His Discovery Gave The World New Shapes

Posted: April 15, 1991

When Joe Shivers' bosses told him in 1949 to give the company a better foundation, they were talking about girdles.

Shivers gave them what they wanted, all right. But he also came up with a product that today represents the most profitable component of the Du Pont Co.'s $6.1 billion synthetic-fiber business.

Lycra - the stuff that's in everything from hosiery to haute couture - is Du Pont's trade name for spandex, a stretchy fiber that, for better or worse, has cloaked the world in skintight bicycling shorts, thigh-hugging mini- skirts, socks that don't fall down, bathing suits that don't ride up, and foundation garments that are being snapped up by consumers at a dizzying rate.

If Du Pont executives are right, the market for Lycra soon will spread into new areas, including men's suits, home-furnishing fabrics and industrial/ technical applications. In anticipation, the company is investing about $200 million a year in expanded production facilities.

"We haven't found a limit yet on Lycra," said G.D. "Wally" McWalter, director of Du Pont's North American operations for Lycra.

Actually, Lycra golf balls were a bust; their bounce was erratic.

Joseph C. Shivers, 70, a quiet chemist who lives on the outskirts of West Chester, finds all this slightly amusing. Never more so than when he goes out for his daily walk.

"I'm surprised to see men out running in leotards," he said, smiling. "I never thought I'd see Lycra in that kind of end use."

Shivers arrived at Du Pont in 1949, with a doctorate in chemistry from Duke University and a certain ambivalence about his career goals. As a graduate student during World War II, he had spent two years working to synthesize an anti-malaria drug for the U.S. government to protect troops fighting in the South Pacific.

The head of Du Pont's Pioneering Research Laboratory in Buffalo, N.Y., finally convinced a reluctant Shivers to join the chemical company and enter the mysterious world of polymers, the combination of molecules to produce new compounds.

The lab already had produced rayon. And in 1938, chemists there had discovered nylon, "the first true synthetic," Shivers says.

Shivers' initial assignment was to help perfect Du Pont's second purely synthetic fiber, Orlon. His task, he recalls, was "how to make a whiter Orlon fiber."

"I remember because I wasn't particularly interested in it," he said of the project. Nevertheless, he studied the production process and made several recommendations.

"Gradually, it improved, but it never got pure white," Shivers explained. ''See?" He plucked at the sleeve of the Orlon sweater he was wearing. It is cream-colored.

Years later, Shivers learned that every new employee at the laboratory was given the whiter-Orlon project. "I guess they were hoping to strike lightning," he said.

Although the popularity of the first synthetics was instantaneous, the fabrics weren't without their flaws, Shivers admits.

"Nylon was an awful fiber for most apparel," recalled Shivers. "While it was great for parachutes, it was terrible for sweaters."

Orlon solved that problem. But last year, Du Pont announced it was getting out of the Orlon business after 40 years; the fiber was no longer profitable

because of imports and declining demand. Instead, the company will concentrate on its moneymaking fibers, including Lycra.

The chemists also sought a replacement for cotton; they came up with Dacron polyester. Shivers was assigned the job of improving the synthetic fabric's acceptance of dyes. He helped devise new coloring agents and dyeing procedures. That cleared the way for its commercial introduction.

There was a definite pattern to Du Pont's research then - and now. The company was seeking synthetic replacements that surpassed nature's fibers - and that could be patented, giving the company a monopoly on production.

As part of their employment contracts, Shivers and his fellow scientists agreed that all their discoveries would become the property of Du Pont and that all data collected about a product would remain secret.

Another item on Du Pont's agenda in the 1940s was a synthetic rubber - "a good, snappy elastomer," in Shivers' words. Rubber, then the mainstay of women's foundation garments, was hot, uncomfortable - and not patentable. A stretchy synthetic promised to be just the opposite - in all regards.

The researchers thought they had finally achieved a breakthrough in 1949 when they perfected a polyester polymer that had elastic properties.

"We went so far as to wear-test it," recalled Shivers. The women working in the lab were asked to try girdles made of the new fiber.

"When the women put them on in the morning, the foundations were very tight and snug, but toward the end of the day the women would stand up and there'd be a big bulge," he said.

Simply put, the women would stand up and their girdles would appear to still be sitting. In other instances, some of the girdles practically fell off the wearers.

Scientifically, that is known as "stress decay." In the foundation business, it's disaster.

The problem with the stressed-out girdles, explains Shivers, was that some of the molecules in the polymer weren't doing their job. They would spread apart but forget to return home. Sort of like taffy, he added.

Discouraged, the Du Pont scientists shelved the snappy-elastomer project in 1950. The search intrigued Shivers, however.

