As a species, we’ve done a pretty good job at inventing some useful devices. But as clever as we think we are, given sufficient time, natural selection will beat us at our game at almost every turn. So it makes sense that many of our best inventions are inspired by nature and the myriad ways life finds to get DNA from one generation to the next.
Hook and loop fasteners are one such design cribbed from nature, and the story behind this useful mechanism is a perfect example that a prepared mind, good observation skills, and a heck of a lot of perseverance are what it takes to bring one of Mother Nature’s designs to market.
Editor’s Note: As some predicted in the comments section, we were contacted by representatives of Velcro Companies and asked to change all mentions in this article to either VELCRO® Brand Fastener or to use the generic “Hook and Loop” term. If it seems weird that we’re calling this hook and loop, now you know why.
Like most accidents, it happened in an instant that seemed to last an eternity. I had been felling trees for firewood all afternoon, and in the waning light of a cold November day, I was getting ready to call it quits. There was one tiny little white pine sapling left that I wanted to clear, no thicker than my arm. I walked over with my Stihl MS-290, with a brand new, razor sharp chain. I didn’t take this sapling seriously — my first mistake — and cut right through it rather than notching it. The tree fell safely, and I stood up with both hands on the saw. Somehow I lost my footing, swiveled, and struck my left knee hard with the still-running chainsaw. It kicked my knee back so hard that it knocked me to the ground.
In another world, that would likely have a been a fatal injury — I was alone, far from the house, and I would have had mere minutes to improvise a tourniquet before bleeding out. But as fate would have it, I was protected by my chainsaw chaps, full of long strands of the synthetic fiber Kevlar.
The chain ripped open the chaps, pulled the ultrastrong fibers out, and instantly jammed the saw. I walked away feeling very stupid, very lucky, and with not a scratch on me. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I owed my life to Stephanie Kwolek.
Inspired by some impressive work on textile flip-bit displays, and with creative steampunk outfits to create for Christmas, [Richard Sewell] had the idea for a flippable magnetic eye in the manner of a flip-dot display. These devices are bistable mechanical displays in which a magnet is suspended above a coil of wire, and “flipped” in orientation under the influence of a magnetic field from the coil.
In [Richard]’s case the eyeball was provided by a magnetic bead with a suitable paint job, and the coil was a hand-wound affair with some extremely neat lacing to keep it all in place. The coil requires about 200 mA to ensure the eye flips, and the job of driving it is performed by a Digispark ATTiny85 board with an LM293 dual H-bridge driver upon which the two bridges are wired in parallel. The whole is mounted in the centre of a charity shop brooch that has been heat-treated to give a suitable aesthetic.
Look around yourself right now and chances are pretty good that you’ll quickly lay eyes on a zipper. Zippers are incredibly commonplace artifacts, a commodity item produced by the mile that we rarely give a second thought to until they break or get stuck. But zippers are a fairly modern convenience, and the story of their invention is one that shows even the best ideas can be delayed by overly complicated designs and lack of a practical method for manufacturing.
Try and Try Again
Ideas for fasteners to replace buttons and laces have been kicking around since the mid-19th century. The first patent for a zipper-like fastener was issued to Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine. Though he was no slouch at engineering intricate mechanisms, Howe was never able to make his “Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure” a workable product, and Howe shifted his inventive energies to other projects.
The world would wait another forty years for further development of a hookless fastener, when a Chicago-born inventor of little prior success named Whitcomb Judson began work on a “Clasp Locker or Unlocker.” Intended for the shoe and boot market, Judson’s device has all the recognizable parts of a modern zipper — rows of interlocking teeth with a slide mechanism to mesh and unmesh the two sides. The device was debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and was met with almost no commercial interest.
Judson went through several iterations of designs for his clasp locker, looking for the right combination of ideas that would result in a workable fastener that was easy enough to manufacture profitably. He lined up backers, formed a company, and marketed various versions of his improved products. But everything he tried seemed to have one or more serious drawbacks. When his fasteners were used in shoes, unexpected failure was a mere inconvenience. If a fastener on a lady’s dress opened unexpectedly, it could have been a social catastrophe. Coupled with a price tag that was exorbitantly high to cover the manual labor needed to assemble them, almost every version of Judson’s invention flopped.
It would take another decade, a change of company name, a cross-country move, and the hiring of a bright young engineer before the world would have what we would recognize as the first modern zipper. Judson hired Gideon Sundback in 1901, and by 1913 he was head designer at the Fastener Manufacturing and Machine Company, newly relocated to Meadville, Pennsylvania after a stop in Hoboken, New Jersey. Sundback’s design called for rows of identical teeth with cups on the underside and nibs on the upper, set on fabric tapes. A slide with a Y-shaped channel bent the tapes to open the gap between teeth, allowing the cups to nest on the nibs and mesh the teeth together strongly.
