Brilliant Turning Points

July 27, 2009


There are quite a few inventions that impact our culture and world today.  The obvious ones are telephones, cell phones, television, computers, mp3 players… but what about Tyvek?  Okay, I can hear lots of people wondering what the heck Tyvek is.  Have you ever seen those white, sort of fabric like, flimsy feeling, postal envelopes for larger stuff?  That’s Tyvek.

Tyvek cover for one of the first ever Debit Cards from 1988.

Tyvek cover for one of the first ever Debit Cards from 1988.

Tyvek is a non-woven, felted -like, synthetic material.  It was creatd 54 years ago, in 1955, by DuPont.  What’s so special about Tyvek that it could be considered a turning point?  It has an interesting property: one side is permeable and one side is not.  This means that water can go through from direction but not the other.   What’s so great about this is that whatever is wrapped in Tyvek can breathe because moisture can get out but the Tyvek is still waterproof on the outside.  I don’t know how they do that and I’m pretty sure they’re probably not telling but whoever thought of this was brilliant.

Back side of Debit Card cover, 1988.

Back side of Debit Card cover, 1988.

As you can see in the pictures here, Tyvek started appearing as envelopes and on a more wide spread basis in the late 1980’s.  The pictures show the original slip sleeve I got with my very first ATM card back in 1988.  We didn’t know how to use a Debit Card then since they were so new.  I still use this slip sleeve for every ATM card I get.  Does it look 21 years old?  I have never washed it so that’s pretty amazing when you think about how often a bathroom needs cleaning!

New buildings are wrapped in Tyvek as a moisture barrier.  Both sides look pretty much the same unless you work with Tyvek a lot,  (I do!).  They print the word ‘Tyvek’  or U.S. Postal Service or whatever on the waterproof side so everyone knows which side goes out.

I started using Tyvek as an art material years ago when I began making books.  Any time someone would send me something in a Tyvek envelope,  I’ve saved it.  Tyvek can be used to make a really strong spine for a ‘perfect bound’ book, as long as you put the waterproof side out so any adhesive can dry properly.  The term ‘perfect bound’ refers to an adhesive method of bookbinding so it’s not a vanity thing!

Tyvek can be painted, melted, sewn, cut with scissors or punches but won’t rip.  It’s a very interesting material to work with since it’s a lot like fabric paper and is so light, tough and strong.   Be sure to have good ventilation if you do melt it because who knows what sort of chemicals you’re creating when you do that.  It’s not worth permanently damaging your only pair of lungs, right?

Who knew one day that we would be wrapping houses to making books and art with this thing called Tyvek?   I’m pretty sure DuPont had some specific idea that this was invented for and even they didn’t comprehend how it would osmose into such a cutting edge material more then 50 years later.

I’m still waiting for that Tyvek wrapped bathroom though…

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