The invention of nylon stockings

 

Stockings have a very long history, dating back centuries. Their original form resembled socks right up to the the late 16th century, then progressed through cotton, linen and wool. As hemlines rose in the 1920s, women’s legs began to come into view and a more refined, sheer style of legwear became desirable. Silk and rayon (‘artificial silk’) stockings became available and they became the modern woman’s hosiery of choice.

In 1930, the DuPont company brought in a team of researchers with the goal of finding a substitite to silk. For those who are scientifically inclined, I have added some science talk about how nylon came to be (If you’re like me and don’t speak science, just skip to the next paragraph):

“Nylon emerged from research on polymers, very large molecules with repeating chemical structures, that Dr. Wallace Carothers and his colleagues conducted in the early 1930s at DuPont’s Experimental Station. In April 1930, a lab assistant working with esters – compounds which yield an acid and an alcohol or phenol in reaction with water – discovered a very strong polymer that could be drawn into a fiber. This polyester fiber had a low melting point, however. Carothers changed course and began working with amides, which were derived from ammonia. In 1935, Carothers found a strong polyamide fiber that stood up well to both heat and solvents. He evaluated more than 100 different polyamides before choosing one [nylon] for development.”

Wallace Hume Carothers, the inventor of Nylon

Long story short, some very smart people invented nylon, and I’m very grateful to them! Interestingly, nylon wasn’t immediately used to adorn womens’ legs, it was put to more ‘practical’ use including fishing line, surgical sutures, and toothbrush bristles. But thankfully, DuPont came to their senses and decided that stockings were the way to go!

Close-up photograph of knitted nylon hosiery

In 1939, they began the commercial production of stockings, which were launched the following year. DuPont claimed that this new synthetic fibre was “as strong as steel, as fine as a spider’s web”, and women were keen to get their hands on these new stronger stockings. 64 million pairs of stockings were sold in the first year. 

A couple of years after World War II broke out, the supply of nylon was redirected to the war effort, where it was used for tents and parachutes. The production of stockings was halted and women were asked to donate all of their own hosiery to the effort. Nylons therefore became very scarce in the States, causing people to break into houses with the sole aim to steal nylons! American soldiers who had been deployed to the UK would use nylon stockings to impress British women and no doubt lure them into bed. Needless to say, these new stockings were very much sought after.

Once the war ended, DuPont ramped up production again and women were desperate to get their legs back into the luxury of nylon stockings. Women lined up for hours to buy themselves a pair or two and the company struggled to keep up with demand. It has been reported that one day shoppers crowded the stores, and one San Francisco shop was forced to halt stocking sales when it was mobbed by 10,000 anxious women!

Nowadays, there are only a handful of manufacturers that make nylon stockings in the old fashioned way (see my post about this here), as the non-stretch yarn has mostly been replaced by stretchier yarns. 

Elinor

5 thoughts on “The invention of nylon stockings

  1. Thanks Elinor – fascinating article (including the science bit). To think, within a couple of generations, the mania for true nylon hose would give way to the much less comfortable and stretchy pantyhose that most women swear by to this day for leg coverage (if at all). Perhaps it’s less to do with generational standards and more to do with perceived convenience or apparent ease of use – despite the inherent shortcomings of tights.

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