The Invention of Stretch Nylon

Stretching into History ­ The Development of Panty Hose by Don Bolden with Jim Maynard, February, 2008 

Ladies, the next time you buy hosiery, you should say a quiet “thank you” to a man named Bill Leath. He made your shopping a much easier task. In 1946, the hosiery industry was strong in Burlington and Alamance County. Burlington was known the country over as “The Hosiery Center of the South.” There were hosiery mills large and small, while most of them were small family operations, some of the giants of the industry operated here as well. Those plants produced ladies’ stockings knitted on full­fashioned machines. There was a seam down the back, and the hose were made in sizes. Instead of asking for a small, medium or large, you had to request an 81⁄2, 9, 91⁄2, 10,101⁄2, 11, or 111⁄2. It’s hard to imagine now the problem that created. Retail stores had to carry every one of those sizes, and there were different styles and colors, so the shopper might find as many as 14 different choices. That also meant a huge space problem for the retailer, not only in counter space but also in storage space. As a result, only the largest department stores would carry a large selection of styles in the many sizes and colors. Small retailers, regional chains and mom and pop stores were severely limited in their inventory. Therefore, the hosiery industry suffered from lack of distribution outlets.

Bill Leath
1916­-2005
Source: Don Bolden

Leath, in 1946, was manager of Full Knit Hosiery Mills, a men’s hosiery sock company owned by Chadbourn Hosiery Mills, Inc. Leath had been with Full Knit when he went in the Navy in December of1942. After the war, he returned and went back to that company. It was sometime in that year of 1946 that a salesman in France mailed Leath a unique man’s sock. Leath said it “was unique, since it was extremely small, yet would comfortably fit in the normal men sizes 9 to 13.” It contained an unusual amount of stretch or elasticity. The yarn, however, was multifilament nylon, high denier (or size) and knit on very coarse gauge machines, which did not lend it to women’ s hosiery production. The sock intrigued Leath. He said a Swiss company had patented the yarn and it contained all the stretch properties and “could be knitted on normal circular sock machines.” Leath said he immediately began to think of the ladies’ market and the impact that such a stretch yarn would have on that part of the marketplace. He thought of those many sizes on the retail shelf and how that would change if ladies’ hosiery could be made to stretch. An adequate line of hosiery could be stocked and displayed in a much smaller space, good for both the retailer and the shopper. This would allow a dramatic expansion of retailers to include hundreds of outlets, which at that time could not stock the necessary inventory, both in terms of space and dollar investment. Ladies’ hosiery then was produced on full­fashioned machines using mostly 15­denier “monofilament” sheer non­stretch yarn from the DuPont Company. Leath shared his thoughts about stretch yarn with Gene Bobo at another of his company’s plants. He told Bobo he needed a 15­denier yarn, but one that was twisted, unlike the yarn in use then. Some tests were made, but the first yarns would not work. He said the yarn was so “wild” and unwieldy that it was impossible to knit with it.

