A pair of nylon stockings sit at the national museum for American history today as a testament to the successful debut of synthetic fibers into clothing and textiles. In less than a year of being commercially available, nylon had become a household name. Nylon fabrics gained immediate public acceptance.
The first synthetic fiber entirely developed in a laboratory is nylon. Once thought of as a miracle in the clothing and textiles industry, nylon is a controversial fabric today. The question is, is nylon fabric sustainable?
Nylon fabric is a synthetic material made from crude oil, so it is essentially plastic. Labels first used nylon in women's fashion as a replacement for silk. In the early days, when it first entered the market as women's stockings, they advertised nylon fabric as a fabric with the strength of steel and the sheerness of cobwebs4. It has remained relevant in the fashion industry thanks to its elasticity, resilience, heat responsiveness, and ability to shape.
Nylon textile does not have much in the way of moisture-wicking properties; it has almost zero absorbencies. But it is lightweight, wrinkle-resistant, dries quickly, and can be dyed easily. The material's durability makes it great for a wide range of technical applications.
Textile brands commonly use nylon fabric for apparel like lingerie, swimwear, tights, raincoats, underwear, and household textiles like carpets, drapes, and beddings. Industrial uses of nylon fabric include flak vests, combat uniforms, and parachutes. They often blend nylon with wool to make wool apparel machine-washable. We also find nylon fiber blended with polyester and other fibers.
According to early promoters of nylon fabric, they just needed air, water, and coal to manufacture nylon fiber. But the process of creating synthetic polymers is a lot more scientific than throwing water and coal into a jar.
Although there are various types of nylon fabric available today, we obtain most of them from polyamide monomers extracted from crude oil. We can make polyamides by combining dicarboxylic acid with diamine acid to form a long chain6. They combine the monomers with adipic acid, which forms a crystalized substance called nylon salt.
The most common types of nylon resins are Nylon 6 and Nylon 66. Manufacturers produce nylon 6 from caprolactam and synthesize nylon 66 with adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine. When they combine the molecules to create the polymer, they produce water as a by-product. Manufacturers must remove the water from the production process as its continued presence stops the creation of more polymers.
The process begins with heating a particular solution of nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen molecules until the molecules merge, creating a chain polymer. The resulting material, nylon salt, is then heated to form a molten substance that extrudes through a spinneret. Nylon hardens as soon as it comes through the spinneret and is almost ready to be woven into fabric.
Manufacturers carry out an additional step, called the drawing process or cold drawing. This stretches the nylon fiber to increase its elasticity and strength. The drawing process is usually the last step before weaving the fiber into the fabric.
They commonly combine nylon with other fibers such as modal, polyester or cotton to create nylon blend fabrics. Nylon fabric appears widely used where elasticity, high strength, and abrasion resistance are of utmost importance.
Wallace H. Caruthers, an American chemist, invented nylon in the 1930s; he originally called it fiber-66. He was working for E. I Du Pont de Nemours & Company at that time. Nylon was not the first synthetic material created, but none of the earlier synthetics had any practical use. Dr. Carothers’ success with nylon inspired the creation of more synthetic fibers.
The first clothing ever made out of nylon fiber was a pair of nylon stockings made in 1937 by Union Hosiery Company for Du Pont. In 1939, Du Pont exhibited the stockings at the World’s Fair in New York. This first pair gained so much interest that it sold four million pairs in four days when it was released to the public for sale on May 15, 1940. That first pair of experimental nylon stockings are part of the Smithsonian collections at the national museum of American history.
The invention of nylon sparked an industrial movement that extensively explored plastics for industrial and household goods. Nylon gained the name ‘the fiber that won the war’ during World War II as it was essential to the war efforts. They applied nylon fabric to manufacture parachutes, hammocks, flak jackets, aircraft fuel tanks, and mosquito netting. They also wove nylon fibers into shoelaces and glider tow ropes.
