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Zipper Maintenance

By Craig O. Olsen
Originally Published in the IAMC Newsletter, April 2011

Zippers!? What, you may ask, do zippers have to do with dual-sport riding? Well, think about it. This ubiquitous fastener touches almost every aspect of our dual-sport riding. They are in our riding jackets and pants, and sometimes in our riding boots. Almost universally they form the closure for our tank and tail bags, and sometimes even our saddlebags. They also secure our tents and sleeping bags, plus a number of other bags or devices that we routinely use in the course of our riding season.

The history of zippers is fascinating, and a brief review may improve our appreciation of them. In 1851 Elias Howe received a patent for an “automatic, continuous clothing closure” device that he had invented, but he never pursued it, perhaps because he devoted the majority of his efforts to his primary invention in 1846, the sewing machine. Forty-two years later, Whitcomb Judson, who also invented the pneumatic street railway, marketed a “clasp locker,” a device similar to Howe’s patent that was actually a more complicated hook-and-eye shoe fastener. Supported by businessman Colonel Lewis Walker, Whitcomb started the Universal Fastener Company to manufacture his device. The clasp locker had its public debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, but met with little commercial success.

Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-Canadian electrical engineer who worked for the Universal Fastener Company, designed the modern zipper in December 1913 as two facing rows of teeth that pulled into a single piece by a slider. His patent for the “separable fastener” was issued in 1917. He also developed a machine that manufactured the new device. This machine took a special Y-shaped wire and cut scoops from it, then punched the scoop dimple and nib, and clamped each scoop onto a cloth tape to produce a continuous zipper chain. Within the first year of operation, Sundback’s machinery was producing a few hundred feet of fastener per day.

Gideon Sundback (1880-1954), inventor of the zipper

The B.F. Goodrich Company coined the popular “zipper” name in 1925 when they opted to use Sundback’s fastener on a new type of rubber boot (galoshes) and referred to it as the zipper. The name stuck. It was another 20 years before the fashion industry began seriously promoting the zipper on their garments.

A more recent innovation in zipper design is a model that opens on both ends. Today, the zipper is by far the most widespread fastener, and is found almost everywhere, installed on clothing, luggage, leather goods and various other objects.Therearetwobasictypesofzippers. Theclassic chain zipper consists of individual pieces of metal or plastic molded into shape and set on the zipper tape at regular intervals. The coil zippers are made of continuous spiral coils of nylon or polyester.

In 1834 the Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha Company (abbreviated YKK) began making zippers and gradually became the largest supplier, making 90% of the world’s zippers. Its largest manufacturing center (the largest in the world) is in Macon, Georgia, with 900 employees.
Zippers are so common and reliable (most of the time) that we rarely ever think about them. And that is where we get into trouble when it comes to dual-sport riding. If we don’t
properly inspect and maintain the zippers on our riding and camping equipment, they will fail on us, and that failure can ruin or at least make miserable a perfectly good ride.
When you think about it, the zippers in our riding and camping gear are used and abused to such a level, it is often a wonder that they last as long as they do. The dust, dirt, mud and grime we encounter on the trail get into and affect the proper function of any zipper. Repeated excessive tension on a zipper during its closure (e.g. an overfilled bag or too tightly stretched tent) and forceful closure of a sticking or jammed zipper can take a toil on zipper components leading to their premature failure.

Most importantly, treat your zippers with care. When closing a zipper, pull the zipper sides together to reduce tension on the zipper mechanism, and slow your zipping pace when closing a zipper, especially around tight corners. Brush off any loose dirt with a dry brush. A toothbrush works well for this. Wasthezipper,asneeded,withwaterandaminimal amount of mild soap (Ivory Flakes, Woolite, Sport Wash, etc.). Do not use detergents or soak in soapy water as this may cause delamination of the zipper components. Rinse thoroughly to eliminate any residual soap and air dry.

Periodically, spray with a non-greasy, non-staining silicone spray (3M Silicone Spray) designed for fabrics, and use it sparingly. Another way to apply the silicone is to lightly pray it onto a toothbrush and then gently brush the zipper teeth or coils. Wipeoffanyexcesslubricantfromthezippersothatit does not attract dirt. A light coat of paraffin wax rubbed onto the zipper also lubricates it without attracting dirt. Graphite or Tri-flow lubricant used sparingly also works.

Tri-Flow liquid Teflon lubricant

Even rubbing a plain old #2 lead pencil (It is graphite instead of lead.) up and down the closed zipper a few times will work.

McNett Zip Care cleaner & lubricant

Another good zipper care product is McNett’s Zip Care for periodically cleaning and lubricating zippers on your riding and camping equipment.

Do not use tape (especially electrical or duct tape) on zippers. The tape adhesive will adhere to the zipper teeth, gumming them up and attracting dirt.

Occasionally, a coil zipper will not close when zipped close. In most cases this results from a worn slider. Carefully work the zipper slider back to the full open position on the zipper, and then gently squeeze the back of the slider together using needle nosed pliers. Be careful not to over squeeze as this will jamthesliderorevencrushthezippercoils. Thiswillusually work one or two times, but indicates that the slider is worn and will need to be replaced. While most outdoor equipment zippers are a #5 or #8 (meaning 5mm or 8mm distant across the closed zipper teeth), be sure to replace the slider with the appropriate size and type of slider.

In rare instances a zipper may need to be replaced due to irreversible damage to one or more of its teeth or section of coil. In this case select the appropriate replacement zipper from a fabric store or from Seattle Fabrics (, which has a very wide range of zipper products. If you do not feel you are a sufficient seamstress to undertake this kind of project, try a commercial tailor specializing in riding and outdoors equipment. One I recommend is Gypsy Road Leather and Repair in Garden City, Idaho (Phone: 208-323-0881; [email protected]). While Cheryl’s specialty is repairing leather riding gear for the chopper crowd, she also repairs zippers on mesh and fabric jackets as well as tank bags. She does excellent work at a very reasonable price.
Remember, take care of your zippers, and they will take care of you.

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