Nylon, a fashion history
Just how have we got into this yoyo love/hate relationship that we now seem to have with nylon?
The answer appears to be in clever marketing which was used to promote a fabric that perhaps did not quite answer all our needs after all. Nylon was pioneering, it’s true, but we now look down on it as a necessary evil that is not aesthetically pleasing, or tactile; a nasty synthetic manufactured from the petrochemical industry and, well, kind of scratchy and sweaty.
Some of that is true of course but nylon has come a long way from all that.
What is nylon?
If you don’t know how nylon was invented, do read my previous post on the birth of nylon.
Nylon was a conceived as a replacement for silk, which was expensive. Silk prices were unstable and had to rely exclusively on the cultivation of a live animal — the silk worm.
As a material nylon has transformed our lives. It is lightweight, easily-manufactured and mostly inexpensive. However it remains a truly transforming and memorable material within fashion history but certainly one of its time.
So, let’s step into the sturdy time machine (which has bypassed the need for a nylon makeover). Let’s whizz through the decades. And let’s discover nylon’s short but perfectly formed history.
17th Century experiments
In 1664, the first ever recorded attempt at creating an artificial fibre is made. It’s unsuccessful. Robert Hooke, an English naturalist, had dreamed of making a fibre to match silk but it never quite happened.
19th Century attempts
The first ever patented artificial fibre happens in 1855, invented by Georges Audemars, a Swiss chemist working in England. The nitrocellulose fibre is derived from a natural fibrous bark extracted from the mulberry tree and dissolved with organic chemicals.
Since then, many inventors and chemists try to manufacture artificial silk by using plant cellulose dissolved with various solvents. Here are just a few:
In 1856, English inventor Alexander Parkes, patents the first ever plastic — a celluloid based on nitrocellulose which is used as coating to make woven fabrics waterproof. His invention is exhibited at the London International Exhibition in 1862.
Celluloid is used to make objects previously made with ivory or horn: toys, jewellery, hair accessories, pens and buttons. It is easily breakable and flammable but very popular (until Bakelite took over in the early 20th Century).
In 1885, English chemist Sir Joseph Swan creates a synthetic filament that could be used as a fibre. But his main interest is in using the filament for electric lamps instead of textiles. Bah!
In 1889, French chemist Hilaire de Chardonnet commercially produces a cellulose, silk-like, artificial fibre. The fabric is showcased at the Paris Exposition of 1889. In 1891 it is produced commercially but not successfully. It’s flammable and expensive — attempts to manufacture artificial silk are largely a commercial failure until 1910.
In 1894 artificial silk is patented as viscose due to the viscous quality of the final solution.
20th Century success
English company Courtaulds Fibres produces the first commercial viscose artificial silk in 1905.
The manufacture of viscose in the USA begins in 1910. The company is Samual Courtaulds and Co. Ltd and it forms the American Viscose Company for commercial production of artificial silk (later named rayon).
The Dreyfus Brothers produce cellulose acetate for use in aircraft by the UK and the USA during World War I.
In 1920 DuPont acquires the technology to manufacture artificial silk and forms the Du Pont Fibersilk Company.
In 1924 Celanese Company manufactures an acetate fibre from cellulose for use in textiles. It becomes popular very quickly due to the high price of silk. This fibre is quicker to produce and costs half the price.
1928: Dr Wallace Hume Carothers heads the DuPont experimental department which discovers the first neoprene and the first ever synthetic fibre — later known as nylon.
The DuPont research team searches for an alternative to silk, which had previously been imported from Japan. Public relations between the USA and Japan are not at their best. Trade relations suffer as a result and the price of silk (and silk stockings) fluctuates wildly.
By 1934 DuPont creates the first completely synthetic silk and is constantly refining the process to make the fibres stronger. The fibres are made completely from petrochemicals.
DuPont has found and developed a robust enough fibre and nylon is born. Nylon is patented in 1935 and commercially introduced in 1938.
This prototype nylon is not heat resistant to a hot iron nor is it resisitant to dry-cleaning chemicals. DuPont looks to produce a more durable synthetic by experimenting with multiple versions of the fibre to find the strongest, most commercial.
In early 1938, the first nylon stockings are produced. They replace silk stockings and avoid the typical fluctuations in silk prices.
In 1939, at the San Francisco World’s Fair, DuPont showcases nylon stockings for the first time and commercial production of nylon begins. It is also used for making sewing thread.
Nylon becomes commercially widely available in the USA in 1940. It is a great success. Nylon stockings become popular. It is used to produce toothbrush bristles, sewing and jewellery thread and underwear/sportswear.
Nylon helps to win the war. All nylon production is used for military products in the USA from 1941. Nylon and neoprene is used to manufacture parachutes, tents, rope and tyres. The fibre replaces everything that once used Asian-sourced silk.
During the war, the price of ladies’ stockings soar. Betty Grable and other film stars auction off their stockings for thousands of dollars to help the war effort.
By the end of World War II, 15% of commercial fibres are synthetic. Nylon stockings soon become widely available and popular again.
Nylon is also now used to produce upholstery, textiles and carpets. It starts to appear in clothing. Other synthetic fibres are produced to meet the commercial demand and opportunity.
DuPont begins manufacture of another new fibre called acrylic, which has a wool-like texture. DuPont also patents polyester — following on from Carothers initial polymer research in the 1920s.
