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What Is Nylon (And What to Consider Before Buying it)

By Vinita Baravkar

Fabric Rundown: What Is Nylon and Is it Sustainable?

When it was first produced in the early 20th century, nylon took the textile world by storm.

Though most of us own at least some products made from nylon, you may still be wondering what exactly nylon is, how it’s manufactured, and what impact it has on your health and the environment.

This article will give you a quick rundown on all things nylon — arming you with the knowledge to make informed decisions while buying fabrics for yourself and your family.

What is Nylon?

One of the most popularly used fabrics in the fashion industry, nylon is a synthetic, man-made fibre sourced from petrochemicals or crude oil extracts.

When synthetic polymers are linked with a compound called amide, the resulting material is a thermoplastic polymer — otherwise known as nylon.

All being a thermo-softening material means, is that at a certain high temperature nylon fibres are malleable and solidify once again when cooled down.

This gives the fibre durability and stretchiness which makes it a preferable material in the textile industry to make apparel, activewear, swimwear and other technical garments.

Now let's look at how nylon first came about.

A Brief History of Nylon

Fun fact: Nylon was the world's first fabric to be made in a lab.

In 1935, American organic chemist Wallace Carothers invented nylon while working at DuPont, a chemical manufacturing company.

By the end of 1935, the fibre was patented by DuPont. Nylon was all set to be launched to the world.

The first commercial use for this fibre was the nylon-bristled toothbrush developed in 1938.

After making its debut in 1939 at the World’s Fair in New York, nylon was touted as the new replacement to silk.

It was a success with the fashion industry, which soon started using nylon extensively to make women's hosiery.

This is how the term "nylon" became synonymous to "stockings".

As nylon became a staple in women's fashion and grew in popularity, another rising industry saw its potential for a critical event — World War 2.

The military equipment industry sought out nylon in making parachutes for soldiers. In fact, nylon was also used in other wartime essentials like ropes, flak jackets, mosquito nets and even aircraft fuel tanks.

Soon enough, nylon changed the world of fabrics forever.

How is Nylon Made?

To put it simply, nylon fabric is a type of plastic that's derived from petroleum.

Scientifically, nylon is a polymer — which means it is made up of a long chain of monomers (or single-carbon molecules).

Its production is a long and arduous process that is both chemically and energy-intensive at each step.

Below are the steps on how nylon is made:

Step 1: Extraction

The production begins by extracting a certain compound called diamine from crude oil (i.e. petroleum).

Step 2: Polymerization

Next, two sets of molecules are combined together to create a polymer. The previously extracted diamine monomer is mixed with adipic acid. The result is a thick crystallised polymer or "nylon salts".

These are commonly known as nylon 6, 6 or simply 6-6. The name is based on the number of carbon atoms between the two acid and amine groups.

Step 3: Heating

Once the crystals are dissolved in water, they are acidified and heated to create a strong chain, which is impossible to break even at a chemical level. This is where nylon gets its strength and durability from.

Manufacturers use a special machine to heat the nylon polymers to a specific high temperature. The polymer molecules combine together to form a molten substance which leads to the next step: spinning.

Step 4: Spinning

The molten substance formed is spun in a mechanical spinneret which separates thin fibre strands and exposes them to the air. The exposed strands harden instantly. They are then wound into bobbins and stretched to create the strength and elasticity that nylon is known for.

Step 5: Spooling

The fibre’s filaments are unwound and then rewound onto a spool in a process called drawing which aligns the nylon molecules into a parallel structure. The resulting fibre strands are multipurpose threads that can be woven or bound as they are, or they can be combined and further melted.

Step 6: Manufacturing

Finally, the fibres are ready and depending on the end use, can either be woven or fused together to form various products. The hotter the melting temperature, the more seamless and shinier the end product.

What is Nylon Used for?

Across the world, nylon is used extensively in various industries.

Every year, 8 million pounds of nylon is produced globally.

