Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A History of Synthetics: Nylon

Catch up on Rayon.

Developed by the DuPont chemical company, nylon was launched in 1939. It was the first truly man-made fibre, as it is made entirely of petrochemicals. Depending on how it is processed, nylon can be formed into the gossamer-like threads used in stockings or into thick toothbrush bristles.

Nylon advert, 1950

History

In the 1920s the DuPont chemical company decided that basic research was the way forward - unusual for the time - and in 1928 opened a research laboratory for the development of artificial materials. They invited Wallace Carothers, a brilliant chemist who was a professor at Harvard at the time, to lead the research team.

Carothers and his assistants experimented with petrochemicals to produce synthetic polymers that could be drawn into threads. From these experiments Carothers selected a carbon and alcohol based mixture for further development. This led to the invention of nylon and marked the beginning of a new era in synthetic fibres.

DuPont unveiled the world's first synthetic fibre at the 1939 New York World's Fair as the fibre of the future, in keeping with the fair's theme of "The World of Tomorrow". Nylon was given marketing slogans like "as strong as steel, as fine as a spider's web."

DuPont built the first full-scale nylon plant in Seaford, Delaware, and began commercial production in late 1939. The company decided not to register nylon as a trademark; according to DuPont they "chose to allow the word to enter the American vocabulary as a synonym for stockings, and from the time it went on sale to the general public in May 1940, nylon hosiery was a huge success: women lined up at stores across the country to obtain the precious goods." The first year on the market, DuPont sold 64 million pairs of stockings.

Nylon stockings in Sears & Roebuck, 1940

With the outbreak of World War II, nylon proved its versatility and went to war in the form of parachutes - replacing Asian silk - and tents.

Nylon stockings were scarce during the war, but as soon as the war ended the reconversion of nylon production back to civilian uses was started. After years of privation, when the first small quantities of postwar nylon stockings were advertised to an eager public, New York department stores had to cope with stampedes of shoppers!

DuPont advert for Nylon, 1948 (source)

DuPont marketed nylon as a versatile fibre, suitable for dress fabrics, blouses and knitwear.

Variety of nylon fabric in Sears & Roebuck, 1950

It was clear, however, that nylon had found its niche in the lingerie market. Its popularity was cemented in the 50s as nylon's properties lent it perfectly to the full-bodied petticoats required for the bouffant skirts of the New Look.

Article on the wonders of nylon, from Picture Post magazine, 1949


Nylon advert from Vogue, 1955

Characteristics
  • Variation of lustre: nylon has the ability to be very lustrous, semilustrous or dull.
  • Durability: its high tenacity fibres are used for seatbelts, tyre cords, ballistic cloth and other uses.
  • Excellent abrasion resistance.
  • Highly resilient (nylon fabrics are heat-set)
  • Paved the way for easy-care garments
  • High resistance to insects, fungi, animals, as well as moulds, mildew, rot and many chemicals
  • Melts instead of burning


Continue reading: Acrylic.

5 comments:

  1. Cool history but...that page you linked about the tornado in the Wizard of Oz doesn't have the word nylon on it once? They used a giant version of a wind sock made of muslin and cotton balls adhered to glass panels; plus a mix of dirt, sulphur and carbon dusts. No nylon.

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  2. You're turning me into a synthetics expert! :-) I love the Sears ad; I need a pair of those shoes!

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  3. Hmm Rueby you're right - there seems to be a lack of agreement in different sources about what the Oz tornado was made of. This book and some other sources say nylon, but there is no mention of it on the DuPont heritage website, so it's possible it's an urban myth. I'll take it out of my history.

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  4. Hello Charlotte :~)

    Humbled to stumble across your page via searching for nylon history, I'm a new hosiery consultant with "www.myloveablelegs.com", Gail Gibson, CEO based in California. Kudos & Blessings!

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I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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