Nylon is a synthetic fabric made from petroleum products. It was developed in the 1930s as an alternative to silk, although it quickly became unavailable to civilian consumers, because it was used extensively during World War II. Like many synthetics, this material was developed by Wallace Carothers at the Dupont Chemical company, which continues to manufacture it today. Nylon is valued for its light weight, incredible tensile strength, durability, and resistance to damage. It also takes dye easily, making the fabric available in a wide array of colors for consumers.
Today, nylon is among the many polymer products in common daily use throughout the world. It is the second most used fiber in the United States, since it is so versatile and relatively easy to make. Like most petroleum products, it has a very slow decay rate, which unfortunately results in the accumulation of unwanted products in landfills around the world.
Nylon is made through a chemical process called ring opening polymerization, in which a molecule with a cyclic shape is opened and flattened. Other forms of the material are made through the chemical reaction between two monomers: adipoyl chloride and hexamethylene diamine. When stretched, the fibers even out, thin, and smooth until they reach a point at which they have no more give, yet are still very strong. After nylon is extruded in a thread form, therefore, it is drawn or stretched after it cools to make long, even fibers. Before drawing, the material has a tangled structure, which straightens out into parallel lines.
The strength of nylon comes from amide groups in its molecular chain, which bond together very well. It also has a very regular shape, which makes it well suited to creating fabrics designed to stand up to intense forces. In fact, it was the primary material used in parachutes and ropes during World War II for this reason. It is also used for bulletproof vests and other hard wearing items.
Nylon is very sensitive to heat and should be washed and dried on cool settings. The fabric can also be hung dry, and it is favored by campers because it dries very quickly. It's a flexible textile, and as a result, it appears in a wide range of applications, from clothing to climbing equipment. Depending on how it is processed, nylon can be formed into the gossamer-like threads used in stockings or into thick toothbrush bristles.