After the war ended, textile resources were scarce, so civilians turned to repurpose parachutes salvaged or brought home by soldiers1. They converted the parachutes into wedding dresses, formal wear, underwear, and so on.
As the first of many synthetic fabrics to be commercially viable, nylon fabric revolutionized fashion to revolve around comfort, ease, and disposability.
Fashion and industrial applications such as electrical and electronics, engineering plastics, and automotive are driving the demand for nylon. In 2020, nylon fabrics had 5 percent of the global fiber market3. We can expect the global nylon market to expand at a CAGR of 5.8% and reach USD 46.31 billion by 20285.
Garment makers value it for its shape retention that allows for things like permanent pleats. They use nylon 6 and nylon 66 to manufacture high-performing sheer and lightweight garments in the apparel industry. Nylon faux fur fabrics are popular because they don't lose shape and are durable. Outerwear made with wool usually has nylon fiber woven into the fabric to improve durability.
Up until today, they still use nylon to make parachutes. We find nylon fiber as brush bristles, water hoses, carpet, guitar strings, luggage boxes, car safety belts, sleeping bags, hammocks, tent screens, and hot air balloons. They use multi-filament nylon yarns as reinforcement for vehicle and airplane tire cords. The twisted nylon cords offer excellent flex fatigue and bond easier with latex.
Nylon fiber cordages and ropes are extremely strong; they are resistant to water and last for a long time. This makes them an excellent choice for fishing nets. Fishers also use nylon fabric sailcloths made from nylon which do not wear out quickly and help with increasing wind speed. Other nylon applications include surgery sutures, food packaging, hair combs, machine screws, and printer ribbons.
The environmental impact of fibers is evidence of their sustainability or unsustainability. In trying to determine whether nylon fabric is sustainable, we must look at how they source the raw materials, the production methods, and how its disposal affects the environment.
The petrochemical industry is one of the dirtiest economic sectors and provides the source of the polymers needed for nylon fabric. As such, nylon textiles are contributors to global warming, water pollution, and all other environmental pollution that stem from the oil industry.
Crude oil is also a non-renewable natural resource. It is a precious resource that our current economy heavily relies on. Nylon is the second most consumed man-made fiber, with 5.4 million tonnes in 2020 alone. Its reliance on a finite natural resource is unsustainable.
Fast fashion encourages the production of lower-quality clothing to drive faster sales through lower prices. Synthetic fabrics have contributed to fast fashion significantly, and one of the most significant downsides of fast fashion is that clothes get thrown out too quickly. About 85 percent of textiles end up in landfills every year.
The trouble with throwing out clothing with nylon fiber is that they do not break down into organic substances suitable for the soil. Just like regular plastics, nylon fibers will remain in the soil for a very long time, maybe hundreds of years, before breaking off into microscopic pieces.
Since clothing and other items made with nylon resins do not decay, they stay in landfills for many years, occupying valuable space. Landfill space is limited, and we may run out of space, and landfills encroach on land that ought to be put to other uses.
Nylon textiles contribute significantly to plastic pollution, especially during the usage and end-of-use stages. Laundering nylon fabric garments releases microplastics into the water drainage system. These microplastics end up in the ocean or our cups from tap water.
About 500,000 tons of microplastics find their way into the ocean each year. In places with no standard waste disposal system, small nylon garments like stockings may end up in rivers and constitute a choking hazard to fish.
Plastic pollution puts marine life in critical danger as fish can ingest small bits of plastic and choke to death or starve because they have filled their stomachs with indigestible plastic. Old fishing nets or other plastics dumped in the oceans or rivers can entangle fish and cause injuries or death.
Ocean plastic pollution endangers our health too. Microplastics attract toxins, and when we eat fish, we could eat toxic microplastics indirectly.
