Hey everyone, welcome to another Curious about Clothes podcast!
This week’s episode was inspired by my sister’s baby. He has this thing, it’s called a sleep sack (people with babies probably know what this is, but to me it’s a new concept). The best way to explain it is it’s a Snuggie for babies- a blanket you can wear!
This sleep sack has a little nylon zipper. Which is great, because it is soft and light and not at all scratchy. But, because the sleep sack gets a lot of washing, the top end of the zipper broke off in the wash and along with it when the zipper pull.
Since I’m the person in my family who general fixes broken or ill fitting clothing, I got a package from my sister this week containing the broken sleep sack. She wanted to know if I could fix the zipper. And honestly, I wasn’t really sure if I could. In all my years of sewing, other than applying a zipper that I bought at a fabric store, I didn’t know that much about them.
When were they invented and by whom? How many different types of zippers are there and when did they become so ubiquitous that we stopped marveling at their fabulousness?
It was time to do some digging and then I thought, why not bring you all along for the adventure as well?
The History of the Zipper:
Let’s take a quick zip into the past to find the birth of zippers, starting in 1851 when..
Elias Howe, famous for inventing the sewing machine, was the first person to get a patent for something along the lines of a zipper, he called it an “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure.”
Unfortunately for everyone at the time, Elias didn’t do much with this other than secure the patent.
In 1893, Whitcomb Judson (you gotta to love those 19th century names, huh?) secured a patent for a “Clasp Locker” device. If you google his patent image you’ll see that it’s not quite wihat we would call a zipper today, but it does feature an early form of the zipper slide, a little device to close the clasps.
Whitcomb Judson also secured a patent for what he dubbed a “C-curity Fastener.” This time instead of clasps, the closures were more like hooks and eyes.
Whitcomb Judson then opened the Universal Fastener Company in Hoboken, New Jersey, to manufacture his inventions and debuted his products at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
Judson’s products were either cumbersome or did not stay closed and as a result, his initial products did not sell well.
However, an employee of Whitcomb Judson (I’m sorry I just have to keep saying his full name!), a Swedish born engineer by the name of Gideon Sundback improved on Judson’s idea and in 1913 he came up with the design for the modern zipper.
Of course it was a Swedish person who invented zippers! Form AND function!
Gideon Sundback received a patent for his “Separable Fastener” in 1917.
In 1923 the term “Zipper” , so named for the “zip” sound it made as it was in use, was first used by the B.F. Goodrich Company when they decided to use Gideon Sundback’s “separable Fastener on their rubber boots.
Zippers were initially made of metal such as aluminum, nickel & brass.
For the first 15-20 years of zippers, zippers were primarily used on boots or tobacco pouches (I know I feel confused by this usage on tobacco pouches as well).
But we did see some zippers enter the fashion world, most notably in 1935, when surrealist fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli famously used zippers in many of her winter collection designs.
In 1937, French fashion designers decided to use zippers in men’s pants instead of buttons. Esquire magazine championed the zipper as the, “Newest Tailoring Idea for Men,” particularly because it would help eliminate “the possibility of unintentional and embarrassing disarray.”
Parts of a Zipper:
I know you know a zipper is a zipper, but do you know what the individual parts are called? Well, you’re about to!
Teeth: Imagine you’re looking at a zipper… OR be an overachiever and grab that zip up hoodie that’s hanging on the back of your chair. The teeth of a zipper are that center portion of the zipper. The teeth are what hold the zipper together when they interlocked. Teeth are generally made of metal, plastic or nylon.
Tape: zipper tape is the fabric that the zipper teeth are attached to. Zipper tape is usually a woven fabric (but can be knit) and is generally made of either polyester or cotton. Some very lightweight zippers are attached to a mesh tape that is made from a nylon material.
Slider: The slider is the piece that slides over the zipper teeth to open or close them. Zipper sliders can either be made of plastic or metal.
Pull: Zipper pulls are the small piece attached to the zipper slider. Zipper pulls can be a variety of shapes and sizes depending on their function. A jacket would get a wider, easy-to-grip zipper pull, while an invisible zipper on a dress might have a very slender, discrete zipper pull.
Stopper: Zipper stoppers are the little metal clamps at the bottom or top of a zipper. This prevents the zipper slide from just running off the end of the zipper tape.
Types of Zippers:
So now that you know the parts of a zipper, let’s talk about the different types:
Metal Zippers: The OG zipper type first invented in 1917. Each zipper tooth is metal and the slide that closes them is metal also. A great place to find a metal zipper is in the fly of your denim jeans, or a leather purse.
Molded Plastic Zippers- The same technology as a metal zipper, only plastic! They are manufactured by individually injecting each plastic tooth directly to the zipper tape. These zippers can be very strong and durable- great for outerwear. They are also very lightweight.
