Saturday, September 28, 2013

Zipping up (Not)

This morning I spent a full fifteen minutes changing one cushion cover. Here I was, full of housekeeping energy, determined to finish all those boring things one just has to do to keep a house looking somewhat in order (now, I do realise that 'order' is a loaded work, what is perfectly acceptable to one is reason for high tension for another). The first sign that things were not going to go quite in the manner planned was when I found I needed to sit down to get that cover on the cushion. It wasn't one of those easy slip-on-and-fold-over jobs. It needed quite a lot of pushing and pulling to get the thing on, the good fit that it was. This took all of five minutes. And then came the zipper, which, I understand, is also called a slide fastener, because (yes, I get it) it slides along the toothed tracks to fasten or unfasten something. This one was a pretty long zipper--all of 18 inches, which meant some maneuvering to get the fastener to slide. Which it refused to do. It would go an inch or two and stall, and I would have to nudge it a little bit so that the teeth stayed in sync. This kept happening; the fastener was just refusing to slide smoothly, and all this while I was thinking about design and manufacturing and the fact that we just don't seem to be able to get even the simplest devices to function the way they are supposed to. Safety pins, bobby pins, paper clips, vegetable peelers...the list is long. How many of us have bought a strip of paper pins (alpins, they used to be called) and found one after the other lacking a sharp tip, finally making do by just pushing them harder into the paper? How many women have had safety pins (almost) make uneven holes in sarees because they weren't sharp enough? How many of us have asked visiting relatives to bring back these items from abroad and then hoarded them jealously against siblings and cousins who kept wanting to steal those lovely sharp-tipped items?

But the fifteen minutes spent on that particular recalcitrant zip took me back to my childhood, when zips were not all that common in India. They weren't manufactured locally, and when we asked a tailor to use a zip in an article of clothing, we'd have to pay extra, and insist that he use a brand called "YKK". When we bought readymade clothes with zips, we'd  look for those letters on the metal fastener. It also reminded me that the most ingenious inventions are often the simplest, and also the least celebrated.

So I went in search of the history of the zipper, and like all good contemporary scholars, my first stop was Wikipedia, where you can (as expected) find a whole lot of information about this very interesting and useful device. For starters, I learned that an American engineer named Whitcomb L Judson is credited with the idea and the design, which was improved upon by a (no surprises here) Swedish designer Gideon Sundback. Wikipedia also tells me: "The word Zipper is onomatopoetic, because it was named for the sound the device makes when used, a high-pitched zip."  

And yes, I also found out that YKK is Japanese, Yoshida Kogyo Kabushiki, which continues to be the largest-selling brand in the world, selling more than half the world's zippers. There's a lot more information there for those who might have a curiosity about zips, their history and the various uses to which they are put.

One of my favourite magazines, Slate, has an interesting article on the evolution of the zipper, and this is where I finally found some resonance with my frustrating cushion cover experience. The invention, which is now close to a century old, still has not been perfected (and I thought it was only the Indian zippers). As the author of this article notes, a malfunctioning zipper can render a whole garment (or a favourite cushion cover) unusable.

Fortunately for me, I managed to get the cover on the cushion, and zipped up. And I learned something. Not bad for a Saturday morning.


Anonymous said...

But today's Saturday no?

Usha Raman said...

Haha, it is! I guess I am already in tomorrow :) But thanks, I shall edit it.