Where Does Nylon Come From?

By Lesley Barker

Nylon is a man-made fiber that makes a good substitute for silk. Wallace Carothers, an organic chemist who was employed at the E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, is credited with inventing nylon in 1934. Now it is used to make clothing, tires, rope and many other everyday items.

Identification

Nylon is one of the first synthetic fabrics. It was developed by Wallace Carothers, an organic chemist whose understanding of polymer molecules like those in silk helped him invent neoprene, a man-made rubber, and then nylon.

Features

Nylon is produced using a process called polymerizing. Water is a key ingredient that causes a condensation reaction which results in chains of artificial polymers. The first threads were too weak to be woven into cloth. Finally, Carothers figured out how to remove all the water that was left over from the polymerizing process. This resulted in long, strong nylon threads that stretched like elastic.

Features

The chemicals used to make nylon are amine, hexamethylene diamine and adipic acid. The new amide molecules are held together by hydrogen atoms. This chain of molecules, which is nylon, closely resembles the chemical structure of silk, which is produced by silkworms.

Warning

Things made from nylon are durable as long as they are not exposed to phenols, alkalis or iodines. These chemicals will dissolve the cloth. Nylon will also lose its integrity if it is in contact with dilute acids for too long. On the other hand, oils, solvents and alcohols do not adversely effect things made out of nylon.

Expert Insight

Wallace Carothers' discovery has certainly changed the way people live. Since he invented nylon, it has become an everyday item for most people. Other synthetic fabrics have been invented using Carothers' research findings on natural and synthetic polymers. Unfortunately, the world will never know what other break-through inventions Carothers could have produced. He committed suicide on April 29, 1937 soon after the first nylon stockings became available for sale in the United States.

About the Author

Lesley Barker, director of the Bolduc House Museum, authored the books "St. Louis Gateway Rail—The 1970s," published by Arcadia, and the "Eye Can Too! Read" series of vision-related e-books. Her articles have appeared in print and online since the 1980s. Barker holds a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from Washington University and a Master of Arts in Teaching from Webster University.