Loom boom: the fad that refuses to fade
This summer, children will be trailing elastic circles everywhere they go – just look down at the ground. What’s going on?
They come in waves: collectible doohickeys that fixate schoolchildren, vex teachers and keep corner shops in business. From figurines to trading cards, a play craze operates in rough biannual cycles, and the best you can hope for is not to invest too late and wind up with a dozen souped-up spinning tops that nobody wants any more.
I knew we were peaking in April when my daughter Lucille’s teacher announced that Rainbow Looms were banned from the classroom.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look down. See any tiny, broken rubber bands in Day-Glo pink or glitter green? If not, you must be in an adult venue, because this summer’s children leave trails of elastic circles everywhere they go. They lodge in floorboards, fill vacuum-cleaner bags and colonise washing machines.
The bands – which look like the ones children used to wear in their mouths before orthodontics got classy – are used to weave bracelets in a variety of patterns using a small plastic loom or, more often, nimble little fingers.
Made in Detroit
They were invented in 2010 in a Detroit basement by a Malaysian immigrant, Cheong-Choon Ng (see panel below), who convinced his wife to gamble their daughters’ college fund on a prototype. In the intervening years he has sold millions of looms and billions of bands.
So what’s the attraction? In my house, it started with my seven-year-old fiddling about with rubber bands she had brought home from school. She was grimly determined to make something of them, and I couldn’t help. Pressure to buy a loom kit mounted. Several emptyings of the dishwasher later, I finally agreed to buy her a starter kit, by which time they were all sold out. Cue tiny rage.
It took a couple of weeks for the shops to catch up with demand. In that time Lucille had learned to produce quite sophisticated bracelets using only her fingers. She was absorbed.
My girl is no slacker but I have never seen her apply this level of concentration to anything before. She can spend hours watching looming tutorials online and trying to copy them. One particular pattern evaded her many times, but she kept going back and trying again. At one point I tried to help, but this is fidgety fingerwork of the sort that fills the swear jar. I left her at it.
Boys join the fray
It turns out that this fad is gender-neutral, however; after months of mock-indifference, my son grudgingly asked for a demo. Now he’s looming away, in colours to reflect World Cup teams mostly. He says some of his friends have managed to loom animal shapes and pencil grips. One lad is reportedly attempting a quilt.
I thought that when school finished the looming would peter out, but now I’m not so sure. A week into the holidays and she is still going through bands like a whale through plankton. Just this week I took her on yet another trip to the bargain shop to spend more of her birthday money on bags of bands. I couldn’t believe my eyes. What was once a small rack of loom bands had grown to a whole section. I did a rough tot: in this one Dublin shop they must have had 250,000 individual bands in stock.
They come in neon, in camouflage, in metallics and sparkles. They are themed for TV shows such as Twilight and football teams such as Manchester United. Hurry on, Ryanair, you’re missing a trick.
There’s a pile of rubber bracelets mounting by my bedside, and each morning brings a new variation, loomed at who knows what hour of the night.
The right to not-bare arms
Lucille’s arms seethe with dozens of bracelets in a pasty white undergrowth of latex-dependent bacteria. That’s just our house. Who can imagine how many billions of little bands are clogging up the dumps and drains of the world?
That will be the next story: the environmental fallout. How long before we see the first baby seahorse strangled by a tiny pink rubber band?
By then the kids will be ready to move on to the next thing, and I will have to find room for this rubber mountain in our graveyard of Silly Bands, Moshi Monsters, Bakugans and Yu-Gi-Oh! cards. If only I could be the next Cheong-Choon Ng and build an empire from my basement with my kids’ college fund. But that would require a basement, and a college fund, and in my case both are consumed by the last big thing rather than the next.
BORN NEAR THE FOURTH OF JULY: THE REINVENTION OF THE LOOM
Around this time last year, Cheong-Choon Ng finally secured the patent for his craft sensation, the Rainbow Loom. The story of Ng, a Malaysian immigrant who moved to the US in the 1990s to raise and educate himself and his family, is a classic tale in the land-of-opportunity tradition.
Ng created the first loom in his Detroit basement using a wooden board, thumb tacks and dental hooks. He got the idea from watching his two daughters craft bracelets from rubber bands using their hands. He thought they could create more intricate jewellery with a multilayered loom, and he was right.
The family had $10,000 put by for their daughters’ college fund, but they decided to spend the money on the production of a prototype and the first run of plastic Rainbow Looms.
Using Ng’s little plastic loom and hook, “loominaires” can create bracelets, rings and anklets from tiny rubber bands. The loom was not an overnight success; at first Ng had problems explaining it to retailers and potential users. Then Youtube became part of the story. Ng couldn’t make his idea take off until his daughter began posting videos demonstrating how the loom worked. A quick search today turns up hundreds of loom demos, some with 20 million hits. More than three million of Ng’s looms have sold around the world. David Beckham, Harry Styles and Kate Middleton have all been photographed wearing loom bracelets.
Countless knock-offs are circulating : last August, Ng sued rival Zenacon LLC, claiming it copied the Rainbow Loom’s C-Clip, which is used to fasten bracelets together.
Rubber bands are harder to patent, and the looms are often cast aside as children learn to loom with their fingers. The Rainbow Loom set costs €17-€20. However, you can pick up knock-off versions in bargain shops for €2-€10. Bags of bands with C-Clips and hooks can be purchased for as little as 99 cent.
Ng has said in interview that he initially wanted to manufacture the product in the US, but it would have cost $12,000 to get the first run of looms made in Detroit, and he only had $10,000, so he tracked down a facility in China where Rainbow Looms are now manufactured in their millions.