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Unzipped: The Madness, the Method, and the Man behind the WaterTight Zipper

“Few things combine simplicity and complexity so thoroughly as a zipper.”

ZIPPER: An Exploration in Novelty, is a book by Robert Friedel which explores the amazing 100-year history of the zipper, that most ordinary of novel technologies with which we interact daily. It’s compelling reading, believe it or not, and reveals much about the culture and values of twentieth century America. Where ZIPPER ends off, however, is where we begin – with the invention of the WaterTight™ zipper.

“People will tell you an idea is bad, even when it’s a good idea.” Fortunately, Mike Blenkarn isn’t one to give up on his convictions. A longtime member of the Research and Development team at Arc’teryx, Mike first began working on the creation of a watertight zipper in 1988.

Twenty-five years ago, waterproof/breathable apparel construction was bulky. It was based on flat two-dimensional shapes; it had flaps and stiff, wide seam tape to protect against leakage. Zippers were stitched in, not glued. Volume was what provided the body room to move, adding excess weight.

Mike on the design floor at Arc’teryx HQ

Distressed by the unacceptable limitations of all this, Mike was convinced that there was a better way to build things. A (mad) scientist at heart, he is very much a hands-on guy when it comes to method. Taking it upon himself to solve the challenge, Mike went about the world while working at MEC, a Canadian outdoor retailer based in Vancouver—skiing, biking, sewing and keeping his ears and eyes open at all times for solutions.

The idea kept percolating. The zipper had to be coated, he thought, to eliminate the need for flaps, tabs and snaps. Mike tried a “reverse coil” – sewing a regular zipper backwards into a jacket so that the coated inner surface was exposed. The problem was the slider; stuck on the inside, there was no way to open and close the jacket. So Mike removed a two-way slider from a tent and ground it down to just what he needed. Inspiration was taking shape.

He continued with the reverse coil idea until 1992, when it was talked down as too impractical, with too many logistics to overcome. Zipper companies weren’t happy, the sliders were a problem, and the exposed teeth were susceptible to wear and tear. Regardless, Mike kept working around the current limitations toward what he believed would eventually be possible.

Product testing on the Bulkley River in BC

An avid outdoorsman, he was constantly in the company of people who knew what they needed and how their equipment was failing them. No one was really comfortable. Mike cut off some more tent sliders, sewed more jackets and continued to explore coatings on zippers. Many, many glues and substances were applied, and many failed. Six years had passed since he first accepted the zipper challenge. It was now 1994, and people continued to tell him that his idea was never going to work. It was a waste of time.

But Mike didn’t quit.

In 1995, just as Mike was preparing to move from MEC over to Arc’teryx, he attended a trade show of industrial fabrics. There he met Stuart Press from Uretek, a developer of polyurethane coatings for outdoor gear. “Yeah, I can laminate urethane onto that zipper for you,” Stuart assured him. A significant connection was formed.

Mike, with all of his previous knowledge, made the move over to the newly formed Arc’teryx. The factory there was a human think tank, a chaotic mix of equipment improvisations, strong personalities and big ideas. Production machinery was made on the fly and techniques steadily improved. The process of perfecting the Vapor™ harness had taught Arc’teryx more about thermoformed construction, lamination as a building tool and how to navigate from basement operation to commercial production.

Mike field-testing new concepts and designs

True to his word, Stuart Press urethane-coated some zippers for Mike, but they had to be painstakingly cut open by hand to release the teeth. However, in tests the urethane stuck to the zippers. It didn’t flake off or become gummy after spending 80+ days out in the field on the backs of Mike’s friends – highways avalanche professionals, mountain guides and people like himself, who did not accept that what currently existed in the outdoor industry necessarily defined how things had to be.

Arc’teryx signed a partnership with W.L. Gore, as the only licensed maker of GORE-TEX® apparel. Mike continued cutting open zippers and steadfastly advanced on a method to glue them into a waterproof/breathable jacket with a clean, secure, solid seal.

Ten years after the first attempts, the WaterTight™ zipper was launched in 1999, at a trade show in Salt Lake City. Bold and confident, the zipper was unlike anything else in the industry, very clean, functional and a testament to commitment, determination and hard work.

“People will tell you an idea is bad, even when it’s a good idea.” Mike’s words are words to live by, for those willing to invest years, accept failures, and still maintain belief. Is he richer for it? In experience, friendships, and professional satisfaction – absolutely.

As Robert Friedel eloquently explains in his book; “It (the zipper) is a remarkable reminder of the capacity of individuals to see the world differently from the way it is and remake it into a new form.”

Over one hundred and twenty years later, unassuming zipper technology lives on.

Reprinted from Lithographica. See the latest issue here.



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