Historically, the only fibres man had on offer were those it could harvest from the natural world: cotton, silk and wool all of which had their limitations. The problem was, although the finest grades of these fibres offered high performance, the majority had to make do with a much lower standard of cloth, which was often uncomfortable, stiff or wore quickly. The supply of these materials was also dependent on hundreds of factors, with such things as disease, weather and war impacting on its supply. And so just as man applied technology to the processing and manufacture of these materials, he also tried to apply his knowledge to the actual raw product itself by bypassing Mother Nature and making the fibres himself.
Early attempts at man-made fibres began with a search for ‘artificial silk’, for which a patent was granted in England in 1855 to a Swiss chemist named Audemars. This fibre alchemist dissolved the fibrous inner bark of a mulberry tree, chemically modifying it to produce cellulose. With this he formed threads by dipping needles into this solution and drawing them out, but it never occurred to him to emulate the silkworm by extruding the cellulose liquid through a small hole. Then in the early 1880s, Sir Joseph W Swan, an English chemist and electrician did just this, spurred to action by Thomas Edison’s newfangled incandescent electric lamp.
Swan experimented by forcing cellulose liquid similar to Audemar’s solution through fine holes into a coagulating bath. His fibres worked like carbon filament and they found early use in Edison’s invention. Luckily for us it also occurred to Swan that his filament could be used to make textiles and so, in 1885, he exhibited in London some fabrics run up by Mrs Swan.
The first commercial production of a manufactured fibre was achieved by French chemist, Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, who in 1889 caused a sensation in the Paris Exhibition when he showed his ‘artificial silk’. Two years later, he built the first commercial Rayon plant at Besancon in France and secured his fame as the ‘father of the Rayon industry’. Several attempts to produce ‘artificial silk’ took place in the US, a country that was set to dominate synthetic fibres in the new century, but none were commercially successful until the American Viscose Company formed by Samuel Courtaulds and Co Ltd began its production of Rayon in 1910.
By the mid 1920s Rayon fibre was being used increasingly by the textile industry, not because it was better but because it was 50% cheaper than natural fibres such as silk - a fact that is important to remember when comparing natural to synthetic clothing, like a Smart wool top to a Lowe Driflo top.
In September 1931, American chemist Wallace Carothers, working for DuPont, discovered a ‘miracle fibre’ known simply as ‘66’. The number 66 came from each repeat unit of the polymer chain that had two stretches of carbon atoms, each being six carbon atoms long. This was the first truly revolutionary fibre, as unlike other man-made fibres like Rayon and acetate, which had been derived from plant cellulose, nylon was synthesized completely from petrochemicals and established the basis for the ensuing discovery of an entire new world of manufactured fibres.
DuPont began commercial production of nylon in 1939, with the first experimental testing of nylon being in thread used to sew parachute fabric and in women’s stockings, with the first ‘Nylons’ being shown in February 1939 at the San Francisco Exposition, although the first nylon product was actually a toothbrush. Unfortunately for millions of women who suddenly found cheap tights the onset of World War II cut short this new market, as all nylon was allocated to military use (although Betty Grable auctioned her nylon stockings for as much as $40,000 a pair in war effort drives so you could technically buy them).
During the War, nylon replaced Asian silk in parachutes - as much of the Asian silk market was unfortunately flying under a Japanese flag and also found widespread use in tyres, tents, ropes, ponchos and other military supplies and even used in the production of a high-grade paper for US currency.
The outcome of this was that although by the outset of the War, cotton was king of fibres, by the end manufactured fibres had taken 15% of the market.
It could be said that the man-made fibres helped to win the War, and with the War over, the huge war industry switched over to peacetime production beginning, as you would guess, with stockings (hurray), but soon spread into other growth areas such as carpeting and automobile upholstery, as people returned to day-to-day life in the boom times of post-War America. By the 1950s man-mades were taking up 20% of the fibre needs of textile mills, with another new fibre called ‘Acrylic’ being added, an offshoot of nylon that had wool-like qualities.
Meanwhile, Polyester, first examined as part of the Wallace Carothers early research, was attracting new interest at the Calico Printers Association in Great Britain. There, J T Dickson and J R Whinfield produced a Polyester fibre by condensation polymerisation of ethylene glycol with terephthalic acid (yes, I do know exactly what this is). DuPont subsequently acquired the patent rights for the United States and Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) for the rest of the world.
The best thing about Polyester, and the reason that most of our outdoor gear is made of the stuff, is that it’s hydrophobic, meaning the fibre doesn’t absorb water, unlike nylon which is hydrophilic. Nylon may be stronger but its inability to repel water causes the fabric to swell and ultimately weakens the molecular structure. The dye used in nylon also oxidizes in sunlight, which causes anything from fading to complete degradation of the polymer matrix (this is why the colours fade faster in a nylon fly sheet and not a Polyester flysheet). The actual damage done is a strength drop of around 40% in nylon after 250 hours of direct exposure to sunlight and 65% after 500 hours, with Polyester being just 15% and 30%, making the warnings about leaving ropes out of the sun or covering your tent when left up for days, worth heeding.
The better suitability of Polyester over nylon for clothing has meant that it now dominates 54% of the textile market and so by 1953 the majority of the 20th Century’s basic manufactured fibres had now had been discovered. So the industry’s engineers turned to refining their chemical and physical properties to extend their use across industry - leading to fibre advances such as three dimensional hollow-cored fibres, bullet-stopping Kevlar and fire and electricity proof Nomex.
The cheap availability of man-made fabrics not only led the way to cheaper and mass-produced good quality clothing (the democratization of quality if you like), it also helped to make it cheaper as a climber to kit oneself out in state-of-the-art gear, something not possible in the days of gabardine, Ventile and silk (no more army surplus). But perhaps the pinnacle of the history of synthetics came on the afternoon of July 20th 1969, when Neil Armstrong took “One small step” in 25 layers of man-made materials and planted a flag made from nylon.
So next time you put on that fleece, or zip up that waterproof take a moment to thank Dickson, Whinfield and Carothers, because without them you’d probably still be wet, cold and dressed in army surplus.