Fake It To Make It : A history of synthetic fibers

Back cover of Sweater Book No 291


(Image above is the back cover of Coats and Clark Sweater Book No 291, published 1952. It was the start of the acrylic yarn craze in America)


Unlike the history of every other kind of fiber, which is buried in the hazy mists of the past, we know exactly where and how synthetic fibers came into being. Perhaps that is part of what makes them seem less special; they have no magical history. There aren’t any myths or folk tales about nylon. Techniques for making yarn from synthetic fibers haven’t been passed down from generation to generation and then to youtube. They have been passed from materials engineer to materials engineer while closely guarded by lawyers, non-disclosure agreements, and government patents. Synthetic fibers have very little romance about them.

But as I found from the response to my recent I Am Not A Yarn Snob post, they do have a vocal fan base! How wonderful. You know what reminds me of? It reminds me that I once wrote up a “the making of synthetic fibers” blog post and then shelved it because I decided only uber-nerds (like me) are interested in how deadly chemicals get turned into yarn. Now… I’m thinking that was a mistake. I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, my readership includes

  • two uber-nerds who would be interested to know that acrylic yarn is actually a semi-crystalline resin made up of C3H3N molecules
  • plenty of non-uber-nerds who just enjoy having cheap available yarn made from deadly chemicals and wouldn’t mind knowing a bit about how all that came to be.

How wonderful! So I took my old post, scrubbed all, most, some of the nerdiness out of it and here it is.

A Brief And Totally Not Nerdy History of Synthetic Fibers

The first guy to try and make a synthetic fiber, and write about it (you don’t get credit in nerd circles unless you write it down), was Robert Hooke. Hooke is best known for Hooke’s law (which is a mathematical formula that explains the elasticity of coiled springs which ya’ll probably learned about in school against your will). In the 1660’s he was looking to make “artificial silk” using pulp from mulberry trees. By that century the silk trade had migrated from the Far East to the Near East but Europeans were still paying through the nose for low quality silks and Hooke thought that if silkworms could turn mulberry trees into silk, then so could he. It was a good idea. He never quite pulled it off but it was still a good idea. People worked on this idea on and off for a few hundred years before we humans figured out how to do what a little silkworm can do: turn tree pulp into long cellulose fibers.

In 1880 a guy named Sir Joseph W. Swan figured it out. He is more famous for inventing incandescent light bulbs and having the credit for this stolen by Thomas Edison but who cares about light bulbs. Swan is the guy who first successfully made a synthetic fiber. True, he was making it to use in his new fangled electrical gadgets but (but!) he did recognize its use as a textile.  I’ve found several mentions of an exhibit he put out in 1885 in London of several pieces his wife crocheted with this new fiber. Sadly I can’t find any description of what she made much less a sketch or pattern. But Mrs. Swan had the distinction of being the first crafter to use synthetic yarn.

It was a French guy, Count Hilaire de Chardonnet, who figured out that there was serious money to be made in textiles from this artificial silk. He called it rayon. In 1891 he built the first rayon plant in Besancon, France. Then everyone rushed in and stole his idea and made money for themselves. By the 1920’s there was a flourishing rayon industry in the United States. Rayon could be manufactured at half the price of silk and lots of people thought that was pretty groovy.

The DuPont rayon plant in Richmond in the 1930’s.

Next came what we today call acrylic or nylon. The development of acrylic yarn was a small part of the huge technology race between the United States and Nazi Germany. Yep, acrylic, or nylon as it was mostly known prior to WWII, was cutting edge technology and companies/governments were investing in developing a cheap synthetic textile. It seems to me there was quite a bit of trans-Atlantic industrial espionage going on back then because every time German scientists made a breakthrough in synthesizing acrylic, so did DuPont! What a coincidence.

Acrylic is a short, pronounceable name for polyacrylonitrile (which no one can say). Pure acrylic is a whole bunch of one kind of molecule, made up of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, fused together into long filaments. Really pure, very dense acrylic is called carbon fiber and its super strong. You can use it to reinforce concrete and build airplanes. The less dense, less pure variety gets turned into thread and yarn and even whole sheets.

Macrat’s acrylic yarn plant, located in Spain.