After much thought and work, someone suggested using a stabilizing yarn knitted along with the “wild” yarn. Leath said Bobo came up with a sample of 15­denier wild yarn twisted and then plied with a yarn of silk. It worked! Tests were made on socks, and Leath remembered, “Once the socks were dyed, we had our first sheer stretchable 15­denier monofilament fabric.” He still had one of the first samples at the time of his death. However, silk was expensive, making it impractical for this use. Experiments continued over a long period of time, and at that time, Leath was transferred to Charlotte to head all the manufacturing operations for Chadbourn Mills. Leath continued his efforts with the stretch yarn, and soon a new man, Robert M. Matthews, came to head up research and development for Chadbourn. He quickly joined the effort, along with Leath and Bobo, who continued yarn experiments. Finally, after many experiments and tests, they were able to devise a method of controlling the “wild” yarn without “the impractical and costly use of a carrier yarn such as silk.” They were convinced they had a product that would appeal to the marketplace, was unique and would be saleable. It was then that they began the patent process. A patent application on both yarn and product was made on Aug. 3, 1954, serial number 449,600. From June 1955 through January 1957, the U.S. Patent Office issued a total of six patents to the Chadbourn Hosiery Mills covering the yarn and its method of manufacturing. Leath said that opened a floodgate of interest in the industry. He received phone calls from hosiery companies everywhere, and from yarn producers, including DuPont. Competition was intense, as many others in the industry were trying to produce a stretch stocking in some form. This led to some interesting negotiations. Henry Pope, owner of Bear Brand Hosiery Mills, and Hanes Hosiery, owned by Gordon Hanes, both approached Chadbourn ownership about selling or merging their companies with Chadbourn. It turned out that Pope wanted to sell and Hanes wanted to merge, with Chadbourn being the surviving company. Hanes and Chadbourn were looking to the future of stretch hosiery in the seamless market. Leath said that while this was in its last stages, there was a call from Herbert Kaiser of Burlington Mills. Kaiser said his company also had a patent application that would likely conflict with the one from Leath and his group. This was a serious problem. At that time, Burlington was the largest hosiery producer in the nation. Leath later wrote of that meeting: “Mr. Kaiser bluntly opened the meeting and said, ‘we recognize you are responsible for these developments. We believe they will have such an impact on the future of business that Burlington must be a part of this process.’ Then he said, ‘unless we come to some agreement, we intend to fight you and your patent application with everything we have. We do not believe Chadbourn has the financial resources to combat us.’ Leath said an agreement was finally worked out with Burlington withdrawing its application, ‘which they admitted was to muddy the water and get our attention.’ Royalty agreements were made, and a new company, Patentex, was formed as the licensing and legal entity. Lawrence Greenwald of Burlington Mills was president, and Leath and Herbert Kaiser were the only directors. The first patent was issued on June 28, 1955 ­stretch yarn for ladies’ hosiery was on its way, and that entire market was transformed. All the ladies’ hosiery manufacturing industry and the yarn throwing industry operated under the patents, and of course, paid royalties. None of these patents were ever contested in the courts. A Charlotte Observer newspaper story in 1956 said it simply: “Leath and Frank E. Bobo, Jr., manager of Chadbourn’s throwing division in Gainesville, Ga. were jointly responsible for the invention and development of stretch hosiery.” 2­6

As stretch hosiery gained its place in the market, Leath and his group were convinced that seamless hosiery would be the way of the future in the industry. That meant new machinery would be needed. The full­fashioned, or seamed, hosiery was made on a machine in which one yarn carrier made two courses of loops right and two courses left. A machine that would allow for a single course of right twist opposing a single course of left twist was needed, as it would give a smoother fabric and be more desirable to the customer. This could be accomplished with a fine gauge seamless, or circular knitting machine similar to the coarse gauge knitting machines used for socks. There was a problem with the seamless product, however – poor fit. This was especially true in the ankle area. To achieve the desired results, Leath contacted the president of Scott and Williams, Inc., Laconia, N.H., the only company in the nation that made the 400­needle machines for ladies’ hosiery. They were “single­feed” machines, but Leath needed a “twin­feed” to produce the seamless hose. Scott and Williams had the capability to make such a machine but they refused to do so because of the strong demand at the time for the single feed. However, as time passed, it became more and more apparent that seamless WAS the future. Leath said, “Events later proved that as rapidly as twin­feed machines could be produced and sold by other companies, the entire seamless segment of the industry would make stretch stockings on every available twin­feed machine.” Early production of stretch hosiery by the company was in its branded lines, “Larkwood Stocking X” and “Gotham Gold Stripe.” Sales were to large department stores across the nation. J.C. Penney was the major company under a private label. However, when the product was first shown to one of Penney buyer’s supervisors, he was not impressed. A few weeks later, Penney’s board chairman saw an ad for a major department store in Baltimore, which had the product prominently displayed. The board chairman, a former buyer, immediately contacted the buyer’s supervisor and asked if Penney had that product, and if not, why. When he learned they did not have the product, he called Charlie McCarthy, sales director for Chadbourn, and asked that he and Leath come to New York the next morning, without fail. Leath caught a train out of Greensboro that night and was in New York the next morning, and from that point for a long time to come, Penney was the major customer. By 1965, the full­fashioned hosiery business was almost dead. Seamless had arrived and taken over the marketplace.

