A zipper, zip, fly or zip fastener, formerly known as a clasp locker, is a commonly used device for binding the edges of an opening of fabric or other flexible material, like on a garment or a bag. It is used in clothing (e.g., jackets and jeans), luggage and other bags, sporting goods, camping gear (e.g. tents and sleeping bags), and other items. Whitcomb L. Judson was an American inventor from Chicago who invented and constructed a workable zipper. The method, still in use today, is based on interlocking teeth. Initially it was called the “hookless fastener” and was later redesigned to become more reliable.
The bulk of a zipper/zip consists of two rows of protruding teeth, which may be made to interdigitate, linking the rows, carrying from tens to hundreds of specially shaped metal or plastic teeth. These teeth can be either individual or shaped from a continuous coil, and are also referred to as elements. The slider, operated by hand, moves along the rows of teeth. Inside the slider is a Y-shaped channel that meshes together or separates the opposing rows of teeth, depending on the direction of the slider's movement. The word Zipper is onomatopoetic, because it was named for the sound the device makes when used, a high-pitched zip.
In many jackets and similar garments, the opening is closed completely when the slider is at one of the ends of the tape. The mechanism allows for partial fastening where only some of the tape is fastened together, but various movements and pressures may move the slider around the tape. In many kinds of luggage, there are two sliders on the tape, mounted in opposite directions head to head: the part of the zipper between them is unfastened. When the sliders are located at opposite ends of the tape, the zipper is fully unfastened; when the two sliders are located next to each other, which can be at any point along the tape, the zipper is fully closed. Some jackets have double-separating zippers. When the sliders are on opposite ends of the tape then the jacket is closed. If the lower slider is raised then the lower two sides of the jacket may be opened to allow more comfortable sitting or bicycling. When both sliders are lowered then the zipper may be totally separated. Although potentially convenient, there are often problems getting this type of zipper to start or to separate.
These variations are achieved by sewing one end of the zipper together, sewing both ends together, or allowing both ends of the zipper to fall completely apart.
A zipper costs relatively little, but if it fails, the garment may be unusable until the zipper is repaired or replaced—which can be quite difficult and expensive. Problems often lie with the zipper slider; when it becomes worn it does not properly align and join the alternating teeth. With separating zippers, the insertion pin may tear loose from the tape; the tape may even disintegrate from use. If a zipper fails, it can either jam (i.e. get stuck) or partially break off.
In 1851, Elias Howe received a patent for an "Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure". He did not try seriously to market it, missing recognition he might otherwise have received. Howe's device was more like an elaborate drawstring than a true slide fastener.
Forty-two years later, Whitcomb Judson, who invented a pneumatic street railway, marketed a "Clasp Locker". The device served as a (more complicated) hook-and-eye shoe fastener. With the support of businessman Colonel Lewis Walker, Judson launched the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture the new device. The clasp locker had its public debut at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and met with little commercial success. Judson is sometimes given credit as the inventor of the zipper, but he never made a practical device.
The company, reorganized as the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company, moved to Hoboken, N.J. in 1901. Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American electrical engineer, was hired to work for the company in 1906. Good technical skills and a marriage to the plant-manager's daughter Elvira Aronson led Sundbäck to the position of head designer. The company moved to Meadville, PA, where it operated for most of the 20th century under the name Talon, Inc. After his wife's death in 1911, Sundback devoted himself to improving the fastener, and by December 1913 he had designed the modern zipper. The rights to this invention were owned by the Meadville company (operating as the Hookless Fastener Co.), but Sundback retained non-U.S. rights and used these to set up in subsequent years the Canadian firm Lightning Fastner Co. in St. Catharines, Ont. Sundback's work with this firm has led to the common misperception that he was Canadian and that the zipper originated in that country.
Gideon Sundback increased the number of fastening elements from four per inch (about one every 6.4 mm) to ten or eleven (around every 2.5 mm), introduced two facing rows of teeth that pulled into a single piece by the slider, and increased the opening for the teeth guided by the slider. The patent for the "Separable Fastener" was issued in 1917. Gideon Sundback also created the manufacturing machine for the new device. The "S-L" or "scrapless" machine took a special Y-shaped wire and cut scoops from it, then punched the scoop dimple and nib, and clamped each scoop on a cloth tape to produce a continuous zipper chain. Within the first year of operation, Sundback's machinery was producing a few hundred feet (around 100 meters) of fastener per day. In March of the same year, Mathieu Burri, a Swiss inventor, improved the design by adding a lock-in system attached to the last teeth, but his version never got into production due to conflicting patents.
