The Nylon Curtain (Made Elsewhere)

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

My friend Pierre has an uncanny ability to come across unusual measurement use in the US. Apparently he had taken an interest in ballistic nylon and had done some research.  Recently he sent me this bit of prose after asking me rhetorically if I had heard of  a denier:

But I’m right here to help. Denier is an entirely metric measurement that means:
1 |dəˈni(ə)r, ˈdenyər|a unit of weight by which the fineness of silk, rayon, or nylon yarn is measured, equal to the weight in grams of 9,000 meters of the yarn and often used to describe the thickness of hosiery: 840 denier nylon.

Tell me that’s not a random way to measure your pantyhose and backpack fabric. Grams/meter or threads/inch isn’t enough for you? It has to be 9000 meters worth of yarn thickness or weight? Nobody knows which.

So, where’d the 9000 come from? I’m thinking the Euros came up with this when they
ran out of polyester sheep.  Can they really make 9000 meter long yarn? Why not just 1 meter’s worth?

I recalled that a number of times Pat Naughtin mentioned the textile industry as one which seems to be incorrigible when it comes to converting to metric. Naughtin pointed to their attempt to embrace the centimeter as a contributing cause of delay. After I did some reading, I suspected it was centimeters and a desire for the use of archaic insider speak which acts as a barrier to entering the textile trade.

When I looked up denier on Wikipedia I found an amazing entry:

Denier /ˈdɛnjər/ or den is a unit of measure for the linear mass density of fibers. It is defined as the mass in grams per 9000 meters.[1] The denier is based on a natural reference—i.e., a single strand of silk is approximately one denier. A 9000-meter strand of silk weighs about one gram. The term denier comes from the French denier, a coin of small value (worth 112 of a sou). Applied to yarn, a denier was held to be equal in weight to 124 of an ounce. The term microdenier is used to describe filaments that weigh less than one gram per 9000 meters.

My mind almost had a momentary black-out when it contemplated the smoothly inserted euphemism: “The denier is based on a natural reference.” Well, so is the foot, it’s very natural, and also ill-purposed for providing a measurement standard. The use of a single strand of silk (apparently from a standard silkworm) which is 9000 meters (9 Km) long, that weighs “nearly” one gram, as an industrial standard is just so 17th century. This is a “standard from nature” which makes about as much sense as using three barleycorns to an inch.

This absurdity caused me to think about Samuel S. Dale, who was Fredrick Halsey’s partner in anti-metric mischief early in the twentieth century. Halsey wrote the “book” The Metric Fallacy in 1904, but it is actually two monographs bound into one. The second monograph is The Metric Failure, written by textile enthusiast Samuel Dale. I had not read Dale’s half of their anti-metric tome, but it now seemed high time to do so.

When reading Dale’s work it reminds one of numerology, where, given enough numbers, one can construct any scenario against the metric system one wants. Dale admits that the US has four different ways that it numbers yarn, and that a single method would be desirable, but he makes clear that replacing them with a metric method would be absurd:

Evidently the fabric to which they referred was spun from such stuff as dreams are made of, woven on the loom of imagination and designed to cover the nakedness of the metric and not of the human system. (pg 146)

Yes, within Dale’s flourish you can clearly hear the echoing of John Quincy Adams’ castigations of “the metric” from some seventy years earlier. The measures of the metric system are inhuman and antiseptic! The statement is almost a vestigial cry against creeping heliocentrism seeping into our culture. Dale sees the icy hand of the government forcing at least 1 000 000 textile workers to attend night school to learn the metric system. He further warns: “…that our textile weights and measures can be eradicated only by exterminating all who use them and by destroying all our textile records.” (pg 165)

Dale finally explains the basis of measurement for textiles: “In manufacturing textiles the ratio between weight and length or area takes the place of cubic measurements.” He goes on to explain:

In textile manufacturing measurements are employed for weight, distance and area only, and those for distance are in turn limited by reason of the elimination of all measurements of thickness. The volume and thickness of textile materials, finished and in process of manufacturing, are indicated by the ratio between weight and length. The bulk of cloth, for example, is expressed, not in cubic inches, but in either the weight per yard of a given width or in the number of yards per pound.

Dale explains that if cotton is spun so that one pound has a length of 840 yards, the count is 1, and if it weights one pound and has a length of 1680 yards it is number 2. This is the English standard for measuring cotton yarn. He explains that if 16 000 yards of silk weigh one ounce (he does not indicate troy or avoirdupois) its length is No. 1. If two threads of silk are side by side and weigh two ounces when 16 000 yards long they are No. 2. I will spare you the explanation of Hanks of different lengths, and the 300 yard system. In my view these examples do not provide evidence for the simplicity of traditional textile “measurements.”

