Nylon: From Labs to Legs

Nylon was the world’s first fully synthetic fiber. It paved the way for countless other artificial materials, including Lycra, to come out of the lab and into our lives.

By Science History Institute

Color Crazy Page 1 (1955) by Leslie GillScience History Institute

When chemists at DuPont launched nylon in the late 1930s, they introduced a game-changer that would revolutionize our everyday lives.

Color Crazy Color Crazy (1955) by Leslie GillScience History Institute

We still use nylon today, from the bristles we brush our teeth with to fishing lines. Nylon can be found in many items such as sports apparel, electrical parts, surgical sutures, sunglasses, car parts, and stockings. 

Synthetic Fiber Samples from DuPont Experimental Station (1937-10-28)Science History Institute

Initially called Fiber 66, DuPont launched the term “nylon” in 1938 at a New York press event. Nylon was the successful product of over a decade of research into molecules and how they are made.

In 1939 when nylon’s large-scale production began, DuPont had already invested 27 million dollars into its research, development, engineering, and production.

Joseph Labovsky at at Fiber 66 Lab, DuPont Experimental Station (1935)Science History Institute

In 1935, Fiber 66, later known as nylon, was first created at the DuPont Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware. Chemist Wallace Carothers led the successful team that researched the synthesis of molecules and discovered nylon. 

Many people were involved in nylon’s research, development, and production. Photographed in the lab is Carothers’s assistant, Joseph Labovsky.

Demonstration of Cold-Drawing Technique for Polyester (ca. 1930)Science History Institute

A major breakthrough of DuPont’s extensive research project came fairly early on. In 1931 DuPont chemist Julian Hill discovered a polymer with elastic properties that could be drawn out from a test tube into a fiber.  However, its low melting point made it unsuitable for commercial textile production.

Hill’s discovery presented for the first time the possibility of creating useful fibers from fully synthetic materials. This was revolutionary, as other “synthetic” materials like rayon were based on natural derivatives like wood pulp. Inspired by Hill’s technique, Carothers and his team were able to cold-draw nylon years later.

DuPont Technicians Casting Polymer from 250-Pound Autoclave (1938)Science History Institute

DuPont’s research directors and managerial staff quickly identified the commercial potential of synthetic fibers. Nylon production was scaled up from the first ounce produced in a test tube to a pilot plant and eventually to large-scale production. This photograph shows DuPont technicians casting nylon from a 250-pound autoclave.

Nylon, seen here as a hot polymer ribbon after polymerization, will undergo many more transformations before it can be used as stockings. In the next phase, the ribbon is wound onto a reel and then fragmented into nylon pellets for spinning. 

Bottle of Nylon 6,6 Pellets (1938) by DuPontScience History Institute

Nylon chip pellets in small container, circa 1938.

Spinning the Elements by Science History InstituteScience History Institute

This object is on display in our “Spinning the Elements” exhibit at the Science History Institute. 

Feeding Nylon Chips into a Five-Position Spinning Machine (1938)Science History Institute

Nylon pellets are fed into a spinning machine at the DuPont Pilot Plant, as demonstrated here by employee Mike McCall. After being poured into this five-position spinning machine, nylon changes its shape again. It is melted once more before being spun into filaments.

Violet Grenda Inspecting Nylon Yarn at DuPont Facility (1938)Science History Institute

Careful observation of nylon production batches was essential for the material’s successful development. Here we see Violet Grenda inspecting nylon yarn before it is wound onto spools. Special wind-up equipment needed to be engineered for nylon as it required a much faster winding speed than its predecessor, rayon.

Wear-Test “Fiber 66” Brassiere (1937) by DuPontScience History Institute

As part of nylon’s research and development, wear-tests were conducted with nylon stockings. DuPont employees were the first to wear test these and their feedback shaped improvements, such as stretch. Other wear-test items included brassieres and underwear.   

Wear-Test Underwear (1937/1940) by DuPontScience History Institute

This pair shows signs of wear such as fraying to the elastic waistband and a run down the left side. This culture of wear-testing synthetic fibers was an important part of DuPont’s research and development culture. Such studies continued throughout future decades, for example in 1970s control top panty hose.

DuPont Announces for the World of Tomorrow ... A New World and a New Material NYLON (1939)Science History Institute

In 1939 DuPont presented nylon at its “Wonder World of Chemistry” exhibit at the New York World’s Fair. The display celebrated their slogan of “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry.” 

DuPont wanted the American public to get a better understanding of the many ways in which chemistry could improve everyday life.

In this advertisement, reprinted from an October issue of The Woman’s Forum, nylon is presented as the latest discovery by DuPont’s chemists for the “World of Tomorrow.” Its dreamy references to a better future supported by DuPont’s chemical advancements offered hope a month after the outbreak of war in Europe.

Blazing the Trail to New Frontiers Through Chemistry Nylon Spread (1940)Science History Institute

This spread is from a DuPont promotional booklet that may have been distributed to visitors at the company’s New York World’s Fair exhibit. 

Nylon found application in many everyday products like toothbrush bristles and surgical sutures. However, one of its most popular uses was in women’s hosiery. Made from air, water, and coal, nylon yarn could be spun into delicate sheer stockings and captured the imagination of the American public.

Demand for nylon stockings far outstripped supply. In 1940, nylon’s first year of commercial production, approximately 64 million pairs of nylon stockings were manufactured and sold.

Wearing this synthetic alternative to silk became a fashionable political act as the U.S. was in conflict with Japan, which supplied 90% of raw silk imports.