In fact, nylon accounts for 12% of the world's synthetic fibre usage.

Most of the world's nylon is manufactured in Asian countries such as China, India and Taiwan.

From toothbrush bristles, carpets and car parts to guitar strings and military-grade equipment, nylon has found its way into most daily-use and industrial items.

While it started with women's stockings, nylon is now a key component in making gloves, leggings, jackets, shorts, umbrellas and even boots.

The fabric is cheap, stretchy and durable — making it a hit with the manufacturers.

Nylon Vs. Polyester

Since nylon and polyester are both man-made, it can be easy to get confused between the two fabrics.

Both fabrics are synthetic, lightweight, and durable.

However, manufacturing nylon is a more expensive process than that of polyester. This results in an overall higher price point of nylon for the end consumer.

Nylon also tends to be more durable and weather-resistant — which explains why it's commonly used in outdoor apparel and outerwear.

Below is a table comparing the two synthetic fabrics:

Nylon Polyester
Polyamide is made from petroleum. Polymer production from coal, air and petroleum products.
Created as a liquid, machine spun and dried into individual fibres Spun into individual threads from a chemical solution 
Has a silky lustrous appearance with a wide range of colours. Has a slick appearance with a wide range of colours
Extremely flammable — melts and  burns rapidly  Somewhat flammable — melts and burns at the same rate 
Extremely flammable — melts and  burns rapidly  Somewhat flammable — melts and burns at the same rate 
Highly stretchy and elastic  Somewhat elastic 
Fades easily in sunlight Holds colour well — doesn't fade easily
Resistant to damage from oil and many chemicals Resistant to most chemicals
Low moisture absorbent, water resistant  Resistant to wrinkles 

Pros and Cons of Nylon

There are different types of nylon. The one most commonly used is called Nylon 6,6.

Nylon enjoys a wide global popularity in various industries due to its benefits.

One of its main benefits is strength and durability, which makes it resistant to wear and tear.

Its waterproof property also makes it an ideal ingredient in the production of umbrellas and raincoats.

But the fabric also comes with a long list of cons.

Below we've broken down the pros and cons of nylon fabric:

Pros Cons
Extremely elastic; can stretch up to 33% of its length and still regain its original shape Not breathable.
Resistant to abrasion (even more than wool) Energy-intensive: Nylon requires three times more energy than cotton to produce
When properly heat-set, it retains its crimp, twist and dye. Made from petroleum which is a non-renewable resource with negative environmental impacts.
Extremely resilient Being a synthetic polymer, nylon is not biodegradable. It persists in the environment indefinitely and releases harmful microplastics.
Lightweight and smooth Nylon is a synthetic fibre and may cause allergies to sensitive skin.
Mildew resistant It shrinks easily. Being hydrophobic, it absorbs little to no moisture, making it an unsuitable fabric for summer.

Is Nylon Sustainable?

If you're looking for a sustainable, eco-friendly fabric, nylon is not the option for you.

The truth is, nylon is far from being a sustainable fabric.

Nylon production comes with a whole host of environmental and social concerns, making it a pretty toxic material.

Nylon's negative impact — both on the environment and human health — can be broken down into two stages: pre-consumer and post-consumer stage.

The pre-consumer stage mainly has to do with the way nylon is produced.

Being a synthetic fabric, nylon is derived from byproducts of petroleum and petrochemicals.

As you already know, the petroleum industry is notorious for activities like drilling, fracking and shipping — all of which are devastating for our environment and contribute heavily to the climate crisis.

Nylon manufacturing is a thirsty and energy-intensive process.

It uses a lot of water, energy and other resources to produce nylon in textile factories. Not to mention the toxic synthetic dyes used in the process.

During the production process, these toxic dyes and chemicals end up in the wastewater, which then runs down into streams, rivers and other waterways around the manufacturing plants thereby causing water pollution.

This is really concerning.

As most of the nylon is manufactured in countries with weak environmental protection laws like China and Pakistan, this makes nylon a major cause of water insecurity in those regions.

