The early 20th century was a period marked by rapid innovation in man-made fibers which revolutionized the textile industry forever. Inspired by the massive success of viscose (a.k.a "artificial silk"), the chemical industry saw an opportunity to engineer fabrics with unmatched qualities. It was at that time when Dupont® began researching novel materials to replace silk in women's hosiery and stocking.
After a decade of scientific work, in 1938, Nylon was brought to the US market for the first time ever. And the timing couldn't be better! The rising popularity of dresses and skirts had already made hosiery an essential part of every woman's wardrobe. The new fabric quickly became hot, causing "nylon riots" with 1000s of women queueing up to get a hold of the limited stocking supply.
And who would have thought that only a few years later, the unique properties of Nylon will play a role in the outcome of World War II? The fabric was used in the military to make reliable combat equipment such as parachutes, tents, ropes, flak jackets, tire cords, etc. which helped the Allies win the war.
Interestingly, the research leading to the discovery of Nylon was historical for another class of materials, namely, Polyester. In fact, polyester was discovered first, but it had to stay in the lab till 1953 because the first versions were melting at a low temperature which caused problems with laundering and ironing.
What is Nylon?
Nylon is a synthetic polymer from the polyamide group. It is a stretchy and durable plastic fiber that has found commercial applications in multiple industries. It accounts for around 5% of the volume used in the textile industry.
In clothing and footwear, it is commonly used to make hosiery, lingerie, sportswear, and outdoor equipment. It can be found in stockings, leggings, yoga pants, swimsuits, ski clothes, windbreakers and waterproof jackets, backpacks, athletic shoes, socks, etc. Due to its durable and stretchy nature, Nylon is often blended with other materials to give fabrics extra reinforcement.
Nylon is made of petrochemicals derived from coal and crude oil. Benzene (C6H6) is the elementary hydrocarbon typically used to synthesize the carbon-based molecules of Nylon. It is an energy-intensive process in which monomers enter in reaction to form long amide chains, e.g. a polyamide. The polymer is then heated and melt-extruded through a metal spinneret resulting in long fibers. They are stretched to increase strength and elasticity and finally spun into yarn for garment and other textile production.
Is Nylon Sustainable?
Manufacturing of virgin Nylon is NOT sustainable over the long term and yet recycling is extremely rare. Similar to other plastics, it is made of non-renewable resources which we have been rapidly depleting over the last few decades. Moreover, petrochemical processing releases carbon dioxide and methane emissions that accelerate global warming.
Nylon-making is a very energy-intensive process that requires a lot of heat. In fact, it requires x2 more energy than polyester. Given that fossil fuels are the primary energy source of oil refineries, it means that even more non-renewable resources are used, hence more CO₂-eq goes into the atmosphere.
In addition, the thermal processes that take place in factories require a significant amount of water for cooling. While Nylon doesn't have the same water scarcity and pollution potential as some plant and animal fibers such as cotton and wool, it can still present a threat to the local ecosystems if the water is not effectively recycled.
Probably the biggest challenges for us when it comes to plastic fibers lie in the consumer phase and product end-of-life. Nylon fabrics shed microfibers, tiny plastics, that leave our houses in the laundry process. Too small to be caught in water treatment, through the sewage system they end up in rivers, lakes, and the ocean. In fact, Nylon accounts for approximately 10% of the waste dumped into the ocean.
Just like other plastics, Nylon has a high waste potential. Microbes can't break it down, e.g. it's NOT biodegradable, so it takes hundreds to thousands of years to decompose. Nylon won't rot as natural materials do, it will slowly break down into smaller and smaller pieces due to sunlight, oxidation, and friction. Until it eventually turns into microplastics, which are much harder to handle. Once Nylon goes to a landfill, or worse gets dumped into the environment, it'll be hanging there long after we are gone.
Nylon has a very low rate of recycling. It is even harder and more expensive than the polyester process. On top of that, garment-to-garment recycling is still not practical, meaning we are far from achieving circularity anytime soon. It is pity given that we have no other way to deal with synthetic fibers. For what is worse, virgin plastics are so cheap that there's no incentive for companies to invest in regenerated materials.
