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Nylon was the first fabric made entirely in a laboratory, and its invention represents the dawn of the age of synthetics. The Nylon Fabric Care Guide will help you understand this scientific fabric that has now made its way into other parts of our lives—including toothbrushes, children’s toys, and guitar strings.
Nylon is a synthetic plastic polymeric material that has the ability to be molded and shaped. For centuries, inventors tried to create a “synthetic silk,” a more affordable version of the luxurious silk fabric. In this scientific exploration of a new fabric, nylon was born. Wallace H. Carothers, a young organic chemistry lecturer at Harvard University, is credited to be the inventor of nylon. In the 1930s, Carothers was asked to join an innovation team at DuPont that was exploring and creating new materials. Yes, this famous (and at times, scandalous) chemical company is who we have to thank for nylon fabrics.
As the first commercially viable synthetic fiber, nylon ushered in a fashion revolution based on comfort, ease, and disposability. Nylon’s characteristics made for an ideal material to suit any number of uses, but DuPont decided early on that it would focus on a single market: ladies’ full-fashioned hosiery. As hemlines continued to rise throughout the 1930s, silk and rayon stockings had become an increasingly necessary part of every woman’s wardrobe. They became so popular in stores, that everywhere the stockings appeared, newspapers reported on “nylon riots” in which hundreds, sometimes thousands, of women lined up to compete for a limited supply of hosiery. Perhaps the most extreme instance occurred in Pittsburgh in June 1946, when 40,000 people lined up for over a mile to compete for 13,000 pairs of nylon stockings.
Nylon stockings represented only the beginning of what would soon become a fashion revolution. Cheap and colorful, synthetic fibers offered the promise of an easy-care, wash-and-wear, disposable future. Toothbrushes. Umbrellas. Toilet brushes. Fishing line. Windbreakers. Camping tents. Winter gloves. Kites. Dog leashes. Dog collars. Medical implants. These are a mere sampling of the nearly innumerable things made from nylon—and consumers have Carothers and his team at DuPont to thank for it.
Essentially, nylon is a type of plastic derived from crude oil. This plastic is then put through an intensive chemical process, resulting in the strong, stretchy fibers that make it so useful as a fabric.
More specifically, nylons are a family of materials called polyamides, made from reacting carbon-based chemicals found in coal and petroleum in a high-pressure, heated environment. This chemical reaction, known as condensation polymerization, forms a large polymer—in the form of a sheet of nylon. To make nylon fabric for apparel, this nylon sheet is then broken into chips, melted, and drawn through a mechanical spinneret to produce individual fibers that are woven into fabric.
As far as production is concerned, nylon is not a sustainable fabric. Nylon is completely made from petrochemicals. Therefore, nylon production is inevitably tied to oil and gas production (plus chemical additives) and has the same negative environmental impacts as fossil fuels. This only exacerbates the global climate crisis.
Nylon tops the list of synthetic materials that have the highest impact on the environment. Compared to other plastic-based fibers, manufacturing and processing of nylon is energy-intensive, which causes emission of greenhouse gasses leading to global warming. Moreover, the process releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and which depletes the ozone. Waste water generated during the production of nylon contains the unreacted monomer, caprolactam, which is polluting. Its untreated discharge through factory wastewater causes harm to a range of aquatic organisms.
Post production usage of nylon is not sustainable either. Washing of plastic-based textiles has been identified as a major contributor to the release of plastic microfibers into oceans, which causes marine pollution. According to Ellen Macarthur Foundation, around half-a-million tonnes of plastic microfibers resulting from the washing of textiles, equivalent to more than 50 billion plastic bottles, are released into the ocean every year. (Try our Guppyfriend Washing Bag to reduce microplastic waste in your wash!)
Nylon fabrics are usually long-lasting, but the more they are washed and dried, the more likely they are to pill and become worn out. Hand washing and air drying are your best bets to avoid this. Washing and drying without machines can significantly extend the life of your nylon clothes, and since nylon washes and dries easily, hand washing is not labor intensive. Also, make sure to use a cold-water setting for washing your nylon garments.
Add a tablespoon of hand dishwashing soap and a tablespoon of white vinegar to two cups of warm water. Apply a small amount onto the stain, blotting frequently until the stain vanishes.
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