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The History of Nylon

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Nylon. Add an S to that word and suddenly it becomes a lot more interesting. Nylons, a word calculated to get any girls heart racing during the war, particularly if she happened to be from England or Europe where these treasured items were in very short supply indeed. Almost as rare and as desirable as gold-dust. And who can forget the glamorous and breezy image of Marilyn Monroe walking across a street-grille,the heart-racing probably applied to men too! Yet, how much thought did they give to the invention of nylon ? They probably didn't give it much thought, the girls were probably just feeling grateful at last to have "legwear" that made their legs look smooth and glamorous instead of frumpy and sensible!, but actually it is quite an interesting story.

They may have been very interested to know, for example where the word "nylon" originated. It was taken from two words ( N for New and Y for York) and applied to this new leg gear first. Stockings, panty-hose or tights how ever you choose to describe them, were welcomed with open arms by ladies who, up until then, had had to make do with itchy, hot and dowdy wool which they could afford, or soft but loose expensive silk which they couldn't! Rayon was just as bad. Who wants to walk around in stockings, which by the middle of the day, are crinkled and saggy round the knees? Dreadful! Not a sexy image at all! That is no way to get the lads running over to ask for a dance.

So they had reason,in 1920, to be grateful to the scientists at Du Pont who were working on a replacement for expensive silk. One of them, Julian Hill discovered a sheer filament one day. A heated rod had been put into a solution of coal tar, water, and alcohol. When he drew it slowly and carefully out, he was excited to see a fine skein stretched between the rod and the solution. How exciting ! It looked and felt like silk! It was shown off at the 1939 New York World's Fair. On 15th May 1940, the new "nylons" went on sale and the hosiery shelves of New York were cleared! Nylon had well and truly arrived!

Other applications for the innovative new material now called "nylon" included toothbrushes, fishing line, and surgical stitching. Sadly, the military saw uses for the new material too! Its applications here included parachutes, tents, ropes ,tires and filters. And then came the War. In World War Two they were SO useful, that old pairs were even re-cycled! Just as ,in 1940, nylon was becoming firmly established as THE replacement for silk stockings and as (at last) women had a regular supply of practical, relatively cheap and attractive stockings, their good fortune was not to last, at least in Europe. The war was looming and that put a sudden end to their glee.

In addition to military needs for nylon, embargos and supply convoy difficulties meant that the supply dried up. Typically, as commodities become more rare, they become more in demand and the price goes up. In desperation, those unable to afford the newly grossly inflated prices on the Black Market were known to powder their legs with makeup, and to eye- pencil a long straight line down the back of each leg, in imitation of stockings! OK until the rain starts! Not the most sophisticated look in the world! Anbody lucky enough to possess a pair of the real things, would get fed up, night after night, washing them out and hanging them up to dry!

Nowadays nylon comes in many more varied guises and has many more applications. An early completely synthetic polymer developed in 1935 by Wallace Carothers has now been brought into play in designs for such diverse applications as rope, putty, clothing, balloons, zipper bags, Velcro, pet collars, erasers : the list seems endless! Yet we ladies have even more choices for our lovely legwear these days along comes lovely Lycra ! Figure-hugging, shiny and flattering we have come a long way from those bunched-up blue-stockings!

Sources gratefully acknowledged :

And of course for that essential lingerie shopping trip! :

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