Chapter 6: Silk and Nylon

Silk and nylon are two fabrics responsible for large economic growth throughout many centuries. Silk is still a sign of wealth and luxury, while nylon has been widely available to the common people since the late 1930s.

Silk has been highly desired for centuries due to its unique properties. The production of silk began in ancient China and the practice spread throughout the western world. The Italian Renaissance is partly because of the silk-production industry. Silk was a main export of many countries and was the basis of the Silk Road from China in ancient times.

Silk is a protein, which means that it is composed of 22 different amino acids. R, or side groups, make up these amino acids and are responsible for silk’s properties. The most common amino acids that compose silk are glycine, alanine, and serine. The protein chains are fit together in a tight pattern creating a uniform surface, which can be seen by the fabric’s smooth feel and shine. The other side groups are able to easily chemically bond with dye molecules which provide silk’s popular deep, rich colors.

The production of a synthetic silk has been attempted since the late nineteenth century, but due to its random combination of protein strands, it is very difficult to replicate. A synthetic silk has never been achieved, however an artificial silk has. Artificial in this instance means that it replicates the properties of a compound. This artificial silk is nylon, which typically brings to mind an image of women’s hosiery. Nylon has been used for toothbrush bristles, stockings, military products during WWII, clothing, skiwear, carpets, furnishings, and sails. Nylon is a polyamide, like silk, that means its polymer units are held together through amide linkages.

Both of these polymers greatly impacted the economy during the time of their discovery and usage. Even today the use of these items is apparent. Silk is used in clothing and bedspreads, while nylon is still used by many women as hosiery. Many women couldn’t live without their nylons! I agree with the authors completely that these polymers are very important to history and the current economy. This industry has supplied many people with jobs and provides a highly desired product.

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