Happy Birthday, Nylon!
The story of a miraculous synthetic fiber which today can be produced in a sustainable way
Today, we celebrate the 82th birthday of nylon by retelling its marvelous story. Throughout these 82 years, nylon has been making a remarkable impact — not only on the textile industry, but on society as a whole. During World War II, nylon helped save lives. Today, ECONYL® nylon, regenerated from nylon waste, helps save the planet.
The demand for nylon fibers has been tremendous since the very beginning when nylon was first introduced to the market in stockings. Today, nylon is used in many different applications, much more than stockings, and the demand is not slowing down. How did it become so popular?
On February 28, 1935, the synthetic fiber polyhexamethylene adipamide, universally known as nylon, was invented in the DuPont laboratory near Wilmington, Delaware. Chemist Wallace Hume Carothers (1896–1937) paved the way to nylon’s creation by combining adipic acid with a compound derived from ammonia. After some initial tweaking, Carothers managed to create very strong and elastic fibers, whose structure was similar to those constituting silk and wool. Thus, nylon was born — the first man-made fiber that would revolutionize not just the fashion industry, but the whole modern world.
Wallace Carothers, sadly, did not live to see the remarkable impact of his invention. Just two months after it was patented, he ended his own life. This was a real tragedy, especially since a great part of his psychological turmoil evolved from doubting his own work.
The name conundrum
Where does the name “nylon” come from? According to one version, the name is a combination of randomly chosen letters “nyl” and “on”, the common suffix for names of fibers. However, a 1978 publication by DuPont (Context, vol. 7, no. 2, 1978) stated that the original name of the fiber was supposed to be “No-Run”, as in not unravelling, but since the products were not actually ravel-proof, the letters were reversed and the name was first changed to “nuron”, then to “nilon”, and, finally, to nylon.
The acronym story suggests that the letters in nylon stand for “Now You Loose Old Nippon”, a jab at USA’s losing rival in the World War II, Japan, who cut all silk imports from the Far East. Without silk, there was a need for similar material to be developed for use in war related products, like parachutes.
Chemists used the name Nylon 66, relating to the fact that both adipic acid and hexamethylene diamine, the two basic molecules in Nylon 66, contain 6 carbon atoms per molecule. Just a few years later, in 1938, Paul Schlack of IG Farben — DuPont’s German competitor — invented Nylon 6. Nylon 6 is made by polymerization of one carbon molecule, caprolactam, which also has 6 carbons. According to his personal notes, Carothers thought such synthesis was impossible.
After agreeing on the word nylon, DuPont decided to not put a trademark on the name with the hopes of it becoming a generic term in the minds of consumers, such as wood or glass. And so, it really did.
“I’ll be happy when the nylons bloom again”: nylon and the 2nd World War
DuPont initially decided to focus entirely on the market of hosiery. Silk and rayon stockings were in great demand throughout the 30s and because of World War II, the offer became scarce. Because of its durability, nylon proved to be an even better alternative to silk. Right from the get-go, stocking sales were booming. 64 million pairs were sold the first year! And in everyday speech, the words nylon and stockings became interchangeable.
During World War II, the production of nylon was shifted from stockings to only making wartime materials, such as parachutes, tire cords, and ropes. These materials helped save many lives.
But nylon stockings had become so fashionable that women could not easily accept their sudden unavailability. The widespread yearning for nylon was so great that it inspired George Marion, Jr. and Fats Waller to write a song titled “When the nylons bloom again”. The song neatly captures the sentiment of the era and the high regard in which nylon was held by the public. Women would sometimes even draw the famous seam line on the back of their legs to create the illusion they were actually wearing nylon stockings.
Soon after the war ended in 1945, the long awaited return of nylon stockings on the market was announced, which resulted in “nylon riots” across the USA. Women were lining up at the stores in hundreds, sometimes even thousands, and for a while, DuPont had a hard time meeting the overwhelming demand.
The journey from stockings to space
From their very beginning, nylon stockings have been stronger than those from made from silk and sheerer than those made from cotton or wool. Nylon stockings are resilient to heat and can withstand washing and ironing at high temperatures. Due to the shape-resistant nature of nylon fibers, nylon products retain their shape even after washing. This quality was exploited in the production of stretch nylon, which is widely used in swimwear, skiwear and many other types of elastic garments. Another characteristic that sets nylon apart from similar textiles is that it doesn’t cause allergies, due to its non-toxicity.
Today, nylon, characterized as “strong as steel and as delicate as a spider’s web”, is a part of everyday life. Not surprising, as variability is its most pronounced feature. Nylon fibers can take shape from different diameters depending on use, and can thus be applied to a plethora of products, from stockings to toothbrushes, from carpets to guitar strings, — and even space suits!
Space suits are formed by dozens of layers, each with different characteristics, nearly a third of which are made of nylon in order to ensure breathability. 6 of 21 layers of the suits that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore when they landed on the Moon were made from nylon. What’s more, the flag that was planted into the Moon’s surface to wave in glory over man’s achievement is made of … you guessed it, nylon!
Outside of the garment industry, nylon is widely used in fishing nets, and other specific uses such as tire carcasses, conveyor belts, car seat belts, fire hoses, parachutes and surgical threads. Nylon has made its mark in sports (tennis rackets are made with nylon fibers) and revolutionized travel (carry-on luggage came into practice because of light weight luggage, made out of nylon).
Nylon dominates the carpets markets
Nylon made a big impact on the carpet industry as well. Until 1950, the vast majority of carpets and rugs produced were woven. However, in 1949, the first tufting machine was created, and tufted carpets quickly gained popularity. Cotton was practically the only fiber used for the production of tufted carpets until 1954, when man-made fibers — polyester, nylon, rayon and acrylics — slowly started to take its place. Due to durability, resiliency and stain resistance of its fibers, nylon gradually dominated the carpet market. The biggest development for the carpet industry happened in 1959 with the introduction of bulk continuous filament nylon yarn — a long continuous strand of fiber used to make a section of the carpet. The quality and durability of carpets produced with bulk continuous filament nylon are similar to wool carpets, but at much lower production costs.
Nylon regeneration for a sustainable future
Nylon is a great material, but it brings some environmental issues which cannot be ignored in a time when human behavior has put the planet on a dangerous path. At an alarming pace, our planet’s resources are becoming scarce, climate change is already showing the consequences and waste accumulation is an issue the extent of which is still not recognized in its entirety.
The awareness of the environmental problems motivated Giulio Bonazzi, CEO of Aquafil, to search for another, more sustainable production of nylon. Production in which nylon would not be made one-time from crude oil and discarded after use, but made in a continuous loop production cycle, again and again. The path was far from easy, but despite objections and doubts, Mr. Bonazzi followed his vision and Aquafil successfully developed a system to regenerate nylon waste into quality nylon yarn, which can be taken back at the end of their life-cycle and regenerated into new nylon infinitely.
With ECONYL® regenerated nylon, the story of nylon has reached a whole new level. One that has no end and paves a way towards a more sustainable future. Each year, the thousands of tons of ECONYL® nylon yarn, which has the same quality as virgin nylon, prove that nylon waste does not need to go to landfills or incineration. And that nylon can be produced with a much lower environmental impact.