From sourcing raw materials to production and processing, many chemicals go into manufacturing nylon fabrics. The production stage of nylon fibers emits nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming. Nylon 66 is challenging to recycle, and incinerating it releases poisonous gasses like hydrogen cyanide, dioxins, and nitrous oxide.
According to Plastics Europe, 1kg of nylon fabric emits 5.5kg-6.5kg of CO2. Sulfur emissions range from 17g-18g, and nitrous emissions are between 14g-19g per kg of nylon. A kilogram of nylon fabric produces 47g-49g of methane2. Most nylons have chemical additives in them, and when they end up in landfills or degrade into microplastics, these toxic chemicals leach into the soil and water.
The manufacturing process of the nylon fabric is energy and water-intensive. On average, producing 1kg of nylon 66 consumes 138.62 MJ and 663kg of water, and the same quantity for nylon 6 requires 120.47 MJ and 185kg of water. Sometimes the energy demand can be up to 262 MJ/kg.
Energy consumption contributes to the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. The amount of water needed to cool down nylon fibers is usually quite large. If the water is disposed of improperly, which is often the case, it contaminates the waterways.
Manufacturers invented nylon fabric less than 100 years ago, but that has been long enough to breed serious environmental concerns. Getting rid of nylon completely may be too late, so many environmentally conscious folks advocate for recycling. But how much better is recycled nylon fabric compared to virgin nylon, environmentally and economically?
One thing we don't have to worry about with recycled nylon fabric is the pollution-laden raw material sourcing and manufacturing. Recycling nylon helps conserve fossil fuels, and the best outcome for the environment is that we leave fossil fuels in the ground. However, recycled nylon is still plastic, so the problem of plastic pollution from nylon fabric is not entirely solved. However, using recycled nylon in no way reduces microplastic pollution.
Despite its obvious lower carbon footprint advantage, the recycled nylon fabric market isn't doing exceptionally well. Technical challenges and low prices are some issues the market faces. The current share of recycled nylons is just 1.94 percent of all nylon fiber ever made.
Another issue with recycled nylon fabric is that they mostly make it from pre-consumer waste. The market has not expanded enough to accommodate post-consumer textiles to impact the environment significantly.
Resists abrasion: nylon fabric does not easily wear away from friction. This means that you can wear your nylon clothing for a long time without worrying about wear and tear.
Wrinkle-resistant: one of the most endearing things about nylon is that it does not wrinkle easily, so you don’t have iron nylon clothing all the time.
High elasticity: Nylon's elasticity makes it a very versatile fiber. Its elasticity also makes it resilient as it does not lose shape easily. We can apply it to a wide range of fashion and industrial purposes.
Mildew resistant: nylons are naturally resistant to mold and mildew. Fungus does not grow on nylons, preserving their quality for longer.
Superstrong: nylon fibers are as strong as steel; they even use them in making protection fabrics like kevlar.
Absorbs oil: nylon will not soak in a water-based stain because it does not readily absorb water. But it will absorb oil or grease stains quite easily. That makes it difficult to clean when stained with any kind of oil.
Sensitive to strong light: like most plastics, nylon is sensitive to sunlight. Long hours of exposure to intense light can weaken the fiber and fade its colors. So using nylon fabric as sheer curtain fabric is not the best idea.
Creates static cling: Its static property causes nylon to pick up and hold dirt particles.
Wash sturdy nylon fabric items in a warm water machine wash with an all-purpose detergent. For delicate items like hosiery and lingerie, wash gently in warm water with your hands using mild detergent. Removing water-borne stains on nylon fabric is pretty easy; just wash as usual. However, oil and grease stains usually need to be pre-treated with a detergent solution or laundry pre-wash.
You can use fabric softener to reduce static electricity and always dry your nylon clothing at low or even cool temperatures. Nylon is flammable; although it does not burn easily, it can melt at high temperatures.
If you must buy nylon fabric apparel, the eco-friendly thing to do is to purchase the most sustainable option available. Here are a few brands that create clothing with repurposed nylons.
