The Zipper

Source: YKK

In the last couple of weeks I have come across two very interesting articles about the humble zipper. One, from the Economist, examined the history of the fastener; the second, from The Conversation, looked to the future. This is what I learned.

“The zip was one of the later fruits of the Industrial Revolution, and one that was slow to ripen: the internal combustion engine, the turbine and the light bulb spread across the world much faster. But the zip, too, has become ubiquitous. .. That the zip is relatively new, and was slow to spread, fits into the broader history of fastening. It is an arena where innovation has been slow and fitful.”

The Economist piece runs through the history of clothes fasteners, noting that the button was originally just a decorative item without a button hole so “many societies held things together with loops and toggles … Others used buckles … Most people tied and wrapped.”  Later, in the MIddle Ages, laces came into fashion followed by the hook-and-eye.

“These days they survive mostly as point-to-point fastenings, sometimes above a zip, often on bras, a development for which women can thank, or remonstrate with, Mark Twain. The writer patented a hook-and-eye clasp on stretchy material in 1871.”

The historian of the zipper, Robert Freidel, remarks that unlike the light bulb and the telephone, both introduced around this time, “there was no general sense that [fastening] was an area begging for improvement, much less replacement”.  However, it was into this milieu that the Universal Fastener Company of Chicago introduced the zipper. It did not work very well and was not a success.  However, the Company

“was saved by Gideon Sundback, an immigrant engineer from Sweden. His developments were inspired, it is said, by two interleaved sets of soup spoons, stacked bowl on bowl but with their handles pointing alternately to one side and the other, and thus locked firmly together. Ignoring the company’s new name—the Automatic Hook and Eye Company—he ditched the hooks and eyes and replaced them with today’s design, more or less”

The convenience of the zipper, sold at a premium price compared to a button, was not immediately obvious to the general public, and sales were still difficult.

“Then, in 1923, B.F. Goodrich, an American company best known for tyres, put zips on its rubber galoshes. It called the new footwear Zippers, thus giving the device—previously the “hookless fastener”—its name.

About this time, the zipper made major advances in the clothing market.

“They were cheap and easy to replace, with a wide range of colors and uses. But the need for speed and fashion’s appetite for novelty finally prevailed to make the zipper an essential accessory.

Zippers became a success in part because the zipper represented “easy access” or “unfettered undoability”. They were as Tom Robbins later called them “little alligators of ecstasy.”

“Aldous Huxley, in his novel “Brave New World”, published in 1931, realised that this could, regrettably, end up as a feature, not a bug. The inhabitants of his dystopian World State wore “zippicamiknicks” and “zippyjamas”, showing them simultaneously to be disturbingly modern and endlessly sexually available.

Now, zippers are ubiquitous.  In 2017 the value of the zipper market was estimated at $11.2 billion, and is expected to be worth $19.8 billion by 2024.  The elephant in the market is Japanese industrial YKK, with about 40% of the global market and “which makes more zips every year than there are people on the planet.” They guarantee every zipper for 10,000 uses.

“Unlike its competitors, the Japanese firm based its expansion on developing its own materials and equipment. From the outset it designed its own tools and fed them proprietary materials. It only purchased plastic pellets and a mixture of alloys of its own invention. YKK operates along similar lines to Michelin, the France-based tire manufacturer, closely guarding the secret of its manufacturing processes and making constant improvements.”

Outside a few niches, no genuine rivals to the zipper have appeared. Velcro, an obvious contender, has limited appeal and failed as a military fastener in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nothing else comes to mind. Zippers it seems are here to stay.

Both of the source articles are recommended.

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