Du Pont chemists are encouraged to engage in "bootleg" projects, research of personal interest. Shivers ran a series of bootleg experiments hoping to

break the chemical code that would cause the elastomer molecules to rebound.

The previous failures had been the result of counting on just one type of molecule to spring back, which created a rather unstable chain. Shivers added a second type of molecule to the polymer string. The first molecule group clung together "as if it was holding hands," and the second group sprang back into a tight coil as soon as the pressure was released, he explained. Together, the two strings formed a stretchy fiber.

The world was about to leap from women in baggy girdles to men in neon- color running tights.

"I did the experiment," Shivers said of his discovery. "I remember it very well. The polymer started out like water, but then thickened up after an hour or two. It produced a very viscous substance."

It withstood heat and could be spun into fine filaments. It could be stretched to 500 percent of its original length. Best of all, it seemingly never got tired of snapping back.

"It was identified as a breakthrough for Du Pont. The whole lab came alive," said Shivers.

Soon after, in 1954, Shivers was promoted to a supervisory position. When asked if he also was financially rewarded for his discovery, he declined to answer, citing a company nondisclosure policy, but said: "The promotion was a reward."

By 1958, Du Pont had perfected Shivers' fiber and was ready to introduce it commercially. Following company practice, a computer dreamed up the name Lycra. "It doesn't stand for anything," said Shivers.

But Du Pont's grand dreams for Lycra didn't quite materialize according to plan.

Just when Du Pont ingenuity perfected a comfortable girdle, American women were doing without. Soon, they didn't even need a foundation to hold up their stockings, thanks to pantyhose.

But Lycra gradually found an application in bathing suits, then in support stockings. By the 1970s, the physical-fitness craze created a growing market for exercise and athletic wear. Today, Lycra activewear, as it's known, is as familiar on city streets as it is in gymnasiums.

Lycra's adaptability is one of its strongest selling points. It can be spun finer than a human hair. Although it's expensive ($12 a pound), a little goes a long way; 975 pounds of the finest Lycra could stretch to the moon and back.

The average woman's swimsuit has 7 1/2 miles of Lycra.

There is no pure Lycra fabric; the maximum Lycra content is usually no more than 25 percent. Almost all women's pantyhose contain Lycra. Increasingly, men's socks are made with Lycra - a trend that began in Japan, says Du Pont's McWalter.

Although a handful of American designers began experimenting with Lycra in the early 1960s, it only recently has gained wider acceptance, thanks to its popularity in Europe. About half the designer fashions produced there contain Lycra. What's hot in Paris and Milan soon is big in New York, and then Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Houston.

"Designers will soon learn that all Lycra products don't have to be body- hugging," said Jean T. Hegedus, a Lycra marketing manager at Du Pont. Increasingly, designers are using the fiber to improve the drape of loose- fitting garments.

Lycra soon will be added to drapery and upholstery fabrics to enhance their appearance and durability. Other uses include puncture-proof surgical gloves.

Although women may notice that their pantyhose don't bag at the knees anymore, they may not know whom to thank. And so, Du Pont has mounted a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to make Lycra a household word.

After being unable to keep up with demand, Du Pont has significantly boosted Lycra production. The company broke ground last year for its ninth Lycra manufacturing plant, a $100 million facility to be located in Singapore, in part to meet the growing demand for the fiber in Asia.

Du Pont refuses to disclose production figures. The company reports that its fiber division generated $430 million in after-tax profits last year. Lycra accounted for $129 million, or 30 percent, of that figure. Total fiber sales at the company amounted to $6.1 billion, with Lycra generating $762.5 million.

"Lycra is by far the most profitable (fiber) in after-tax profits," according to Joseph J. Jordan, an analyst at Provident National Bank. "Volume and prices are growing, and there's not much competition from imports."

Du Pont still holds a patent on Lycra and so thoroughly dominates the international spandex market that there are very few competitors; most of them are overseas. Du Pont wants to keep it that way.

The worldwide love affair with Lycra began after Joseph Shivers retired

from Du Pont in 1980 as technical director of the company.

Recognition of his discovery and its importance to Du Pont has come belatedly. The company in 1988 broke with its long tradition of attributing product development to corporate teamwork and honored 14 of its top scientists. Among them was Shivers; another was Charles J. Pedersen, who received the 1987 Nobel Prize for chemistry for work on enzyme molecules.

Although Shivers had to be persuaded to attend the recognition ceremony, he concedes that he enjoyed it. "There is merit in trying to recognize individual contributions publicly," he said.

These days, he travels, reads and takes long walks. He doesn't own a pair of running tights. "The only Lycra I have is on the tops of my socks and my shorts," he said, smiling.

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