Patagonia is a popular sustainable outerwear brand that incorporates nylon into its collections because it is lightweight yet strong. However, they choose to recycle waste nylons from old fishing nets and weaving mills. Currently, they use recycled material for over 90% of the nylon content of their collection.
Womenswear brand, Asmuss, uses Green Soul Technology to recycle pre-consumer nylon waste into fabric. The brand has earned certifications from Oeko-Tex, the Global Recycled Standard, and Bluesign for sustainability efforts. Asmuss produces clothing in small batches and offers free repairs on its garment. The brand has a take-back policy and will accept old Asmuss garments back for recycling.
This brand makes swimwear, outerwear, and accessories for men and women using regenerated nylon. The brand rescues old carpets, fishing nets, clothes, and pre-consumer waste destined for the landfill and turns them into raw fibers. With these raw fibers, they create new products. For every 1,000 tons of Econyl material, the brand saves 70,000 barrels of oil and avoids 65,100 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Spandex, also called elastane, is another synthetic material. They make it from a synthetic polymer called polyurethane. They value it for its high elasticity. The fiber can stretch up to 500–610 percent of its original size without breaking.
Crude oil is the raw material source of nylon fabric and spandex, and they are non-biodegradable. However, manufacturers often blend spandex with other fabrics, and you will usually find spandex in clothing at just 5 to 10 percent.
Polyester, just like nylon, is purely synthetic and relies on petrochemicals for its raw materials. Although nylon is stronger than polyester, the latter is more popular. In 2020, polyester was the most consumed fiber accounting for 52 percent of the global fiber market at a volume of 57 million tonnes. Nylon fabrics had just 5 percent of the market. We can also find nylon polyester blend options that achieve lower-cost production.
Both polyester and nylon fabric are non-biodegradable and contribute to plastic pollution. However, polyester has a higher recycling rate compared to nylon fabric. Globally, recycled polyester increased to 8.4 million tonnes in 2020, and they estimated recycled nylon fiber for the same year to be about 0.11 million tonnes.
While cotton has been around for thousands of years, they invented nylon in the 1930s. The most apparent difference between nylon fabric and cotton is that cotton is an organic fiber, and nylon is entirely synthetic. Cotton is more expensive to manufacture compared to nylon fabric. It requires a lot of pesticides herbicides and is water-intensive.
Nylon and cotton fabric both have negative environmental impacts, but we can grow cotton sustainably as organic cotton and biodegrade end-of-life cotton fabrics into beneficial organic matter. There isn’t much we can do to make nylon fabric more sustainable.
Before the creation of nylon fiber, natural silk was the more popular luxury fabric. But it was delicate and prone to run at the least snag. Nylon quickly replaced it in many clothing items.
Silk is a natural fiber we get from silkworm cocoons. As a natural fiber, it is renewable and biodegradable. Silk fabric production is not as chemically intensive as nylon fabric manufacturing. But with silk, animal cruelty is a problem.
They need about 3,000 cocoons to get a yard of silk, which means 3,000 silkworms have to die as they usually boil the cocoons with the worms still inside them. Ahimsa silk is a better alternative to natural silk and nylon fabric altogether.
Nylon fabric brings much more convenience into apparel manufacturing, but it comes at a price. The price we are paying is the safety of our planet, and that is such a steep price to pay even for all the dresses in the world.
Katie Sanders (2020) The surprising and resourceful ways people caught in the middle of World War II reused US military parachutes. Business Insider.
Subramanian S. Muthu (2020) Assessing the environmental impact of textiles and the clothing supply chain.
Textile Exchange (2021) Preferred fiber and materials.
Kimbra Cutlip (2015) How nylon stockings changed the world. Smithsonian Magazine
Research and Markets (2021) Global nylon market size 2021-2028.
Encyclopedia Britannica. Nylon
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges. She’s also busy researching and exploring technology applications for product development for a changing world.