The popular North American term zipper, (UK zip, or occasionally zip-fastener), came from the B. F. Goodrich Company in 1923. The company opted to use Gideon Sundback's fastener on a new type of rubber boots (or galoshes) and referred to it as the zipper, and the name stuck. The two chief uses of the zipper in its early years were for closing boots and tobacco pouches. Zippers began being used for clothing in 1925 by Schott NYC on leather jackets.
In the 1930s, a sales campaign began for children's clothing featuring zippers. The campaign praised zippers for promoting self-reliance in young children by making it possible for them to dress in self-help clothing. The zipper beat the button in 1937 in the "Battle of the Fly", after French fashion designers raved over zippers in men's trousers. Esquire declared the zipper the "Newest Tailoring Idea for Men" and among the zippered fly's many virtues was that it would exclude "The Possibility of Unintentional and Embarrassing Disarray."
The most recent innovation in the zipper's design was the introduction of models that could open on both ends, as on jackets. Today the zipper is by far the most widespread fastener, and is found on clothing, luggage, leather goods, and various other objects.
Airtight zippers were first developed by NASA for making high-altitude pressure suits and later space suits, capable of retaining air pressure inside the suit in the vacuum of space.
The airtight zipper is built like a standard toothed zipper, but with a waterproof sheeting (which is made of fabric-reinforced polyethylene and is bonded to the rest of the suit) wrapped around the outside of each row of zipper teeth. When the zipper is closed, the two facing sides of the plastic sheeting are squeezed tightly against one another (between the C-shaped clips) both above and below the zipper teeth, forming a double seal.
This double-mated surface is good at retaining both vacuum and pressure, but the fit must be very tight, to press the surfaces together firmly. Consequently, these zippers are typically very stiff when zipped shut and have minimal flex or stretch. They are hard to open and close because the zipper anvil must bend apart teeth that are being held under tension. They can also be derailed (and damage the sealing surfaces) if the teeth are misaligned while straining to pull the zipper shut.
These zippers are very common where airtight or watertight seals are needed, such as on scuba diving dry suits, ocean survival suits, and hazmat suits.
A less common water-resistant zipper is similar in construction to a standard toothed zipper, but includes a molded plastic ridge seal similar to the mating surfaces on a ziploc bag. Such a zipper is easier to open and close than a clipped version, and the slider has a gap above the zipper teeth for separating the ridge seal. This seal is structurally weak against internal pressure, and can be separated by pressure within the sealed container pushing outward on the ridges, which will simply flex and spread apart, potentially allowing air or liquid entry through the spread-open ridges. Ridge-sealed zippers are sometimes seen on lower cost surface dry suits.
Some zippers include a designed ability for the slider to hold in a steady open or closed position, resisting forces that would try to move the slider and open the zipper unexpectedly. There are two commons ways this is accomplished:
The zipper handle can have a short protruding pin stamped into it, which inserts between the zipper teeth through a hole on the slider, when the handle is folded down flat against the zipper teeth. This appears on some brands of trousers. The handle of the fly zipper is folded flat against the teeth when it is not in use, and the handle is held down by both slider hinge tension and the fabric flap over the fly.
The slider can also have a two-piece hinge assembly attaching the handle to the slider, with the base of the hinge under spring tension and with protruding pins on the bottom that insert between the zipper teeth. To move the zipper, the handle is pulled outward against spring tension, lifting the pins out from between the teeth as the slider moves. When the handle is released the pins automatically engage between the zipper teeth again.
A three-piece version of the above uses a tiny pivoting arm held under tension inside the hinge. Pulling on the handle from any direction lifts the pivoting arm's pins out of the zipper teeth so that the slider can move.
The components of a zipper are:
Zippers have entered into urban legends. American folklorist Jan Brunvand noted that "The zipper has been the subject of jokes and legends since... the 1920s". Those stories reflect "modern anxieties and desires", emphasizing embarrassments and accidents, primarily involving the flies of men's trousers in stories such as "The Unzipped Stranger" and "The Unzipped Fly".
The zipper may be used to secure an article of clothing, a tent or other fabric enclosure, luggage, or other soft container. Another popular method of securing clothing presses a thin and sharpened wire through the fabric using a brooch or safety pin. A buckle is used in place of a zipper at times. Buttons are another way to secure clothing, and require dexterous fingers to properly use. Snap fasteners (also named poppers and press studs) and the hook and loop fastener are a few less common zipper alternatives.