Object lesson No 23

Ironing board. OK. What do you think when you read that? Is it "no" or "why?" or "I must stop using it as a bookshelf"?

Whisper the phrase to several of my male acquaintances and the adrenaline surge knocks you off your feet. One word is going through their heads. Muuuummmy. She still does their ironing, even though they are in their thirties.

For some of us, modern synthetics have been a saviour. True, our parents had Crimplene, but you couldn't actually wear that in public. Then Lycra liberated us.

We stopped laying crumpled cottons under mattresses to try to squash them flat by the morning. We were able to throw open our wardrobe doors without fear, grab our stretchy trousers, our polyamide shirts, our plastic-mix socks. We lived the Lycra life. Dress and go (just don't think about sweat). Dynamite.

Well, gunpowder, actually. Lycra is manufactured by DuPont, a company founded in 1802 on the banks of the Brandywine Creek in Delaware, in the US. A young French immigrant, Eleuthere Irenee du Pont de Nemours, realised that Americans needed to blow things up. A student of Antoine Lavoisier in France, he had learned how to make reliable gun and blasting powder. Thomas Jefferson, th president, praised Eleuthere's product and his company set off on the road to becoming the huge multinational that it is today.

Along the way it invented nylon and Teflon, and in 1958 a polyurethane replacement for rubber called Fiber K. Polyurethanes are organic polymers used for cushion foams, car body parts and the core of aeroplane wings.

Fiber K, quickly renamed Lycra, is an elastane. Before dyeing, elastane is white with a slight shine. It doesn't deteriorate when attacked by body acids, but absorbs little moisture. I said don't think about sweat.

The fibre's elasticity - it can stretch up to six times its original length - comes from its structure of bundles of minute filaments rather than a continuous thread. This quality gives it its crease resistance, but, alas, has also been responsible for those "body-shaping" extremely tight tights. And now there are Lycra power shorts and Lycra compression shorts, which sound uncomfortable but allegedly increase athletes' endurance. Presumably they run faster in order to be able to take them off sooner.

By the way, President Clinton has a Lycra suit. He bought it in 1997, roughly when Hillary stopped doing his ironing.

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