which can cause other areas of the suit to come undone due to stress. If you have to patch some fin cuts or seam blow-outs, start with small amounts, and add more as needed after a session or two.

Is everything on a wetsuit fixable in your opinion?

Yes, absolutely. All suits are made by hand, and all suits can be fixed by hand. I have had suit repairs where the only original aspect was the chest, zipper, and back panel - everything else was re-drafted and rebuilt.

What about the actual life of neoprene? How long can a suit hold up? Any way to increase the life of a suit?

There are a lot of variables that go into the life of neoprene, starting with its original production recipe, and moving on to how the suit is maintained and cared for. Suits can last up to a few seasons, depending upon use and care. Neoprene is a pretty harsh material rooted in petroleum. The industry at large is making strides to find alternative methods and materials. At Stitchbox, all of our drafted rubber panels are Yulex, a fully plant-based rubber derivative.

I’m not trying to point any fingers at petroleum-based neoprenes. It’s simply a fact that, during this time of transition to greener materials, neoprene suits are both already in existence, and still being produced for various reasons. Since so many people rely on these amazing technical garments for enjoying the ocean, the best we can do is to keep them going for as long as possible. Getting your suit fixed when needed is the simplest way to increase its life.

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What is the proper way to care for a wetsuit?

Keep it out of the sun and rinse it with fresh water after each session. Both really go a long way. So many times you see a suit hanging on a fence for days after it’s been used. The UV rays take a harsh toll, and break down the suit's construction. When you dry the suit out, it is best to leave it in a shaded area.

What’s the oldest suit you’ve seen in operation?

That's a great question! I think any suit that makes it past the ten-year mark is amazing. It shows a dedication to the care for the suit, and a willingness to roll with a few punches over the years. Repairing those with some updated TLC is special for me.

Is there an average lifespan for neoprene holding up?

The reality, usually, is that the construction of the suit fails way before the neoprene breaks down. Which is why almost all suits can be brought back to life. As for neoprene itself, there are different proprietary blends from different manufacturers that allow for different levels of comfort, durability, and flexibility. It’s the magic equation any wetsuit maker strives for–having all of the above characteristics at their top level without having to sacrifice any.

Hopefully, in the very near future, neoprene will be a component of the past. There are some really amazing strides being made right now toward that goal. I’m excited for what's to come.

What’s the most common repair you see, and why is it so consistently problematic?

The highest areas of stress require the most repairs, namely the crotch and shoulders. It’s the constant movement in these areas that creates the breakdown. There are so many patterns and styles that attempt to alleviate this, but ultimately time wins that battle. Thankfully, the seams in these areas are extremely repairable.

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Do you think wetsuit companies could make their suits better, but don’t want to, because of how much it costs or the fact that it might mean they sell fewer suits?

Hmmm. That’s the million dollar question. Wetsuits have improved incredibly over the years, in both materials and construction, but the biggest hurdle will be leaving neoprene behind. In the meantime, an operation like Sticthbox is a viable solution to prolong the life of wetsuits. People need new ones for lots of reasons, but if we can collectively reduce some of this churn through proper care and repairs, perhaps we can usher in some of these larger changes that need to happen.

What’s next for Stitchbox?

At this point, I’m just excited to have conversations like this, and to shed light on the availability of quality wetsuit repair, which didn’t exist for so many years. Growing the community, and changing the thought process behind what's possible, will continue to be the goal. We want to make repairs available at much higher volumes, and partner with companies who are committed to taking this journey with us. We’re here, and we’re ready to continue to keep wetsuits out of the landfill and in the lineup.