The first guys to make the molecule that makes acrylic were either Dr. Hans Fikentscher and Dr. Claus Heuck in 1930 (who worked for IG Farben) or Dr. Wallace Carothers in 1931 (who worked for DuPont). But those fancy molecules didn’t do any of them much good because the solvents needed to dissolve and fuse the molecules together weren’t invented yet. The solvent that did a decent job of making all the acrylic molecules fuse together was first developed (maybe) by Paul Schlack in 1938 of IG Farben and he called the formula “nylon 6”. In 1939 DuPont went into production with a formula they called “66” and it was… nylon. Just a coincidence I’m sure. Mostly DuPont made nylon pantyhose with it which women LOVED and could not get enough of.  Then WWII broke out and all nylon production went to making parachutes and equipment sacks and a zillion other things for soldiers. Nylon pantyhose got rare and expensive.

In 1942 a Dr. Herbert Rein (of IG Farben) came up with an even better solvent for making those pesky acrylic molecules stick together. But the war was in full swing by then and no one had time or money to go into production. However in 1946 there was a patent filed in Germany for what we would call today the first modern acrylic synthesizing process. Seven days later DuPont filed a US patent for “Orlon”… a modern acrylic.


By the 1950’s DuPont was manufacturing acrylic yarn like crazy. And they had competitors in the market. Monsanto was making acrylic yarn under the brand name Acrilan. American Cyanamid had Creslan. There were other companies too all of them making acrylic fiber and making money in the wash-n-wear craze sweeping the textile industry.

A “cashmere-like” acrylic from Shandong Hengtai Textile

So as we sit today, there are a solid 60 years of acrylic production and 90 years of rayon production behind us. In that time manufacturers have gotten pretty clever in making these synthetic fibers mimic natural fibers. Depending on how its dried, cut, handled, brushed and spun, you can get synthetic fiber to mimic wool, cotton, mohair, silk and probably more. Unlike most of the natural fibers, it holds up to repeated machine washing which can be very handy if you are making things for messy babies or lazy adults (or messy&lazy adults that act like babies). Synthetic yarn is also useful for people with wool allergies or limited budgets.


And, as I ranted in my previous post on why I’m Not a Yarn Snob, synthetic yarn is yarn. I like yarn. I like all the yarn and may in fact have liked every yarn I have ever met, ever. Here is how I’m coming along on my hat made with synthetic yarn:


In-progress nightcap in acrylic yarn
My in-progress night cap hat in acrylic yarn. Its going to be long. Very long. Long enough to bring around and wrap my neck like a cowl.

Hope you had as much fun as I did with this semi-informative, mostly snarky, trip through the history of synthetic yarn.

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29 Comments on "Fake It To Make It : A history of synthetic fibers"

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Great post and very interesting. Can you take a very small hint form a devoted but very old fan? Couldn’t have been any prewar pantyhose. I confess to being old enough to remember the dawn of the pantyhose. Back in the Dark Ages we just had hose. Way Back When they even had a seam running up the back. Very very important to get that seam straight. The whole thing was held up by a kind of chastity belt with two dangely bits of elastic with uncomfortable metal hooky/ tab like things that either held your hose in pace or… Read more »

Point of clarification; There were 2 dangley thingies per leg. Or 4 total. Very uncomfortable. Very startling when they let go. When you think about it, they were very poorly designed. I don’t miss them at all.


Oh Itsy, I too am old enough to remember the advent of panty hose. When I was first allowed to wear “stockings” we used those metal hooky things called garter belts. Pure torture! Jenn I absolutely love your history lessons! I have been accused of being on the nerdy side and I love history of all subjects especially those concerning items I seem to be addicted to like yarn (and kitties of course). Please keep the history coming


Linda, this whole post set me to thinking back on the old days of hose. Do you perhaps recall when Khrushchev brought his wife to America with him? some time in the 60’s. Do you remember the uproar over the shocking! pictures of his wife with the baggy hose!!!11!
How very stupid. I must admit, I don’t remember if her hose had seams or not.
Thank God for chemists, even if they never had to actually wear pantyhose.


Oh yes I do remember the pictures of her baggy hose! It was all over the news. The thought of chemist wearing pantyhose LOL but they certainly did us a great favor. I’m working with some of their fibers now.


wait a minute, when did remembering, or having worn garter belts and stockings, make us old? I thought only my 20 year old grandson did that. Love learning more about history about all things fibery.


We are not old….just wise and experienced and we can still remember things (most of the time).


Yay History!!! I love History! I also finished something last week, but I kept forgetting to post it 🙂 http://www.ravelry.com/projects/ceresandraste/tarragon-the-gentle-dragon Baby’s first hand knitted stuffy!


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