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Orlon Acrylic Fibers

Orlon, a synthetic acrylic fiber, was developed by E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (DuPont) as an offshoot of their pioneering work on nylon and rayon. In 1941, a DuPont scientist seeking a means of improving rayon devised a method of spinning acrylic polymer. Originally dubbed "Fiber A", by 1950 the trade name Orlon was adopted for spun polyacrylonitrile fibers, a material derived from polymers synthesized with natural gas, oxygen, and nitrogen. DuPont hoped that Orlon would replace wool in the marketplace.

Marketing Orlon was almost as problematic as developing and refining the polymer. Initially sold as a filament yarn (long, single strands), Orlon sales did not really take off until the mid-1950s. Orlon hit the fabric stores as Orlon staple, a bulky yarn composed of short fibers, around 1955 and launched a women's sweater fashion boom. By 1960 with sales reaching one million pounds per year, DuPont introduced new varieties of Orlon to meet the specific demands of blanket and carpet manufacturers. Up until 1990, Dupont offered Orlon acrylic carpet fibers, but has largely replaced its manufacture with newer synthetic fibers such as polyesters (Dacron), polypropylenes, and polyimides.

Orlon's climb to the top was not without pitfalls. After significant initial difficulties with spinning and dyeing were overcome, Orlon become more of a commercial success. As with natural birefringent crystals, Orlon fiber reveals slow and fast axes when examined under polarized light. Orlon is resistant to sunlight and atmospheric gases and therefore is ideal for awning, patio umbrellas, and other outdoor uses. The polymer's resistance to shrinkage coupled to a soft, warm feel, imparted characteristics that made it a favorite for clothing. Unlike wool garments that require dry cleaning, a variety of clothing woven with Orlon were machine washable and dryable.

Contributing Authors

Cynthia D. Kelly, Thomas J. Fellers and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310.


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