#MaterialMondays is a series of informative (and not overwhelming, we promise!) posts that breaks down what’s what in fabrics. Our goal is to equip you with knowledge and tips that will inform your buying choices so that they are made with sustainability and the environment in mind. If you liked this post, be sure to share!
Post by Contributing Writer Iris Chau.
With the sun shining and more skin showing as a sign of the start of summer, it’s hard not to be tempted to wear a little less or to go out for a run. It’s officially marathon and outdoor yoga season and the streets and studios are lined up with ladies and gents in their latest athleisure pieces. We all know that exercise is important for our health, but what about the tools we use for exercise and the health of our planet? This week, we’re tackling the versatile and legendary (we’ll explain why) fiber that is nylon, including how it’s made, how it changed the way women dress, and how it continues to challenge the limits of what we can achieve in our clothes through its use in performance and athleisure wear. Lastly, we’ll cover its environmental implications as well as tips for purchasing nylon.
WHAT IS NYLON AND HOW IS IT MADE?
Nylon refers to an entire family of synthetic polymers that are incredibly versatile. Through processing and melting into various kinds of fibers and shapes, it is a reliable material for many uses. We see nylon in fashion, but it is also in the bristles of our toothbrushes, our carry-on luggage, and our car parts, carpets, and furniture. It was invented by a group of scientists from an American chemical company named DuPont in 1938, with the intention of the nylon fiber being a cheaper and higher quality man-made alternative for silk. It was also a pursuit that was directly motivated by World War II, when the United States no longer had access to silk and cotton from Asia. At the New York World’s Fair in 1939, DuPont introduced the first nylon women’s stockings. The silk stockings women wore before this invention had to be worn with garter belts, and altogether, it was not the most convenient nor affordable. Silk stockings lacked the elasticity and flexibility that a synthetic fiber like nylon has, and so had to be worn with belts in order to keep them from falling. They were much more likely to rip and run, whereas nylon stockings were more durable by far. During this time, synthetic fiber alternatives were often perceived as being eco-conscious because they were longer-lasting than natural fibers and did not require using up precious natural resources or hard labor.
The introduction of nylon revolutionized what women wore and how they got dressed. Nylon stockings were adored for how easy they were to care for—they don’t have to be ironed, and can be washed with a washing machine. They assisted in the rising popularity of mini skirts and mini dresses of the 1960s, allowing women in that era of fashion to show more leg without showing too much skin. Most importantly, everyone could afford it. Nylon quickly also became used in swimwear and sportswear due to its capability for stretch and its low absorbency rate.
In sum, nylon is incredibly popular and an important symbol in the history of fashion, with its most important characteristics being:
Exceptional capability for stretch and elasticity
Resistant to tears and rips and very durable
Resistant to molds, mildew, decay
Resistant to water and moisture
Cost-effective and low maintenance/easy to care for
WHAT ABOUT NYLON TODAY?
Today, nylon hosiery is no longer the fashion staples they were before. In the last thirty years, the popularity of hosiery has slowly seeped out of the mainstream and more into niche subcultures and styles. Where we are most likely to find nylon in the fashion industry today is in the technical apparel and athleisure industry—where silhouettes intersect with street style culture and have greatly risen to prominence in the last ten years. Lightweight, strong, stretchy and adaptable, nylon is an ideal fiber for performance wear. Think water resistant logo windbreakers, yoga leggings as pants, innovative sneakers and bags, and high-tech mesh fabrics. Athleisure/athletic brands like adidas, Nike, lululemon, Patagonia and Sweaty Betty all have a wide product range of jackets, shorts, running tops, tights and joggers made from nylon. Aside from athleisure, nylon is also used widely for socks and lingerie. Small percentages of nylon are often included in fabric blends to provide a bit of stretch and durability (think stretchy denim.)
WHAT ABOUT ENVIRONMENTAL IMPLICATIONS?
Despite all of its positive qualities, and the original intention for nylon to be an environmentally-friendly fiber, too much of one thing is never good. Nylon is a synthetic, petroleum-based fiber (as polyester) and, like all other synthetic fibers, they are not biodegradable and will either have to be disposed to landfills or upcycled. In addition, low-quality nylon has also become a norm due to the rise of fast and cheap fashion, making it harder for consumers to differentiate what will truly last and what will wear out quickly. And, like polyester, the production of nylon involves the release of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that has shown to contribute to global warming. According to this article by Forbes, almost 70 million barrels of oil are used each year to produce polyester, and yet it takes more than 200 years to begin to decompose—and even upon decomposition, it will still leave behind chemicals in the environment. Though this stat is about polyester, we can imagine nylon has similar oil use since it is made from the same substances as polyester.
Not only that, but dyeing nylon into trendy colors also has dire consequences for our environment and its water systems. The process of achieving these colors results in chemical water pollution, and it doesn’t help that a lot of the colors in demand are usually the ones that cannot be (or is difficult to be) achieved naturally. The neon brights, true blacks, and metallic prints that dominate the athleisure category pose a real threat to water systems and drinking water in communities where they are dyed. Not only that, but nylon is not as good as natural fibers at absorbing natural dyes—they almost always require chemical dyes and processing.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
It’s hard to compromise nylon for something else. Since nylon is used for so many fabric innovations (who can live without a nice pair of stretchy tights?), it seems primitive to go back to only wearing natural fibers that don’t have the same level of performance. So, we’ve come up with some things you can do to lessen the impact of nylon on the environment:
1. Look for recycled nylon.
Though recycled polyester has been around for years, there’s something about nylon that makes it much harder to recycle than polyester. It is still rare, but some companies are putting in the effort to research and develop a high-quality recycled nylon that is made from post-industrial waste fiber or leftover yarns from spinning factories ad weaving mills. Patagonia is a huge key player in this development and continues to incorporate recycled nylon into their product line. Econyl is a regenerated nylon fiber that was developed in recent years and might begin to surface on some products in the apparel market as well.
2. Buy second-hand.
There are already tons of options for second-hand clothing and there will be no shortage of nylon goods. Second-hand does not always mean poor quality as many people will donate brand new items to second-hand stores. Look for them before you purchase anything new. I’ve found very water-resistant jackets and shorts at my local consignment shop!
3. Care for your nylon.
If you already own garments made from nylon, like your hit-the-gym outfit or yoga class staples, or just a pair of classic nylon stockings, take good care of them. Make them last so that you don’t have to replace them with a new set. Do so by washing it in cold water with similar fabrics, use less detergent, putting them in a ‘delicates’ bag, avoid fabric softeners, and mending them when there’s a tear instead of throwing it out.
4. Ask if you really need it.
Before you purchase something, ask if you really need it and whether or not there’s something that you already own that can substitute for it. For example, I go on runs with a cotton t-shirt instead of an athletic t-shirt. Though it may not have the same level of moisture wicking as an athletic top, it still works for me.
At the end of the day, nylon has contributed a ton of positive benefits in the world of fashion and in the world in general, but this doesn’t give us an excuse to turn a blind eye to the reality of its impact. As consumers we still need to bear responsibility for what we buy and how it’s made. We can gear up in our innovative technical garments in the name of fitness and a healthy lifestyle, but let’s not forget the health of our planet while doing so.