A History of Heavy Duty Fabric and some of it's uses

Since the time of early man, heavy duty fabric has been a critical component of survival and growth. Early uses of natural fibers shielded from cold and the elements. As fibers were more refined and strengthened through human hands, fabrics were essential for transportation and exploration. Through science, synthetic fabrics gave armies the upper edge and aided in victory.


Although it's believed first cultivation of cotton started in the Indus Valley Civilization (eastern Pakistan and northern India), traces ancient fragments of cloth were discovered in Mexico, Peru, and Egypt dating back to 5000 BCE. Seeds were often traded and cotton slowly expanded across the globe. The first cotton seed was planted in North Americans by colonists in Virginia in 1607.

During the mid 1700's wool had grown to become the one of the largest and oldest industries in England. Described as a nation of largely made of of sheep farmers and and cloth manufactures the growth of cotton threaten the English wool economy. However, as the middle class became more concerned with cleanliness, personal hygiene and fashion a easier to clean, colorful fabric was demanded. Calico and chintz, two types of printed colorful fabric, became a major English import. In Britain alone the East India Company was importing a quarter of a million pieces to Britain.

In order to preserve the wool economy Parliament passed the Calico Act, a law banning the import and sales of printed fabrics. This was strictly designed to restrict the growth of cotton and preserve the wool industry. However, once England gained the material to compete with the East India Company the law was repealed more than 50 years later.

When England joined the Cotton Revolution most of their cotton production was channeled into fashion. Unlike wool, cotton has the ability to be easily imprinted with intricate designs and vibrant colors. In addition, cotton's versatility allowed it to be combined with linen, producing a soft velvet that was cheaper than silk. The English cotton empire peaked in the early 1900's and continued to dominated worldwide. In a ten year time span cotton goods exported from Britain swelled from 15% to over 40%.

The English cotton industry peaked by 1912, producing over 8 billion yards of cloth. However, the decline began in onset of WWI. Due to the war English cotton could not exported to foreign markets. In response, many of countries that were cut off built in house cotton factories. These factories soon began producing higher yields of cotton at lower costs. Most notably was Japan, who, by 1933 introduced a 24 hour cotton production guiding them to claim the name of the world's largest cotton manufacturer. Due to the decline Britain closed over 800 mills. Although WWII created a slight boom in British cotton production this did not last and soon the textile industry in Britain had disappeared.

Cotton also became an important commodity during the Age of Sail, a time between 16th – to mid 19th centuries, where international trade and navel warfare was dominated by sailing ships. Duck or sail cloth was extremely important and in high need. During the Age of Sail, duck was equivalent of today's gas and diesel fuel, with out it you could not move. In many cases the accessibility of duck influenced the outcome of naval engagements.

Duck was traditionally made from linen, a fine woven fiber, or the coarser fibers of hemp. Cotton was rarely used in early sail due to it being a much weaker fiber. However, linen supply to the US was interrupted by the War of 1812 and the first production of American manufactured cotton duck was manufactured in Watertown, Massachusetts. The lighter fibers of cotton were intended to be a temporary replacement for imported linen. However as boats became grew in size the use of larger sails made of of linen was too heavy to be practical. By mid-18th century millions of yards of cotton duck was produced in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Maryland.

Cotton continued to be the primary fabric used in duck until late 20th century when all natural fibers were replaced with synthetic fabric, less resistant to UV rays, rot, and water absorption.


Introduced to the world as a “strange new substance” created by the transformation of air, water, and coal, nylon is the world's first true man-made fiber. Created by DuPont in 1935 and marketed in in late 1939, nylon cultivated large demand in the form of woman's hosiery. It was quickly labeled a “Miracle Fabric” due to it's unique ability to stretch and recoil after many wears in addition to a high resistance to tears. Due to these factors as well as nylon being easy to clean silk stockings soon became obsolete. May 16, 1940, officially named “Nylon Day” American women lined the streets, hoping to snag one of the 4 million pairs of nylon stockings, which sold out in 2 days at $1.15 a piece, almost double the price of silk stockings.