With the production of nylon resin, the car manufacturing industry experiments with the use of nylon instead of metal. In 1948 nylon is also used for upholstery and dashboard components in cars.
In 1951, boned corsets are replaced with nylon and other synthetics.
In 1952 the phrase “wash and wear” is first used when promoting a new blend of acrylic and cotton in the USA. Soon after, there are all types of blends and mixes available in fashion. They are easy to maintain, wash-and-wearable and wrinkle-free. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?
Ironing is promoted as a thing of the past. Clothing is advertised as durable and colour-fast as well as easy to maintain.
A new shape for knitwear could be achieved by these more mouldable fibres. Garments would retain their shape or even take on an entirely new fashion shaping that would reflect modernity and progress.
Intense marketing campaigns ensure that synthetic fibres are perceived as miracle fabrics for modern, technologically-advanced societies. These are considered the perfect fabrics for modern life and for the future.
The use of nylon in carpets blossoms as does underwear, sportswear and luggage.
In 1953 triacetate is commercially produced. It is known as polyester. Scientists and designers work together to create new fabrics for fashion.
Spandex, a stretchy nylon, is commercially produced in the USA in 1959.
The commercial market for nylon grows year by year. The commerical process for manufacturing nylon improves and refines.
Innovations continue as more and more synthetic fibres are produced and improved upon. Fibres that hold colour better, or are whiter, more stretchy without losing shape, stronger, textured, more hygienic materials. The list goes on.
By 1965, the USA uses synthetics in 40% of fibre production. There is a huge growth in the commercial popularity of easily-maintainable polyester clothing.
Fibres become more hi-tech and futuristic. Special fibres are produced to help with the space programme in the USA. Spacesuits are a mixture of nylon and other man-made and purpose-made fabrics. The US flag planted on the moon is nylon. Space age fashion becomes popular, using the latest technologies to create innovative designs.
In car manufacturing, nylon resin is heavily used to supply a demand for cheaper and more lightweight materials. Engineers and designers experiment greatly with nylon and its capabilities. The experiments are sporadic until the introduction of mineral and glass-reinforced nylon material in the 1960s. This is heat and chemical-resistant.
The fashion backlash against synthetic fibres begins in the late 1960s as hippie culture finds more value in natural living and simple back-to-nature ideals.
In the USA, synthetic fibres outsell natural fibres for the first time ever. Factory production gets faster and cheaper. Industrial nylon is getting stronger and more durable. Synthetic fabrics saturate the market.
Flammability standards improve for clothing and textiles in the early 1970s, especially with regards to children. The textiles industry researches flammability for all synthetic material to ensure safety. Antistatic treatments for nylon are improved. Fabrics can be made without any form of knitting or weaving, they are just sheets of polyester with chemical formulae.
Oil shortages affect the nylon industry and growth slows.
In car manufacturing, a greater need for pollution control elements and fuel efficiency lead to more use of nylon materials over the more expensive and weightier metal options.
A backlash begins against synthetic fibres and some fashions look to more natural and nostalgic fabrics and styles. The realities of wearing synthetic fibres are now clear: the clothes are not breathable, are loaded with chemical dyes and processes, are sweaty and clingy in all weathers and deteriorate in colour reacting to the human body.
DuPont acquires Conoco to ensure a ready supply of petrochemicals for the nylon textile industry.
Japan introduces microfibres and engineered fabrics. They can be mass-produced relatively cheaply but have modern practicalities.
The invention of polypropelene affects demand for some of the more industrial uses for nylon such as carpeting.
In car manufacturing, nylon is used ever more increasingly to produce car parts that simply snap together, are fuel-efficient, pollution-reducing and lightweight.
The backlash continues against cheaply produced synthetic fashion. Natural silk and wool fibres are seen as classy and reassuringly expensive if highly impractical. People are keen to show off their wealth and favour rare and difficult to maintain fabrics.
Petrochemicals are getting more expensive and less readily-available.
The USA uses synthetics in almost 70% of fibre production.
The backlash in fashion continues as synthetic fibres continue to be seen as cheap, unnatural, mass-produced throwaway fashion. Natural fibres are thought of as classier, more durable and less wasteful. The tide turns against the cheaply made image that nylon has. Its durability and practicality is ignored for more natural fibres that suggest hygiene, healthy living and sustainability.
Concerns grow over the reliance of synthetics on the petrochemicals industry and people began to favour more sustainable ways to create fashion and taste. Synthetic blends become the norm and a cost-effective way of producing clothes.
In car manufacturing, moulded thermoplastic materials begin to dominate and transform modern cars.
In 2004 DuPont sold its textiles business.
Nylon variants and fine microfibres are produced with increasing capabilities for stretch, stain resistance, absorbency and fire hazard.
Nylon has negative connotations in the 21st century. It conjures up images of cheap and scratchy material that has a limited amount of stretch and does not have a luxurious feel. Nylon variants are given different names to create new connotations of innovation, luxury and modernity.
sources and recommended reading
Science and Corporate Strategy by David A. Hounshell and John Kenly Smith, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
The Tragic Story of Wallace Hume Carothers, Financial Times, 29/11/2008
Du Pont: Behind the Nylon Curtain by Gerard Colby Zilg, 1974 —extended, re-written version is called Du Pont Dynasty: Behind the Nylon Curtain, 1984.