When I was younger, I always thought nylon was a material used for tights and stockings. Everyone around me called their tights, nylons. It turns out there is more to nylon fabric than I thought. With a multitude of uses, nylon is one of the most used fibers in the world today. But what is it? What is nylon fabric?
Nylon fabric is a synthetic material made from petrochemicals. It’s known for incredible strength, durability, and exceptional elasticity. Also known as polyamide fabric, nylon is used for outerwear and bulletproof vests. With a high water resistance, nylon is the number one choice for swimwear.
With uses from protective gear to lingerie, nylon is both versatile and indispensable. Read on to find out more about this amazing fiber. We’ll look at its history and compare it against some of its closest fabric rivals. This article will tell you all you need to know about nylon fabric.
- What Is Nylon Fabric?
- What Is Nylon Fabric Made Of?
- How Is Nylon Made?
- Types of Nylon Fabric
- What Does Nylon Feel Like?
- Nylon Fabric Properties
- Nylon Fabric Uses
- What Are the Advantages of Nylon?
- What Are the Disadvantages of Nylon?
- Is Nylon the Same as Polyester?
- What Is Nylon Like to Sew With?
- Nylon Fabric by the Yard
- Is Nylon Toxic?
What Is Nylon Fabric?
Nylon is a manmade fiber first launched back in the 1930s by a company called DuPont. Described as a material stronger than steel, it created quite a buzz at the New York World Fair in 1939.
Touted as having phenomenal elasticity with superior strength, nylon was seen as the textile of the future. With a low production cost and the feel of silk, it’s easy to see why it took the world by storm.Originally, it was marketed as a silk substitute for use in stockings. Nylon gets its name from stockings in a roundabout way. The nylon material was thought to be incredibly strong, durable, and completely run-resistant. This led to it being called ‘No-Run’.
Unfortunately, as stocking and tight wearers around the globe discovered, nylon is anything but run-resistant. You only have to snag it a little, and you have ladders in your pantyhose. After a re-think and a brainstorming session, the letters were changed and the company settled on nylon.
With the onset of World War 2, nylon textiles became synonymous with military use. Most famously, nylon was used for parachutes. After the war, the fabric used in the parachutes became a popular material for refashioning into dresses.
The fabric had its fair share of disadvantages. Early nylon material was uncomfortable to wear. Rather than replacing silk, it didn’t breathe, felt clammy, and was susceptible to damage from too much heat and everyday wear.
Not only that but, it suffered from static electricity and could spark without warning. As a textile, nylon was thought to be unstable. Its popularity waned.
Modern-day nylon textiles have come on a long way since those early days. One of the reasons for a revival in its popularity is down to blending. These days, nylon fibers are mixed with polyester, cotton, and spandex. Creating a fabric with all the benefits of nylon coupled with the stability and reliability of its less volatile cousins.
What Is Nylon Fabric Made Of?Nylon fabric is made by spinning a series of fibers together. These fibers can be 100% nylon or a mixture of nylon and another fiber like cotton or polyester. Regardless of the fiber content, the resulting material is known as a synthetic nylon textile.
Most nylon fabric today is a blended material. This ensures nylon is not only strong, stretchy, and cheap to produce, but it also benefits from the properties of the fiber it’s mixed with. Cotton fiber adds a touch of breathability. While a polyester blend will give nylon greater immunity from UV rays.
How Is Nylon Made?
As nylon is a polymer, it’s made from a long chain of molecules known as monomers. A good way to visualize this is, think of a necklace and how the different links are all connected.
The first step in the process is to make the monomer. This is done by extracting diamine acid from crude oil. Next, the diamine acid is combined with another substance called adipic acid. Putting the two together forms a polymer, otherwise known as nylon salt.
Being salt means it has a crystallized form. If you go and look at the salt in your cupboard, you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, the nylon salt is heated to a super-high temperature to turn it into a liquid.
