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February 15,1999
Volume 77, Number 7
CENEAR 77 7 p.70
ISSN 0009-2347


[Photo courtesy of DuPont]

It's really no stretch to say that spandex fiber has had a remarkable effect on the clothing we all wear. A godsend to our mothers and grandmothers, spandex found its first use in ladies' foundation garments as a replacement for rubber. But today, spandex, better known as elastane in Europe and other parts of the world, is on the leading edge of fashion for both women's and men's under-, inner-, outer-, and active wear.

A sensationally bizarre polyurethane, spandex is a long-chain synthetic polymeric fiber. Soft and rubbery segments of polyester or polyether polyols allow the fiber to stretch up to 600% and then recover to its original shape. Hard segments, usually urethanes or urethane-ureas, provide rigidity and so impart tensile strength and limit plastic flow.

DuPont scientist Joseph C. Shivers invented DuPont's spandex fiber in 1959 after a decade of research. Originally designated Fiber K, DuPont subsequently chose the more mellifluous trade name Lycra to distinguish its brand of spandex fiber. Always blended with other natural and man-made fibers such as cotton, wool, silk, and linen, spandex is lighter in weight than rubber thread. And unlike rubber thread, spandex does not break down with exposure to body oils, perspiration, lotions, or detergents.

Industry sources peg DuPont's annual sales of Lycra at more than $1.5 billion. Even though DuPont's spandex girdles the lion's share of world spandex capacity of about 200 million lb annually, other fiber makers have reached out for a piece of the action. In the U.S., those other producers include Fall River, Mass.-based Globe Manufacturing, maker of Glospan and Cleerspan spandex, and Bayer Corp. --the U.S. affiliate of Germany's Bayer--maker of Dorlasten brand spandex. Bayer also makes spandex in Germany. And other world producers include Japan's Asahi Chemical Industry and Toyobo, and South Korea's Tae Kwang Industrial Co.

So valuable is DuPont's spandex technology that it was the subject of an extortion attempt 10 years ago. Five DuPont employees, all from DuPont's Lycra spandex plant in Mercedes, Argentina, tried to play a fast-and-loose game. They stole proprietary production technology documents and attempted to extract $10 million from DuPont for their safe return. After a globe-trotting chase that included stops in Wilmington, Del.; Milan, Italy; and Geneva, Switzerland, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Swiss police finally staged a sting to exchange a bogus check for the documents. The operation went awry, but the Swiss police ended up nabbing the extortionists on the rebound in a Geneva parking lot.

Ladies' foundation garments are still the foundation of the spandex business, reports Robert L. Kirkwood, DuPont Lycra end use research manager. Spandex started a boom in the 1960s, ushering in an era of "comfortable, soft-support pantyhose and other intimate apparel." However, the fiber soon ended up in men's and women's figure-flattering swimwear and then hit the ski slopes in 1968 in the Lycra garments of the French Olympic ski team.

In the 1970s, cyclists traded in their woolen shorts for "aerodynamic" spandex shorts, and the versatile fiber began to find its way into dancewear, tights, and stretch jeans. By the 1980s, Kirkwood says, spandex had a commanding presence in hosiery, and the fiber enlarged its presence among champion and amateur athletes who donned spandex garments to improve their performance if not their appearance.

Indeed, fashion has played a hand in the wider use of spandex. As pop singer Madonna started a trend in the '80s to wear innerwear as outerwear and sports-looks translated into new street-wear fashions, Chanel couture skirts set fashion trends with the use of spandex in leggings. Over the past decade, says Kirkwood, spandex has found its way into traditional men's suits as well as teen and children's wear.

Although admitting DuPont was first in the spandex fiber business, Bayer Corp. vice president of marketing Jim Heslep points out that "Bayer has been involved in polyurethane chemistry longer than anyone else." Bayer introduced its spandex fiber in the early 1960s in Germany, but only started producing spandex in the U.S. at its Bushy Park, S.C., site in the mid-1990s. Rarely used at more than 20% in a garment's fiber makeup, spandex is frequently covered with another nonelastic fiber for use in woven fabrics and can be used bare or covered in knit fabrics, says Heslep.

Its elastic properties allow spandex to be a fiber now uncorseted by convention. In the future, Heslep expects to see spandex jump to the upholstery market for stylish furniture. It already has found its way into the auto market where spandex allows door panel fabrics to stretch and adhere tightly to the door. Kirkwood says consumers can soon expect to see more Lycra spandex incorporated into natural and man-made leather shoes for greater comfort. And in the near future, more resilient spandex sports shoes may be in the offing as well as mattress-hugging spandex bed sheets.

Marc Reisch

Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 1999 American Chemical Society