Neoprene isn’t just for wetsuits and bad knees anymore

About five or six years ago, I was, as usual, struggling to retain any kind of defensive position during a bout of mat wrestling. Unfortunately, my opponent outweighed me by 30 pounds in mass and 90 pounds in muscle. I wedged in my stubby legs between us to protect my ribs from being ground to a fine powder. Somehow, he caught hold of my lower right limb and with excruciating speed twisted it 90 degrees. Laterally. To the side. Where knees aren’t supposed to bend.

The inevitable scream didn’t last long. After checking for any shiny bony fragments or blood geysers, I gruntingly pronounced myself OK, he apologized, we bowed out and I hobbled off the mat. To me, it wasn’t bad enough to see a doctor at the time, and the swelling gradually dissipated. To this day, though, a dull, lateral ache accompanies prolonged activity.

Consequently, neoprene, like with most active people, has become part of the wardrobe; some days I’m tempted to wear an entire bodysuit for my pains. A DuPont invention from the 1930s, this synthetic rubber stretches in four directions. Its resistance to oil, gasoline and sunlight has translated to widespread use as wetsuits, gloves, medical equipment and more. The U.S. government had first used the synthetic rubber during the second World War. Natural rubber, explains Nancy Harton, a communications specialist at DuPont Dow Elastomers, was grown in Southeast Asia, then under Japan’s control. Later, construction and companies employed the material.

Neoprene rubber has made a sizable impact in the business of sports medicine or softened it, as the case may be. Its four-way stretch compresses and supports joints without binding like a tourniquet. Some pull-on “sleeves” and wraparounds come with terry cloth linings that absorb moisture and reduce the chances of rash. Others have a smooth material that adheres and flexes with skin. In shades like crimson, royal blue, deep purple, heather gray and the ever-cool black, it can be coordinated with sports apparel. Just because you’re a gimp doesn’t mean you can’t look good.

Considering the so-called fashion colors that have enlivened the drab beige of sports medicine, the shift from the mean streets to the runways seemed inevitable. Body Glove International has been the obvious purveyor of thick stretchwear, beginning with the wetsuit under the Thermocline name in the 1960s and the swimsuit in the late 1980s. Other companies such as Nike quickly assimilated rubberwear in their clothes lines.

In the last couple of years, designers such as Donna Karan and Cynthia Steffe have had their models pirouette in neoprene coats with fur collars. Now neoprene is the stuff bags and even infant suits are made of. Body Glove plans to launch by year- end its full lifestyle accessories line for women, joining the market of neoprene waistpacks and cases for glasses, make-up, cell phones and pagers.

If you’re eager to delve deeper in the neoprene history, the American Chemical Society published a biography by former DuPont researcher Matthew E. Hermes on one of the makers of neoprene. The society timed the 1996 release of the book, “Enough for One Lifetime: Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon,” with the centenary of his birth.

It’s not the cheeriest history, although it is poignant. Carothers and his team created neoprene in 1931 by following up on the chemical reaction discovered by the original father of neoprene.

Roman Catholic priest Julius A. Nieuwland, inducted into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame last year, had created divinyl-acetate. Carrying on this research, Carothers five years later synthesized hexamethylene adipamide, a k a nylon. All the while, though, the thirtysomething scientist suffered depression and alcoholism and constantly carried a cyanide vial. Carothers finally committed suicide by cyanide on April 29, 1937, a few days after his wife told him of her pregnancy.

For more details on neoprene fabrics, check out Body Glove’s tech info about its wetsuits on its Web site,

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

NEOPRENE (C) A flexible support brace by Body Glove.

(c) 1997, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.).

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