With the texture of a molten gloop, the liquid is pushed through a gadget called a spinneret. In the same way as pushing cheese through a grater, lots of little holes allow the substance to escape. As the molten substance is pushed through the spinneret, it forms long strands. Cooling down as it goes, the nylon hardens into long, thin fibers.
These fibers are then loaded onto spools, ready to be taken to the next step in the process, the stretching. Fibers are stretched to improve their elasticity and strength. Once they are stretched, the fibers are wound onto a second spool through a process called drawing.
It’s at this stage the nylon fibers are ready to be spun into fabric. Depending on the ultimate use of the nylon, they are either mixed with other fibers, like cotton, or used to create a 100% nylon material. The final stage in the process is adding color to the textile in readiness for the end product.
Types of Nylon Fabric
Several types of nylon fiber can be made into a textile. The grade, thickness, and blend of the fibers in a nylon fabric will determine what the material is used for. From industrial applications to apparel, nylon has a multitude of options and functions.
New and improved nylon fibers are being developed, further adding to the versatility of the fabric and the number of different nylon textiles available. Let’s take a look at the more popular variations.
Nylon 6 and Nylon 6,6
These two are so similar in structure, they are practically interchangeable. They are also the most popular forms out of the entire nylon range.
Both are lightweight and believed to be the lightest thermoplastic material you can get. This makes both nylon 6 and 6,6 incredibly popular for industrial and clothing applications. Each one has a high-tensile strength giving them longevity and unbeatable resistance to wear and tear.
Used for food-grade containers, the standards set for these twin nylons are extremely high. They have to be resistant to oxygen and other gasses. As well as being impervious to dust and bacteria.
As most labels say nylon, it’s difficult to tell if your product is nylon 6 or 6,6. As a rule of thumb, you are more likely to find nylon 6 in industrial settings because of its higher water absorption and lower heat resistance. It’s used to make cords and the fibers in your toothbrush.
Nylon 6,6 is the one used for clothing as it has a higher resilience to abrasion. Both fibers are used in carpets and for making artificial yarn.
One of the most popular nylon fabrics, ripstop nylon is durable, lightweight, and incredibly strong. It’s used for parachutes, hot air balloons, and sleeping bags. As well as rainwear and outdoor covers.
Ripstop nylon is a blended material and usually contains either nylon 6 or 6,6. Sometimes, both for added strength. It’s not only the fiber making this fabric super strong. The strength of ripstop lies in the weave. This textile has a criss-cross grid effect created by crossing different fibers over and under each other. It’s a bit like a basket-weave.
Other fibers found in ripstop nylon can include cotton, silk, polyester, and sometimes polypropylene. Water-resistant with high-tensile strength, it’s no wonder this nylon textile is relied on for safety as well as fashion.
Kevlar and Nomex
No article on nylon would be complete without mentioning two of the world’s top safety products. Still exclusive to DuPont, Nomex and Kevlar are two of the most important, versatile, and sought-after protection fabrics available today.
You will have heard of Kevlar. It’s the material used in bulletproof vests. That’s not its only use though. Kevlar is known for being cut and heat resistant.
You can find it in personal protection equipment in numerous industrial settings. From chainsaw protection to gloves used for grinding sheet metal, you’ll find Kevlar in any application where the wearer needs protection from heat and potential cut injuries.
Nomex is DuPont’s flame-resistant fabric. Just like Kevlar, it’s lightweight and impervious to heat. It doesn’t melt, drip, or catch fire.
This nylon textile is used for protective wear and is particularly popular with racing drivers, pit crew, military pilots, and firefighters. Being a light fabric gives the mobility you need to tackle the toughest blaze or escape a burning car or plane.
What Does Nylon Feel Like?Nylon feels cool and smooth to the touch. It’s like touching plastic, which isn’t surprising as it is plastic. As a synthetic fiber derived from petroleum, it has a similar look and feel to many other manmade fabrics.
The difference with nylon is it has a more flexible drape. Designed to be a silk substitute, nylon material is softer and more floaty than its synthetic siblings. Polyester, for instance, feels colder than nylon and is less fluid.
