Along with things like paper clips, rubber bands and Scotch tape, it’s hard to imagine where we might be today without Velcro. I saw a comment somewhere recently that said you are old if you can remember when there was no Velcro. Mmm…The assumption there is that late forties, early fifties is old. It all started in 1941 with a hunting trip in Switzerland, but as a common fastener, Velcro didn’t make a big impact until the early 1960s.
Swiss Engineer Georges de Mestral often hunted with his dog and became interested in the burrs that frequently stuck both to his clothing and to the dog’s fur. A close look at the burrs showed that they were the seeds of burdock. Examining them under a microscope he discovered the hundreds of tiny hooks on the seed’s surface, hooks that caught on anything with a loop, such as clothing and dog’s fur. The idea came to him that it might be possible to apply this idea simply, but reversibly to other materials.
Ignored by most weavers, de Mestral eventually found one willing to make models of the idea. Cotton worked at first but wore out quickly so they switched to synthetic fibers. It took ten years to create something that was strong and worked well consistently. The first patent was granted in Switzerland and other countries soon followed. A magazine article in 1958 announced: “It is with understandable enthusiasm that I give you today an exclusive report on this news: A ‘zipperless zipper’ has been invented—finally.” But stardom for the zipperless zipper was slow to come, partially because of its low quality appearance. At the time Velcro (a combination of the French words velours and crochet) looked like something made from leftover bits of cheap fabric, and despite the journalist’s enthusiasm did not strike people as very practical.
It was the aerospace industry that gave Velcro its first big break, using the new product in spacesuits, which helped astronauts maneuver in and out of the bulky suits. Later came the use of Velcro by manufacturers of skis and ski wear, also a case of making something easier to put on and take off. Next on the bandwagon was the market for marine and Scuba gear. But it was once more the astronauts who boosted Velcro’s popularity with their Velcro food pouches on walls and television footage of them secured in the weightless atmosphere of space with Velcro. With that example children’s clothing makers snapped up the miracle fastener. And as they say, the rest is history.
• According to National Park Service biologists at Rock Creek Park, Washington, D.C., “Nature’s Velcro” or burdock weeds six feet high snared at least four ruby-throated hummingbirds—three of them fatally. They met their fate over a three-day period while migrating through the park. Thrashing to free themselves of one burr caused the victim birds to brush against neighboring burrs, ensnaring them fatally.
• A class of third graders in New York won a contest with their imaginative use of Velcro. Using the noise made when the fastener is pulled apart, the class did a rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with the Velcro straps on their shoes.
• Perhaps Velcro’s biggest (weakest?) moment came in the 2006 Super Bowl halftime show when Janet Jackson’s costume ‘malfunctioned’ and exposed her right breast partially covered by nipple jewelry. The incident has often been referred to as “Nipplegate.” It might have cost CBS $550,000 in fines but you can be sure it resulted in a goldmine of record sales and publicity for Janet Jackson and Justin ‘The Bodice Ripper’ Timberlake. The resulting hoopla in the US was such, it’s surprising the FCC didn’t file suit against Velcro.