Know Your Fiber: Nylon
Posted on October 01 2021
We are pretty big on natural fibers here at Northwest Yarns. Wool? All the wool and all the breeds, please. Alpaca, yak, angora, mohair? Why, yes, don’t mind if we do. Cotton, linen, silk? Give us all of those luscious fibers. But, let’s talk nylon. That purely synthetic workhorse of a fiber that is added to some of yarns we stock, sock yarns in particular, to improve durability. As any sock knitter will tell you, adding nylon to a wool yarn can help your well-loved socks last for years and years before they need darning, and help make sure they spring back into shape after wearing.
Before nylon existed, or was even an idea, there was silk. Then in the 1800s through the early 1900s there was rayon, a semi-synthetic fiber that was cheaper to produce than silk but nearly as soft and lustrous. However, it had its limitations. It was far too brittle and not nearly strong enough for to completely replace silk in all applications. Scientists of the early 1900s set their minds to this problem, and by the 1920s research into polymerization and synthetic fibers had begun, which would eventually result in the invention of nylon.
In 1920, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company purchased a majority share of the French rayon company Comptoir des Textile Artificiels. The two combined to form the a division of E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company known as the DuPont Fiber Company. Today, the E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company is known simply as DuPont. Sound familiar? It should. Today’s DuPont is one of the largest manufacturers of chemicals and a prominent name in synthetic textiles, having developed many such as Teflon, Mylar, Dacron, Lycra, and Orlon. Back in the 1920s, though, DuPont Fiber Company scientists had a straightforward and singular mission. Create a synthetic fiber that could do all that silk could do, and maybe more.
DuPont initially poured their resources into trying to improve rayon. Not coming up with any satisfactory progress, they changed tact in the late 1920s when they set up a research laboratory, “Purity Hall,” and hired Wallace H. Carothers, an organic chemistry lecturer from Harvard, to run it. Carothers wanted to research polymerization, and DuPont was happy to give him a lab and stable of chemists with which to do research. Just a year later a breakthrough was made in the creation of the first polyester. Too brittle to be good for commercial use, it nonetheless proved the value of DuPont’s new research laboratory. In 1934 there was a breakthrough when Donald D. Coffman, a member of Carothers’ team, produced the first nylon fiber. However, the process and materials used were deemed inefficient for commercial use, and so research carried on. Unfortunately, by the late 1930s, Carothers experienced a decline in his mental health that affected his ability to participate in research. While Carothers would still visit the laboratory, Elmer Bolton, the chemical director of the company, and Dr. George Graves eventually would take over leadership of the DuPont nylon development team. After Carothers left researched, Bolton was face with a choice of which starting materials would ultimately be used for nylon. Bolton chose benzene, a material readily derived from coal tar, an abundant petroleum product both then and still today. Although Carothers’ would not live to see his team introduce nylon to the rest of the world, he and his DuPont team are typically given historical credit for the invention of nylon.
DuPont launched their new product in 1938. Although the first commercial use of nylon was as a replacement for hog bristles in toothbrushes, the real demand was in women’s stockings. As hemlines had risen over the last couple decades, silk and rayon stockings were in demand – it was not considered modest in the least to wear a dress without stockings. The average American woman purchased eight pairs of silk or rayon stockings per year, with silk being the preferred fiber as it was more resilient. Silk, however, was expensive. When DuPont first presented their new nylon stockings to an audience of over 4000 women in April of 1938, the world was entranced with the possibilities. Could silky stockings that were cheaper and more durable than silk be possible? Unless a woman was married to one of the DuPont nylon scientists, they would have to wait 18 months to find out. A limited number of first commercially available pairs of nylon stockings finally went on sale in October 1939 in Wilmington, DE. However, they did not hit the national market until May 15, 1940. When they did so, they sold out nearly everywhere before the day was even through. Nylon stockings were an amazing success. Within just two years, by 1941, DuPont controlled 30% of the hosiery market.
