Fiber Watch: Nylon Gets a New (Recycled) Life

 The first synthetic material gets a major makeover.

First introduced to the world by DuPont in the late 1930s, nylon rushed into the textile market as the perfect material for ladies stockings with its form-fitting, stretch and easy-to-wash and wear qualities. Women in the U.S. went crazy over the new leg wear that rendered their skin, knees and calves near perfect to the point that nylon sales reached 64 million pairs by the end of 1940.

After the onset of WWII, nylon production moved into military supplies such as rope, tents and tires, causing the price of nylon stockings to skyrocket from $1.25 to $10 a pair. Nylon production re-focused on women’s hosiery after the war ended, and millions of women lined up at department stores to buy stockings made from the “miracle material.” Thus began the “nylon riots,” triggering calamitous behavior such as witnessed in Pittsburgh in June of 1946 when a reported 40,000 people stood in a mile long line to compete for 13,000 pairs of nylons. Soon the entire synthetics fiber market shifted towards civilian products as industries like carpeting, home furnishings and car upholstery caught on.

By the 1950s, nylon made up more than 20% of the fiber produced for textile mills in the U.S., marking the beginning of our lasting affair with petrochemical textiles. With the onslaught of chemical manipulation and large investment into crude oil harvesting and management, acrylic, polyester, aramid, and spandex, alongside several others soon followed. These materials were soon incorporated into nearly every type of garment from underwear to socks, coats, mock-wool clothing and even men’s drip-dry suits, not to mention all of the other industries they entered.

The nylon production process uses a combination of coal, water, petroleum and natural gas as the main resources for performing a series of chemical reactions that produce a substance called caprolactum. The caprolactum is polymerized through a steaming process to produce a molten solution that is flaked and then processed through a spinneret that looks like a shower head, solidifying and spinning it into filaments of fiber.

Now nearly 8 million pounds of nylon is produced annually, meaning that the fiber accounts for approximately 12% of the synthetic fiber market. Although this is a small percentage considering the domination of synthetic fibers in several modern industries, we nonetheless have a bevy of nylon material already in existence with several million pounds added each year. So what to do with it?

What we’ve learned best to do with the toxic excess that we have created is to recycle it. Hyosung, a Korean company, has developed a method for recycling discarded nylon items into a textile grade fiber called Regen. As textile grade yarn is the finest achievable form of the fiber, the recycled material is not inferior to virgin nylon in any way, and can be used for a number of applications.

A whole range of pre- and post consumer’s nylon waste is utilized to create the recycled material, such as fishing nets, carpet, clothing, tires, rope and even instrument strings. Although the re-processing method is not entirely environmentally efficient or sustainable, recycling nylon keeps a rather large percentage of petro-chemical waste from going into the landfill or being incinerated, releasing toxic emissions into our atmosphere. It also uses 27% less natural resources than the production of virgin nylon, reduces greenhouse emissions by 28%, and can be processed over and over again.

Several companies worldwide recycle waste nylon into virgin grade material, such as Nilit in Israel, Unifi in the U.S., Toray in Japan and Nuriel in Spain. This retrieving routine has attracted a plethora of clothing and accessory designers so that a range of consumers can access and experience products made from recycled nylon. Patagonia is a devotee as one of the first apparel companies to incorporate the material into its athletic gear and backpacks, alongside the likes of running gear manufacturer Nautilus in its Thoni Mara line.

Christopher Raeburn A/W 2012

Even apparel giant H&M has taken on the use of recycled nylon in its Conscious Collection, while the material has also been cited in the collections of Christopher Raeburn, Organic by John Patrick and DKNY Pure. As no apparent danger of another nylon riot is in the near future with our abundance of material to work with, hopefully more manufacturers will see the beauty in rejuvenating the experienced versus the virgin version.