From the Selvedge archive, we place nylon under the microscope in Sarah Jane Downing's 'Favourite Fabric no. 25'...
Nylon was the triumph of chemistry over nature, a modern alchemy that allowed coal tar, the brackish goo of primordial slime, to be converted into a filament so fine it rivalled silk. It would be pleasing to find that the delightfully modern term ‘nylon’ had a fascinating origin, but it was an 11th hour expedient to rename what was known in the lab as ‘Fibre 66’ to appeal to the hosiery market. The name ‘nylon’ was substituted when the suggested ‘norun’ was discounted as a potential PR disaster as the stockings would still be prone to laddering.
Dr Wallace H. Carothers headed the synthetic fibre research team for DuPont, and in 1938 their experiments created the world’s first totally synthetic fibre. Such a revolutionary fibre required revolutionary production techniques. Nylon was created as a liquid that was extruded through tiny nozzles to create filament of various thicknesses. When the first pair of nylon stockings was demonstrated at the World’s Fair in New York in 1939 it caused a sensation. A carefully orchestrated ‘N’ Day was designated to launch nylon stockings across the USA (one pair per customer). Nylon was vital to the war effort, and considered a huge coup by the USA as their textile industry would no longer be beholden to Japan for raw silk.
With the name, DuPont also launched a concept, making ‘nylon’ a generic term as all-encompassing as ‘wood’ or ‘steel’: it was to be synonymous with a whole family of potential textiles. Nylon fabrics would be modern, flexible, and easy to care for as they would resist moisture and creasing, easily maintaining their shape without the drudgery of the laundry techniques required by natural fibres. Nylon maintained its importance through extensive advertising, keeping its place at the forefront of affordable fashion until the 1970s when a series of ecological disasters made the wonders of chemistry seem more of a manmade threat than a miracle. The artificial qualities of nylon, once so exciting for their modern disposability, had become tawdry with over familiarity and wanton consumerism held little joy for the new generation.
Illustration by Mark Lazenby
Originally published in Selvedge issue 65. To order your copy, click here.