From nylon to next-generation fabrics, the research lab always precedes the runway.
For thousands of years, we humans donned only natural fibers: cotton, silk, leather, wool, linen. But a century ago, scientists at DuPont began to look into durable, low-cost synthetic materials to make garments with.
“In the 1920s, they decided to invest quite a bit in basic research to try and come up with these synthetic fibers from scratch,” says Audra Wolfe, a Philadelphia-based historian of science.
“And so by the mid-1930s, they had some good possibilities, and they settled on one that seemed to withstand heat pretty well, and that wouldn’t dissolve in water,” she says. “This is a huge problem if you launder clothes.”
DuPont’s invention was nylon, the world’s first commercially successful synthetic fiber: a polymer made in the lab that would soon find its way into closets around the globe.
For the company’s marketing department, the breakthrough came at the perfect time. In the 1930s, women’s hemlines were starting to rise. That, coupled with more women entering the workforce, created a booming hosiery market, and DuPont went all in.
“Nylon is a really great fabric to make hosiery with because it is relatively resilient, you can wash it, it is relatively resistant to run…and they were affordable,” says Wolfe. “Silk hosiery was not inexpensive. More importantly, as the world’s situation was changing, it was becoming more and more difficult to get silk from Japan. So all of these things kind of came together when nylon was released in the late 1930s.”
Nylon was an immediate hit. When it reached the national market in May, 1940, priced at $1.15 a pair, department stores were sold out by noon.
But the working women of America didn’t have their new stockings for long. When World War II broke out, Uncle Sam sucked up all the nylon DuPont could crank out. The fiber found its way into gear, including parachutes, flak jackets and shoelaces.
When the war ended, pent up demand exploded in a way that’s sort of hard to imagine today.
“People were so excited when it came back on the market,” says Wolfe. “It came back on the market in 1945 in the consumer market, but by 1946, there were rumors and in some cases, actual nylon riots. There’s this amazing story from Pittsburgh in 1946 where 40,000 people lined up to get 13,000 pairs of pantyhose.”
Run between the raindrops
Three decades after the discovery of nylon, another breakthrough synthetic material would be discovered.
If you’ve ever gone hiking, you’ve worn it.
“I’ve been working at this textile stuff for a long, long time,” jokes 79-year-old Bob Gore, the inventor of Gore-Tex.
Coincidentally, or maybe not, given their strong history of innovation, Bob’s father, Bill Gore, was also a DuPont researcher.
“And there was a particular material that he thought DuPont wasn’t paying enough attention to,” says Bob. “And that was what’s known as Teflon now, but is scientifically called polytetrafluoroethylene.”
When the elder Gore left DuPont and launched his own company, he thought he could use PTFE as a coating to apply to the bottom of skis, since Teflon is non-stick.
That proved a failure, however, so instead W.L. Gore & Associates began using the material in electrical wiring equipment, which it successfully marketed to IBM for use in its new 360 computer.
In 1969, the younger Gore, serving as a one-man R&D department, was tinkering with a rod made out of heated PTFE to see if he could make something else of use.
“The vision was a very lowly vision, it was to make cheaper plumber’s tape,” he says. “So I always put that in whenever we think visions have to be lofty. They sometimes are pretty mundane.”
By rapidly stretching PTFE at high temperatures–basically jerking it–Gore figured out a way to introduce air into the material. The result was a thin membrane-like substance that could be adhered to a textile fabric. Under a microscope, it looks like a spiderweb, with holes small enough to resist droplets of water, but big enough that water vapor, such as the sweat coming off your body, can pass through it.
Gore-Tex is considered the first waterproof, breathable material. Applied to jackets and pants, boots and tents, it revolutionized the outdoors, making hiking and camping in the rain a more-tolerable activity for the masses. Versions of this ‘expanded PTFE’ would also find its way into medical devices and astronaut suits, guitar strings and dental floss.
Today, the company is still rolling out new uses for it.
“Where there’s human ingenuity, there’s going to be progress,” says Gore.
Along with ingenuity, a little bit of money helps kick-start progress, too.
To speed up research into next-generation fibers, materials that can follow in nylon and Gore-Tex’s footprint, the Obama Administration announced a $317 million initiative earlier this year, the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Institute, bringing together some of the country’s best research universities, including MIT, along with big companies such as Bose and New Balance. The Department of Defense is involved, too, chipping in $75 million for the project.
“This is a pioneering field,” said Secretary of Defense Ash Carter during a launch event in April, “combining fibers and yarns with things like flexible integrated circuits, LEDs, solar cells, electronic sensors, and other capabilities to create fabrics and cloths that can see, hear, sense, communicate, store energy, regulate temperature, monitor health, change color, much more.”
As Carter sees it, these functional fabrics could someday let a soldier know when he’s at risk from chemical weapons, or allow a Navy Seal to carry more battery power for his GPS unit without carrying extra weight.
And the idea is these innovations will eventually trickle down into a range of consumer goods.
Genevieve Dion is spearheading a team at Drexel University involved in this far-reaching project.
“Functional fabrics is one of the most transdisciplinary fields of our time,” she says. “You need material scientists, you need modelers, you need mechanical engineers, you need designers, you need system integration, you need electrical engineering. You need all the fields.”
These are early days in the pursuit of next-generation materials. There are still lots of technical challenges to work out, and, you know, nobody is going to want to look like they’re wearing a circuit board.
“I think the day that we will be really, really successful with functional fabric is when you do not know they are there,” says Dion. “So, our goal is to be invisible in a way.”