Against zips

April 14, 2023 0 Comments

Technical innovation is a strange thing.  We tend to think that the growth of new and improved technologies is a constant.  Engineers, we imagine, are always searching for better ways of organising the way things work.  And, beyond perfecting existing devices, they’re always trying to abolish existing, inferior means of achieving ends by inventing completely new, superior ones.  This impression of restless progress isn’t surprising when we consider the headlong pace of computer-based invention.

But innovation doesn’t always work like that, especially outside the world of computing.  Sometimes it doesn’t work at all.  Take the internal combustion engine (ICE). Despite a century and a half of gradual refinement, the car engine is still recognisable, in its essentials, as the machine that lay under the bonnet of the automobile designed by Gottfried Benz in 1886.  We’ve known for decades that the ICE is wasteful, poisonous and unsustainable, but it’s only in the very recent past that battery-powered vehicles have started to replace it – at a very slow place, except in Norway.  No doubt there are plenty of economic and other non-technical reasons for the lack of progress, but isn’t it strange that no technological alternative to the burning of petrol or diesel in an engine has emerged, over such a long period, to power road vehicles?

Gideon Sandback

Other basic technologies are just as conservative.  Take the humble zip, the commonest non-button technology for temporarily uniting two pieces of fabric.  Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine, patented a proto-zip, an ‘improvement for fastening of garments’ in 1851.  But it wasn’t until the early years of the twentieth century that a Swedish-American electrical engineer, Gideon Sandback, succeeded in developing the zipper (the US term for zip) on a commercial scale for the Universal Fastener Company in Pennsylvania.  We still use his zip today, 120 years later.  That’s a long time for a technology to survive unchallenged.

Again, the problem is that, like the internal combustion engine, the zip isn’t a very satisfactory technology.  Last week, zips failed simultaneously on two of my jackets, a fleece and a waterproof walking jacket.  Admittedly, both were oldish, but they still worked perfectly, except for their zips.  The problem was the same in both garments: the zip refused to budge from its starting block when you tried to close it.  This failure, though not fatal for the jackets, has meant radical surgery for their zips.

This isn’t the first time that zip technology failure has vitiated whole garments.  But the zip has other issues.  A zip is a liability in jackets that aspire to be waterproof, because it lets water through, and usually has to be covered with one or more flaps to protect it from rain.  Many zips get snagged, no matter how carefully you move them, on the fabric that surrounds them.  I don’t think I’ve ever owned a pair of ‘waterproof’ leggings where zips haven’t got stuck half-way as I try to open or close them, forcing me to clamber out of them in a clumsy and undignified way, and peer closely at the fabric to release it from the zip’s cruel teeth.

There’s no escaping the brutal truth: that as jackets have improved immeasurably over the years, to become lighted, warmer and more water-resistant, they’re almost always let down by the antique technology of the zip.  I won’t elaborate on the crimes of the zip in trouser technology (by the way, have you noticed that trouser zips have recently got shorter, presumably to shave a few pence off the cost?), or how, when a suitcase zip fails in a public place, your dirty washing spills out for all to see.

There have, it’s true, been small developments in zip technology over the century.  Teeth are now plastic as well as metal.  Some zips have double sliders and can open at both ends.  Magnetic zippers allow opening using one hand.  Some zippers have an anti-slide mechanism, to keep them held open.  NASA developed airtight zippers for use in space.

George de Mestral

It’s also true that there have been one or two attempts to break the tyranny of the zip. In the 1950s a Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, observing how burdock seeds stuck to his woolly socks, invented the synthetic hook and loop fastener.  It was later marketed as Velcro, a portmanteau word, as I learned from a recent edition of Round Britain Quiz, combining ‘velours’ (velvet) and ‘crochet’ (hook).  But Velcro, though it’s used for many other things, including the shoes of children too small to manage laces, has never managed to dislodge the zip in clothing.  The hooks easily become clogged with dirt and debris, and I suspect that lack of waterproofing is a major disadvantage.

So the miserable zip, with all its faults, marches on.  Surely, you’d think, there’s a fortune to be made by whoever can come up with a cheap and effective alternative, and, incidentally, break the near-monopoly position of the giant Japanese zip manufacturer YKK?

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