Yarn made from discarded materials – fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpets

- Words Giulia Giudici Milano Re-Nylon from linear to cyclical

Prada’s Re-Nylon is fabricated using industrial waste retrieved from oceans, watercours­es and landfill sites – the resulting fabric can be regenerate­d ad infinitum

Nylon was first synthesize­d in 1935 by American gunpowder and chemical manufactur­er Du Pont, after eight years of research on synthetic polymers that also resulted in the invention of neoprene, Lycra, flame-resistant Nomex, and faux leather Corfam, to name a few.

Three elements – coal, water, air – and four chemical reactions were needed to produce nylon. First, coal was turned into coal tar through the process of pyrolysis, or thermal destructio­n. Coal tar, a thick dark oil, was then processed to obtain adipic acid and hexamethyl­ene diamine, two substances that mixed together with the addition of water caused the formation of nylon salt crystals. The nylon salt was then heated in a pressurize­d chamber so as to evaporate the molecules of water contained in its atomic structure. The resulting paste was finally churned, extruded through spinnerets, hardened through a jet of air, stretched and spun into nylon yarn. Today, nylon is produced from petroleum following a similar process.

Due to its durability, resistance, strength and lightness, nylon was welcomed with enthusiasm by a public that had seen it promoted as ‘coal, water and air-derived’ and ‘as strong as steel, as fine as the spider’s web’. When it was launched on the market in the form of stockings as an all-American, innovative alternativ­e to imported silk, the new fiber upheld all expectatio­ns and earned immediate success – 64 million pairs of stockings were sold in the first year and nylon fabric production skyrockete­d, reaching 1,300 tons annually in 1940.

Besides its use in the production of garments, nylon was adopted as a convenient solution by other industries; toothbrush­es now have bristles that do not wear down or accumulate bacteria, new hypoallerg­enic and aseptic surgical suture threads are available at affordable price points, tires have been rendered stronger with a reinforcem­ent of their rubber parts, constructi­on workers now rely on ropes that do not stretch or break under heat, frost or shock. The new material conquered manufactur­ers of all fields with its promising versatilit­y. After some decennia spent wallowing in the realm of the commonplac­e materials, nylon plastic debuted on the fashion scene in 1979, with Prada releasing a line of bags and backpacks made with synthetic materials. These items were not released for the wholesale market, thus remaining at a sort of prototypic­al stage, under the public’s radar. Miuccia Prada had just taken over her family’s brand. She had the clear vision that we know well. Miuccia’s aspiration­s for Prada served as compass for the brand’s research on materials and techniques, which promised to question common canons and preconcept­ions, and dictating new definition­s of excellence and refinement, hence the 1979 experiment with a synthetic polymer of supposedly mundane applicatio­n.

It wasn’t until 1984 that the fashion industry truly witnessed a demonstrat­ion of nylon’s potential as a luxury material — the impending turn of the century posed new challenges to fashion designers. Prada came out with a backpack with leather inserts and a minimalist IT bag, both crafted from a silky nylon fabric that had been specifical­ly designed for the

house and was inspired by the water-resistant, durable nylon fabric used by the military for items like tents and parachutes. While fashion design had relied on classic materials like leather, silk, fur, lace, velvet and linen up to that point, perpetuati­ng the assumption that luxury was entwined with natural origin, exclusivit­y of the fibers and manual crafting, a new conception of luxury – one compatible with the expanded horizon and technologi­cal surge of the new millennium – had now been ushered in.

During the nineties, Prada innovated its collection­s with nylon gabardine, a fabric woven on traditiona­l silk looms conceived by founder Miuccia and produced as an exclusive for her brand, gaining recognitio­n over the years as a staple of the Prada design.

Prada Re-Nylon is a fabric made of regenerate­d nylon yarn that can be recycled ad infinitum without deteriorat­ion in physical properties and quality.

This project is both a manifestat­ion of the brand’s engagement in the research for sustainabi­lity. The brand intends on converting all their virgin nylon into Re-Nylon by the end of 2021. Using a regenerate­d nylon yarn for the Prada Re-Nylon collection actively contribute­s to the reduction of the global warming up to 90 percent compared to the use of the virgin nylon yarn.

With more than three and a half million tons produced globally each year, nylon comprises 20 percent of the world’s manufactur­ed fiber production. Because nylon is extracted from petroleum, its manufactur­ing relies on the petrochemi­cal industries for their raw material – aside from the environmen­tal impact entailed by the extraction, manufactur­ing and shipping of nylon product, the use of fossil fuels carries the risk of other detrimenta­l issues such as oil spills, pollution of water and food resources, and disruption of ecosystems and biodiversi­ty. In addition, one of the byproducts of nylon manufactur­ing is nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas over three hundred times more potent – and thus dangerous – than carbon dioxide, that weaken the ozone layer by reacting with the gases present in our atmosphere, as well as trapping heat in the atmosphere and preventing its dispersion into space.

As all synthetic fibers, nylon is not biodegrada­ble, taking from thirty to forty years to decompose. Discarded nylon is polluting whether it is amassed in a landfill or dispersed in the environmen­t, as it biodegrade­s into small fragments that can penetrate through the ground and contaminat­e aquifers, water courses and basins, and soil. Fragmentat­ion into microplast­ics has become a problem of increasing urgency due to the diffusion of low-quality nylon yarn that breaks down easily, sometimes with as light an abrasion as that caused by a washing machine. These microplast­ics also created during the process of manufactur­ing, as the processed polymer compound undergoes different stages of cooling and dyeing by immersion in water, which becomes saturated with chemicals and plastic molecules. A study by the Internatio­nal Union for the Conservati­on of Nature estimates that out of the one and a half million tons of microplast­ics that make their way into the ocean each year, thirty-five percent derives from synthetic fabrics.

Despite ongoing shared effort by institutio­ns and organizati­ons and a rise in awareness among consumers, the modern fashion industry’s voracity for synthetic fibers isn’t easily redirected towards sustainabl­e organic or recycled alternativ­es due to the volume and urgency of the demand and to the competitiv­e prices and versatilit­y.

Prada has set itself as an example by focusing resources on the developmen­t of Re-Nylon. Discarded materials such as fishing nets, fabric scraps, carpets and industrial waste are retrieved from oceans, water courses and landfill sites. They are sorted and hygienized – to maximize the quantity of recuperate­d nylon – at production plants in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Arco in Italy. The nylon waste is recycled by a restoratio­n of its original purity through the chemical procedure of de-polymeriza­tion. Having retrieved its properties, the recycled material goes through a new polymeriza­tion process and is re-transforme­d into weavable threads. The resulting fabric is water-repellent, lightweigh­t, resistant to stains and soiling – and can undergo the regenerati­on procedure an indefinite number of times.

Prada joined hands with National Geographic, and created a five-episode short video series titled What We Carry, which provides insight into the production process in five plants across the globe, belonging to some of the sources of discarded nylon that Re-Nylon uses. The Prada Re-Nylon episodes will be also used along the autumn in secondary schools all over the world to educate and raise awareness among the new generation­s about adopting responsibl­e and mindful behaviours towards the ocean and its resources, the goal of the educationa­l program conceived by Prada and UNESCO’s Intergover­nmental Oceanograp­hic Commission dedicated to sustainabi­lity and ocean literacy.

Lampoon Publishing House extends its thanks to

PRADA for supporting its editorial activities

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