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Synthetic Fibers – A Historical Perspective and how they Relate to Shaving Brushes (Part 1)

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This is the first in a series of articles on synthetic fibers and how they relate to shaving brushes, including a brief history of synthetic fibers, their development, stagnation, and resurrection in the market place.

A large amount of discussion has been made in the past couple of years about synthetic shaving brushes and how they have been dramatically improved from the models provided in years gone by.   One point that has been forgotten is when did the synthetic fiber get it start and how did it progress, or more importantly, how did it not progress until the past several years.
The technology for synthetic fibers really began back in the early 1920s with the pioneering work of Wallace Hume Carothers.     Wallace Carothers, the eldest of four siblings, was born in Iowa.   After completing high school he went to Tarkio College in Missouri where he studied science and taught accounting.  He received his Master’s degree from the University of Illinois and took a teaching position at the University of South Dakota.  There he began working on organic chemistry, especially in the field of bonding.   This would be critical to his later work.  He obtained his PhD from the University of Illinois in 1924 and Carothers became an instructor at Harvard.  While at Harvard he experimented with chemical structures of polymers with high molecular weight. [1]

In 1928, the DuPont chemical company opened a laboratory for basic research. One of their interests was to develop artificial materials.  DuPont lured Carothers from Harvard with the promise of pursuing his own research minus burden of teaching classes at a major university.   Carothers would lead a team of researchers to discover new materials which would later be called synthetics.  In three years (1931), DuPont was manufacturing a synthetic rubber that his team created which is called Neoprene.  Silk was another material that was on the plans of the team, due to political and trade troubles with Japan.   DuPont wanted replace silk with a synthetic fiber that would mimic its characteristics.   In 1934 Carothers and his team pulled their first long, strong, flexible strands of a synthetic polymer fiber from a test tube. DuPont now patented that fiber under the trademark name of “Nylon” in 1935. Carothers continuing work in polymer development brought the world not just Nylon and other synthetic materials, but knowledge of natural polymers and how they are formed as well. [2]

In 1938 Fortune Magazine contained article which stated that “Nylon breaks the basic elements like nitrogen and carbon out of coal, air and water to create a completely new molecular structure of its own. It flouts Solomon. It is an entirely new arrangement of matter under the sun, and the first completely new synthetic fiber made by man. In over four thousand years, textiles have seen only three basic developments aside from mechanical mass production: mercerized cotton, synthetic dyes and rayon. Nylon is a fourth.” [3]  So we have perspective on how important an industrial revolution was about to spring fourth from this new fiber.  However,  Carothers did not get to enjoy the fruits of his labors.  Early in 1937 his favorite sister died suddenly and this added to his existing depression. In April 1937 he committed suicide, leaving behind a wife and an unborn child. DuPont later named its research station after him. [4]

At this point the material was made to replace silk in items that would be thin and sheer.   However, other uses were in store for this new “wonder material” that would involve the world of brushes.

[1] [2] PBS: A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries – Nylon is invented
[3] Inventors – Wallace Carothers – History of Nylon
[4] PBS: A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries – Nylon is invented

GD Carrington

GD Carrington

5 thoughts on “Synthetic Fibers – A Historical Perspective and how they Relate to Shaving Brushes (Part 1)”

  1. Excellent and interesting read, Gary. I’m really looking forward to the entire series of articles. As you know, I have 12 synths now, and some of the very best available.
    I’m fascinated at how quicklty the market is moving, and having seen the range of new fibers available from Dupont and FM Brush, I’m encouraged that the building blocks exist to go much further.
    Looking forward to your next article(s)!

  2. GD, thanks as always for your continuing investigation and well written documentation on Synthetic brushes. Based on much of your research and reviews, I also own 2 different synthetics, and they are now the stapes of my daily routine. I just got my Frank Synthetic 24mm knot yesterday and it did not disappoint. It now has a firm place next to my HIS and all traces of badger and boar have been replaced by nylon fibers in my den. I look forward to following your continuing article on the evolution of synth’s, and thanks again for your work.

  3. I am a synthetic brush enthusiast as well, I own 9. I bought the Beauty Strokes H.I.S. Shaving Brush after reading GDC’s excellent review on the Shave Nook. Great article! I look forward to the next installment.

  4. Excellent! Thanks for this. I’m looking forward to the continuation as I own 2 synthetic brushes and have a third on the way. Two Muhle brushes (23″ and 25″). Just special ordered a Frank Shaving synthetic in 28/54 sizing. As you can tell, I’m a huge fan of the new synthetics. 🙂

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