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Part 2: Properties of Nylon
From crude oil to the strongest fabric on the market.
Jul 2nd, 2020 | 4 min read

Introduction to Nylon

Nylon's magic is that while it is thin and light, it is still extremely strong and durable. For perspective, it was in so much demand for being stronger than silk that when women's stockings were sold in nylon for the first time, 4 million items sold out in 4 days -- and they were still priced higher than silk. When the US entered WWII, those same nylon stockings were put on hold to develop flak jackets, parachutes, airplane cords, and rope made out of nylon for the military, preferring the strength of nylon over the alternatives. After the war, Dupont switched back to producing nylon stockings, but struggled to meet the vast post-war demand that there were literally nylon riots. Women were fighting over nylon stockings. 

Generally, this guide will refer to plain old nylon, but nylon can be strengthened even more to create Cordura Nylon, Rip-Stop Nylon, and Ballistic Nylon. Cordura Nylon has more of a natural appearance to it, and is more common in high-end performance nylon fabrics. Rip-Stop Nylon can be used in windbreakers, rain jackets, and the shells of down jackets. Do not expect to find Ballistic Nylon in modern fashion wear, but it was used by the US military until Kevlar came along as a better alternative. Today it is used to make extremely durable backpacks -- think motorcycle riders, etc. 

Brief History of Nylon

Nylon was created in 1935 by researchers at Dupont (a company which went on to create numerous valuable materials, including Kevlar). It is created by taking two compounds derived from crude oil, and mixing them together to eventually create nylon fibers. These fibers are then spun and twisted into cakes of yarn, which are used to make nylon fabric. 

How nylon is commonly used

The first commercial use of nylon was for toothbrush bristles, and outside of fashion it is used for fishing nets, ropes, kites, umbrellas, and even hot air balloons. Within fashion, common uses of nylon include women's stockings, wedding dresses, swimwear, functional tops, functional bottoms, outerwear shells, athletic shoes, bags (from backpacks to luggage, often with "ripstop" nylon to improve resistance to tearing), hats, and just about everything else. What we'll be scoring nylon on are the functional tops and bottom made of 80%-100% nylon to see how it performs as the principle fabric in a fashion context.

Highlights and Strengths

  • Lightweight
  • Exceptionally strong and durable
  • Thin
  • Dries quickly
  • Breathable
  • Easy care, does not shrink
  • Moderate water resistance (which makes it good for swimwear, as it doesn't get heavy and weigh you down)

Weaknesses

  • Low water retention -- meaning it feels clammy when wet, and can lead to chaffing 
  • Can become static, attracting dust and lint

Score breakdown and TL;DR

  • Anti-Odour: 7/10. Quite good for a synthetic material. The wicking, breathability, and quick drying nature of the material does a good job. With normal wear, you could get away with wearing it a few times before washing. But if you really sweat in it, you're going to need to do some laundry.

  • Breathability: 8/10. Nylon pushes moisture to the surface where it readily evaporates. Again, great performance for a synthetic material. It dries very quickly as well. For example, nylon is considered extremely comfortable in underwear because it prevents feeling clammy (assuming you do not sweat beyond the 5% water retention level, which you won't with normal wear) -- you'll breathe fine and the sweat will evaporate quickly. 

  • Durability: 10/10. Exceptionally strong. The strongest fashionable material on the market, especially when reinforced in Cordura nylon. Very strong resistance to abrasion. 

  • Stretchability: 9/10. Nylon's breaking extension is around 25%, meaning it can be stretched 25% before breaking any fibers. Barring purely elastic materials like spandex, this is the highest of any synthetic fiber in fashion, and among all fabrics is only rivalled by knitted wool. However, this does not necessarily mean nylon will feel super stretchy when you wear it, just that it can be stretched significantly before breaking. For additional comfort, buying nylon blended with about 5-15% spandex allows for tremendous comfort and mobility while maintaining all the benefits and strength of nylon.

  • Moisture-wicking: 7/10. Nylon is effective with moisture-wicking which is why it makes effective performance clothing and underwear. However, it can only retain 5% of its weight in water so it saturates quickly and loses its wicking ability at that point. 

  • Weight and Packability: 10/10. Nylon is extremely lightweight, making it a popular choice among hikers, campers, and light packers. 

  • Wrinkle-prevention: 8/10. Nylon is fairly resistance to wrinkles, and they come out very easily when needed.

  • Softness: 8/10. Nylon has a soft hand and generally has a smooth texture. 

  • Ease of care: 10/10. As always, follow the instructions on your particular item. However, another strength of nylon is its low maintenance. It never shrinks or stretches in the wash and retains its shape, and dries quickly. To be on the safe side, avoid high heat whenever possible. 

  • Water retention: 2/10. Can only absorb 5% of its weight in water. If you sweat more than 5% of the fabric weight, or it rains on you while your nylon hasn't been treated with a durable water repellent, you will feel clammy. 

So there they are: the basic properties of nylon. A nylon primer.

Coming up: Modal. Find the full collection here.

This article was written by Materials Nerd.
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