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In creating 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 back.
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.
In swimwear, 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."
The computerized 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" or "DynoTights."
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."