Lycra, Du Pont figured out a way to link the hard and soft sections to one
another, to make them hold hands, as it were. This process takes place several
hundred times inside a single Lycra molecule, which itself is so small that 20
million of them could sit on the period at the end of this sentence.
While the hard
segments link up with the soft segments within each Lycra molecule, the hard
sections of adjacent Lycra molecules bind to one another, giving the springy
sections a home base to snap back to once they have been stretched in a bathing
suit or whatever. Without a home base, you would have nothing but stretch,
nothing but a piece of pulled-out taffy. Says Boliek. "It's the desire of
the soft part of the Lycra molecule to return to the disorder, or coiled state,
that keeps those swimsuits up." In other words, entropy at work.
How all these
hand-holding molecules get into our clothes is real simple. The Lycra molecule,
which is a solid, is dissolved in a liquid so that it can be spun into thread.
There's a Du Pont factory in Waynesboro. Va., that has Lycra soup sloshing
around in vats two stories high. Once it is formed into thread, it is wound on
bobbins and whisked away to knitters. Just 975 pounds of the sturdy little
thread would be needed to stretch to the moon. A fist-sized ball of Lycra
thread could be extended from its birthplace in Wilmington, to Baltimore, 67
miles away. But what's most significant about Lycra is that if the guy holding
the other end on the moon or in Baltimore let go, the fiber would snap
No garment is
100% Lycra. It is just a small component—rarely more than 25%—of whatever we
are stretching over our bodies. Lycra is most at home in fabric, particularly
as a companion of Antron nylon, but it can add bounce to just about anything.
Du Pont scientists thought Lycra could be used to make better golf balls, but
the idea was scrapped because the Lycra balls didn't sound right and they
traveled too far. Lycra was even considered, briefly, for use in condoms.
however, Lycra is a star. Almost every U.S.-made women's suit has enough
Lycra—unraveled—to reach 7� miles. "A swimsuit is a monster to
engineer," says Ocean Pacific Beachwear president Susan Crank. "A lot
of handwork is involved. We use 6,000 inches of thread in sewing a bikini.
Today's swimsuits are for doers and not watchers. We move. Lycra moves. We pay
models $500 a day to come in for prototype fittings. They have to bend over, do
deep knee bends. Then we cross-fit the suit on someone the same size with
different body proportions."
Still, as every
woman knows, Lycra, or rather entropy, gives us fits over the dread butt-creep
factor, because what goes up does not necessarily come down. "Oh yeah,
watch most any woman get out of a pool, and she'll reach back—usually right
hand first, left hand second—and pull down her suit," says Warren
Gaudineer, Du Pont's California-based swimwear-industry liaison. Gaudineer, who
says he spends a lot of time sipping martinis and doing research at Venice
Beach, points out that "the industry is aware of the problem and spends a
lot of time addressing it."
Although no one
has made a breakthrough on butt creep, Du Pont chemical engineer Cathy Hamilton
says that an Australian sock manufacturer got a handle on the drooping-sock
problem some years back. According to Hamilton, "They came out with a
'computerized' sock. It was engineered with heavier Lycra at the bottom,
lighter Lycra at the top. Because of the compression ratio, when the sock fell,
it fell up."
sock may yet take the market by storm, but Hamilton's husband, Du Pont chemist
Jerry Aunet, devotes his time these days to pushing Lycra for other kinds of
socks, panty hose and "mannyhose," a kind of panty hose for men. Aunet
says, "We're looking at mannyhose. We've done some concept research, had
some of the guys wear them. We kind of got a kick out of it. They weren't too
bad." Joe Willie Namath, was, alas, ahead of his time.
But panty hose
for men would not be called mannyhose. Just as the increasingly popular men's
girdles are called low-rise stretch briefs or compression shorts, Lycra hose
for men would probably be macho-ized into something like "Power Skin"
Du Pont says
mannyhose would be functional as muscle protectors and friction fighters.
"You take your cowboys today," says Aunet. "Almost every one of
them wears panty hose under those chaps."