In 1851, the inventor of the sewing machine - Elias Howe, Jr. - patented the Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure device. AKA, the first zipper. Then, in 1893, Whitcomb Judson patented a similar invention, the Clasp Locker. Finally, in 1917, an electrical engineer named Gideon Sundback took a final stab and patented the Separable Fastener (what is with these names?). Clothing manufacturer, B. F. Goodrich Company used Sundback’s Separable Fastener on their boots and gave it the nickname zipper. It became a solid member of the fashion industry in the 1930s and never looked back. All of this is very interesting, but why do we care who invented the zipper?
Well, it’s to highlight just how tricky zipper production is - it took three inventors over 20 years to get two rows of teeth to clip together. Think about it - It’s been over 100 years since the first patent was filed and faulty zippers are still everywhere - they snap, get stuck and split open. Clothing manufacturers have tried to make zippers in-house but often end up with a sub-par, unreliable product. So, they inevitably turn to the company that makes over 50% of world's supply - Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha (YKK). You’ve probably seen these initials on a pair of your favorite jeans or winter jacket. YKK appear to have cracked the zipper code. But how?
There are so many parts and stages to zipper manufacturing that YKK decided to bring everything in-house. And when we say everything, we mean everything. They smelt the metal, make their own polyester, spin the thread and make the packaging. They even make the machines that do all of the making! Say what you will about control freaks, but this kind of consistency should be applauded. After all, as Trina Turk told Slate Magazine, "a zipper will never make a garment, but it can break a garment."
Image by Anne Nygård