Second Skin: The Science of Stretch

Stretch fabrics provide a second skin that can shift our perception of our bodies, enhance our athletic performance, even improve our health. From 1920s girdles to today’s lymphedema sleeves with a fashionable flair, stretch fabrics expand the ways we move through the world.

By Science History Institute

If you have ever knitted a hat or scarf, then you have used the same technology people have been using to create stretch fabric for a thousand years.

The looped stitches created by knitting gives cotton and wool fabrics their stretch. This kind of “mechanical” stretch is different from the stretch created by synthetic fibers.

Postcard for General Dyestuff Corporation of a Woman Using a Dye Bath (1953) by General Aniline & Film CorporationScience History Institute

Nylon, the first synthetic fiber with stretch, was created by a team at DuPont in 1938. It quickly replaced silk as the fashionable fiber for women’s stockings. When the stockings were introduced on May 16, 1940, “Nylon Day,” four million pairs sold out within two days.

“I have read about the wonderful new stockings made from dirty old coal—surely you must have the angels working for you.” Letter from a customer in the 25th Anniversary of DuPont Nylon, 1939–64.

Every fashion needs a stocking all its own! (1960s)Science History Institute

Following DuPont’s success with nylon, chemist Joe Shivers tried to create a synthetic rubber primarily for use in women’s foundation garments.

In 1959, Shivers invented spandex. The spandex in thread like this consists of two groups of molecules: one that expands to provide stretch, and one that is rigid to provide stability. 

Spool of Rubberized ThreadScience History Institute

Second SkinScience History Institute

Like early women’s undergarments that made use of stretch fabrics, many “second skins” shape the exterior of our bodies. Stretch fabrics can be used to shape our bodies for fashion, health, and self-expression.

What nylon did for your legs, LYCRA will do for your figure! (1961)Science History Institute

DuPont introduced spandex into the market under the brand name “Lycra.” While DuPont initially promoted girdles containing Lycra fibers (like the one depicted in this advertisement), by the 1960s, control top pantyhose had eclipsed them in popularity.

Therapeutic Sleeves (2017) by LympheDIVASScience History Institute

Breast cancer treatment sometimes requires the surgical removal of lymph nodes near the cancerous growth, a treatment which can lead to a dangerous buildup of fluid and swelling known as lymphedema. Patients can manage lymphedema with compression sleeves.

Therapeutic Sleeves (2017) by LympheDIVASScience History Institute

The lympheDIVAS sleeve, invented by two breast cancer survivors, not only reduces swelling but also features a comfortable seamless knit and a fashionable pattern.

Stretch materials can help shape our bodies to better reflect our sense of self. Many transgender men and gender nonconforming people use chest binders, which feature double panels of nylon and spandex, to flatten breast tissue.

Group Wearing Binders (2017) by GC2B Transitional ApparelScience History Institute

Exercise Suit (1980s) by JazzerciseScience History Institute

From professional athletes to young children, many people make use of stretch fabric to facilitate movement. Innovations in stretch allow us to move with comfort, unencumbered and flexible.

Mid-century and modern swimsuits would be unrecognizable to Victorian women, who swam in knee-length wool bathing dresses and full bloomers. Contemporary bathing suits are made of synthetic materials to allow for a tighter fit and a greater range of motion.

The suits in this ad were made with Lastex, an elastic yarn in which a natural fiber (like cotton or silk) is wound around a thread of latex, providing greater stretch to garments. It was registered as a trademark in the U.S. in 1931.

NYLON... and the Jantzen magic touch! (1950s) by Jantzen Knitting Mills, Inc.Science History Institute

“I felt freedom, I felt empowerment, I felt like I owned the pool…” Lebanese-born Australian designer Aheda Zanett described the feeling of swimming in the burkini (a portmanteau of bikini and burqa) that she designed. 

This swimwear provides women whose religious beliefs ask them to wear modest clothing the chance to swim and wade comfortably in public settings.

Second SkinScience History Institute

Coolibar Toddler Swimsuit (2014) by Coolibar, Inc.Science History Institute

Modern full-coverage swimsuits also offer supercharged sun protection. This Coolibar hooded one-piece swimsuit for a small child is constructed with four-way stretch knit (polyester and spandex).

Coolibar Toddler Swimsuit (2014) by Coolibar, Inc.Science History Institute

The tightly woven fibers physically block sunlight, but they're also embedded with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for even greater protection against UV rays. This garment offers UPF 50+ coverage.

Running does not require much more than a pair of sneakers and for some people, a supportive bra. In 1977, Lisa Lindahl made the first sports bra out of two jockstraps. 

Named the Jogbra, this bra featured a wide waistband, sturdy straps, and supportive cups.

JogBra and Packaging (1977/1979) by Jogbra, Inc.Science History Institute

This 1986 advertisement depicts the Sportshape bra, the successor to the Jogbra, designed to appeal to women who wanted a traditionally-styled, yet supportive bra for sports.

Less bounce to the ounce! (1986) by JBI Jogbra, Inc.Science History Institute

Bolt Threads Laboratory (2017)Science History Institute

Scientists continue to innovate with stretch. Using new materials and new methods, researchers are developing cutting-edge wearable technology that can monitor, heal, support, and train our bodies. 

The Playskin Lift is an assistive garment for young infants with weakness or movement problems due to brachial plexus palsy, cerebral palsy, or various other forms of muscular dystrophy/atrophy. 

This soft, comfortable, supportive stretch garment is designed to help strengthen arm muscles by providing light upward resistance. This prototype was completed in 2014 and can be custom made or even sewn at home, providing a low-cost physical therapy solution for families.

Playskin Lift Assistive Garment (2016) by Martha HallScience History Institute

Second SkinScience History Institute

Imagine a wearable monitoring device that could perform comfortably, even in one of the most critical medical moments of many women’s lives: labor.

Second SkinScience History Institute

A new prototype “Bellyband” will monitor uterine contractions (and eventually, fetal heartbeat) for women giving birth or experiencing high-risk stages of pregnancy. Key to the design are the conductive threads that form a flexible, functional “antenna.”

Stretch garments form a second skin that can help us create the body we want or need. Thanks to chemists, chemical engineers, fashion designers, and garment workers, innovations in stretchy second skins have changed the way we live in our bodies and interact with the world.

Second SkinScience History Institute

Credits: Story

Written by Olivia Errico
Curated by Christy Schneider
Produced by Elisabeth Berry Drago


Generous support for Second Skin: The Science of Stretch was provided by the Alafi Family Foundation.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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