Under The Microscope: Velcro

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Reprinted with permission of McGill University's Office for Science and Society. The original article by Ada McVean B.Sc. can be found here

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Just like Vivaldi was inspired by nature to compose his Four Seasons concertos, the inventor of Velcro was also inspired by nature. Specifically, by burrs.

Swiss engineer George de Mestral first conceptualized Velcro in 1941 after examining the burrs that stuck to his clothes, hair and dog’s fur, something we now call biomimicry- taking inspiration from nature to innovate human design. He sought to mimic the hook-and-loop interaction with woven materials but was not taken seriously by those in the weaving industry. It wasn’t until Mestral turned to the newly invented synthetic fabric nylon and discovered how to mechanize Velcro’s creation (this took about 10 years), that his design began to spread throughout Europe.

It was marketed as a “zipperless zipper” but failed to gain mainstream popularity due to its less than ideal appearance. NASA’s use of Velcro in space suit designs prompted skiers to begin to utilize it, followed by Scuba divers and children’s clothing makers.

A slight aside- it turns out that NASA research or adoption is responsible for many of the innovations we use on a daily basis! Quite a few major technologies, like enriched baby food, cordless vacuums, LEDs and firefighter equipment were developed thanks to NASA. Read more about that here- https://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2008/tech_benefits.html

Today Velcro is used everywhere from in shoes to the International Space Station. It’s so common that I’m willing to bet there’s some within a few metres of you at this very moment. There a few reasons it is so popular as a fastener: It is usable thousands of times (tens of thousands if it’s made of stronger materials like Teflon), it’s cheap to manufacture, its resistant to degradation in wet conditions (although it will absorb water and grow mold) and maybe most importantly, it’s really strong! Velcro (the company) provides weight ratings up to 120 kg for some of its products.