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Updated on August 15, 2014

Zippers, zips, ziplis or 'separable fasteners'

Zippers, zips or zip-fasteners are an ingeniously developed version of the old hooks and eyes of male and female dress.

A slide fastener, a zip, or zipper, has two edges of teeth and hollows that very snugly fit into each other. A sliding device draws the two edges tightly together, and this causes the teeth to mesh with the hollows.

The two sides remain fastened until they are released by the slide being drawn back over them, thereby unmeshing the teeth. Zips are used to fasten clothes, luggage and other similar articles. Whitcomb L. Judson of Chicago held the first patent on the zip in 1893; at that time it was a series of hooks and eyes that fastened together with a slider.

Gideon Sunback obtained a patent on the meshed-tooth-type slide fastener in 1931. The term 'zipper' was originally a trademark registered in 1922 by the B.F. Goodrich Company.

Today the largest manufacturer of zips is the YKK Corporation of Japan (YKK stands for Yoshida Kogyo K).

Photo by Zsuzsanna Kilian

History Of The Zipper

The ziggurat builders of Mesopotamia had their buttons, and their metal pins derived from bone pins and natural thorns; Bronze Age Europe had its fibulae or safety-pins. At the other end of the time scale, the zipper comes from applying the complex, exact techniques of our machine age to the simplest everyday requirements.

Hooks and eyes in the seventeenth century fastened men's breeches to their doublets, and were common also on women's clothing; as 'hooks and crochettes' (i.e. little hooks), they go back at least to the early sixteenth or late fifteenth centuries - convenient, but upon a close-fitting garment the wearer joined them each to each only with awkwardness and irritation and an expense of time and spirit. Matters were not improved by Victorian dress; and it may be said that the zipper emerged out of stays and tight corsets.

American Patent Office records of the eighteen-fifties and German patents from 1868 show that inventors looked forward to fastening the divisions in a dress in some mechanical way, without the labor of uniting hooks to eyes, one by one, or the labor of sewing them one by one along the dress divisions. In Chicago in the nineties Whitcomb L. Judson invented a way of closing and unclosing hooks and eyes with a sliding clasp. He exhibited his device in 1893 at the Colombian Exposition at Chicago; and was now backed with resolution by Colonel Lewis Walker.

With Walker's Universal Fastener Company, Judson improved these first 'separable fasteners', eventually (about 1905) constructing a machine to make them. They were marketed under the punning trade name of 'C-Curity' - a name too ambitious for fasteners which were not at all c-cure - at this stage. To improve matters, Walker engaged a Swedish engineer Gideon Sundback; to the first advances he is said to have replied, 'I make dynamos. Who wants to fool with hooks and eyes?'

By 1913 Sundback had produced his 'Hookless 2', the fastener in its modern form, with identical units or members upon either side, along tapes. This was a highly successful fastener which could not unlock when twisted, though its action needed improving; and its success with the world had still to be assured.

The use of the fasteners on clothing was still uppermost in the mind. A British patent filed by Sundback in 1915 describes 'Improvements in Separable Fasteners for articles of dress and for other purposes'.

Careful examination of a zipper of this time or the present day will confirm its relationship to the old serried hooks and eyes, and reveal, too, the ingenuity of Sundback's ideas. 'Two flexible stringers are locked and unlocked by a sliding cam device mounted on both members' - which is to say that 'hooks' and 'eyes', fixed at precise regular intervals on tapes which are sewn to the dress, can be locked and unlocked. Each unit on the tape, each blunt 'hook' is, in fact, both hook and eye, a hook backed with an eye, or socket. Each unit on one stringer is both 'hook' and socket or eye for each of its two appropriate units on the other stringer.

The slide brings the stringers and their units together, hook to socket, and locks them, when pulled in one direction; pull the slide the other way, and a central triangular wedge in its wide end divorces and opens what the metal convergence towards the narrow end had put together and joined so firmly.

For a while up to the First World War fasteners were manufactured also in Paris under the Sundback patents, but without any notable success; and they went slowly in America, adopted here and there as a novelty. Sundback, to quote his English patent again, made successful efforts 'to decrease the weight and bulk, to increase the flexibility, and security of locking'. The turn came at last when America entered the war. Separable fasteners were taken up by the U.S. Navy on flying-suits and by the U.S. Army on belts and pockets, and in aeroplane fabric; but the world still did not realize what it was being offered, something which would soon be thought indispensable, soon be applied to a thousand-and-one uses.

Etymology of the Zipper

How the word 'zipper' came into being

After the First World War, in 1919, a Birmingham factory began to make English fasteners by purchase of the extra-U.S. rights; but sales came slowly. The fastener wanted a name; and it was in the twenties, in America, that it became known, as the 'zipper', which expresses so neatly the slickness, sound and movement of the device. There are different stories of how the name began; it has been ascribed to an American firm who added the fastener to galoshes in 1921, and then in 1923 called these galoshes 'zippers'. In 1925 an advertisement in Seribner's Magazine inserted by the pioneer firm announced 'No fastening is so quick, secure, or popular as the "zipper" '.

English 'Lightnings' were shown at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925. On the stand a sample 'Lightning' was opened and shut by visitors more than three million times.

'Lightning' might do for a trade designation, but it did not fit the tongue; and 'zip' in various forms soon crossed the Atlantic, the Daily Express on 6 September 1927, writing of a tango suede costume 'complete from the zip fastening to the little hat', which was 'attracting many admirers'. Later in 1927 the Daily Express wrote of sports suits with 'zip-fasteners'; in 1928 the same paper mentioned 'zipper fasteners' and of bootees fastened with 'zippers'. The Turks use the word 'zipli', and by 1944 'zip-fastener', word and object, was familiar enough in English to be applied by a poet to the Spleenwort fern

If you're wearing pants with a zip, check and see if it's got YKK on it. It's a good chance it does.

Does your zipper have YKK on it?

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