💡 Environmentally conscious brands can't be price competitive to fast fashion, so they rely on consumers who share their values to succeed.
Check out our footprint calculator for fabrics to discover interesting facts about Nylon and many other commonly used textiles.
Can Nylon Be Recycled?
Nylon can be recycled, but it is still hard and expensive to do in practice. One of the main challenges of mechanical methods is dealing with contamination. Nylon melts at a relatively low temperature (220 - 265 °C) which is often not enough to get rid of pollutants. Recycled Nylon fibers are usually made of postconsumer waste such as fishing nets and used carpets or pre-consumer industrial materials and scraps. Garment-to-garment recycling still doesn't exist at scale because the cost of virgin Nylon is low and the technology has failed to catch up.
Nylon is often used in blends with other natural and synthetic fibers to contribute extra durability and stretch. Blended fabrics however are notoriously hard to recycle, because the different fibers are hard to separate. In theory, chemical recycling and solvent-based methods should come to the rescue, but we are yet to prove real-life application at a reasonable scale.
Additionally, Nylon is often used for making so-called "performance fabrics". These are generally finished with chemicals to enhance technical functions - e.g. waterproofing with DWR, UV resistance, odor control, etc. That presents another obstacle for reuse as the material is heavily treated and the only option is landfilling or in the best case scenario downcycling.
Since we are talking about downcycling, check out what Swedish Stocking does with the old stockings that you send them.
Why should you consider clothes from Recycled Nylon?
Given that it has the same properties and virgin quality, the applications are no different. The real benefit is in what you do for the planet. Namely, you prevent plastic waste to perpetually pollute the environment, reduce greenhouse gases to help fight global warming, and save non-renewable energy from fossil fuels.
What's good about it?
Why you should avoid?
Footprint calculator: Recycled Nylon
Trademarks and Suppliers
ECONYL® from Italian manufacturer Aquafil is the first and best-known regenerated nylon yarn for apparel and interiors. It is primarily made of fishing nets from the oceans and old carpets destined for landfills. Manufacturing is taken in a closed-loop process and produces virgin quality nylon that is infinitely recyclable. According to Aquafil ECONYL® generates 58% less CO₂ emissions and requires ~50% less energy compared to traditional nylon.
Discover brands using ECONYL®
REPREVE® Nylon 6 is another legitimate trademark by Unifi. A standard for high-quality nylon fiber that is regenerated from pre-consumer waste. Its yarn is commonly used to make lingerie, swimwear, backpacks, socks, and tents.
Discover brands using REPREVE
Fulgar is an Italian company that makes sustainable polyamide fibers from regenerated and bio-based materials. It has a large portfolio of products for various needs and applications and owns popular trademarks like the recycled Q-NOVA® yarn and the bio-based EVO®. Where applicable, Fulgar's products are RGS (Recycled Global Standard) and OEKO-TEX® certified.
Nylon vs Polyester
Nylon (a.k.a. polyamide) and polyester (a.k.a. polyethylene, or PET) are both synthetic polymers derived from petroleum. As such, they have similar physical properties, applications, and environmental impact. Polyester however is cheaper to make and therefore widely used in any type of clothing, while Nylon is more niche. According to the Textile Exchange, polyester accounts for 57% and nylon 5% of the global fiber production, winning the first two positions of the most common synthetic textiles.
Nylon is generally more resistant to extreme weather conditions which makes it superior for critical outdoor equipment. It is better suited for lingerie and hosiery (tights, pantyhose, etc.) because it is stretchy, warm, and tight fitting. Nylon is also softer and generally provides more comfort than polyester.
On the other hand, Polyester is moisture-wicking and absorbs less water. That makes it more suitable for high-intensity workouts that involve a lot of sweating and it has the benefit that your gear will dry in no time. Polyester also wins on aesthetics because it has great color retention, won't lose shape, and is not prone to pilling.
Despite the subtle difference, both materials are very durable, lightweight, and soak little to no water which makes them ideal for most sports and outdoor activities.
