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October 6: Lester Sinness, DuPont Chemist

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When you think about clothes and fabrics, you might think about natural materials, like cotton, wool, or silk. But if you really think about it, your clothes closet also has synthetic fabrics: polyester shirts; Spandex biking shorts, nylon stockings and more.

How did these innovative synthetic materials come to be? Well, there was a North Dakotan who helped create these fabrics, using petroleum as a primary ingredient.

This is the story of Lester Snowdon Sinness, born in Minnewaukan, North Dakota in 1909. His father, Torger Sinness, was a Norwegian immigrant who became a lawyer in Minnewaukan and then Devils Lake.

Lester Sinness graduated from Devils Lake High School in 1925. In 1931, he earned a chemistry degree from Carleton College, and in 1935, his Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Wisconsin.

This “long, lanky native of North Dakota” gained employment at DuPont Chemical Corporation in far-off Delaware as a research chemist in the Rayon Department, where a whole chain of exciting inventions flowed from theory into reality.

Lester Sinness completed work assignments in research, manufacturing, and sales during the era that when the world’s first family of synthetic fibers was developed: like nylon, Orlon, Dacron and Lycra.

Nylon was first used for toothbrush bristles and then in stockings, largely replacing silk; and for fishing lines, surgical thread, and parachutes.

Orlon acrylic fiber was good for durable fabrics, like upholstery and carpets.

Most magical of all was Lycra spandex. Its elastic fibers were perfect for swimsuits and underwear. Spandex expanded into stretch pants and ski suits in the 1960s; then disco pants by the 1970s; aerobics leggings in the ‘80s; and we now have yoga pants, biking shorts, leotards, and leggings.

It was on this date in 1961 that a newspaper announced that Lester Sinness had become general manager of the DuPont Company’s textile fibers department, continuing his impressive ascent at DuPont.

Sinness retired in 1972 to perform charitable work, then returned to North Dakota in 1999 to “spend his last years near family and old friends.” He died in 2003, at age 94, in Devils Lake.

The work of Lester Sinness and his colleagues resulted in fabrics that are durable and versatile; with the names nylon, rayon, and spandex known by people world wide.

Dakota Datebook by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSUM History Professor

Sources:

  • “Textile Fibers Manager Named,” Wilmington [DE] News Journal, October 6, 1961, p. 3.
  • “Lester Snowdon Sinness,” obituary, Wilmington [DE] News Journal, June 20, 2003, p. 19
  • Devils Lake, Ramsey County Centennial Official Souvenir Program Booklet (Devils Lake: Centennial Committee, 1983), p. 6.
  • “Nylon, A Petroleum Polymer,” American Oil and Gas Historical Society, https://aoghs.org/products/petroleum-product-nylon-fiber/, accessed September 4, 2022.
  • “Comfort Clothes Built For Sweat,” Bismarck Tribune, March 9, 1992, p. 16.
  • “Dr. Lester S. Sinness Heads Research Group,” Wilmington [DE] News Journal, October 14, 1943, p. 3.
  • "Dr. L.S. Sinness Promoted by Du Pont,” Richmond [VA] News Leader, April 13, 1953, p. 14;
  • “Devils Lake Man To DuPont Post,” Bismarck Tribune, February 2, 1953, p. 13.
  • “DuPont Senior V.P. Sinness to Retire,” Wilmington [DE] News Journal, December 19, 1972, p. 3.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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