What is Nylon ? An overview of Nylon fiber & fabric

nylon

What is Nylon?

In technical terms, Nylon is a thermoplastic material made from petrochemicals. It belongs to a group of synthetic polymers called linear polyamides. It is the world’s first fully synthetic fiber, produced from chemicals found in oil, natural gas, coal or other sources.

For a layman like me, it is the fabric that makes up my umbrella, the lining inside my bag, bristles in my toothbrush, the spatula I use in my kitchen, the invisible thread I use to sew, the strings of my tennis racquet, the tent I use for trips, the tights in my wardrobe and the carpet in my sitting room. A tour around my house convinces me that there is no escaping from Nylon – in any room, I go to, there is something made of Nylon.

Nylon was first invented in 1931 by an organic chemist called Wallace H. Carothers working for Dupont®.  It was manufactured after a long period of research by a team of chemists and researchers to develop a new fiber that can replace silk. Nylon stockings were first shown to the public by the American Dupont company at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. By 1969 DuPont had invented seventy different types of nylons. In 2005 Nylon even landed on Saturn’s moon, Titan.

There is a long story behind the name Nylon – you can read about it here. The short story is that it is a contraction of the name of the two world-famous cities- New York and London.

What is Nylon Fiber? What is it made of? And How?

A polymer is a large molecule composed of many repeated subunits, known as monomers. Synthetic polymers are man-made polymers. Nylon is a Polyamide which is a type of synthetic polymer with repeated amide groups.

The two main types of Nylon are Nylon6.6 and Nylon 6. The nylon (Nylon 6.6) developed by Dupont was formed by the thermal polycondensation of hexamethylene diamine and adipic acid. The nylon (Nylon6) developed at I.G. Farben industries is made by the thermal polymerization of caprolactam. 

Nylon is made by a process called polymerization (condensation polymerization reaction), in which individual short molecules form long-chain macromolecules with high relative molecular mass. Thermoplastic materials are those materials that are made of polymers linked by intermolecular interactions forming linear structures. In the process of making Nylon fibers giant chain like polymers form amide groups which then go on to form strong hydrogen bonds. These hydrogen bonds hold the adjacent chains together and the resultant fiber is an exceptionally strong Nylon fiber.

To put it simply Nylon polymers are spun into Nylon fibers and then made into Nylon fabric. Melt spinning is a commonly used method for Nylon fiber manufacturing. The Molten polymer is forced through a spinneret (a device with a lot of pores that looks like a shower head) to obtain long threads of nylon.

Nylon was first manufactured as a synthetic substitute of Silk. So the Nylon fibers have a chemical structure similar to that of Silk fibers.

What is Nylon Fabric? What type of fabric is nylon?

Nylon fabric is one of the most commonly used fabric in the world and is very versatile. Some of the common qualities of Nylon include the following characteristics.

  • Nylon is very strong and resilient
  • Nylon is very durable and lasts a long time
  • Nylon is abrasion resistant and does not tear easily
  • Nylon is lightweight
  • It is not damaged by most chemicals/alcohols or perspiration or oils
  • Nylon takes color dyes very well and the color does not fade easily
  • The Nylon fiber is soft and lustrous and smooth in surface
  • Nylon is easy to maintain – dirt does not cling to the surface- and is machine washable.
  • Nylon fabric dries fast
  • Nylon does not shrink or stretch through washing
  • Nylon does not absorb moisture as much as other synthetic fibers
  • Nylon has low permeability so can retain warmth
  • Nylon has elasticity – it can bend and bounce back with ease
  • Nylon is resistant to mildew, molds, insects, and fungi.
  • Nylon has a high melting point. (melting temperature of 256°C/450°F)
  • Nylon surface can be water resistant and made waterproof with coating
  • Nylon is low cost, though costs more than polyester
  • Nylon fibers can be spun as fine as silk.
  • In industrial uses, qualities of reduced weight and noise in Nylon is highly valued

Uses of Nylon

Nylon is used in a variety of applications, but for me, its use as a textile is of primary importance.

Dupont company when it started using the Nylon fabric concentrated on its usability in making hosiery, then shifted to military use of Nylon during the world war and later again started making clothes, especially hosiery with it. It was in 1940 that the true commercial use of Nylon began. Silk stocking market was fully captured by Nylon and the fabric has not looked back.

Though, recently as a purely dressmaking fabric Nylon has had some setbacks, innovations and fabric finish used allows it to be used in a variety of ways.

It is used to make blouses, Stockings, Lingerie, socks, sportswear, raincoats, hats, swimwear, carpets, upholstery, netting fabric. Combined with Lycra it is used to make stretchable clothes for sports like cycling wear.

During the world war Nylon was used widely in the military to make parachutes, mosquito nets, hammocks, etc. It is also used to make thread, seat belts,  ropes, screws, bolts, washers and nuts fishing line, dental floss. Nylon is used to make machine parts because it is lightweight and has high wear resistance and high strength.  Nylon 66 is used for making rotating spares like gears, bearing etc.

Brand names of Nylon

Antron – Dupont (Carpets, Hosiery), Cambrella -ICI (Shoe material/non woven lining), Cantrece(Hosiery) Cordura (Luggage, webbing, backpacks, trousers, military wear and performance apparel.) Cora( Clothes)  Durasoft (Hosiery) Perlon(Straps) Stainmaster ( Carpets) Supplex, Tactel (Hosiery, clothes, thread) Tactesse (Carpet)

Disadvantages of Nylon fabric

Nylon has a high melting point but when the point is exceeded the fabric melts and the melted edges will harden to a black colour. Most irons will have a Nylon setting and that should be used to iron Nylon clothes

Pilling of the surface is a problem, after a long time of continuous machine washing. Check out the solutions for pilling here

Exposure to sunlight, especially Ultraviolet rays can damage nylon

White colored Nylon fabric can turn yellow or even grey with age. Using chlorine bleach (hypochlorite) with Nylon may cause damage to the fibers. You should not use Hydrogen Peroxide as well on Nylon fabric. You can use Sodium Perborate bleach/ sodium chlorite bleach.

Nylon fabric is slightly more expensive than Polyester, but its better qualities justify this

Using Nylon clothing while cooking is dangerous as Nylon melts if caught fire and will stick to the body.

The process of manufacturing Nylon involves a  lot of chemicals and toxins which may prove to be bad for the environment. Toxic gas is emitted during the manufacture of Nylon which is extremely dangerous .

Another problem with Nylon is that when you want to dispose of it, it may prove to be impossible. It takes many years for Nylon fibers to decay. If you try to burn the fiber toxic fumes can cause more damage – hydrogen cyanide, nitrous oxide are the gases formed, so you can imagine.

Nylon fabric test

You can check if the fabric you have is nylon easily enough – Check it with a simple fabric testing as mentioned in detail here – When you try to burn Nylon the fabric will shrink from the flame at first and then it will burn slowly. The fibers will give out a smell that smells like celery. The residue will look like a hard cream-colored bead at first but then it will turn to a darker color, just like polyester.

Read more on the history of nylon: acs.org here 

Wikipedia : Article on Nylon; What happens when you burn Nylon fabric 

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