Finally we encounter Dale’s discussion of the deneir:

The modern silk industry was first established in France and Italy, and their various systems of numbering silk yarn were adopted and became so firmly rooted long before the birth of the metric system that they have resisted all attempts to change them and are to-day the world’s standards for what is known as raw silk. These systems of numbering were based upon the weight in deniers of 9,600 aunes of silk, the denier being a coin weighing 24 Paris grains.

Dale explains that 400 aunes is equivalent to 476 meters. A Paris grain is 53.11 mg. So the length of 9600 aunes in metric is 11 424 meters and the mass would be  1.2746 grams. Now if we divide to get the length needed for one gram we have 8962.53 meters. This is a good approximation to 9000 meters for a gram. The exact mass expected  for 9000 meters in this situation is 1.004 180 grams, which is probably close enough to one gram for even the exacting requirements of Mr. Dale. It is an interesting metric coincidence that 9000 meters of a single silk thread is almost exactly 1 gram. This is precisely what Dale would argue could never happen, as metric is not a natural system for textiles—ever.

I had now solved Pierre’s mystery as to why 9000 meters is the length used for a denier, and how it is actually a byproduct of non-metric “standard.” I could end this essay here, but, I just couldn’t. I continued reading The Metric Failure and found that Samuel S. Dale has a section in his millitome where he “compares”  English measures with the Metric ones. Before he gets to his comparison, he cleverly trots out an interesting argument against metric by citing the prefix cluster around unity:

Such is the present condition of our textile weights and measures. The metric proposition means that our fundamental standards, the yard, inch, pound, ounce, grain and dram shall be abolished and their places taken by the metre, decimetre, centimetre, millimetre, gramme, decigramme, centigramme and milligramme.

Throughout my copy of The Metric Failure someone with an India ink pen has corrected the text. That person found many typos or errors between mass and length and diligently corrected them. Here are a couple of examples:

I must admit I laughed out loud when some person (probably in the 1930s) seems to have called out Mr. Dale for using the prefix cluster around unity as an argument against metric (pg 197):

I think he probably should have argued for three: gram, meter and millimeter, but that is in hindsight and before Naughtin’s Laws.

Dale has a metric Goldilocks moment, where, just like in that fairy tale, all the metric measurements he finds on the table are of an appalling magnitude, and only the English measures, with which he is familiar, are “just right.”  Dale points out that John Quincy Adams was also a metric Goldilocks, but on a scale much grander than Dale’s:

None of the successive decimal divisions of the metre are suited for either the commercial or manufacturing widths of textile fabrics. For the finished widths of the wide goods the decimetre is too long, the centimetre too short. For narrow fabrics the millimetre in turn is too long and its decimal divisions too short. For all of these widths the inch, divided to suit the particular case, answers every purpose perfectly. Could there be any stronger confirmation of the following extract from John Quincy Adams’ report?
`Thus, then, it has been proved, by the test of experience, that the principle of decimal divisions can be applied only with many qualifications to any general system of metrology; that its natural application is only to numbers; and that time, space gravity and extension inflexibly reject its sway.’

I have to congratulate Mr. Dale, he used an absurd quotation from the report by John Quincy Adams that did not make it into my tome of an essay about it.

Dale tries to cram centimeters into textile usage and shows they just don’t fit, and then quickly dismisses a logical option as impractical: “The objection to the use of the millimetre is that it necessitates the use of four figures to express the width of wide cloths.” Dale earlier argued that loom widths of 1/10 of an inch are all the finer divisions one would need, so apparently 2.5 mm is just too much accuracy. I sure hope his porridge isn’t getting cold with all this long winded puffery blowing over it. He further indicates that:

The centimetre is too short for the finished widths of wide fabrics. Inches express such widths as closely as is necessary.

By the metric system the finished goods are expressed in centimetres. This necessitates the use of three figures for all goods 40 inches or more in width.

Dale asserts over and over that he is a practical man and not some lofty wooly brained academic:

The contrast between the two systems in this respect illustrates the difference between English practice and metric theory.

Believe me, I’m not going to confuse Samuel S. Dale with a professor of mathematics.

Then, I find one of the earliest examples of the “technical Darwinism” argument against metric when Dale states (pg 220):

The choice lies between these two systems, English and metric. One has been adapted to mill work by a process of natural selection. The other is the result of the artificial scheme of French geometers and is unsuited for textile processes. It is inconceivable that America should abandon the first and accept the last.

