Nylon is a synthetically-produced fabric. It was first developed as a substitute for imported silk. Women's stockings were the first commercial use of nylon. Because it has strong fibers that are also stretchy, nylon is used to make many different things including clothing, upholstery and carpet, rope, tents and fishing line.
Chemically, nylon is formed by chains of amide molecules. The chains are arranged parallel to each other, attached by hydrogen bonds. To make nylon's fibers strong, a polymerizing process must occur that allows the molecules to combine without retaining any water. In effect the process of making nylon is a condensation reaction.
Chemically, nylon fibers are linear polyamides which are extremely versatile. Nylon is a very strong but lightweight material. It stretches but also regains its original shape easily. Nylon can be dyed almost any color and usually is a bit shiny. It is difficult to tear or damage, lasts a long time, and often can be machine washed and dried.
Wallace Carothers invented nylon. He was hired by the E.I. duPont de Nemous and Company when they decided to open a research laboratory in 1928. This was an innovative move on the part of the company but it was motivated, in part, by the cost of importing silk from Japan in this period between the world wars. Before going to duPont, Carothers taught organic chemistry at Harvard.
By 1931, Carothers was able to make a synthetic rubber material, neoprene, but it took until 1934 for him to perfect the condensation reaction that paved the way for nylon. By 1939, duPont was selling nylon stockings. Nylon is considered the first engineered thermoplastic material. It was the first synthetic substitute for silk.
While oils, solvents and alcohols can stain or damage other fabrics, they do not harm nylon. This makes nylon useful for certain types of protective clothing and gear. However, diluted acids can begin to weaken the bonds in nylon fibers and phenols, alkalis, iodine and acids can destroy the fabric.
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.