Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Nylon: ‘the durable and indestructible material of the people’

In 1928 Wallace H. Carothers, an organic chemistry lecturer at Harvard University, joined DuPont, a chemical manufacturing company, to lead a research team identifying potential commercial uses for different polymers. After several years of experimentation, the chemists produced a material that could be drawn out into long, thin strands which were extremely strong and durable. It was patented in 1937 as nylon 6,6.

Pulling a heated rod out of a mixture of carbon, alcohol, coal tar and water

Nylon is not just one material but instead refers to a family of very similar polymers known as polyamides. The original and most commonly used of this family was nylon 6,6 but other chemical manufacturers wanted to reproduce it without breaching the patent on its production. Many different versions have since been created which in turn all have different properties eg. nylon 6, nylon 6,12, nylon 4,6 etc.

The first commercial product to use this synthetic material was Dr West’s Miracle Tuft, a toothbrush with nylon bristles released in February 1938. DuPont soon realised nylon’s characteristics were ideal for the hosiery market and built a factory in Delaware the following year that ran for 24 hours/day, producing enough yarn in its first year of operation for 64 million pairs of stockings. Introduced to American consumers on 15th May 1940, 800,000 pairs were sold on that first day.

At a cost of $1.15 per pair, they looked like the more expensive silk stockings but were cheaper, more robust and easier to care for. But no sooner had they appeared on the shelves of department stores across the United States, they disappeared as the country entered the Second World War. Supplies became severely restricted as output was channelled into military use with nylon producing such vital equipment as parachutes, tents, mosquito netting and hammocks. As soon as the war ended DuPont resumed stocking production with demand quickly exceeding supply: newspapers reported ‘nylon riots’ taking place as thousands of US women mobbed stores with limited stock.

AIBDC : 008191Aristoc Full Fashioned Nylons, 1947 – 1952. Picture credit: MoDiP

The first British made ‘nylons’ appeared in 1947 such as the pair featured in the photograph above from MoDiP’s collections and currently on display in the Plastics & the home front exhibition. This exhibition is in support of Dazzle & The Art of Defence.

Since then nylon has become ubiquitous. Continued innovation and development has led to the creation of a wide range of nylon-blended fabrics that produce inexpensive, colourful, wash-and-wear clothing and the material can also be found in products ranging from kitchen utensils to medical implants. 

MoDiP has over 280 objects made from polyamide (nylon) including some fantastic 3D printed pieces that can be viewed or borrowed for inspiration.

A few interesting facts about nylon: 

  • In 1938 the Washington News printed an article claiming that nylon could be made using cadaverine, a substance formed during the putrefaction of dead bodies.
  • It was claimed that nylon was the material used to make the tornado that whisked Dorothy to the Emerald City in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.
  • An alternative name proposed for nylon was ‘klis’ which is silk spelt backwards.
  • Wallace H. Carothers was also involved in the creation of neoprene, a synthetic rubber commonly used in wetsuits, and had almost 50 other patents to his name by 1937. Unfortunately he committed suicide that same year.
  • DuPont developed many other successful polymers including Teflon, Mylar, Kevlar and Lycra.
  • In 1969, Neil Armstrong planted a nylon flag on the moon. 

Katherine Pell, Museum Collections Officer.

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