Design by Nature: The Burdock Plant Is The Reason We Now Have Velcro

Design By Nature is an ongoing series in which Garden Collage explores aspects of modern clothing design inspired by plants. This week, Garden Collage investigates the origins of velcro.

In traditional medicine, the fruits, seeds, roots, and leaves the Burdock plant have long been used in tinctures, salves, and teas used to treat a wide range of ailments– including colds, catarrh, gout, rheumatism, stomach ailments, and more. As a relative of wild thistle with known anti-inflammatory properties, Burdock has also been used as a diuretic, a diaphoretic, a laxative, and– in some cases– even an aphrodisiac. But did you know that the Burdock plant is also the inspiration behind Velcro?

In 1941 a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral was hunting in the Jura mountains in Switzerland when he noticed small burrs from what was later identified the Burdock plant stuck to his pant legs and covering his dog’s fur. He and his dog had been traversing riverbanks where Burdock typically grows wild (it does well in disturbed habitats where it can self-seed, and propagates its seeds through burrs that get stuck and distributed by the fur of passing animals). De Mestral wondered how the tiny hooks of the cockle-burs (the seed packets produced by Burdock, which are covered with stiff spines) were sticking to him. He took the specimen home and examined the tiny hooks at the ends of the burr’s projections under a microscope, and he observed an interlocking mechanism that inspired him to consider: could a series of small scale, interlocking hooks have a practical application in attire? The burrs, after all, had clung to de Mestral’s pant leg in a manner that seemed to defy gravity– and they persisted even after his dog rolled around in the grass.  De Mestral was inspired to model the configuration for use clothing.

In 1948, de Mestral patented his idea and, along with help from friends in the weaving business, finally duplicated the hook and loop fastener inspired by the Burdock plant. The result of his new invention was Velcro ® brand fasteners, a name that came from the French words for velvet (“velours”) and hook (“crochet”).

The ensuing product festooned thousands of tiny plastic loops to the exterior wall of a piece of fabric, which could be snag-fastened to the thousands of tiny hooks attached to a second piece of cloth whose loops were oriented in the opposite direction. Nylon, when sewn under infrared light, forms tough hooks for the burr side of the fastener. This is what happens on a microscopic level when Burdock burrs (and their tiny hooks) get stuck on woven clothing (which is a series of tiny thread loops).

Today, de Mestral’s invention is known more simply as “Velcro.”

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