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  • Face masks, scrub sponges, and medical dressings that evolved from decorative ribbon.

    August 16, 2021

    After years of exploring it’s uses, 3M nonwoven fabrics have become essential components in a wide array of industries. After first coming to market as 3M Sasheen decorative ribbons, the nonwoven family tree has grown to include filtration products, medical supplies, wipes, abrasive disc backings, insulations, absorbents, and more. But where did it all begin?

    It started in 1938 when young 3M lab technician, Al Boese, was told that he might not be cut out for technical work. Boese had started at 3M as a mail boy without any qualifications. Rather than give up, Boese found a library on fibres at the University of Minnesota’s Home Economics Department, spending the summer exploring the fuzzy front-end of science. Boese had overheard his boss mention that he needed a non-woven material to use as a backing for an electrical tape, so he quickly went to work.

    Boese spent 1938 studying fibres on his own, conducting experiments on binding fibres together without weaving them. One day, Boese stuck a tuft of fibre into a colander, and heated the surface of the fibres which bonded them together. That was the answer – heat and pressure.

    Boese didn’t create a backing for electrical tape, but he did have an idea after peaking through a store window on day in the mid 1940’s. Perhaps, if the new nonwoven material was dyed and sprinkled with colour flecks, it could be used in decorative displays. Or, slit the material into strips, and make ribbon for decorating gifts?

    Boese’s early attempts at ribbon where modest at best. “It was obvious to everyone that we had a product failure” Boese said.

    Ingenuity leads to breakthroughs.

    Boese was given three years to improve the ribbon. Rather than increased sales, the ribbon had resulted in substantial losses – resulting in 3M President William McKnight to sit in on a meeting. Boese took a deep breath and promised a saleable ribbon in just three months. Management gave him the time.

    “I went to Beske’s 10-cent store and I got a 10-cent comb. I knew enough about yearn to know that they pulled it through combs as it went into the looms. We needed bobbins to wind the yarn, so we bought 40 from Swinger Sewing Machine company for $4. We got a cone of acetate yarn from American Viscose, wound the fibre onto the bobbins and pulled it through the comb. We built a set of hot drums and put the ribbon on the bottom and laid the yarn shoulder to shoulder on top. It worked like a dream. We had sheen, and we had strength.”

    In less than a year, 3M sold more than 225,000 meters of ribbon. “You have to take chances. You have to fight. Nonwovens would never have been successful if I hadn’t been pushed a little,” Boese said. The new product, 3M Sasheen decorative ribbon, was a hit when it was introduced in 1950. “3M developed the gift-wrapping business with ribbon, and the paper companies came up with the paper patterns in the early 50’s.” 

    “Not only did we create a new product, but also a new market.”

    Later, the technology would evolve. In the 1950’s, Al Boese “married” nonwovens to abrasive compounds such as Aluminium oxide and Titanium oxide to product Scotch-Brite® scrubbing and polishing pads. In 1967, 3M launched the first disposable face mask and respiratory protection products derived from nonwoven technology. Al Boese’s willingness to tackle this uncharted territory has also led to a dizzying array of other products including 3M™ Micropore™ Surgical Tape, Drapes and masks, fasteners, Scotch-Brite® Scrub Sponges, absorbent material to combat oil slicks, paint rollers for home improvements, sound deadeners in cars, and more.

    Nonwovens today are known for their resilience and semi-permeability – a core component in many filtration systems. Made with superior strength and dielectric performance, 3M nonwovens can be manufactured to either absorb or repel liquids, and provide flame-retardant, washable, and recyclable qualities.

    What started out as the innovation of a new type of decorative ribbon has evolved into a wide range of important products and solutions that improve lives.