Ch 6: Silk and Nylon

Silk and Nylon, and Their Chemistry

Silk has been known for centuries as the luxurious fabric of the affluent. Its artificial counterpart, nylon, has a reputation as a similar, yet cheaper, alternative. The desirable traits of silk and nylon are all due to their chemical structures.

There are twenty-two amino acids, all different because of different “R groups” or “side groups” attached to the basic portion of the molecule. The simplest side groups are H (makes glycine), CH3 (makes alanine), and CH2OH (makes serine). These three smaller amino acids make up about 85% of silk’s structure, and give it the quality of smoothness. Chemists estimate that between 80 and 85% of silk is structured with an amino acid pattern glycine-serine-glycine-alanine-glycine-alanine. These chains lie parallel to adjacent chains, and when drawn together by cross-attractions, a pleated sheet structure is produced. This chemical structure gives silk it’s luster. The remaining 15% or so of amino acids in silk give it the properties of “sparkle” and ease of dyeing.

            Nylon, like silk, is a polyamide, which means that amide linkages hold together its polymer units. However, the structure of the polyamide is slightly different, which is what makes nylon artificial (not synthetic) silk. The resemblance of silk that chemist Wallace Carothers created became known as “nylon 66” due to the fact that each monomer unit in the molecule has six carbon atoms. The chemical similarities of silk and nylon give them many like properties, but they are not identical compounds and therefore do not have identical properties.


Silk and Nylon’s Impact on History

            The trade of silk between Asia and Europe opened major trade routes as early as the first century B.C. The Silk Road began with China exporting silk to the West, but it became much more. Distinguished cultures, revolutionary ideas, and new resources were transferred across the known world over the coming centuries. The beginnings of silk production in Europe also had groundbreaking consequences, because the silk economy was a foundation of the flourishing Renaissance in Italy.

            Nylon, the “artificial silk”, also changed the world significantly. It was initially used for products such as toothbrushes, women’s stockings, and military products. Nylon hosiery even became so popular that stockings become known as “nylons”. The use of nylon goods in World War I gave the United States an advantage over opposing countries without the product. By the 1950s, there were too many nylon products on the market to count. It even became known as the first “engineering plastic” after nylon’s property as a useful molding compound was discovered.


My Opinion on Silk and Nylon’s Impact

            Silk has been the iconic choice of the wealthy for thousands of years, and it maintains this status even now. Its beautiful luster, smooth feel, and easy comfort are unrivaled. These aspects of silk, which have made it well-known and sought-after, have also kept it in the spotlight. Silk may not hold the position it once did in Eastern trade, but it remains a very influential molecule. With so many molecules, the synthetic or artificial versions have completely replaced the original. This, however, has not been the case with silk and nylon. While nylon is extremely similar to silk, I feel that silk continues to impact the world today because of its unique beauty. This is not to say, though, that nylon hasn’t had an enormous influence.

Since its conception almost eighty years ago, nylon has become exceedingly popular. The diverse range of potential uses and ease of manipulation have kept nylon on top, and propelled it into more products than one would ever imagine. Nylon’s continuing usage in the United States and around the globe has proved that it deserves its title as one of the most versatile and useful molecules in the modern world.


The Author’s Argument

            I feel that Le Couteur and Burreson make a very strong case for the impact of silk and nylon’s chemical structures on the course of history. Especially with silk, they explain how the mix of smaller and larger amino acids gives it one-of-a-kind properties. The overwhelmingly popular characteristics of silk, which opened many complex trade routes, ultimately resulted in the sharing of other ideas and objects that certainly changed the world. I agree with Le Couteur and Burreson in their analysis of silk as a pivotal molecule in human history.

            While nylon has not been around as long as silk, I feel that the authors have correctly judged it to be very influential in the modern world. Le Couteur and Burreson do a good job of presenting past and present examples of nylon’s many uses. For example, the point of nylon’s part in World War I stood out to me as a strong argument. Overall, I am in accord with the authors’ views on the massive impact that the chemistry of silk and nylon have had on the world.

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