The Spool

The Interwoven Paths of Tech and Textiles – Part 2

The previous post of The Spool dove into the history of technology in textiles from the Stone Age through the Industrial Revolution. But the love story between tech and textiles didn’t end there.

The next wave of innovation came in the 20th century and was based on synthetic and semi-synthetic fabrics, many of which fill our closets today. What exactly is a semi-synthetic fiber? Rayon, commercialized in 1910, is an example of a semi-synthetic fiber: it’s human-made (hence the term synthetic) from naturally occurring polymers found in wood pulp, so it’s not straight-up synthetic. Interestingly, rayon was originally marketed as “artificial silk” because silk was the reigning queen of the fabric world.

Then came nylon: It was a game-changer. Wallace Carothers invented nylon at DuPont, who commercialized it in 1939. Made from petroleum, nylon was the first completely synthetic fabric on the market. It proved that polymers could be engineered; we were no longer at the mercy of whatever we could scrounge up in nature.

Like rayon, nylon was meant to be a replacement for silk. This turned out to be especially useful during World War II, when imported silk was hard to come by. But nylon being used in products for warfare meant less of it was available for stockings – which led to riots where hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of women vied for a limited supply of hosiery. Historians researching the mania of shopping in years before Black Friday, take note.

 

nylon

Donating old undergarments may seem like a strange way to be patriotic, but these stockings were recycled into army parachutes

 

DuPont is also responsible for a material you almost certainly own – polyester. Polyester is made from petroleum, with coal, air, and water mixed in. DuPont introduced it to the public in 1953 as a miracle fiber that could be worn for 68 days without ironing. It was a sad day for iron monopoly pieces everywhere.

 

monopoly

Figure 2. Did you know people are so anti-ironing that in 2013 they voted to eliminate the iron Monopoly token?

 

The following years brought a few more material innovations, with lycra being introduced in 1962 and Gore-Tex being invented in 1969. But the material palette for fabrics has remained largely unchanged since then. While synthetic materials were once heralded as innovative breakthroughs, today we recognize that their reliance on petroleum is problematic. At Bolt Threads, we’re working to develop new materials that are sustainably made: in other words – we’re putting the tech back in textiles.

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