The Interesting History of Nylon Fabric

The story behind the famous nylon fabric starts in the early 19th century when DuPont began testing for the development of cellulose-based fibers. DuPont was founded by a French-American chemist and industrialist, ÉleuthèreIrénée du Pont, in 1802 in Wilmington, Delaware.

After nylon was introduced and widely accepted, it became one of the extensively utilized fabrics, from being used in the making of toothbrushes to medical implants, and many other various products.

The Invention of Nylon

The testing conductedby DuPont helped in producing the synthetic fiber ‘Rayon’. The creation of ‘Rayon’ marked an important milestone in the development and making of nylon.

In 1927, a research program in polymers was initiated by DuPont. Charles Stine, the vice-president of the organization, suggested a new organizational structure that would break down the chemical department into small research teams.

These teams would work with the focus on pioneering research in the chemical industry. The polymer research team was led by Wallace Hume Carothers who was a Harvard instructor. Initially, Wallace kept the team’s focus mainly on research, using another chemists’ work and building on it.

During 1930, the Wallace led research team had synthesized two new polymers. The first one was neoprene, a synthetic rubber greatly used in World War II. The other polymer was a white elastic paste that would later become nylon. From here on, the polymer research team was made to shift its focus from just research. They startedfocusing more on finding one chemical combination that would be practically usable in the industry.

In 1930, Carothers coworker, Julian W. Hill, used a cold drawing method to make polyester. The same method was later used by Cathorer’s, in 1935, to fully develop nylon. On February 28, 1935, the first specimen of nylon was produced which was named nylon 6,6. It had the required features of strength and elasticity but also required a complex manufacturing process. A patent was obtained by DuPont for the fiber in September 1938.

The production of nylon at DuPont involved three different departments: The Department of Chemical Research, the Ammonia department, and the Department of Rayon. High-pressure chemistry had to be used in the production of certain materials that were essential to the making of nylon. Making these materials was the main expertise of the Ammonia department. The Ammonia Department was in financial troubles and the making of nylon helped boost its revenue and sales immensely.

Nylon and its Popularity

Soon, nylon became a popular product and an important part of the popularity was played by DuPont’s marketing strategy. The product was marketed even before it hit the market. On October 27, 1938, nylon’s first commercial announcement was made. Marketed as the first man-made organic textile fiber which promised to be as strong as steel, nylon became very famous with the audience. The introduction of nylon also made the headlines of many newspapers.

nylon stockings being inspected during production

At the 1939 New York’s World Fair, nylon was introduced as part of ‘The World of Tomorrow’. It was also featured in the DuPont’s ‘Wonder World of Chemistry’ at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco in 1939.

It wasn’t until May 1940 that actual nylon stockings were shipped to particular stores for sale. Before that, only a few were released for sale in Delaware. The first-ever sale of nylon stockings happened on October 24, 1939, in Wilmington, Delaware. All of the 4000 pieces of stockings available were sold within the first three hours.

Another intelligent marketing tactic that was used was to linkthe success of nylon with a reduction in silk imports from Japan. This notion won over many customers in the market.

However, the sudden excitement and popularity also caused a few problems. Unrealistic expectations were being placed on the material to be far better than silk. Realizing the risks behind such idealistic claims as ‘nylon being strong as steel’, DuPont toned down the marketing taglines.

People also had a sense of unease and fear in trusting this new product. At first, DuPont’s marketing executives failed to realize and address this fear. A news story that damaged some of the popularity of the product suggested that nylon was made by using cadaverine, a chemical extracted from corpses. Even though scientists asserted that cadaverine could also be extracted using coal, the public often refused to listen. Many people accepted the rumor to be true.

As a result, DuPont switched its marketing strategy. New strategies were devised emphasizing and popularizing the notion that nylon was made from, ‘coal, air, and water’. Strategists then focused on making nylon domestically popular and highlighted more of its aesthetic and personal aspects rather than its intrinsic qualities.

Nylon had its nationwide release in 1940. After the release, production was increased. During 1940, approximately 1300 tons of nylon was produced. Sixty-four million pairs of nylon stockings were sold in the first year on the market. In 1941, due to the immense success of the fabric, a second plant was opened in Martinsville, Virginia.

Today, nylon can be seen everywhere. It is used in the making of toothbrushes, umbrellas, winter gloves, medical implants, and many other items that we use on a daily basis and are essential for our everyday living. The nylon fabric is one of the many groundbreaking discoveries of the textile industry and we have Carothers and DuPont’s research team to thank for it!