Nylon Fabric Properties
DurabilityNylon fibers are known for their superior strength. It has been said that the tensile strength of nylon is greater than a steel filament of the same weight. Tensile strength is the amount of pressure the fiber can be put under before it breaks.
Better still, it has an incredible elasticity, enabling it to bounce back to its original size and shape. Other good points include the ability to retain color and resistance to everyday wear and tear. Nylon is a robust and durable material.
Nylon isn’t durable in the same way as cotton or even polyester. It can be easily damaged by overstretching. Although it is flame-retardant, it’s heat intolerant, so it will melt. Even a rough tumble with other clothing in the washing machine will damage nylon. It pills, snags, and can tear in the blink of an eye.
ElasticityIt’s hard to beat nylon textiles when it comes to elasticity. There isn’t another fiber that has the same level of stretch and recovery as nylon.
It is for this reason, nylon has become a go-to material for activewear. Allowing a close fit, with the stretch and flexibility to match your body, nylon has revolutionized sportswear, particularly for women.
Gone are the days of wearing uncomfortable everyday bras, for instance. Now you can buy a specifically developed sports bra that moves with you yet provides full support and control—no more painful bouncing in the bust area.
The jury is still out on whether nylon is capable of moisture-wicking or not. As it’s a synthetic textile, it doesn’t have the same moisture-wicking properties as a natural fiber.
However, nylon can absorb water in different degrees, depending on the particular nylon. Next time you go swimming, watch how much water comes out of your swimsuit when you’re done!
This ability to suck up the water around it is one of the reasons nylon is popular in sportswear. It lifts the sweat away from your body, keeping you cool. So in that regard, the moisture is wicked away from your skin. Only unlike a natural fabric, the moisture stays in the clothing. To be truly moisture-wicking, the sweat would need to evaporate.
Nylon doesn’t burn easily, so its flammability score is low. However, it can melt, especially at high temperatures. Although there are nylons specifically formulated to withstand intense heat, these aren’t typically available to the public.
Heat tolerant nylons tend to be used in industrial or commercial settings. Materials like Kevlar aren’t available from your local fabric store. The nylon you can buy is heat intolerant, so watch the temperature of your washing machine and dryer when caring for it!
Mildew and Chemical Resistance
Like all synthetics, nylon is resistant to mildew. This is one of the properties that make it incredibly easy to care for. There’s no need to use bleach or other heavy chemicals to clean the fabric with a built-in mildew-proof structure.
Although, it wouldn’t matter if you did need to use bleach on nylon fabric. When it comes to chemical resistance, nylon outshines other manmade fibers. With a chemical tolerance higher than polyester, nylon can also withstand exposure to oil. It’s even impervious to bleach.
Nylon is used to make tents, tarps, and covers for outdoor furniture because it’s resistant to water, mildew, and mold. It’s also resistant to abrasion, making it an ideal fabric for use in inclement weather conditions.
Not only that, but when the humidity levels start to rise in the summer months, nylon can take it all in its stride. Especially when woven into a ripstop weave. The fabric will be strong and super resilient against anything the weather can throw at it.
Easy to wash and quick to dry, your outside nylon may pick up dirt and grime from your yard, but it’ll soon be clean and shiny again. Although, there is a downside. Some nylons can be damaged by too much exposure to direct sunlight on a hot summer’s day. So, remember to give your nylon some shade.
The absorbency level in nylon depends on the type of nylon you have. Most untreated nylons will absorb moisture up to a point. On average, the usual amount of water absorption is around 10% of its weight in water. That’s a small amount when you consider nylon is a relatively light fabric.
You may find nylon blended with cotton fibers will have a greater absorption level. Cotton is incredibly absorbent and will enhance the water retaining qualities of the nylon.
To make some nylon textiles more waterproof, they are treated with resins and water-repellant chemicals to prevent water from being absorbed. If you have this type of nylon, your water absorption level will be nonexistent.