💡 If there's a choice between two alternative materials and none is distinctively better, we recommend consumers to use environmental factors to guide shopping decisions.
|Origin||Synthetic (oil)||Synthetic (oil)|
|Global Warming (CO₂-eq/1kg)||10.2 kg CO₂||16.2 kg CO₂|
|Energy Use (MJ-eq/1kg)||184 MJ||268 MJ|
|Water Scarcity (m³/1kg)||2.9 m³||2 m³|
|Water Pollution (PO₄-eq/1kg)||0.0031 kg PO₄||0.0044 kg PO₄|
In summary, Nylon is more energy-intensive and has greater global warming potential per kilogram of fabric. It is also less likely to be recycled than polyester. Both Nylon and Polyester are made of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels), they shed microplastics and can result in non-biodegradable waste.
ℹ️ The LCA data cited in the table represents example materials from the Higg MSI v3 tool. It is a cradle-to-gate fabric assessment including sourcing raw materials, yarn, and textile formation, preparation, coloration, and finishing.
Apparently, each fabric has its tradeoffs so there isn't an universal clear-cut winner. The choice is highly contextual and it depends on your specific needs. Let's take a look at some product categories that usually require more careful consideration.
Leggings: Nylon vs Polyester
Whether it is the gym or the yoga studio, for walks in the park, or chilling at home, leggings are the way to go. But before you choose nylon or polyester we'll have to agree on the primary use.
If you see yourself doing a lot of HIIT or running the treadmill, then polyester may be better for you. It's not gonna soak the sweat pouring from your pores and it won't leave you with a cold feeling after taking a break for a few minutes. And probably the best thing is that the polyester leggings will be ready to go again the next day because laundry won't keep them wet for long.
Or maybe you are interested in spending time in nature or need something that feels warm and cozy while hanging out at home? Unless you live in a hot and humid climate, nylon can be a great option if you are seeking comfort! It will perfectly fit around your legs so your skin can enjoy its softness. Not to mention that the leggings will be super easy to maintain and the quality ones can last you for many years.
Whatever you end up choosing, don't forget about the planet and consider recycled materials.
Backpack: Nylon vs Polyester
The first thing to consider when deciding on your backpack is the weather conditions you'll be getting exposed to. If you see yourself in a hot and humid climate, traveling around beaches, or hiking in the summer mountain then polyester is a clear winner. It won't absorb moisture and get heavy on you and it won't stick to your skin causing you discomfort and making you even hotter. Polyester will withstand heat and UV radiation much better - it won't lose shape and will perfectly retain color.
But if you consider getting exposed to more extreme outdoor conditions such as cold weather, wind, rain, and snow then Nylon won't let you down. It is the stronger material of the two and is expected to hold up better. It is warmer and can be designed for windbreaking. Keep in mind though, that neither Nylon nor Polyester is waterproof, so if rain is on the line then absolutely consider a fabric treated with a water-repellent (DWR) technology.
Swimsuit: Nylon vs Polyester
Honestly, either material can do given that you are a casual swimmer or someone who enjoys spending time at the beach, but you gotta set your priorities straight. If you like to take your time and comfort comes first then Nylon is a great choice. Yet, if you are regularly on a task at the pool or swimming outdoors, then Polyester may be functionally better and the suit is expected to last you longer. Unlike Nylon, Polyester's water-repellency causes less drag, it is chlorine and abrasion-resistant, holds color well, and can give you UV protection.
Swimsuits normally contain spandex to increase elasticity and fit tighter. In fact, spandex and polyester are the best choices if you are into competitive swimming, but keep in mind that spandex deteriorates 2 to 3 times quicker in water.
Nylon has many great qualities that make it irreplaceable for niche applications. It's a good thing that it hasn't followed polyester in becoming a universal fabric because it would definitely take a toll on the environment, deepening the issues related to global warming and plastic waste.
Whenever you encounter clothing containing Nylon we urge you think about whether you actually need what it has to offer. If the answer is "no" or "not sure", then do the planet a service and skip over. Oftentimes you'll find small quantities of Nylon blended with other fibers, which is usually to improve durability, but keep in mind that it goes against the principles of "circular design". Blended fabrics containing synthetics CANNOT be recycled or composted, so they are eventually destined for landfills.