Sundback’s design had significant advantages over any of Judson’s attempts. First, it worked, and it was reliable enough to start quickly making inroads into fashionable apparel beyond its initial marketing toward more utilitarian products like tobacco pouches. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Sundback invented machinery that could make hundreds of feet of the fasteners in a day. This gave the invention an economy of scale that none of Judson’s fasteners could ever have achieved.
Putting Some Teeth into It
The machinery that Sundback invented to make his “Separable Fastener” has been much improved since the early 1900s, but the current process still looks similar, at least for metal zippers. Stringers, which are the fabric tapes with teeth attached, are formed in a continuous process by a multi-step punching and crimping machine. For metal stringers, a coil of flat metal is fed into a punch and die to form hollow scoops. The strip is then punched again to form a Y-shape around the scoop and cut it free from the web. The legs of the Y straddle the edge of the fabric tape, and a set of dies then crimps the legs to the tape. A modern zipper machine can make stringers at a rate of 2000 teeth per minute.
Plastic zippers are common these days, too, and manufacturing methods vary by zipper style. One method has the fabric tapes squeezed between the halves of a die while teeth are injection molded around the tape to form two parallel stringers. A sprue connected the stringers by the teeth breaks free after molding, and the completed stringers are assembled later.
Zippers have come a long way since Sundback’s first successful design, with manufacturing improvements that have eliminated many of the manual operations once required. Specialized zippers have made it from the depths of the oceans to the surface of the Moon, and chances are pretty good that if we ever get to Mars, one way or another, zippers will go with us.
[Irene Posch] is big into knitted fabric circuits. And while most of the textile circuits that we’ve seen are content with simply conducting enough juice to light an LED, [Irene]’s sights are set on knittable crafted arithmetic logic units (ALUs). While we usually think of transistors as the fundamental building-blocks of logic circuits, [Irene] has developed what is essentially a knit crochet relay. Be sure to watch the video after the break to see it in construction and in action.
The basic construction is a coil of conductive thread that forms an electromagnet, and a magnetic bead suspended on an axle so that it can turn in response to the field. To create a relay, a flap of knit conductive thread is attached to the bead, which serves as the pole for what’s essentially a fabric-based SPDT switch. If you’ve been following any of our relay-logic posts, you’ll know that once you’ve got a relay, the next step to a functioning computer is a lot of repetition.
How does [Irene] plan to display the results of a computation? On knit-and-bead flipdot displays, naturally. Combining the same electromagnet and bead arrangement with beads that are painted white on one side and black on the other yields a human-readable one-bit display. We have an unnatural affinity for flipdot displays, and making the whole thing out of fabric-store components definitely flips our bits.
Anyway, [Irene Posch] is a textile-tech artist who you should definitely be following if you have any interest in knittable computers. Have you seen anything else like this? Thanks [Melissa] for the awesome tip!
In our hackspace, we’ve opened a textile room in the last month. We have high hopes for it as a focal point for cosplayers and LARPers as well as the makers of wearable electronics and more traditional textile users. Putting it in has involved several months of hard work bringing a semi-derelict and previously flooded room that was once the walk-in safe for our local school authority to a point at which it is a light and welcoming space, but a surprising amount of work has also had to go into winning the hearts and minds of our community for the project.
Putting it quite simply, textiles aren’t seen as very cool, in hackspace terms. You know, Women’s stuff. Your mother does it, or even maybe if you are a little younger, your grandmother. It’s just not up there with laser cutting or 3D printing, and as a result those of us for whom it’s a big part of making stuff have had to fight its corner when it comes to resources within the space.
Yet not so long ago when I brought a pair of worn-out jeans into the space on a social night and hauled out our Lervia sewing machine to fix them, I had a constant stream of fellow members passing by amazed at what I was doing. “You can repair jeans?” they asked, incredulously. For some reason this prospect had not occurred to them, I was opening up a new vista in clothing reincarnation, to the extent that before too long in our new facility I may be giving a workshop on the subject as the beloved former trousers of Oxford Hackspace denizens gain a chance of new life.
Even in this age of wearable technology, the actual fabric in our t-shirts and clothes may still be the most high-tech product we wear. From the genetically engineered cotton seed, though an autonomous machine world, this product is manufactured in one of the world’s largest automation bubbles. Self-driving cotton pickers harvest and preprocess the cotton. More machines blend the raw material, comb it, twist and spin it into yarn, and finally, a weaving machine outputs sheets of spotless cotton jersey. The degree of automation could not be higher. Except for the laboratories, where seeds, cotton fibers, and yarns are tested to meet tight specifications, woven fabrics originate from a mostly human-free zone that is governed by technology and economics.