However, shortly after the launch of nylon the US declared war on Japan, completely cutting off silk imports. Silk was primary used in parachutes and a substitute needed to be found quickly. Nylon once again replaced silk and the substitution proved to be a huge advantage for the US. Silk parachutes were easily damaged and susceptible to dampness and mildew. Nylon, the superior choice, eliminated all these problems. Nylon was also needed for mosquito netting, rope, B-29 bomber tires, hammocks, aircraft fuel tanks, and surgical sutures. Due to the high demand for the war all production of nylon was funneled into national defense.

Sorely missed back home, paint-on hosiery replaced America's favorite stocking. “Liquid Stockings” were applied by covering the leg with a nude colored liquid foundation and carefully drawing a line up the back of the leg with an eyebrow pencil to simulate the sewn stitch. After the war, nylon stockings trickled back into American stores. However, due to high demand and low yield the infamous “Nylon Riots” ensued. In one case 40,000 women in Pittsburgh lined up to get their hands on one of the 13,000 pairs.

New developments of nylon continued into the 1970's. Prior to 1950, carpeted floors were expensive and only 15% of American homes had carpeting. Nylon allowed a higher production yield at increased speeds dropping the price dramatically. Now, almost 99% of homes have carpet. In addition the invention of nylon paved the future for other popular man-made fibers including; Teflon®, Polyester, Lycra® and Spandex®.


Rayon, one of Dupont's first man-made fibers, was a thin weak material that was coined as “artificial silk” Due to it's lack of strength it was mostly used in place of silk in clothing or decorative uses. However, in 1929 chemists were successful in strengthening the filaments into a strong fiber. The product was called CORDURA® and was primary used as sewing threads and tire cords. CORDURA® was further improved during WWII. CORDURA® had a unique quality no other fiber had, it strengthen when heated. As a result, CORDURA® became extensively used in military tires made from synthetic rubber.

CORDURA® was very similar to and shared many properties with nylon. During the 1950's after multiple performance tests nylon, the “Miracle Fabric” once again showed it's superiority and demands for CORDURA® soon dwindled. However, by 1977, researchers discovered CORDURA® could easily be dyed and retain vibrant colors and production was funneled into soft-sided luggage. CORDURA® claimed over 40% of the luggage market and continued to expand into sporting boots and shoes, backpacks, and golf and ski bags. As improvements continued CORDURA® became softer and lighter. This light weight aspect allowed CORDURA® more protection against fading from the elements.


In the 1920's a chemistry professor at the University of Notre Dame, Fr Julius Arthur Nieuwland, discovered a jelly substance that possessed the ability to mimic the traits of rubber when hardened. The patent rights were sold to DuPont who continued further research. In late 1931, DuPont introduce DuPrene, a new substance that resembled natural rubber yet contained superior properties. These properties included a higher resistance to degradation of water, oil, and heat, therefore it was ideal for telephone wire insulation and gasket and hose components in car and truck engines.

DuPont continued to improve the the manufacturing process which removed the original harsh, foul smell. The improved product was then ideal for sealants, gloves, and the soles of shoes. However, like nylon, during WWII neoprene was removed from the commercial market and all material was used by the military.

After the commercial ban neoprene was reintroduced to the American public and continues to be an essential component in the manufacturing of adhesives, sealants, power transmission straps or belts, hoses and tubes.

In the early 1950's the neoprene wet suit was born. Made of a single layer of neoprene that insulated the body, surfers and swimmers could now enjoy the ocean in less than ideal conditions. The original wetsuit was composed of a single layer of neoprene with no liner. Naturally sticky the inside of the suit was coated in talcum powder. However, the suit was still delicate and even the most careful surfers would tear the suits while attempting to put them on. After years of improvement the modern wetsuit main component is neoprene, generally lined with nylon.

In conclusion, from the strong natural fibers that helped propel exploration ships to man-made miracle fabric that aided in national defense, heavy duty fabric has been utilized and improved on for centuries and continues to be an integral part of human life and safety. As man continues to build and grow while facing new obstacles the search for more innovative fabrics will always continue.