By early 1920 DuPont had secured the American rights to produce artificial silk from the French firm that held Chardonnet’s patents. The DuPont Fibersilk Company was established to develop the product, and the first yarn was produced the next year. In 1924, after the textile industry had settled on the generic name rayon for artificial silk, DuPont renamed its subsidiary the DuPont Rayon Company, which became the predecessor of DuPont’s Textile Fibers Department.
Rayon was a springboard that launched DuPont into the forefront of the synthetic textile fibers industry. The experience gained in its production proved indispensable in developing nylon. Nylon, introduced in 1938, was the world’s first true synthetic fiber created wholly out of chemicals. It was strong, durable, lightweight and ultimately proved very versatile. In 1940, when it was first marketed, nylon was finely spun and targeted as a replacement for silk in women’s hosiery, but it later proved effective in a variety of other uses from lingerie to tire cordage.
The phenomenal success of nylon spurred DuPont to develop new synthetic fibers. The first to be developed was Orlon acrylic fiber, a DuPont invention which proved an effective substitute for wool in sweaters, pile fabrics and carpeting. Dacron polyester fiber, a British invention licensed by DuPont in the late 1940s, was briefly the company’s most profitable fiber when double-knits became fashionable in the early 1970s and was a steady seller as a component of wash-and-wear fabrics. Another DuPont invention that has had a tremendous impact on the clothing industry is Lycra, an elastomeric fiber that would stretch up to six times its original length.
Synthetic textile fibers were generally produced in one of two ways. Rayon and Orlon were both solution spun. In this process, a solution containing the textile substance was forced through a tiny opening called a spinneret. The evaporation of the solvent resulted in the fiber. Nylon and Dacron were produced by forcing a molten mass through the spinneret. In either case, the resulting fibers were then drawn to varying degrees of strength and elasticity and textured if desired.
During the mid-1950s, DuPont researchers developed flash spinning, a solution process in which the solvent was removed abruptly and at very high pressures and temperatures. This spunbonded process created a web of randomly oriented, interconnected filaments ideal for producing paper or felt-like sheets. The most notable of the spunbonded materials is Tyvek®, which is marketed as a synthetic paper but also as a nonwoven fabric. A similar invention was Sontara®, a soft nonwoven fabric spunlaced by mechanically entwining a web of fibers on a mesh. In the 1960s, DuPont developed a family of aramid fibers, similar to nylon but extraordinarily strong and highly resistant to heat. Kevlar®, which is six times stronger than its weight in steel, is used in bulletproof vests. Nomex® heat- and flame-resistant fiber is used to make protective clothing for firefighters. The growing importance of DuPont’s specialty fibers helped buoy company earnings during the mid-1970s when worldwide over-capacity and increased competition cut into its synthetic fabrics profits, but the company emerged from this troubled period still the largest, most diversified low-cost producer of synthetic fibers worldwide.
The Dacron and Lycra trademarks and their products were divested as part of the INVISTA separation in April 2004.