And if that wasn't enough, nylon production makes the climate crisis worse.

Nylon is created by combining diamine acid with adipic acid, a reaction that releases huge amounts of nitrous oxide gas into the atmosphere, 300 times worse than carbon dioxide.

In addition, since all of the world’s nylon is currently manufactured in Asian countries, exporting this nylon to the rest of the world releases millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in the transportation process.

And all of this happens before the nylon product reaches consumers.

Post-consumer issues for nylon arise once the product has reached the end of its life cycle.

When it’s time to dispose of nylon-based products, we’re confronted with the bad news that nylon is non-biodegradable.

This means all the disposed nylon accumulates as waste in landfills — where they remain for hundreds of years.

Not to mention the humongous amount of nylon waste in the form of ghost nets (i.e. discarded fishing nets) discarded into our oceans every year.

Remember the viral video of struggling seals caught in old fishing nets?

Every year over 650,000 marine animals die or get injured by nylon ghost nets. This is the tragic reality.

Then there's the issue with microplastics.

Being a plastic polymer, nylon waste releases microplastics into our environment.

Microplastics are harmful to marine life as well as to human health. They get into our bodies through the food we consume and the water we drink.

The Future of Nylon

In the past few years, there's been a buzz generated in the fashion and textile industry because of recycled nylon.

Also known by its patented name Econyl, it's comparatively a greener alternative to traditional nylon. Econyl is the preferred option for sustainable, eco-conscious fashion brands who want to use nylon without the nasties.

Italian plastics company Aquafil first developed this nylon-alternative fabric.

The company claims that Econyl has 90% less global warming potential compared to standard nylon, though this number hasn’t been verified by an independent source.

Unlike traditional nylon, Econyl is made by repurposing old discarded fishing nets and other nylon textile production scraps. This helps divert tons of nylon waste from the oceans and landfills each year.

But there are still a few setbacks to consider.

Nylon is not biodegradable — which means neither is Econyl.

When its time runs out, fabrics made from Econyl will also probably end up in our oceans contributing to the same issues of water pollution and microplastic contamination that they seek to avoid.

At the end of the day, synthetic fabrics — recycled or not — still cause immense harm to our planet, people, and all other life forms.

Moving forward, our collective goal should be to shift away from synthetic fabrics altogether.

Instead, embrace natural fabrics like organic cotton, hemp, and organic linen. Made without the use of toxic chemicals and dyes, they will not put the health of our planet, the workers and you, the end consumer, at risk.

Sustainable brands like Bhumi are saying no to synthetic fabrics and using only GOTS-certified organic cotton to make their sleepwear, bedding and blankets.

With zero chemicals and toxic dyes used throughout the production process, the fabric is soft, breathable and safe for your skin.

FAQ:

What is ripstop fabric?

Also known as "sports fabric", ripstop is a woven, lightweight, waterproof fabric threaded with nylon. It's primarily used in making sports equipment such as parachutes, camping gear, backpacks and hot air balloons.

By itself, nylon fabric isn't resilient enough to resist tearing. This is why nylon is blended with cotton, silk and polyester and woven in an interlocked pattern to form the tear-resistant ripstop fabric.

Does nylon fabric have BPA?

Yes. Bisphenol-A (or BPA) is an industrial chemical often used in making synthetic fibres such as polyester, spandex and, you guessed it, nylon.

It's used to coat the fibres in order to strengthen them during production.

BPAs can be absorbed through your skin and cause serious health complications. You can learn more about BPA and associated health risks here and here.

Is it safe to wear nylon clothes?

Since nylon is a synthetic fabric, it's treated with hundreds of harmful toxic chemicals during the production process. These toxins remain in your clothes and often penetrate your skin, leading to various health issues.

Though the effects may not be obvious or immediate, it goes without saying that you should steer clear of all synthetic fabrics in your clothing, bedding and other accessories wherever possible.

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