Threads of Invention

By Neal M. Abrams 

We are surrounded by special fabrics that make life easier, more comfortable, and safer. Some are natural, made from materials such as cotton, wool, or silk. Others are synthetic, meaning that the fibers were invented by people using a process known as chemical synthesis. Here are three examples of fabric inventions that help police officers, astronauts, firefighters, and athletes. 


Kevlar is a synthetic fabric used in bullet-proof vests. The repeating ring-like structures of the polymer in Kevlar are perfectly aligned and connected with each other inside each fiber. Then the fibers are tightly spun to make super-strong yarn. The yarns are woven or knitted to make fabric. Kevlar and other synthetic fabrics are layered together to increase their strength and spread out the energy from fast-moving or sharp objects. This special structure is how Kevlar prevents objects like shrapnel or speeding bullets from going into a person’s body. 


Nomex is a synthetic fabric that is both heat- and flame-resistant. These properties are due to the crystal-like structure of the fibers. With a maximum temperature of 370°C (700°F), Nomex is used in the uniforms of firefighters, astronauts, race car drivers, and certain military personnel. Nomex fabric is also used to make protective gloves for taking hot items out of the oven or off the grill. 


Gore-tex was one of the first synthetic, breathable, waterproof fabrics and is used to make clothing for people who like to be outside, rain or shine. It’s worn by snowboarders, skiers, rock climbers, runners, and hikers. The weave of the fabric makes Gore-tex more comfortable than older kinds of waterproof fabrics. The spaces between the yarns are too small to allow liquid water to come in, but big enough to let water vapor (from sweat) escape! 

Chemists continue to invent synthetic fibers with special properties that allow us to boldly go where no clothing has allowed us to go before … and feel more comfortable on the journey!

Neal M. Abrams, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY.