By: Eileen Marable
Did you know the flag placed on the moon in 1969 was made of nylon? Did you know nylon is the only fabric that ever caused riots in the late 1940s as women snapped up the first consumer lots of nylons coming back to market after WWII?
From the moon to women’s legs, clearly nylon fabric is some pretty versatile stuff, but why and where did it come from anyway? Yep, we’re going to take nylon and wrap it up in a bow made out of science for you!
Nylon is the world’s first truly viable, synthetic fiber. So, it goes down in history for that too! Invented in 1935 by Wallace Carothers in DuPont’s Experimental Labs, nylon was created by taking two petroleum based chemicals and fusing them in an autoclave.
The process is called condensation polymerization. Basically by applying pressure and heat in an autoclave, scientists forced two chemical molecules (adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine) together. The heat and pressure forces the water molecules out of the chemicals (condensation) and the two bond creating a bigger and repeating molecule from the same components (polymerization).
What they had left was a sheet of nylon that could be chipped or ground up, melted and then pulled through machines that make different thicknesses of nylon strands. The strands can then be intertwined to make stronger, thicker pieces of nylon thread strong enough for industrial use, or can be spun fine for use in nylons and fine garments.
Aside from just tinkering around with chemicals and inventing new things – pretty big business in the 1930s, fashion was one of the other driving forces behind the invention of nylon. Once discovered though, alternate uses for the versatile and strong material took off.
The holy grail of fashion materials is the delicate, soft richness of silk. Until alternatives were found, silk was the go-to for high-end fabrics for high-end people. Since we had to rely on the spit of a worm found in Japan to produce it, it clearly had a demand that outpaced supply back in the day which was why it was so precious. If only there were something cheaper that could come close to the experience.
Before nylon, there was rayon, which was the man-made attempt at silk using thread created from the cellulose in wood. It just didn’t have the same appeal or surprising durability of silk.
For a brief instant before nylon, Carothers’ team created polyester using esters (non-petroleum based chemicals). They stuffed that genie back in the bottle when it was found to have a high flammability and low solubility. Simultaneously, when the relative ease of making nylon appeared, its versatility and durability proven, the demand took off. Creating a more refined polyester that could be made into a fabric took a back seat. The 70s would have to wait for their fabric of choice.
The first nylon garment on offer was, of course, nylon stockings. After being displayed at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, women got to see up close how sheer and silk-like the nylon stockings were but also demonstrations on their strength. The folks at DuPont were no fools. They had picked a garment worn by most women and one they could create at a price point most could afford. Nylons were adopted en-masse, replacing expensive and delicate silks.
So adored were a woman’s nylons, there was a collective gritting of teeth when nylon factories switched from producing ladies’ undergarments to parachutes and other military uses. Intriguingly, women went so far as to paint fake seams on their legs to mimic the look of wearing stockings. It comes as no surprise then that when the first limited runs of nylon stockings came out after the War, women lined up and got fired up about getting their pair.
Even though nylon stockings have fallen out of favor in the 21st century, the historic fabric lives on in other undergarments and clothing. Silk will always be a luxury fabric we love in moderation. New delicate fabrics such as bamboo and hemp fabrics are now on offer. However, we would be hard pressed NOT to find garments of all sorts made from nylon in today’s offerings.
Our love for fine garments of all shapes and sizes isn’t even enough to deter us from taking the time to tenderly care for them. The hand-washing that went out the door with the washing machine came back with clothing made of nylon and other synthetics. They may be durable fabrics, but if the cut of the garment is delicate you have to weigh the balance.
Fortunately, there is a whole new generation of washing machines that now have a delicate cycle built in. There are even twin washers where you can wash your heavy duty items up top, and pamper your delicates in a machine down below at the same time.
Given you don’t even have to spend extra time hand washing now, nylon and all the synthetics that have followed since are here to stay. From the moon and back though, nylon is the only fabric so far that has literally caused people to riot in the streets to obtain a garment made from it.
Who knows what we’ll be wearing in the future, or what the flag on Mars will be made out of, but for the meantime we’ll always have our nylon!