Stretch hosiery led to a major expansion in the market. Only three sizes were needed, as opposed to 10 to 14 of every color. That meant smaller inventories for stores, freeing up valuable storage space. And new customers came, including drug stores, super markets, grocery stores, and specialty shops. This created a dramatic and permanent change in the ladies’ hosiery industry. The impact is perhaps best shown in sales figures. In 1955, the sale of ladies hosiery in the nation totaled 60.3 million dozen. In 1965, sales had grown to 91 million dozen, and by 1970, seamless stockings and pantyhose sales totaled more than 134 million dozen.

Leath said Chadbourn’s branded pantyhose appeared in large department stores in 1960. He said the company had produced a sample, knitted and finished, as early as 1952, and he kept one of the original samples. As stretch hosiery had done earlier, seamless pantyhose revolutionized the fashion industry. The product came with the appearance of the miniskirt, and the rest is indeed history.

Leath remembered that J.C. Penney again was the first customer for their pantyhose, and together, the manufacturer and the customer found a major problem. Again, fit was the issue. The question was how to fit the different sizes and shapes of women into three categories, small, medium, tall. Leath said Howard Page in Chadbourn’s research and development force conducted hundreds of tests on live models and fitting forms. From that, Leath said Page developed a “device” that solved the problem. Page patented it, and Leath said “this invention was the prime contribution to the acceptance of pantyhose by the consumers.”

Leath entered the hosiery business on June 10, 1936. He worked for Rufus D. Wilson Company, a new company, which had been formed to produce full­fashioned hosiery. He first worked with two German technicians in building machines for the company, and later was a knitter helper, a knitter, and then a fixer on those same machines. He worked in the finishing plant, and in 1940, he went into the office in production planning, quality control and product costing. Wilson died in 1940 and J. C. Bolles became president and majority owner of the company. A year later, Leath became manager of a full­fashioned plant in Gibsonville, but was soon called into the Navy. He worked as a supply corps officer in Oakland, CA. He was discharged in January 1946 and returned to the hosiery industry. During World War II, the company grew by buying other companies, and the name became Chadbourn Hosiery Mills, Inc. Leath was made manager of Full Knit Hosiery Mills, a men’s sock company, one of the mills Chadbourn had acquired. He also managed the first ladies’ full-
fashioned hosiery plant. Both of these mills were in Burlington. In December 1958, Leath and Charles McCarthy, director of sales, resigned to form Chadbourn Hosiery Company. Together with Reid A. Maynard, who had organized Tower Hosiery Mill, Inc in 1928, they formed Leath, McCarthy and Maynard, Inc. This was a sales agency, known for the next 45 years as LM&M, Inc. to the industry. Both Leath and Maynard were born and reared in Caswell County and had been friends and friendly competitors in the industry for years. Through the years, Leath received numerous awards and honors for his inventions and work, including the National Association of Hosiery Manufacturers’ “President’s Outstanding Leadership Award” in 1970. Leath died in 2005 at the age of 89.

 

Source:

  1. Don E. Bolden, Editor Emeritus, Burlington Times­News, Burlington, NC. February 2008. Jim Maynard, Ex­officio Chairman,Tower Hosiery, 2009.
  2. USP 2771759, William J. Leath and Frank E. Bobo, Jr., (1955) Filed Aug. 3, 1954 Textile Product and Method.
  3. USP 2778187, William J. Leath and Frank E. Bobo, Jr., (1957) Filed Aug. 3, 1954. Composite Yarn
  4. USP 2771733, William J. Leath and Frank E. Bobo, Jr., (1956) Filed Oct. 19, 1954 Yarn and Method of Producing the Same.
  5. USP 2714757, William J. Leath and Robert M. Matthews, (1955) Filed March 18, 1955. Method of Producing a Lady’s Stretchable and Retractable Stocking and the Resulting Stocking.
  6. USP 2714812, William J. Leath and Frank E. Bobo, Jr., (1955) Filed Apr. 22, 1955. Method of Controlling Wildness of Twisted Yarn During Delivery to a Knitting Operation.

 

Full­fashion hosiery
Textile Heritage Museum, Glencoe
Photo: Julie Mock