Starting in 1941, the entry of the United States into WWII meant that nearly all the nylon produced by DuPont went into parachutes and other military hardware. Nylon hosiery was nearly impossible to find, although someone with the right connections on the black market might be able to find a pair. When nylon stockings finally returned to stores in 1945, there were what were popularly referred to as “nylon riots,” where hundred, and in some areas thousands, of women competed for what was still a limited supply of nylons. In June 1946, 40,000 people in Pittsburgh, PA lined up to try and get one of just 13,000 pairs of nylons advertised as “for working girls only.” Fights broke out, police officers trying to break up the fights were assaulted, and some women even threatened to kill any men who entered the line. Demand for nylons after WWII and through much of the rest of the 1940s was so high that DuPont was able to demand that their customers all pay in advance of receiving the product. This, along with supply no meeting demand, were making both customers and suppliers unhappy.
By the late 1940s, there were rumblings of an antitrust suit against DuPont. Nylon was an enormously profitable and popular market. This, coupled with a persistent low-grade nylon shortage, meant that other companies wanted in. To avoid an antitrust suit that they would almost certainly have lost, DuPont decided in 1951 to license nylon production to other companies. What followed was a boom in synthetic fabrics, and not just nylon. Easily cared for, permanent-press clothing was the wave of the future, and synthetic fibers could be found in everything from underwear to twinsets to fake furs. With designers such as Coco Channel and Christian Dior using nylon and other synthetic blends in their couture finery, the success of synthetics seemed to be assured.
However, the very ubiquitous nature of nylon and other synthetics meant that what was once luxurious and new eventually lost its luster. Not to mention that synthetic fabrics were hot, and not necessarily in the fashionable sense. Lacking the breathability of natural fibers, nylon and other synthetics were simply more uncomfortable to wear. This, combined with an increasing awareness of the environmental impact of synthetic fibers produced from petroleum, helped lead to gradual decrease in their popularity. By the 1980s, the popularity of natural fibers for clothing began to make a comeback, helped along by the start of Cotton, Inc.’s 1980s commercials promoting 100% cotton clothing on national television. Consumers purchasing 100% cotton clothing soon looked to other natural fibers. The rousing success of Cotton Inc.’s television campaign was followed by the renewed popularity of wool and other natural fiber. Synthetic fibers’ success over that of natural fiber was no longer assured. Subsequent decades have also seen a decrease in women wearing nylon stockings, further reducing nylon’s presence in our modern wardrobes.
Nylon here to stay, however, and continues to play an important role in clothing and textiles. Today, it is largely used as an additive fiber intended to improve the durability of natural fiber yarns and to help clothing maintain its shape. An 85%/15% wool/nylon blend sock yarn can provide increased durability of more than three times that of a 100% wool sock yarn. However, it should be noted that with this increased durability may come with some associated environmental impacts, as most nylon today is still made from petroleum products. However, enterprising researchers and manufacturers have been working to lessen this reliance. Recycled nylon is available on the commercial market; it is obtained from nylon waste collected from landfills and oceans, creating a closed loop recycling process. Other companies are focusing on creating nylon from plant-based oils such as castor oil, which has only recently started to enter the commercial market.
Nylon does have a number of useful benefits, on which many clothing manufacturers and crafters rely. It is a durable and stretchy fiber that can extend the life of your natural fiber clothing by years – for hard wearing items such as socks, this is a particularly valuable function. Additionally, adding nylon to a natural fiber can help the finished project retain its shape. Nearly all clothing made with 100% natural fibers will stretch out with wear and can only regain their shape by re-blocking – think sagging socks and stretched out cardigan cuffs. Adding nylon to natural fibers can help address this issue. Nylon critics can accurately point out, however, that nylon can take 30-40 years to decompose in a landfill, which places it on the do-not-use list for some fiber fans. Keep in mind, though, that compared to lycra and acrylic, nylon is the much better option in terms of biodegradability, since both of those synthetic fibers will take more than 500 years to biodegrade. By comparison, wool (the most durable natural fiber) takes about 5 years to decompose in a landfill. Of course, many of us would not dream of throwing away our beloved handcrafted clothing in the first place. Most of us in the crafting and fiber arts world would much rather repair or refashion our handmade clothing rather than simply throw them away. That is what darning and patching are for, not to mention frogging an entire knit sweater with that lovely yarn just to recover it for your next project.
Nylon reinforced or all natural, whatever your preference is, we have a yarn for you! Check out all our current yarns and see what works for your next project. Get out there and cover the world in yarn, Northwest Yarns Nation!