Dale then launches into a history of metric, argues that metric is only suited for effete scientists, and then begins attacking a pronoun:

The eminent scientists who designed that system were able to solve the most difficult problems in higher mathematics, but they failed to comprehend what system of weights and measures was best suited for the carder, spinner, weaver and finisher of wool, cotton, linen and silk. The glamor of their fame failed to make the centimetre suitable for counting picks. Their system had to stand or fall on its merits, and falling has proved that the highest of mathematical abilities is not inconsistent with a dense ignorance of the practical affairs of every-day life. The most eminent of the mathematicians who designed the metric system exhibited an utter disregard of principle in both private and public life and the most complete incompetency when placed in an administrative office.The son of a farm laborer he owed his education to wealthy neighbors, and as soon as he became distinguished ignored both his relatives and benefactors. Although his discoveries in mathematics were sufficient to make his name immortal, he appropriated the work of others as his own.

So who is this pronoun? It is Pierre Simon Laplace (1749-1827), one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. Wow, Dale could not even bring himself to use his name?—even when attacking Laplace for plagiarism? This is just a sad ad hominem attack on a person involved with the creation of the metric system and not actually a criticism of said system. Dale just seems to get more and more deranged and finally launches into a Goldilocks on steroids assertion of the metric system’s unsuitability as he writes:

This man could demonstrate that the “lunar acceleration was independent of the secular changes in the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit” but did not know that a weaver requires a unit of length approximating the inch. He could formulate the theory of probabilities with mathematical precision, but was ignorant of the certainty that exclusively decimal divisions of weights and measures are unsuited for manufacturing cloth. He was the first to introduce potential and spherical harmonics into analysis, but failed to recognize the advantage of the English cotton system for numbering yarn. He could prove the stability of the solar system, but failed to recognize the stability of a people’s established weights and measures. He was familiar with theories of infinity, but ignorant of the wants, necessities and limitations of textile manufacturing. The co-workers of this man in constructing the metric system differed from him only in degree. They were a party of mathematical prodigies, ignorant of the essentials of textile weights and measures.

The artificial system they evolved has failed to meet the requirements of the textile trade. Nearly every one of its standards of length, area and weight is either too large or too small, and it has no units corresponding to the inch, foot, ounce and pound, approximations of which are found in every system of natural origin and for which the human mind appears to have some innate need. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that the system thus conceived has failed, even in France where’ it was so greatly favored.

At the end of his work Dale warns the US:

It would be a plunge into chaos to emerge no one knows when, how or where. The generation introducing the metric system into the United States would not see the beginning of that chaos. In all probability no other generation would ever see the end.

Well, there is no need to fear the metric system causing the demise of the US textile industry, just metric countries. It is my understanding that at the end of World War II the US had the largest domestic textile industry on the planet. Now we import about 97% of our garments. Imagine how much worse it might have been if Samuel S. Dale did not protect the industry by halting metric in 1904.

7 thoughts on “The Nylon Curtain (Made Elsewhere)

  1. There is another and perhaps more sensible unit, the tex, which is a fiber mass of 1 g/km, thus equal 9 denier.

    There was also a unit called the drex, 1 g/10 km, however most people just use a prefix and the tex (decitex).

    The problem with any of these units is than fine-diameter fibers are pretty stretchy. How do you decide when it is the right length.

  2. “Dale sees the icy hand of the government forcing at least 1 000 000 textile workers to attend night school to learn the metric system. He further warns: “…that our textile weights and measures can be eradicated only by exterminating all who use them and by destroying all our textile records.” (pg 165)”

    It seems this extreme was not necessary. The industry over time was able to avoid the Ludditism of the textile worker by exporting all of the work to metric countries and shutting down the American textile plants.

    “Dale explains that 400 aunes is equivalent to 476 meters. A Paris grain is 53.11 mg. So the length of 9600 aunes in metric is 11 424 meters and the mass would be 1.2746 grams. Now if we divide to get the length needed for one gram we have 8962.53 meters. This is a good approximation to 9000 meters for a gram. The exact mass expected for 9000 meters in this situation is 1.004 180 grams, which is probably close enough to one gram for even the exacting requirements of Mr. Dale. It is an interesting metric coincidence that 9000 meters of a single silk thread is almost exactly 1 gram. This is precisely what Dale would argue could never happen, as metric is not a natural system for textiles—ever.”