Blazing the Trail to New Frontiers Through Chemistry “The Test Tube Girl” (1940)Science History Institute

By 1940 DuPont offered a number of synthetics dreamt up by its teams of chemists. A female figure known as “The Test Tube Girl” showcased these advancements in promotional materials and live exhibits. Dressed head to toe in developments including nylon, Lucite, and rayon, she presented chemistry’s glamorous side.

Group photograph of Martinsville Technical Staff (1940)Science History Institute

In 1940 DuPont announced the opening of a second nylon plant in Martinsville, Virginia, to increase production capacity and meet demand for its popular material. This group photograph shows the technical staff who worked at the plant. They collaborated on process troubleshooting as well as improving quality and production.

Parachutes (1945-09-06) by Fred RamageGetty Images

Nylon’s success as a military material depended on the collective efforts of individuals like the technical staff at Martinsville. In 1941, in response to Pearl Harbor, DuPont’s production rapidly transformed from 30-denier hosiery yarn to heavier military yarns for war equipment including parachutes for the U.S. War Production Board. 

DuPont engineers had been experimenting with high-strength nylon for tire cords. When the U.S. entered the war, the navy used tow ropes made of a similar nylon. Nylon proved to be an ideal military material in a range of terrains. Resistant to insects, rot, and mold, nylon was used in mosquito nets and hammocks.

In 1943, jazz musician, composer, and entertainer “Fats” Waller and screenwriter George Marion Jr. memorialized wistful dreams of nylon in “When the Nylons Bloom Again,” a song in the comedy musical Early to Bed.  

The lyrics longed for the return of nylon stockings in a postwar future of sensuous synthetics  when such commodities were no longer rationed. 

Trio of Women Modeling Nylon Stockings (ca. 1950)Science History Institute

At the end of World War II, the U.S. government began cancelling orders for nylon. DuPont reconverted their factories to manufacture civilian yarn, promising full production capacity as soon as possible.

Demand for nylon stockings continued to outstrip supply. News reports covered “nylon riots” erupting at stores across the U.S.

As this British news reel shows, coverage on nylons remained popular in the headlines, not just in the US but also abroad. The narrator concludes: “World affairs may come and go but nylons always make news.” 

During World War II, when the War Production Board allocated the entire production output of nylon for essential war needs, women collected used nylons for reprocessing into parachutes. After the war parachutes were refashioned into women’s dress. This process shows us how nylon’s usage is both circular and tied to fashion.

Used nylon continues to be recycled into new yarns today. Aquafil, an Italian company produces Econyl, a regenerated-nylon yarn made from discarded materials including nylon, carpet, fishing nets, and industrial waste. Their textile clients range from sportswear brands Adidas and Speedo to premium label Tommy Hilfiger and luxury fashion house Prada.

In this clip, the ghost of a Victorian beauty gets a sneak peek of “the shape of things to come.” The future promised corsets, no longer dependent on whalebone and steel. Instead, the body could be controlled using sheer nylon and synthetic rubber. With wartime restrictions lifted, these sought-after materials shaped postwar bodies.

Color Crazy Page 1 (1955) by Leslie GillScience History Institute

The American chemical industry, which had long been locked in competition with Germany’s industry, emerged from World War II as world leading in synthetic organic chemistry. Dupont wasn’t just developing synthetics but also dominated the U.S. market for paints, pigments, and dyes. Nylons were now available in a wider variety of bright and pastel shades.

Dyestuffs for Nylon Hosiery Color Chart (ca. 1960) by General Dyestuff CorporationScience History Institute

This 1960 promotional booklet of dyed nylon samples from General Dyestuff Corporation shows a range of vibrant popping colors. 

Only nylon cord tires can give you utmost safety—surest protection against tire trouble (1956)Science History Institute

Nylon could be soft, delicate, and light as a feather. But it could also be incredibly tough and strong. In this advertisement DuPont references wartime research and development to assure readers that its product is safe:  “almost every military and commercial aircraft lands on nylon cord tires.” 

Nylon cord fabric is still used in tires today.

This clip shows just how versatile nylons could be. Car broken down? No problem, use a pair of trusty nylons as a tow rope replacement. 

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

DuPont launched Lycra in 1959. The result of over 20 years of research and 10 million dollars in investment, this fiber ingredient could be added to existing synthetics like nylon to create greater elasticity. DuPont originally created this R&D project to develop the ideal synthetic elastomer stretch fiber, also known as Spandex, for foundationwear.

By the time Lycra was ready for production, the foundationwear market had changed significantly. In the 1960s, less consumers were purchasing tight fitting shaping garments like girdles and corsets.  In the 1970s, Lycra became the fiber of choice for fitness culture, shaping sportswear such as aerobics leggings and leotards.

Sugar & Spice Pantyhose...We Made Them Just for You (January 1979) by Johnson Publishing CompanyScience History Institute

This 1970s advertisement for Sugar & Spice Pantyhose celebrates the message of Black is Beautiful. The Chicago-based company’s hosiery was specifically developed for Black women. 

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

Nylon continues to shape our bodies and lives today. For example, trans-owned company gc2b specializes in chest binders made of nylon and spandex that come in a range of skin tones.

To learn more about these designs and other innovations using elastomers, check out our exhibition SecondSkin: The Science of Stretch.

My Nylon “Museum” My Nylon “Museum” (Late 20th Century) by Joseph X. LabovskyScience History Institute

Later in his life, Joseph Labovsky, a Jewish émigré and Wallace Carothers’s former assistant, created a nylon museum at his home.

He eventually donated his nylon collection to the Science History Institute. You can make an appointment to see his materials in person or view a selection of digitized items online.

Labovsky collected these historic materials because he wanted the story of nylon and the many people involved in its creation, research, development, production, and application to be remembered.

We hope you enjoyed the exhibition!

Credits: Story

Written and curated by Isabelle Held, Science History Institute

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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