June 18, 2015

Photo Essay: The Surprising Secret Life of the Zipper

It's taken me a while. They said it would. But I'm finally starting to find my fellow misfit toys.

I thought I was the only one who'd want to tour a zipper factory. I was surprised my boss approved the idea and let me put an event together.

I didn't do it for the money. I did it because I wanted to tour the zipper factory, and I was too embarrassed to ask for a tour by myself.

I figured I'd sell five tickets. But at least then, I'd be with five other people, rather than all by myself.

But you know what? Thirty people bought tickets, and another ten people added themselves to the waitlist. And some of those people were way more excited to step into U-CAN Zippers' facility than even I was.

And it turns out, zippers are one of those things in life that you take for granted, but have a fascinating secret life.

U-CAN has a dye laboratory where it concocts custom colors for the tape, teeth and sliders – because no colors of zippers are naturally occurring.

Even white zippers have to be whitened from their natural cotton color (which is more of an off-white). And besides, U-CAN does more than a dozen shades of white (and as many shades of black).

Almost all the zippers that U-CAN manufactures are for apparel, but some are also used for bags, and even furniture coverings and car seats.

As fashion dictates zippers can be either a colorful embellishment...

...or a utilitarian fastener.

The tape that holds the teeth comes on these giant bobbins...

...and the wires that make the teeth are ready to be unspooled, and fed into one of the factory's many machines.

It's loud in there, and while walking through, you may encounter a cloud of paint fumes, or tiny pieces of debris flying through the air as the zippers get formed, sliced, and spliced.

Some of the processes have become automated with more modern machinery, requiring less staff...

...but this is still a pretty handmade process...

...requiring at least the watchful eye of someone standing over the machine...

...ready to unclog the bottlenecks...

...and feed the sliders into the hopper.

The equipment is more reminiscent of a film projector than a sewing machine.

The process of the teeth being added and joining together with a slider is mesmerizing.

Some customers order batches of one length of cut pieces, but if they need various lengths, they might just order one epically long zipper and cut it down themselves.

There's a surprising amount of variety available in the zippers offered – not just in colors (though rainbowed, swirled and marbled are not yet available), but also in material (copper, plastic, nylon), finish (nickel-free nickel, antique) and size of the teeth. The biggest one they offer is a 15 gauge, but most of them tend to be more like a 5 gauge.

It's hard to imagine a zipper that big appearing on a piece of clothing. Then again, it would've been hard to imagine a zipper at all, if you'd only ever fastened your clothing with buttons, snaps, and laces.

The world constantly surprises.

Related Posts:
EVENT: The Last Zipper Factory in the West - with Obscura LA
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Photo Essay: A Book By Its Cover

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