    It is common in metric countries to recycle old unit names with modern metric values. The Europeans to some decree still cling to the pound but have redefined it as 500 g. The Chinese have done this with the jin and the li, providing rounded metric values for these units. So, why wouldn’t the French do the same for the denier? The unit name may be time honoured, but tweaking it to a rounded metric value wasn’t opposed, like in the US, where redefining ounces as 30 g and 30 mL would send the population into an uproar.

    “Well, there is no need to fear the metric system causing the demise of the US textile industry, just metric countries. It is my understanding that at the end of World War II the US had the largest domestic textile industry on the planet. Now we import about 97% of our garments. Imagine how much worse it might have been if Samuel S. Dale did not protect the industry by halting metric in 1904.”

    If the Luddite were still alive at the time the industry fled to the metric world he would have died of a heart attack from the extreme stress. A Google search on him revealed no biography, so it seems he died a persona non grata and his bullshit claims widely ignored.

  3. As usual, Maven, you shine light where before there is darkness. After reading your piece, I found something became clearer to me: as much as we have standards LOVERS in our world—and the United States is a great lover of standards when it wants to be—there are those who are not only standards HATERS, they do fall in love with a “standard” unit IF IT IS THEIR OWN INVENTION! Oh, bring it on if the bringer can claim it: deniers, gills, centistokes, drams, scruples, angstroms, minims, fifths, jiggers, and the most vain of units, the smoot, the surname of an M.I.T. undergraduate and denoting his height as a unit of length (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoot) . The Harvard Bridge in Massachusetts, which connects Boston with Cambridge across the Charles River, measures 364.4 smoots. These various units of hubris stand collectively as symptoms of the real disease, which is a refusal to accept and apply the one true standard of measurement available to us, the SI. I suppose it is human nature, wanting to recite poetry instead of citing numbers, but the latter is the essence of metrication. We who support making the SI predominant want one standard of measurement, preferring our measurements to be true instead of stylish. I fear the battle between truth and style shall go on.

  4. Paul,

    I have to agree with you on all the others, but as an MIT grad, I have to stand up for the smoot. It is an important tradition to us; however, nothing except the Harvard Bridge should be measured in smoots, so it really doesn’t affect anybody. The vast majority of foot traffic on the Harvard Bridge is MIT students who live on the Boston side.

    It is obviously a joke and fraternity prank although it has become institutionalized. It should be noted that Oliver Smoot later went on to head ANSI, and then ISO; I think he understands the importance of standards.

  5. Then again, the Wikipedia story suggests the influence of the smoot:

    “Google Calculator also incorporates smoots, which it reckons at exactly 67 inches (1.7018 meters).[1] Google also uses the smoot as an optional unit of measurement in their Google Earth software and Google Maps distance measurement tool.[13]”

    Oh, of course, it is a prank, but an example of a unit of measurement outside of the SI being championed.

    I’m a Mass. native, and I would never be the one to erase the smoot scale from the bridge, though it would be nice to also see the length in meters on the bridge. I remember riding an MBTA bus over the bridge for the first time in 1968, and someone explaining the smoot scale to me, now very much time-honored over more than 50 years.

    • Well, just use US National Grid and a GPS. In the usual format of square designator, easting northing:
      Cambridge end of bridge 19TCG 27673 91532
      Boston, at seawall 19TCG 27857 90986
      Boston at Back St 19TCG 27884 90907

      If you are not familiar with USNG, the second and third grouping are easting and northing in meters from SW corner of square 19TCG, and may be used as orthogonal grid. Since all coordinates are in square 19TCG, it may be omitted or mentioned once.

      The total length using Pythagoras theorem is 659.65 m in good agreement with total length.

      The bridge has been rebuilt but the bridge at the time had a ramp on the Boston-bound side to Storrow drive near where the bridge crossed the seawall. That was the original zero of the Smoot system. However, my estimate of exactly where it was is off a bit as the figure doesn’t give a length of ~620 m, more like 576. The ramp must have been further south (or Smoot was measured wrong). At any rate, the true zero is obliterated, so it is all a reconstruction.

      It was a terrible, terrible walk in the winter, and knowing how close you were helped a bit. Pleasant enough the rest of the year, though.

  6. BTW, talking about absurd systems and units, this one is rather funny, too:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FFF_system

    – also with the surrealistic (à la SI prefix + ancient unit) “microfortnight”.

    Anyway, this article by TMM shows that also in Europe, sadly, we are still rather far away from having a single, coherent and future-proof measurement system applied as it should: there are still quite some obsolete units around (of course, the situation in the US is much worse, indeed!); and, as always, nothing is probably going to change if there isn’t some renovated trust – and ideal thrust – towards a common and worldwide future…

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