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Stephanie Kwolek | Profiles in Sewing History

The chemist who invented the life-saving material known as Kevlar
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Meet Stephanie Kwolek. The seventh installment of our Profiles in Sewing History series features a woman whose scientific discovery led to the creation of life-saving garments. Working as a chemist in a male-dominated industry wasn’t always easy for Stephanie, but she persisted. As a result, her groundbreaking discovery is responsible for saving thousands of lives.

Stephanie Kwolek’s childhood

Stephanie Louise Kwolek was born in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, on July 31, 1923, to Polish immigrant parents who had a strong influence on her from a young age. As a child, Stephanie often went on nature walks with her father, who was an amateur naturalist. Together, they would collect and identify various plants and wildlife. Unfortunately, when Stephanie was just 10 years old, her father passed away.

Her mother, a seamstress, inspired Stephanie’s creativity. Stephanie enjoyed using her mother’s patterns to make clothes for her dolls and was so fascinated by the process that she considered becoming a fashion designer.

A portrait of Stephanie Kwolek
This portrait of Stephanie Kwolek was taken at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Harry Kalish, courtesy of the Science History Institute.

An unexpected path

In the end, Stephanie decided to study chemistry at Margaret Morrison Carnegie College, now a part of Carnegie Mellon University. Stephanie planned on becoming a doctor but couldn’t afford medical school right out of college. She got a job as a chemist at DuPont in Buffalo, New York, so she could save some money. While the job was supposed to be temporary, Stephanie ended up loving the work.

In 1950, Stephanie relocated to DuPont’s Wilmington, Delaware, location and joined the Pioneering Research Laboratory. It was here that Stephanie’s team was challenged with creating a strong, lightweight fiber that could replace steel wire in tires. Since a gasoline shortage was expected, the thought was that a steel wire alternative would make cars more fuel efficient.

During her research, Stephanie encountered an unusual cloudy liquid crystalline solution. When she first suggested spinning this solution into a fiber, the technician in charge of the spinneret machine worried that the solution would clog the machine’s holes. Eventually, the technician gave in, and the result was a strong stiff fiber later called Kevlar.

Stephanie Kwolek holds a spool of Kevlar
Stephanie Kwolek holds a spool of Kevlar at her Innovative Lives Presentation  for the National Museum of American History in 1996. Photo: courtesy of the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

This fiber had qualities that were unheard of at the time. Not only was it five times stronger than steel, it was lighter than fiberglass, didn’t rust, was heat-resistant, and resulted in a fabric that was difficult to pierce.

While Kevlar was invented in 1965, it took several years for the material to be produced as we know it today. Kevlar is now used in hundreds of applications, including bulletproof vests and helmets, firefighter boots, butcher’s gloves, tires, ropes, tennis racquet strings, skis, airplanes, spacecraft components, and fiber-optic cables.

Kevlar products on display
Kevlar products were on display at Stephanie Kwolek’s Innovative Lives Presentation in 1996. Photo: courtesy of the Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Stephanie continued to work at DuPont for 20 years after her discovery. She finally retired in 1986, but still worked as a consultant for the company. On June 18, 2014, Stephanie passed away in Wilmington, Delaware, at age 90.

Legacy and contributions

Stephanie’s career path certainly didn’t go as she had planned, but she likely ended up saving more lives working as a chemist than she would have if she had become a doctor after college. Stephanie loved the career she fell into and was thrilled that her research was able to help so many people. Nevertheless, she was aware that she worked in a male-dominated field and wished women would receive more recognition for their efforts. In fact, Stephanie worked for 15 years before getting her first promotion, which she knew was far too long. Therefore, she made it a priority to mentor female scientists and encourage women to pursue careers in science as often as she could.

Awards and recognition

Stephanie was acknowledged for her work later in life and received numerous awards for her contributions to the industry. In 1995, for instance, she became the first woman to receive the Lavoisier Medal from DuPont for outstanding technical achievement. In 1996, she received the National Medal of Technology, followed by the Perkin Medal in 1997, which many consider to be the highest award given in the American chemical industry. Furthermore, Stephanie was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 1995 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003.

Stephanie also managed to receive more than a dozen patents throughout her 40 years at DuPont. Clearly, she was a talented chemist and creative thinker whose work continues to influence our lives today.

Did you know Kevlar was invented by a female chemist? Were you aware of Kevlar’s many unique characteristics and uses? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Click here for additional installments of Profiles in Sewing History.

Sources

Langer, Emily. “Stephanie Kwolek Dies at 90; Chemist Created Kevlar Fiber Used in Bullet-Resistant Gear.” The Washington Post, June 20, 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/national/stephanie-kwolek-dies-at-90-chemist-created-kevlar-fiber-used-in-bullet-resistant-gear/2014/06/20/9b5b4634-f883-11e3-a606-946fd632f9f1_story.html.

“Stephanie Kwolek (1923–2014).” American Chemical Society, http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/women-scientists/stephanie-kwolek.html.

“Stephanie Kwolek.” Lemelson-MIT, lemelson.mit.edu/award-winners/stephanie-kwolek.

“Stephanie L. Kwolek.” Science History Institute, December 9, 2017, http://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/stephanie-l-kwolek.

“This Is Stephanie: Read the Story of Stephanie Kwolek.” Time for Kids, August 17, 2020, www.timeforkids.com/g34/this-is-stephanie-kwolek/.


Illustration: Cassandra Bernier

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  1. OreoQty | | #1

    That is a great story.

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