Polyamide fabric, also known as nylon fabric, is a form of plastic. Polyamide fabric, like polyester fabric, is a polymer. It is manufactured through a chemical process. In short, high amounts of heat and pressure are applied to fossil fuels to yield sheets of polyamide and nylon. Unfortunately, they are really high amounts of heat and pressure (energy) and polyamide fabric isn’t the only thing produced from this process.

how is polyamide fabric (nylon fabric) made?

The process begins with carbon-based (organic) chemicals, usually coal or petroleum. Certain polyamides can be produced from renewable carbon-based chemicals such as castor oil. In this case, organic means that the substance contains carbon. It isn’t the type of ‘organic’ label you see in the grocery store.

Heat and pressure are applied to the organic chemical to polymerize two large molecules found within it. These molecules are adipic acid and hexamethylenediamine. Polymerization is a chemical reaction in which smaller molecules combine to form a larger molecule. The structures of the smaller molecules are still present in the larger, resulting molecule. For example, our adipic acid = A and hexamethylenediamine = H. The chemical process adds these two together (A+H+A+H+A+H) resulting in a polymerized product (AHAHAH). So A+H doesn’t produce K, but AH.

The polymerization of these two molecules produces the nylon in the form of large ribbons or sheets. Then, these ribbons and sheets are shredded down to chips. If the nylon fiber’s final purpose is to become a textile, the chips are melted down and then forced through spinnerets to create fibers. Spinnerets are kind of like noodle makers for plastic polymer solutions. The polymer solution is pushed through holes in the spinneret to form a fiber in the desired form. Different spinnerets create hollow fibers, solid fibers, thinner fibers, etc. Finally, the fibers are spun into threads and knit into the textile known as polyamide nylon fabric.

what is nylon fabric? what is polyamide fabric?
image by veererzy via Unsplash

how much energy does it take to produce nylon fiber?

The production of nylon fiber uses 250 megajoules of energy for every 2.2 pounds (or 1 kilogram) of fiber produced.

A megajoule – that sounds cool! But what does it mean? Let’s put it in perspective.

A joule is a unit of energy and 1 megajoule = 1 million joules. One million joules is the amount of kinetic energy that something weighing 1 megagram (1 tonne/2204.62 lbs) has traveling at 99.4 mph (160 km/h).

So, it would take the energy of 250 elephants each weighing in at 1 tonne and each traveling at 99 mph to create just 2.2 lbs (1 kg) of nylon fiber. Needless to say, that’s a lot of energy and a little yield.

The amount of energy it takes to create nylon fiber is twice as much energy as used to produce polyester fiber (125 MJ/kg) and nearly five times as much energy as used to process cotton fibers (55 MJ/kg). Keep in mind, this is only the amount of energy that goes into creating nylon fiber. The product is not yet to its final nylon fabric form.

the properties of nylon & polyamide fabric

Depending on finishing processes to the textile, polyamide fabric can be very stretchy. Nylon fabric can also have a wide variety in finishes and luster. Depending on processing, nylon can be anywhere from dull to incredibly lustrous (shiny). However, nylon fabric also has a tendency to pill easily, attract surface soil, and create static cling. It also contributes to plastic pollution in waterways. When an article of nylon clothing goes through a laundry cycle, it can release 19,000 plastic microfibers into the water.

nylon clothing and polyamide clothing environmental impact
image by Villy Stojanova via Pexels

what impact does polyamide fabric have on the environment?

Unfortunately, the process to create nylon fabric is not as green as a herd of elephants running at impossible speeds. The manufacturing process releases nitrous oxides into the atmosphere as waste. Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a considerably powerful greenhouse gas and contributes to the depletion of stratospheric ozone. Nitrous oxide has a lifetime of 150 years in our atmosphere and thus accumulates. Gases created during nylon production account for one tenth of the increase of N2O in our atmosphere. Consequently, nylon production has a high impact on the environment.

The negative effects of polyamide fabric production don’t end there. Exposure to the process of manufacturing nylon offers a host of problems for workers. The dust and fumes created as byproducts can cause irritation of skin, nose and throat, as well as mechanical irritation of the eye.

