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Wayne Hinshaw: Even the ‘miracle fiber’ has its limits

Nylon is a plastic that can be molded into all types of products.

A tough fiber, it is resistant to most chemicals, as well as mold, insects and fungi.

It feels silky and is waterproof.

Reading a story recently in USA Today about the 80th birthday of nylon reminded me of an experience years ago with nylon shirts that my mother sewed for by brother, Dad and me.

When nylon was invented by DuPont about 1934, it was called a “synthetic silk.”

In 1939, nylon stockings were introduced at the New York World’s Fair. Before this, women wore delicate silk stockings prone to getting picks and runs. Nylon stockings were tougher and immediately took over the stocking market. The first day nylon stockings hit the U.S. market, 72,000 pairs were sold. That was 64 million pairs the first year.

Then the United States entered World War II, and nylon fabric almost disappeared from the market. The tough nylon fiber was needed for military use in making parachutes, tents, ropes, clothing and tires.

After the war ended in 1945, nylon stockings again hit the commercial market, much to the delight of most women. Macy’s Department Store in New York sold 50,000 pairs of stockings in six hours when it put the product back on the shelves.

Why am I going on and on about nylons? Even if women’s silk stockings became known as “nylons” from then on, what’s my interest in nylon?

Sometime in the late ’50s or early ’60s, my mother decided to make brand new white nylon shirts for the men in her life. Mother could sew and make most anything. She made herself suits, jackets and anything else that she put her mind to sewing.

She was about to acquire an ample supply of white, silky, 100 percent nylon parachute material for our new shirts. Passing her as she worked at her machine, we watched our new shirts take form. The front, back, short sleeves, the collar, the buttons, all came together in front of us.

The appointed Sunday that my dad, brother and I were to wear our new “tough as nails,” waterproof, air-resistant shirts to church arrived. It was a typical, hot summer Sunday. Boy, did we look good in our matching white shirts that morning.

When we returned from church, we were near suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration.  I had sweated so much that my perspiration had run down my chest and back and was stored up against my belt like the Yadkin River water against Tuckertown Dam. Wearing that white shirt of 100 percent nylon, I had collected a pool of sweat so heavy that when I pulled my shirttail out, water ran everywhere. I was soaked, as were my Dad and brother.

When the shirts were being sewn, the idea that they would be waterproof and airproof had been missed. Comfort had not been considered. The fabric could not absorb moisture. It was plastered to our skin like a rubber sweatsuit. Unlike cotton and wool that can absorb sweat, nylon does not.

The nylon shirts became a family story that was told over and over through the years. I don’t think that we ever wore those shirts again.

While reading the USA Today story about nylon, it made perfect sense that synthetic polymer nylon will not burn from fire — it melts or makes you melt if you wear it.

In 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong planted a U.S. flag made of nylon on the moon. Reportedly, that nylon flag still stands 48 years later. The colors have faded from 48 years of sunshine hitting it directly, but its toughness is still holding up.

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