Stephanie Kwolek, a chemist from Delaware, created Kevlar in 1965 as she worked for DuPont. What we know today as ‘Kevlar’, like many innovations, was stumbled upon by accident.
Stephanie was working in a research team, looking for a replacement for steel which could be used for racing tyres. During the research, Stephanie had become curious by an unusual liquid which was typically described as waste material.
Taking a closer look, this liquid was found to be more durable than nylon and a whopping five times stronger than steel by weight. The potential of this was huge! Imagine, being able to produce a product that was 5 times tougher, yet lighter, than steel! A huge advantage on the race track!!
The significance of the discovery of Kevlar was not underestimated. With over 200 recorded uses, Kevlar is used in the production of many products from tennis rackets and parachute lines, to protective clothing (yes even bullet proof vests!) and even armoured cars! It really is a fascinating product to look into.
I am overusing the exclamation marks here, but it is fascinating stuff! I don’t have the same emphasising voice as say, Jeremy Clarkson- but you can imagine his voice reading this if it suits.
A game changer?
It is easy to see how the introduction of such a versatile material has gained in popularity.
Let’s look at an example of this innovation in a context close to my heart: motorcycling.
What do motorcyclists want out of protective clothing?
Basically – safety, durability, comfort both on and off the motorbike, and yes ok, we want to look good at the same time. We may look like Michelin men waddling around the forecourt with our bike helmets swinging off our arms but we know it’s not a good look.
When we think of motorcycle clothing, we think of bike leathers. They are safe, leather tends to melt at high heat so if your motorbike ejects you at speed you are more likely to glide or slide along tarmac as appose to grip to it and flip over….. Until you hit a kerb or a hedge perhaps. They also mould to your body so that has its benefits (although as they also mould to the seated position, we bikers do sometimes suffer from baggy bottom syndrome when we stand up.
So if bike leathers are so good, why is there a consumer demand for an alternative?
Bike leathers are expensive- a decent set can set you back around £600, although, this is a good motivation not to gain weight! They can also be hot hot hot in the summer, especially when walking around (you’ve probably seen the episode of Friends where Ross wears leather trousers……… enough said). Also, recent years have seen an increase in veganism which has started to revolutionise the clothing market. Consumers are more aware of the source of clothing. Consumer power (think Porter’s 5 Forces) has increased. There is a push from consumers to look for other options which offer the same benefits of leather motorcycle clothing, but is not made from animal skin. This creates opportunities in the marketplace.
What other options are there?
The obvious and most common alternative option is canvas bike trousers- very big and baggy, Michelin man pants. Waterproof, warmer than leather in winter, and sometimes breathable making you cooler in the summer, and designed a little looser on the leg than leather to allow for people to wear trousers underneath. This sounds a good idea if you are planning on leaving your bike gear somewhere for the day, but if you are on a day trip and wear the canvas bike trousers to walk around you have to do a kind of wide leg waddle and you sound like you are wearing bags on your legs as you walk down the street.
Solution? Not the best, but the other alternative which used to be a popular option, put on jeans.
Jeans- stylish (ok, debatable, but better than baggy Michelin man pants), durable – yes, though not as much so as leather or canvas trousers, comfortable on and off the bike – yes! In a world where we don’t plan on parting company with the bike, comfort is the most tempting option and often a deal breaker. Safe?……. erm….. I’m not planning on coming off today right?
Que Kevlar- Kevlar lined jeans- our prayers have been answered!
The comfort and practicality of jeans but with the safety of a material five times stronger than steel? Yes please! But not just jeans. We now have Kevlar lined motorcycle hoodies, gloves, shirts, helmets and probably socks if you look hard enough!
Did this revolutionise the motorcycle clothing market? Yes
Has it made leather and canvas alternatives obsolete? No.
Why? Because both leather and canvas materials are warmer than canvas clothing. Summer riding may see the use of Kevlar gear over the alternatives, so Kevlar tends to be an additional item rather than an alternative. But it has certainly given us consumer choice. It is also worth noting that Kevlar lined motorcycle clothing only seems to line the areas of your body more likely to hit the ground first so the type of riding you are doing can also influence your choice. I don’t think we will see the race teams racing the tracks in Kevlar jeans anytime soon.
What is the customer value? The value is in the experience. A gap has been filled by the added value of safety, to our comfortable option which already existed (eg: jeans/hoodies etc).
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