Nylon material is susceptible to damage from light and UV exposure. The type of nylon you have will determine the extent of damage and the potential risk of an adverse reaction.
Nylon fabrics aren’t naturally UV resistant at all. But, they can be mixed with light and UV resistant chemicals to improve their performance. If your nylon backpack or tarp is prone to UV damage, you will see signs of color fading and fabric degradation. The fibers will become brittle and dusty.
One of the benefits of nylon material is how easy it is to care for. Simply pop it in a cool or warm wash and allow it to air dry. Better still, nylon can be put in a dryer on a low heat setting for a short time.
A word of caution here, make sure the time is very short as nylon doesn’t like sitting in a dryer longer than it needs to. It’ll get too warm and possibly melt. The same goes for when you use your iron.
Although a nylon textile rarely needs ironing, if you do choose to iron it, make sure you use a cool setting and don’t iron it for too long. A press cloth will help protect the fibers from overheating.
Nylon is the fabric of the future when it comes to maintaining its look. A wash-and-go fabric designed for a busy lifestyle. You can wash it in the evening and be wearing it the next day.
As a synthetic material, nylon has its pros and cons when it comes to comfort. Lightweight and smooth to the touch, it can feel cool against the skin. Its inherent ability to stretch gives you freedom of movement not found in many other manmade or natural fabrics.
However, it can retain water. Rather than wick it away, nylon can absorb moisture, keeping it close to your body. This can leave you feeling clammy, sticky, and stuck with a soggy fabric clinging to your skin.
Nylon is a low-cost textile compared to natural fibers like cotton or linen. It’s not the cheapest synthetic though. Slightly more expensive than polyester, it’s still a relatively inexpensive material and has become a firm favorite for clothing.
If you go for nylon blended with other fibers, you’ll find the fabric will be cheaper than pure 100% nylon. Simply because a blend will have the characteristics of all the fibers it contains and needs fewer chemical additives.
Depending on what kind of garment it is used for, there could be special finishes or coatings added to the final product. Raincoats, for instance, could have a waterproof layer to improve their weatherproof properties. Any additional coating or chemical enhancement will increase the price of the fabric.
Another downside with nylon, it’s more expensive than its closest synthetic sibling, polyester. Although the extra qualities inherent in nylon fabrics goes some way to counteract this discrepancy.
Nylon Fabric Uses
Nylon is used for a multitude of products, from industrial purposes to commercial and everything in between.
It’s a versatile material with new uses being discovered all the time. Here’s a list of the more popular items nylon can be made into.
- Stockings and tights
- Strings for musical instruments
- Bridal veils
- Toothbrush fibers
- Foundation wear & corsets
- Blouses and dresses
- Ski apparel
- Bulletproof vests
- Cut-resistant protective wear
- Firefighting equipment
What Are the Advantages of Nylon?
As one of the most commonly used textiles in the world, nylon has become an integral part of our daily lives. From heat-resistant parts for cars to luxury lingerie, the benefits of nylon are felt everywhere. Here’s a list of some of the top advantages of nylon fabric.
- Strong and durable
- Extreme elasticity
- Ability to bounce back to its original shape
- Machine washable
- Doesn’t bleed color or fade in the wash
- Resistant to mildew, mold, and moths
- Resistant to many chemicals
- Resistant to oil and bleach
What Are the Disadvantages of Nylon?
All good things have their bad points and nylon is no exception. There are several disadvantages associated with nylon textiles. Here are a few of the main ones.
- Heat intolerant
- Can melt in a hot wash
- Degrades under prolonged exposure to UV light
- Not biodegradable
- Energy-intensive production process
- Can be overstretched
- Color fades in direct sunlight
- Pills and snags with frequent washing
Is Nylon the Same as Polyester?
Nylon and polyester are both synthetic fabrics with similar properties. They are two very distinctive materials, though. They each have their strengths and weaknesses and excel in different areas.
