Nylon

Essays

Nylon

Words by Ryan Liverman, photograph from Arctic Red River Outfitters by Daniel Wakefield Pasley

 

EVERY NOW AND AGAIN I HEAR SOMEONE BRAGGING about how the technology in their newest piece of kit got its start in the space program. Velcro, invisible braces, and solar cells are all fantastic and NASA deserves credit wherever it can get it. Shoot, if astral provenance can reinforce a purchasing decision or dehydrated ice-cream can get another kid interested in science I’m all for it. But it’s worth noting that not all worthwhile inventions have such an auspicious start. For example, I believe the facts will clearly show that nylon has had a dramatic impact on our lives with little to none of the recognition showered on any of the many fancier or more flashy inventions like Velcro which, let’s be fair, is ultimately applied to quite a few pedestrian or mundane tasks, like the securing of diapers for feckless parents.

Nylon

Words by Ryan Liverman11Ryan Liverman lives in Portland, Oregon. He likes his coffee black, his mornings quiet, and your children off his lawn., photograph from Arctic Red River Outfitters by Daniel Wakefield Pasley

 

EVERY NOW AND AGAIN I HEAR SOMEONE BRAGGING about how the technology in their newest piece of kit got its start in the space program. Velcro, invisible braces, and solar cells are all fantastic and NASA deserves credit wherever it can get it. Shoot, if astral provenance can reinforce a purchasing decision or dehydrated ice-cream can get another kid interested in science I’m all for it. But it’s worth noting that not all worthwhile inventions have such an auspicious start. For example, I believe the facts will clearly show that nylon has had a dramatic impact on our lives with little to none of the recognition showered on any of the many fancier or more flashy inventions like Velcro which, let’s be fair, is ultimately applied to quite a few pedestrian or mundane tasks, like the securing of diapers for feckless parents.

 

Textiles in general are boring and synthetic polymers doubly so, yet they are integral to our modern lives. First amongst its peers in this sleeper category is nylon. Nylon is a widely versatile all-star; its hallmarks are practicality and subtlety.

Since its discovery it has steadily replaced natural fibers because, in most cases, it simply works better.”

Introduced only six years prior to the United States’ involvement in World War II it proved to be so useful and malleable that by the war’s end it was being used in parachutes, ropes, tents, tires, and women’s stockings. Not even the beloved cotton has that kind of range, and since nylon is man-made its production isn’t tied to the harvest schedule.

 

Wallace Carothers (b. 1896, Iowa) is the man behind nylon, a preternatural chemist and failed English major who was also integral to the discovery of neoprene. When first produced in 1935, nylon was a solid block of machinable thermoplastic. Its first home would be in dental hygiene; nylon was quickly put to work as an alternative to the animal-hair bristles then used in your typical toothbrush. During the 1939 New York World’s Fair the DuPont Corporation released a lightweight yet resilient fabric woven from fibers made of nylon. In an unrelated yet pertinent event, later that same year, Germany invaded Poland and started World War II. The Axis powers would soon occupy and control the geographical regions that produced two critically important natural textiles, silk and hemp, and the need for alternatives became a life or death matter for the Allies. Factory Made Synthetic Materials (FMSM) was the solution and the Allies invested a tremendous amount of resources into the development and use of nylon. In 1940, nylon made its gambit in both the hosiery industry and the military-industrial complex by replacing silk as the primary material in ladies’ stockings and parachutes.

 

Once the United States joined the Allies in 1942, The War Production Board mandated that DuPont, by then the world’s leading manufacturer of nylon, stop production any of nylon for the civilian sector and support the war effort exclusively. After 1942 the only nylon products available were ones produced before the war; this may not sound like a big deal, but at the time the vast majority of women’s stockings were made from nylon, and due to this scarcity black-market nylons were selling for $20 a pair. Adjusted for inflation, that’s upwards of $300—the only place you’ll spend that much for stockings currently is in a Chanel boutique on Rodeo Drive. Following the war’s end, DuPont shifted production back to hosiery and crowds in excess of 30,000 lined up to purchase their first legal nylons in years. Riots due to scarcity broke out in several cities and continued until March of 1946 when DuPont was finally able to produce a staggering 30 million pairs per month. Such is the power of nylon.

 

Perhaps the application of nylon that is most interesting to the Yonder Journal Reader is its use in outdoor clothing and gear. Nylon’s march to the top of the materials podium didn’t end with silk; it has consistently replaced natural materials in a wide array of applications. Not because it is cool or new, but because it’s cheap and easy to manufacture, it’s durable, and it’s resilient to the elements—all desirable characteristics in regards to outdoor equipment. In terms of physical properties nylon is incredibly versatile: it can be both cast and molded in addition to being extruded into fibers (think black plastic buckles and Cordura). Before Nylon (B.N.), canvas, cotton, wool and silk were the most technologically advanced materials, albeit natural, available to man. Since it’s introduction and subsequent wholesale adoption of use in the early 1950s, Nylon has been at the forefront of outdoor technology, and is at least partly responsible for the explosion of the outdoor industry as a recreational powerhouse in the 1970s.

 

As technology and techniques have improved regarding the production and application of natural materials, some materials like waxed cotton canvas and merino wool have experienced a resurgence or renaissance in niche outdoor and fashion markets. But generally speaking, with the exception of merino wool and hemp, the current fascination with B.N. materials reflects more of t(r)endency toward affectation and outdoor dandyism than anything merit-based.

Nylon is the Subaru Outback of textiles: not as cool looking or as flashy as the alternatives but infinitely more practical.”
SHARE THIS ARTICLE
Back to Top