Nylon coil zippers: Instead of individual zipper teeth- these zippers have a continuous coil. You’ll often find this type of zipper on things like luggage and many types of clothing- they are very flexible and durable. A special type of nylon coil zipper is an invisible zipper. Invisible zippers are very small versions of nylon zippers, and you’ll typically find them on women’s dressier clothing.
Types of the types:
Within each type of zipper, there are further classifications of zippers including:
Closed End Zippers:
These zippers are not separating, meaning one end of the zipper always remains closed. THis is the original and most basic form of the zipper. This type of zipper can be found on the fly of your denim pants, or possibly on a bag or shoes.
Separating Zippers: With these zippers, the bottom of the zipper can be totally separated from the other side, allowing for a full open interior access to, for instance, your winter coat. How is this magic achieved? Well, the bottom part of the zipper is joined together with a box and pin mechanism.
Two way separating zippers: The most exciting type of zipper! On a two way separating zipper there are two zipper slides: the first slide closes the zipper, while the second slide opens is up. This allows you to create closure in a certain part of the item or garment. You’ll often find 2-way separating zippers on activewear jackets, they allow you to zip up that middle part of the jacket but open up the bottom portion to allow for more movement.
Who Makes All These Zippers?:
Whitcomb Judson’s Universal Fastener Company was renamed Talon Zippers and was the major manufacturer of zippers up until the 1970s or 80s. Talon was eclipsed at that time by a Japanese zipper company called YKK.
This company, YKK, might be a brand you already know about because they are EVERYWHERE (in fact, I recently was listening to Outkast and noticed a line about YKK zippers!). I dare you to check out a zipper near you and see if it says “YKK” on the zipper slide.
So what’s the deal with YKK, why are they everywhere?!
YKK was established in 1934 by Tadao Yoshida. One of the things that made YKK the innovative company that they are (and help them continue to hold that title) is that YKK controls every part of their process. They not only create zippers, but they create the machinery that create zippers. This allows the brand to be both innovative and reliable. And for any of us who have had a zipper break on their favorite piece of luggage or pants, it does not make for a happy customer.
While brands are cost conscious about zippers, they are also aware that if the zipper in their $200 dress doesn’t hold up for years to come, it’s going to hurt their sales. So, many major brands (and home sewers) trust YKK to be both reliable and affordable.
In recent years, many other brands offering cheaper zippers have emerged onto the market, one that is particularly notable is the Chinese brand SBS.
SBS was established in 1984, and they managed to steal away some larger, wholesale customers from YKK by providing cheaper zippers. Today, SBS manufactures approximately 80 million zippers a month in their five locations across China!
You’ll find SBS zippers in many mid-level brands including Mango, the North Face, H&M and Target
Let’s Fix a Zipper
Now that I know all about zippers, I went out to buy a replacement zipper slide for that broken zipper my sister sent me. In fact I bought this little kit called Zipper Rescue. It includes 10 different zipper slides and stoppers for varying types of zippers. They have different zipper rescue kits depending on your need (clothing, outdoors, etc). I got the clothing kit and gave it a try.
Let’s Zip This Thing Up:
I’ll leave you today with a quote from Elsa Schiaparelli’s autobiography: “A dress has no life of its own unless it is worn, and as soon as this happens, another personality takes over from you and animates it, or tries to, glorifies it or destroys it, or makes it into a song of beauty.”
Thanks so much for listening.
If you’d like to learn more, you can check out my blog, www.curiousclothes.com, or you can find me on instagram, curiousaboutclothes.
The History of the Zipper by Mary Bellis, March 9, 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-zipper-4066245
The History of the Zipper https://www.thomasnet.com/articles/hardware/zipper-history
The First Use of a Zipper in Fashion? https://thevintagetraveler.wordpress.com/2012/08/02/the-first-use-of-a-zipper-in-fashion/
A Shock of Schiaparelli: The Surreal Provocateur Who Forever Altered Fashion, by Hunter Oatman-Stanford https://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/a-shock-of-schiaparelli/
11 Types of Zippers and a Guide to Different Parts of a Zipper https://sewguide.com/zipper-anatomy-and-types/
Types of Zippers https://www.textileschool.com/276/types-of-zippers/
Find the Right Zipper for your Sewing Project , by Debbie Colgrove https://www.thesprucecrafts.com/what-type-of-zipper-do-i-need-2978512
The $13 Billion Zipper Wars, by Edwin Jiang https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/intelligence/the-13-billion-zipper-wars
The History of Zippers: Talon, Universal, and Gideon Sundback, by Austin Bryant https://www.heddels.com/2014/05/history-zippers-talon-universal-gideon-sundback/
Why Do So Many Zippers Say YKK? By Seth Stevenson http://www.slate.com/articles/business/branded/2012/04/ykk_zippers_why_so_many_designers_use_them_.html
YKK Animated Short Film: Fastening Days https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSerAaac6EY