Warm Swimsuits for Cold Water Swimming

NeoSport XSPAN tops and XPS Steam Spring Wetsuit
Swimming pool at the Oklahoma State University Colvin Recreation Center

Image credits: 1.5mm Women's NeoSport XSPAN Wetsuit Jacket from Wetsuit Wearhouse and XPS Steam Spring Wetsuit from Bass Pro

Side benefits of wearing a swimsuit with added coverage for modesty, such as the many featured in our modest swimsuit shopping reviews, include UV protection and warmth. These positives are usually countered by drag in the water, depending on how loosely the modest swim style fits. For swimmers merely playing at the water's edge, the drag of extra fabric can be tolerated. In Western culture until the early 1900s, females wore swimming outfits that resembled dresses. The yards of fabric kept them warm and sheltered from UV rays, but the weight when wet kept them near shorelines, preventing serious aquatic exercise. Strenuous exercise for women has become popular since then, as our knowledge of health has increased, leading to performance concerns ranking higher than those of modesty for female sports clothing. Even most groups that promote modest clothing in today's culture make special exceptions for swimwear because the weight of loose layers in the water hinders exercise and may even be dangerous in deep water. As a result of relaxed rules for water wear compared to daywear, some groups that promote modesty require male and females to swim separately. Swim styles that are called "modest" today generally do not provide as much sun protection or warmth as the styles our great-great grandmothers would have worn, but at least we can move around in the water better than they could.

Balancing modesty with performance in swimwear

Recreational swimmers who stay in surf-level waters and seek coverage for only for modesty or UV ray protection reasons can wear anything from culottes with a t-shirt to the most baggy of modest swimwear styles without much risk. Performance swimmers who need both modest coverage and minimal drag for lap swimming are in a different category, one with which I sympathize. As a girl, I swam as part of a swim team for years and sewed linings to my team-issued swimsuits for increased modesty. As an adult, I have continued to lap swim with skirted swimsuits I make myself, modeled after figure skating dresses without sleeves. Each swimsuit lasts about six months in chlorinated water, so I have learned through repeated projects the pattern shapes and fabrics that work best. Few serious swimmers would imagine choosing a skirted swimsuit for lap swimming, but I have logged hundreds of miles in mine and enjoyed the coverage of the short skirts when out of the water. Another female lap swimmer once asked me where I found my swimsuits, since she had never seen any like mine in the stores.

Balancing performance with warmth for wintertime swimwear

Druing the wintertime, the need arises for warmth in addition to modesty and performance in a swimsuit. The indoor pool in which I swim is kept between 80 to 84 degrees Fahrenheit year round, which is perfect for most people, yet a little cooler than I personally prefer, especially on winter days when the outside temperature is at freezing. While I admire the many styles of warm, modest swimwear reviewed on my site, few of them are conducive to performance, especially as a lifeguard. So, I turned to researching made-for-warmth swimwear utilized by scuba divers.

Wetsuits can be uncomfortably tight and are intended for outdoor cold water environments

In the process of researching wetsuits for warm swimwear, I learned that while they may work for general swimming purposes, they are unsuitable for anyone who serves in a lifeguarding position. This is because the neoprene fabric of which they are made, with an average thickness of 3mm, provides a flotation effect that hinders swimming to the bottom of the pool for a rescue. I also learned that wetsuits are uncomfortably tight. A wetsuit must fit tightly to prevent cold water from settling between the suit and the skin, and the tight fit means that the suit must be slowly pulled on, often with difficulty. The velcro neck tabs kept catching on the inner part of the suit, requiring several minutes of work to unpeel while trying not to damage the suit. While trying on a wetsuit, I found myself feeling as suffocated as some other wetsuit wearers have written about online, even though I wore the correct size. My torso height was at the top end of the range, which may have contributed to the pressure over the shoulders, but the next size up would have admitted too much water all over. My correct size left a pocket of space over the back waist, a fitting error that I had seen noted online in review comments. This probably indicates that most wetsuit companies would do well to curve the back waist area in more for the average female wearer, since this is a common complaint. If it was warmth I wanted, the suit would have done the job. After being in the suit for just a few minutes, I was so hot that I rushed to get out of it. The pressure and overheating of the suit made me realize that while it would have worked for a cold outdoor swim with minimal arm movement, it would be unsuitable for my needs in an indoor pool with lap swimming arm movement. So, I turned to investigating just a warm swimming top instead.

Wetsuit tops provide a flexible fit and moderate warmth

When seeking warmth, sometimes covering just one part of the body can help, and this is the case with a wetsuit-type vest or top over a regular swimsuit. Wetsuit Wearhouse stocks the NeoSport brand made by Henderson USA, one of the most reputable wetsuit manufacturers in the world. NeoSport items are made from XSPAN superstretch neoprene that is soft and easy to get into. The 1.5mm tops shown above are stretchy enough that they do not have any zippers for entry, which is good. The thin neoprene would offer a minimal to neutral flotation effect. A Wetsuit Wearhouse video review shows XSPAN fabric stretching to twice its resting length! Of course, NeoSport is just one brand of many that offers tops for warmth.

Most of the scuba shops in my area stock brands they claim to be of higher quality than NeoSport. Sharkskin is one of those higher quality brands that makes a neutral-flotation vest with a stretchy polar fleece inner layer for warmth. After taking a look at the simplicity of the design and the relatively high cost of vests like Sharkskin's, I decided to try making my own warm layer out of stretch velvet, but this fabric did not provide adequate stretch to work for a swim layer. In the future, I would like to order 3mm neoprene fabric online and try making a vest similar to a style sold by Patagonia. By making my own warm swimsuit, I can keep a short skirt on the style and avoid the less modest bodysuit look of a full wetsuit.


Looking forward to the outcome, Elizabeth, January 12, 2013
"I am looking forward to the outcome of your swimsuit. I am currently in the market for modest performance swimwear for a triathlon sprint I would like to do in August. The current swimwear I own have too much drag and fabric for performance. Besides your experiment, what you you suggest as being a modest performance swimwear from your reviews? I currently own one swimwear from HydroChic and another vendor. Love your site!!"

Performance Swimwear, Fashion Belle, January 12, 2013
"Thanks for asking! The stretch velvet lining idea turned out horribly. It did not allow enough stretch to accommodate the pattern and outer layers which were made of much stretchier fabric. So, I made a swimsuit with three layers of thick Spandex fabric. It is definitely warmer than swimsuits made from just layer, partly because the flow of water is restricted so you don't have as much moving water coming in. The three layers also allow more body heat to be retained. However, for true cold water swimming, more than this is needed. I recommend you check on some of the knee-length competitive swimwear styles if you need warmth. If your competition takes place in cold water, you will need to verify the regulations allowed by your event. Neoprene is the fabric of choice for warmth in triathlons, but only certain thicknesses are allowed in competition if you want your score to count. As for modest performance swimwear, it really depends on the level of modesty you desire. You can find many modest tank suits among our swimwear reviews, but if you are looking for something with a skirt, then you must balance performance with modesty. Anything with loose fabric like a skirt will slow down performance times."

The swimming pool pictured is located at the Oklahoma State University Colvin Recreation Center, copyright 2013 Fashion Belle, courtesy of OSU. Please do not reproduce. Check out Oklahoma State University's highly accredited and affordable degree programs in fashion design.