Polyester is more widely used for apparel than nylon because it’s slightly cheaper to produce. Nylon has higher durability than polyester and is more weather-resistant. This makes nylon the best of the two for outdoor gear like backpacks.
Nylon is less UV resistant than polyester. So colors will fade faster if exposed to too much direct sunlight. The heat from the sun is a problem for both fibers. As they are both synthetic materials, neither are happy under too much heat and will melt. Worse, polyester tends to melt and burn at the same time.
Although polyester and nylon fabrics are both used in activewear, the stretch and recovery of a nylon-based garment is greater than the polyester alternative. The fabric will also feel smoother and softer to wear, whereas polyester tends to feel cold and more like plastic.
Manmade fibers like nylon and polyester are non-biodegradable, so they take a long time to decompose. Although polyester can be recycled or repurposed into something else, nylon can’t.
There is some good news for nylon fibers. They are made from the by-products found at oil refineries. So in a way, the production of nylon helps recycle the unavoidable waste from the production of fuel.
What Is Nylon Like to Sew With?
Nylon fabric can be a challenge to sew with. Skipped stitches and puckered seams are typical problems with this material. The textile doesn’t ease well and a build-up of static will cause dirt and lint to cover the fabric’s surface.
You’ll find your needle and scissors will dull quickly and the fabric will try to hang on to both as you work. This is because it’s essentially plastic. All your cutting tools should be super-sharp before you start to cut into nylon. Otherwise, you’ll get snags and pulls.
If you are working with woven nylon, this tendency to snag on cutting tools can add to the material’s annoying habit of fraying. Try to handle the edges of the material as little as possible to alleviate this issue.
There are some other things you can do to making sewing with nylon a more pleasant experience. Always sew a test seam on a spare bit of fabric before you start the project. By doing this, you can check your needle and thread are up to the job.
Your needle should be a universal size 70/10 for sheer fabrics or an 80/12 for medium-weight nylons. Avoid ballpoint needles as they don’t like nylon.
As nylon is a manmade fiber, you will need to sew it with a manmade thread. A polyester or polyester blend will do the trick. Cotton thread doesn’t have enough give, so it will break.
Make sure the garment you want to make is suitable for the nylon fabric you are using. Avoid any design requiring topstitching or intricate seams. It’s a crisp fabric to work with and doesn’t bend or ease that well.
Most nylons work better when you do less. So rather than try to set in a sleeve with a voluminous poof, go for a simple, flat raglan or kimono.
Nylon Fabric by the Yard
A nylon textile will cost anywhere from around $4 to $8 per yard. The actual price you pay will be determined by where you buy it and the quality of the nylon available. You may find buying in bulk will work out cheaper.
Nylon is one of the more expensive synthetic fibers available today. It warrants a higher price as it has more strength, durability, and elasticity than its manmade counterparts. You will find it is slightly cheaper than natural fibers. A nylon blend will also cost less than a 100% nylon product.
Is Nylon Toxic?
Any oil-based fabric will contain some harsh chemicals. Nylon is no exception and could be considered toxic. But then so can many of the other synthetic materials we use every day.
If you use nylon correctly and follow the care instructions, the fabric is as safe as any other apparel fabric. Manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure their clothing meets safety guidelines and conforms to all health requirements.
Some people have noticed nylon has a few issues if worn for long periods. A build-up of sweat can cause skin irritations. As with most synthetics, nylon can outgas volatile organic compounds or VOCs. These have been known to cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, and breathing problems.
As long as you respect your nylon garments and follow the instructions for use, you shouldn’t have any issues while wearing them. If you do, stop wearing them and seek out alternative clothing materials.
Nylon is a versatile and popular fabric used for a multitude of products and projects. This textile has been a part of our lives since the 1930s and is being improved all the time. Watch out for it turning up in even more places as we head into the future.
Let me know in the comments if you liked the article. Have you worked with nylon? What project did you do with it? Did you experience any problems?