Chances are that if you have kids of a certain age, you’ll have heard of Loom Bands – also known as ‘Rainbow Loom’ (equally, the childless out there may have wondered why every kid in Ireland seems to be covered in elastic from wrist to elbow since about February).
They are this generation’s Yo-Yo, Hula-hoop or Tamagotchi – an addictive and hugely popular toy phenomenon that has come from seemingly nowhere to capture the imaginations of kids all over the world in 2014.
Winner of Toy of the Year 2014 from the international Toy Industry Association, Loom Bands and Loom Band-related products represent ALL of the top 25 best-selling toys on Amazon.co.uk right now.
So popular are the multi-coloured elastic bands – used to weave jewellery such as bracelets or necklaces or more complex items such as charms, neckties and more – that some Irish schools have felt the need to ban them from the classroom (even Jimmy Kimmel got in on the act with his 'Suit of the Loom').
Many parents love the fact that their children’s imaginations are exercised by something tactile, crafty and creative as opposed to the latest tablet app or Xbox game. However others bemoan the hundreds of tiny elastic loops now found in every corner and crevice of the house, waiting to be hoovered up, while an animal rights group in the Phillipines even issued a warning about them, saying they could be dangerous to pets if ingested.
But who invented them, what can be done with them and how did they come to be this year’s must-have toy?
Loom bands are the small, multi-coloured elastic bands from which the bracelets, necklaces and other items are woven.
They are sold in packs of hundreds or thousands, either single-colour or mixed, and usually with other necessary accessories -(c- or s-shaped little bits of plastic which are used to connect or close the bracelets) and (essential for the weaving).
While simple Loom Band bracelets etc can be made using just fingers and hands, the more complex designs require the use of a- a plastic pegboard that operates on the same principles as a loom that would have been used for weaving fabrics in the 15th century.
Here in Ireland the craze is commonly referred to as ‘Loom Bands’, but elsewhere it may be called ‘Rainbow Loom’, which is the proprietory brand name of the company formed by inventor(more on him below).
Bracelet patterns vary from simple chains (that can be made using fingers and hook only) to more intricate designs with names such as ‘fishtail’, ‘inverted fishtail’, ‘dragon scale’, ‘rainbow ladder’ and ‘hexafish’ (more and more designs are emerging over time, as part of the appeal of Loom Bands is the ability to create now patterns and do new things).
Loom Bands and the Rainbow Loom haven’t been around long – they were invented just three years ago by Michigan man Cheong Choon Ng, a Malaysian of Chinese descent who emigrated to the USA in 1991.
A mechanical engineer by trade, Choon was working as a seatbelt technology developer for Nissan in 2010 when he noticed his daughters Teresa and Michelle weaving elastic bands on their fingers to make bracelets.
Choon tried to join in but found his fingers were too big, so he thought that some kind of loom to hold the bands would help, and set about making a prototype using a wooden pegboard and dental hooks.
Encouraged by his family to try to sell the product commercially, Choon found a factory in China to manufacture the parts, which he and his wife assembled in their home in June 2011 (is brother and niece came up with the name Rainbow Loom).
“His engineering background, which includes product design, quality control and manufacturing experience, provided a solid foundation for the project, and his brother, Cheong Yeow Ng, an engineer and inventor living in Wichita, Kan., encouraged him to sell the product online,” the New York Times reported in a 2013 profile of Choon.
However the product wasn’t immediately a success, with flat early sales blamed on the fact that people “didn’t know what to do with it”.
Choon’s luck changed in 2012 after a major US toy store ordered an initial batch of 24 looms, and called him back two days later when they sold out.
“The key to selling the kits, it turned out, was educating buyers about how to use them,” the NYT reported.
“Specialty toy and craft stores were just the place for loom demonstrations and classes.”
Choon soldlooms in 2013, leaving Nissan to head the Rainbow Loom company and supervising distribution out of a 7,500 square feet (700 m2) warehouse near his home.
However, success has bred imitation and most of the thousands of 'Loom Band' products now flooding the market are not manufactured by the original Rainbow Loom makers. Choon has sued the makers of rival products for patent infringement and continues to warn agains the dangers of counterfeits.
The sky's the limit, and YouTube is your friend.
Loom Bands can be used to make bracelets, necklaces and charms using dozens of different patterns as well as more advanced objects such as belts, bags and charms.
The Rainbow Loom website has an entire page of instructional videos which range from the simple 'single chain' pattern for beginners to more advanced creations with names such as 'Delta Wing', 'Totem Pole' and 'Flower Power'.
Meanwhile, loomers from all over the world have found a home on YouTube; creating, posting and sharing instructional videos such as the one below from Ashley, in which she teaches us how to make a 'Fishtail Rainbow' pattern bracelet (that video alone has clocked up over 10m views - we love how she gets interrupted when her mom calls her at the 2.30 mark!)
Another popular source for Loom Band tutorials is Justin's Toys - check out his instructions below for a 'Hexafish 6-Pin Fishtail Bracelet' (and that's only the first half!)
There's been a teeny bit of controversy about Loom Bands in Ireland with some schools having imposed restrictions on their use.
"A school in Tipperary have asked parents not to allow children to bring Loom Bands to the classroom - as they believe that they are interfering with children’s learning," according to Mummypages.ie.
A spokesperson for the unidentified school said the decision was made "to prevent the Loom Bands being used as catapults".
"We were pre-empting issues like that," the spokesperson told Mummypages.
Online commenters gave a mixed reaction to the school's move with many saying that other schools also had such restrictions in place, but others saying a ban on Loom Bands was overkill.
"I banned them in my classroom and many of my colleagues did the same," wrote Una Silke-Colfer on Facebook.
"Impossible to get anything done with 25 kids fiddling with all the pieces, flicking them across the classroom and constantly arguing over who owns bracelets etc."
"There's a time and a place for everything and if they're interfering with concentration and causing arguments/being used as catapults, then how the Hell could anyone have a problem with them being restricted in the school?" wrote Sharon Boggans.
However Suzanne Stafford wrote: "I think they are great for kids".
"I work with young people and I find them a great way to engage the ones that are quieter or less easy to engage, and I have never seen some of them so quiet for so long or concentrating on anything for so long," she added.
"I agree they could be distracting in a classroom but they should be allowed at breaks or used by teachers as a means to get to know the kids a bit better."
No matter what the argument about whether or not teachers should crack down on them - a moot point right now anyway, seeing as the schools have broken up fro the summer - it seems that Loom Bands are here to stay.
While they have been compared to previous toy fads such as Silly Bandz (remember them from last year?), toy experts say they are here to stay.
"Loom bands are bigger," Esther Lutman, assistant curator at the Museum of Childhood, told the BBC.
"I would bracket them with marbles in the Victorian era, yo-yos in the 1930s and hula-hoops in the 1950s.
"They are quite cheap, which helps explain their spread around playgrounds. They are at their absolute peak now. Who knows what will be next?"