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Fabric Friday: The origin and characteristics of nylon

Discussion in 'PUBLIC Workshops - specialty vintage topics' started by denisebrain, Oct 15, 2021.

  1. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    First the geeky:

    The invention of nylon is credited to the chemist Wallace Carothers, working at DuPont in the 1930s. It was the first successful synthetic fiber, rayon and acetate being plant-based manufactured fibers. This first nylon was polyamide 6,6—made from hexamethylenediamine and adipic acid (the 6,6 designates the two stretches of six carbon atoms that are repeated in the polymer chain). The fiber proved strong, elastic, quick to dry, and insect- and rot-resistant. The first application was in toothbrushes in 1938, but in the next year women’s hosiery became nylon’s first big success. One might even have called it a raging success, the clamor for nylons (as they came to be called) was so great.

    During WWII the new fiber was used in the war effort, taking the place of Japanese silk for parachutes. After the war, the clamor for nylons took up where it left off, and soon nylon was used for other garments—and in many household products—as it is to this day.

    Now the name nylon is a bit of a mystery, but I found a wonderful article about the speculations in K-Mag (The World's #1 Trade Fair for Plastics and Rubber)
    Sadly, Wallace Carothers suffered from worsening bouts of depression that finally prompted his suicide in April 1937, just slightly short of the time nylon's possibilities became manifest. He was 41.

    This pair of stockings is in the collection of the National Museum of American History. Dating from 1937, it was the first nylon hosiery, and at this experimental stage the dye issue hadn't been solved (in color this stocking is black and brown). NMAH-AHB2019q158092.jpg
    Nylons on display at the New York World's Fair, 1939
    ...and at the San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition in the same year.
    I'm sure many of you have gawked at this amazing image. (A giant leg, 35 feet high, advertised nylons to the Los Angeles area. Hagley Museum and Library is the credit for this photo and the two above.)

    I have recently become quite newly aware of perlon from our resident nylon/perlon scholar Emma @NylonNostalgia and I will add this to the Fabric Resource ASAP. The brief summary is that perlon is similar to nylon and was being developed in Germany, by Dr. Paul Schlack at I.G.-Farben, at nearly the same time as Carothers was working on nylon.

    It is a helpful to know that nylon stockings first appeared in 1939—but it is also essential to realize that the war commandeered the fiber's output and it is most likely that any nylon fabric you might find dates from 1946 or later. And as far as nylon stockings are concerned... SFnylonqueues1946.jpg
    A queue for nylons in San Francisco, 1946 (image found on GlamourDaze blog)

    Some of the vintage fabrics that you might find made of nylon fiber from the late 1940s on:
    If you think of others, remind me please!

    Nylon can be in blends—wool with nylon is pretty common.

    Other tips for dating based on labels you might find:
    • Antron is a trademarked name, dating from 1960, of a nylon fiber. The trademark was originally held by Dupont is and now held by INVISTA (used as commercial carpet fiber).
    • Qiana dates to 1962 but was commercially introduced in 1968—again by DuPont
    • Dupont’s Antron nylon III dates to 1970.
    This is a really fun video dating from 1960 that I bookmarked when Nicole @Circa Vintage Clothing showed it here some time ago:

    For care, I recommend hand washing (not machine washing) in cool water to help vintage nylon items last as long as possible. Always air dry nylon and avoid any high heat. (I know there are some great washing machines out there—ones that are really gentle—but with my best-of-the-cheap-1997 model...)
  2. Jonathan

    Jonathan VFG Member

    I have noticed what I think is probably a mistake in many period films set around the end of the war where Europeans refer to 'nylons' from Americans... I suspect they would have called them stockings, not nylons until a few years after the war when they were plentiful again. I suspect the stockings the American GIs were handing out were probably rayon stockings. I don't know for sure, but considering nylons weren't reallly back on the market again until 1946...
  3. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    That's a great point Jonathan.

    There were a few years of nylon stocking production before the war effort halted that in 1942. Then you were supposed to turn over any used silk or nylon stockings for reuse in parachutes among other things.

    Deena Clark, Civilian Defense (right), and Tech. Sgt. Leo Malkins of the Army Air Forces (left) collecting used stockings, 1942
    (Library of Congress: LC-DIG-fsa-8b08080)
  4. Vintagiality

    Vintagiality VFG Member

    Thank you Maggie! Very interesting as always!

    I sometimes struggle to tell nylon from thin polyester. Is there a good way to tell them apart visually? (Please don't say burn test, I have no idea how smoke can smell like celery or how to tell that from sweet chemical:duh2:)

    Here is an example of one I am unsure of

  5. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    That is the type that is hard to guess from appearance, and even in a burn test these two are somewhat similar. I know you don't like the burn test Victoria, but here's a pretty strong difference in burning: The polyester will give off some black smoke and the nylon won't. The melted and hardened bead will be grayish (nylon) or black (poly).

    Threads magazine has a few more details—
    Screen Shot 2021-10-20 at 8.19.36 AM.png

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