Additionally, since it is a synthetic fabric, nylon clothing has a tendency to grow odor causing bacteria. Because of this, the wearer may want to wash their nylon clothing more often. Unfortunately, there are some unforeseen environmental dangers lurking in our laundry. Nylon clothing is a contributor to the growing environmental threat of microfibers. Microfibers are tiny pieces of plastic that break off of clothing in the laundry, travel through the sewage lines, and end up in waterways, along shorelines, and spread on agricultural crops. From there, these plastic microfibers can end up in our food, lungs, fish, birds, our stomachs, the whole deal. Learn more about microfibers and simple ways you can act to reduce them here.

how to clean nylon & polyamide clothing

Nylon clothing does not hold up incredibly well through the wash. You should limit how often you wash nylon fabric to increase the garment’s lifespan. Most care tags recommend that you wash nylon clothing on cold cycles, with gentle detergent, and drip dry. This is because nylon clothing will melt when exposed to high temperatures. Using caustic cleaning products like bleach will also compromise the fiber structure.

So, nylon clothing has a tendency to dirty quickly, but pills when washed often. This makes nylon products have a shorter product life (think of how quickly your tights run, they’re most likely nylon). Because of these properties, nylon clothing will spend a shorter time in your wardrobe and a much longer time in the landfill. Nylon products take about 30-40 years to decompose.

For some longer lasting, cleaner, and more eco friendly alternatives to polyamide fabric, check out the natural fiber fabrics here.

what is the difference between polyamide fabric, nylon fabric, and polyamide fiber?

If you see ‘polyamide fabric’ on your fabric composition care tag, it’s referring to nylon fabric. Nylon is a generic term for a group of plastics made of synthetic polyamide fibers. You can read about how nylon fabric (polyamide fabric) is made above.

There are, in fact, some polyamide fibers that are not synthetic. The term ‘polyamide fiber’ refers to a fiber made of linear macromolecules with recurring peptide bonds. At least 85% of these bonds join to aliphatic or cycloaliphatic units. For those of us who don’t speak science, the term defines a pretty broad range of fibers, some of which occur naturally. Proteins, including silk and wool, are an example of a naturally occurring polyamide fiber. But again, when polyamide is listed in the fabric composition of a garment, it’s referring to the synthetic fiber that is nylon plastic.

what are some sustainable alternatives to nylon/polyamide?

Depending on the final product, if it’s a slinky dress, a winter hat, or a simple shirt, there are plenty of natural fiber alternatives to nylon. Silk, wool, organic cotton, and lyocell would be fantastic alternatives. Find more alternatives to nylon in our Natural Clothing Directory.

Unraveling Threads

3 COMMENTS

  1. I like the valuable information you provide in your articles. I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I am quite sure I’ll learn a lot of new stuff right here! Best of luck for the next!

  2. I am trying to find somethng about the breakdown of the polyamide nylon – I sell vintage clothing and recently purchased some from th e 80’s I believe – very sheer nylon/polyamide/spandex – and they are beautiful but have strange feel – kinda like you have rubbed vaseline on your hads and have a residue remaining. Is there anything that I can do to counteract this problem with these items? Please respond to: [email protected]. Thank you so much, I have searched and cannot find anything to compare it too. These items were made by Warner’s.

    • Hi Clyde! Thanks for your question. I wish I had better news for you. Though plastics are not biodegradable, they are not stable either. The chemical bonds that hold the plastic together will break over time due to exposure to sunlight, heat, acids, and natural circumstances. Molecules from the chemically bonded polymers that make up the fabric will break away and attach to other compounds they come in contact with. This compromises the integrity of the polymer and therefor the structure of the fiber. As these molecules break away from the polymer, they start a process called reverse polymerization. What’s happening is that the polymer is breaking down back into the bits and pieces that were pushed together to make it. The film or residue you’re seeing may feel similar to petroleum jelly because it may be very similar to petroleum jelly in chemical composition – nylon is after all a product of petroleum (or coal). I’ve been unable to find any research that gives me a good enough answer as to what that film really is, or the best way to clean it.
      I have seen similar accounts of plastic breaking down in products like camera grip rubber or vintage toys. In these cases, users recommended either a dish soap or isopropyl alcohol solution to clean the oily residue. I don’t know how this would work on vintage nylon fabric. So as always, I recommend a spot check before you use any method. The breakdown of synthetic fabrics is inevitable, but keeping vintage pieces out of direct sunlight and in mold and mildew free storage with moderate temperature can be helpful to slow it down.
      I’ll send this message to you via email as well. Best of luck with the vintage shop!

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