Moving Science

Southern Research at 75: Labs spin out new fabrics and capabilities

October 13, 2016

From its earliest days, Southern Research scientists were engaged in textile projects such as devising new techniques for spinning yarn, developing novel polymers for synthetic fibers, and designing special purpose garments.

Their work yielded a number of advances: new wrinkle-shedding fabrics, improved materials for carpets, innovative methods for producing types of Nylon. Southern Research laboratories also developed a fabric for astronaut life rafts and a garment to protect steelworkers, among other things.

Southern Research textile technology
Southern Research fiber-spinning labs produced many advances.

Dr. Wilbur Lazier, the organization’s first director, established a Textile Research Group as one of his first moves after his hiring in 1944. The research emphasis reflected the critical importance of the textile industry to the South’s economy in those days.

Not surprisingly, much of Southern Research’s early work on textiles focused on cotton, which remained a major cash crop across the region.

The organization’s research on cotton focused on just about every aspect of how it could be processed – spinning, bleaching, dyeing, and finishing. In 1946, Textile Division head Dr. Robert J. Taylor used an experimental hot-air slasher to study the effects of sizing to improve yarn strength for Minneapolis-based Pillsbury Mills.

Programs were carried out for textile companies, chemical manufacturers, and government agencies.

The work resulted in the development of:

  • New treatments to produce wash-and-wear cotton fabrics
  • New lubricants and sizing formulations for processing cotton yarn
  • New ways to use synthetic rubber latexes to improve the performance of cotton garment fabrics and the resiliency of cotton-pile carpets
  • New flame-proofing treatments


SR 75th_Logo_Horz_RGBCotton wasn’t the only focus of Southern Research scientists.

Lab work on synthetics became extensive, centering on the preparation of polymers and the production of fibers, as well as the processing and finishing of synthetic yarns and fibers.

Scientists evaluated totally new types of polymers for fabrics and studied new ways to make fabrics from batches of existing polymers. Facilities were installed at Southern Research for spinning synthetic fibers using various methods.

In the 1960s, some of this textile technology work focused on polypropylene, today considered one of the most versatile of plastics, found in area rugs, exercise apparel and many other items.

As part of this work, Southern Research developed a super-tenacity polypropylene fiber that won accolades from Industrial Research magazine, which named it one of its 100 most significant new products of 1963.

Southern Research textile technology
An early look at Southern Research’s textile spinning lab.

Southern Research scientists also conducted innovative work in Nylon production. In the 1960s, they developed Nylon 1313 from crambe oil, an inedible seed oil, and produced several hundred pounds of it for evaluation under a U.S. Department of Agriculture program.

In the 1970’s, Southern Research’s unique fiber-spinning capabilities permitted its scientists to develop a method to spin heat-sensitive Nylon 4 on standard melt-spinning equipment, an unmatched technical achievement.

Over the years, Southern Research developed several specialty products from its fiber work. These included:

  • Disposable garments for protection against noxious materials
  • A garment to shield workers in steel mills from molten metal splash
  • A fabric for life rafts for astronauts

This expertise in fiber-spinning and polymers would set the stage for Southern Research’s pioneering work in controlled-release technology and new drug delivery systems. The organization’s fiber-spinning work led to the development of the first synthetic, bio-absorbable surgical suture, introduced in the early 1970s.


This is Part Six of a series looking at the history of Southern Research.

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