September 28, 2016

Material Matters: Hook and Loop Fasteners (Velcro)

You know those pesky burrs that stick to your clothes, tangle up your laces and get matted up in dog’s fur? Next time you’re trying to pick them out of your socks you can take some solace in the knowledge that if it weren’t for those little blighters, we wouldn’t have Velcro – and who doesn’t love the simplicity of a strapped up sneaker?

The first thing that’s important to note when we’re talking about Velcro is that this is metonymy – meaning that Velcro is a company name which has been adopted to describe any hook and loop fastener which can be (and is) manufactured by pretty much anyone. Of course, for the sake of ease it makes sense to stick with the name Velcro but reason for the name becomes clearer when we consider the origin of the stuff.

After a day of hunting in 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral was pondering the seeds of the burdock plant as he brushed them from his dog and plucked them from his clothes. While he observed the little hooks surrounding the seed casing, and the way they snagged the fibres of his clothing, de Mestral began to imagine practical applications for this kind of structure. The thought of using it as some kind of fastening stuck in his mind

George de Mestral

George de Mestral

A great idea is one thing, but a realisation doesn’t always come so easily. Eventually a weaver in Lyon was able to make a working prototype from cotton, but this wore out quickly, so a new material called nylon was tried. Soon they realised that when woven under heat the nylon would form just the right kind of hooks, while the fuzzy loop side didn’t fall apart when it was made from heat treated nylon, things were looking good. Now there was a new obstacle, how would the process be mechanised? It took nine years to develop all of the mechanical looms needed to produce the new product but they got there in the end. De Mestral was granted a patent in 1955 for his ‘zipper-less zipper’, which he named Velcro – a portmanteau of ‘velvet’ and ‘crochet’.

In the 1960s Velcro was an out of this world success, literally. The Apollo space missions made use of hook and loop fasteners to secure all kinds of items in zero gravity, and like all things NASA was eventually adopted by industries all around the world. On top of its countless practical applications, Velcro took on a futuristic appeal in the fashion world. Designers such as Paco Rabanne and Pierre Cardin worked it into their ranges and the world started coming around to the idea of wearing Velcro for form, as well as for function. It wasn’t long before the sneaker world had their own uses for the versatile fastening system.

In 1968 the Mexico Olympic Games were as much a battle between shoe manufacturers as they were among athletes. It was ‘68 that PUMA were the first notable company to use Velcro as a shoe closure, all eyes were on the soon to be banned Sacramento model as it set a new standard for footwear development. The eventual ban was due to the dangerous new system of small spikes on the forefoot, but didn’t cast any shadow on the usefulness of hook and loop straps in lieu of shoelaces.

PUMA Sacramento.

PUMA Sacramento.

Velcro in space.

Velcro in space.

Soon other brands were working the sticky straps into their own designs, which evolved beyond athletic designs and began to move into other arenas. The kid’s version of adidas’ Superstar used the straps to make it easier for little fingers, while the Stan Smith Comfort offered and adult alternative to those uncomfortable shoestrings. Prisons began to issue Velcro fastened shoes as a safe choice for adjustable footwear. By the time the 80s arrived you could get styles of Converse, Vans, Reebok, Saucony and Nike with hook and loop fasteners. Now the name Velcro had stuck but the original patent issued to de Mestral had ended, anybody could produce their own hook and loop fasteners – and they did.

Towards the end of the 80s Velcro got a boost into the limelight with some notable Hollywood cameos. In 1984 Nike’s single strapped Vandal showed up in the blockbuster ‘Terminator’, while the 1987 film ‘Alien’ featured a specially designed Reebok shoe – the Alien Stomper – that perpetuated the image of the fastener as the stuff of the future. That same year Nike released their first cross training shoe, the Air Trainer 1, which features a bold strap across the forefoot, which was a completely new idea for increasing lateral support.

In the 90s basketball shoes were all about the straps. The Air Force 1 had payed its dues and now shoes like Nike’s Air Unlimited, Converse Aero Jam and adidas EQT BB Boot were putting Velcro front and centre. The criss-crossed fasteners allowed players to lock their feet in tighter as the game began to demand greater agility and explosive movement. Even to this day there are strapped up ball boots running the court, like LeBron’s Zoom Soldier 10. Fashion hasn’t lost its grasp on the sticky stuff either – in 2009 Kanye West’s Louis Vuitton Jasper had two fat straps, while his Nike Air Yeezy 1 and 2 both featured a forefoot strap. In keeping with the trend, adidas dropped their first Kanye endorsed Yeezy Boost 750 with a similar fastening across the base of the laces.

As we float along on a steady stream of retro models and continue to see new designs that make use of the uniquely simple hook and loop system, then it’s likely to stick around for a while. Not just that, but when you come home from the pub after one too many, feeling as lazy as ever, there’s no sweeter sound than the rip of the strap as you collapse into bed.

Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at high frequency welding (Hyperfuse)3M Scotchlite and vulcanised rubber soles.

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