One of the first challenges to beginning sewers is learning to install a zipper. This skill takes patience, as there is more than one type of zipper and installation method. The right presser foot and machine settings are also essential for success and a minimum of frustration.
It’s a skill worth learning. These marvelous closures were a pivotal invention in garment-making, revolutionizing the fashion industry in many ways. Zippers were, in their time, what velcro has been to modern history.
Zipping Through History
Before zippers, closures for clothing and shoes generally consisted of many–sometimes dozens–of hooks or buttons. Dressing and undressing was an arduous chore, and those who could afford it employed assistants to lessen the effort.
The present-day zipper’s history was pulled along in fits and starts. It began as an “Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure” in 1851, progressed to the “Clasp Locker” in 1893, and finally sank its teeth into practical use in 1913, when Gideon Sundback, an electrical engineer working for the Universal Fastener Company, worked out the weaknesses of past attempts and patented the “Separate Fastener.”
The B.F. Goodrich Company changed the name to “zipper” (for the sound it makes) when they decided to use it on a new style of rubber boot. It also became a standard closure for tobacco pouches. About two decades later, it finally worked its way into the clothing industry, beginning, unsurprisingly, as a new closure for men’s trousers in the late 1930s. The rest, need I say, is history.
A Zipper for All Occasions
There are at least 15-20 different types of zippers, and I won’t cover every single one here. There are three primary zipper teeth materials, each with strengths and weaknesses for specific projects.
I’ll begin with zipper basics. Knowing this information will help you understand written directions and choose the correct zipper for your project.
Parts of a zipper
First of all, zippers have four main parts.
- Zipper Tape: The tape is the fabric on either side of the teeth used to sew the zipper to the material. Most zipper tape is a strong polyester with different weaves to help the sewer tell where the seam should be. Zipper tape can also be made from cotton or nylon.
- Teeth: Teeth consists of the interlocking track of the zipper, the part that grabs together to form a closure.
- Pull/Slider: The pull, or tab, is the part you hold onto when opening or closing the zipper. It drags along the slider, or head, the mechanism that locks or unlocks the teeth.
- Stoppers: There are 3-4 stoppers on any zipper. Stoppers keep the slider on the track. The zipper requires all the appropriate stoppers to function correctly.
Zipper Types: Functions
Closed-end: A closed-end zipper has one end stop at the bottom, holding both sides together. The zipper does not separate for greater expansion.
Separating: A separating zipper comes apart at the bottom, with the locking slider attached to one side and a unique stopper that the opposing side slides in and out of to join the sides back together.
Two-way: A two-way zipper has two sliders, enabling it to be opened a small amount anywhere along its length. The opening may allow access to a pocket or provide air circulation when needed. A two-way zipper can also allow easier opening and closing of tents or luggage.
Invisible: An invisible zipper has a narrow pull and is made so that no teeth are visible and little more than a seam is seen once it’s inserted.
Water repellant: Water repellant zippers are made from materials that will keep rain from leaking in when closed. They are most often plastic or nylon to prevent corrosion.
Locking/Non-locking: Locking zippers have a small tab built into the pull that inserts into the teeth like a break that prevents the zipper from unzipping with movement. Non-locking zippers are missing this feature, so they might unzip if tension is applied to the seam.
Continuous Zipper: It is possible to purchase a zipper roll without stops for large projects such as sleeping bags or tents. You will need to buy the appropriate zipper heads and stops, which are sold separately. It is rare to find zipper rolls in stores. I have bought them online from zipper websites.
Zipper Types: Materials
Metal: Metal zipper teeth are made from several materials that affect the look and durability. Metal is the best choice for heavy-duty items. Options include stainless steel–natural or coated with brass or zinc–polished silver nickel, zinc, and aluminum.
Most zippers come in varying weights, which are stamped on the tab. Check your pattern to verify the correct size, or look at the tab to determine the right replacement zipper to purchase.
Molded plastic: Molded plastic zipper teeth are relatively strong, though not as durable as metal. Plastic zippers come in a wide variety of colors to match or contrast with the fabric for a fashion statement. Molded plastic zippers have plastic teeth that interlock like puzzle pieces for a secure bond.
Coiled nylon or plastic: Coiled zippers are made by bonding a tightly wound coil of plastic or nylon to the zipper tape, usually with heat. Coil zippers are lightweight and can pull apart if too much tension is applied. Some nylon zippers will repair themselves, but don’t depend on it. Use coiled zippers advisedly on garments or crafts that will not be subjected to much rough use.
Choosing and Installing the Right Zipper
As sewing experience is gained, knowing which type of zipper will work best with any project becomes more effortless. For beginners, patterns state the preferred zipper for the project. But if you decide to modify a design, consider whether you must also change the type or size of the zipper.
Most machines come with a standard zipper foot. This foot will work for most zippers. Not all zipper feet look the same, but they all allow sewing close to zipper feet evenly from the side while avoiding damaging the machine or the zipper.
Invisible zippers require a unique foot that can be ordered from the manufacturer if it doesn’t come with the machine. Universal invisible zipper feet are available in many fabric stores and online. But I have found them flimsy and unreliable. It is preferable to purchase the foot for your make and model machine, even if it costs more.
Zipper Length and Size
The zipper length is the distance from the top to the bottom stops. It does not include the extra tape at each end.
Zipper sizes go up as the number goes up. Sizes 1-4 are the smallest, used for dressier pants, skirts, and dresses. Sizes 5-7 are medium sizes, ideal for most jackets, zipped hoodies, and light sportswear. Sizes 8-10 are heavyweight zippers used for heavier sportswear and sports equipment bags.
Although it’s not part of the measurements, you might want to notice that larger-sized zippers do increase in width. Because of this, you might want to increase the seam width for some lapped zippers to ensure there’s plenty of material to fold under and create a seam allowance on each side.
There are two basic installation methods for regular zippers; exposed or lapped (placket). Invisible zippers are installed using a very different process.
Exposed: Exposed, or centered, zippers are installed in the middle of a seam without any type of fabric flap to cover the teeth area. Depending on the project and personal preference, a slightly larger portion of the tape may also be exposed.
Using an exposed zipper is sometimes a style statement, as the color is used to full advantage. Other times, an exposed zipper is used for convenience or to prevent zipper jams. Exposed zippers are often used for jackets, bags, and sleeping bags.
To put in an exposed zipper, pin it in place, then sew close to the fabric edge using a standard zipper foot. Use the appropriate needle for the zipper and fabric weight and type.
Lapped: A lapped zipper is most often covered by the seam allowance fabric, though some patterns may call for an additional facing. Lapped zippers are used for dress back or side closures. The teeth of the zipper are not exposed on a lapped zipper.
The easiest way to install a lapped zipper is to hand or machine baste the seam closed. Press the seam open, then place the zipper face-down on the wrong side of the fabric so that the teeth are centered along the seam. Pin or hand baste in place.
The zipper can be sewn from the right or wrong side. You’ll need to briefly remove a pin from one side to pull down the tab as you sew at the top of the zipper on the first side. Then remove a small amount of basting to move the pull out of the way for the second side.
Placket zippers: Placket zippers are covered with a separate, added piece of fabric. Placket zippers are used for projects such as cushions, bean bags, and tent zippers. The placket is the extra flap of material covering the whole zipper from one side. Plackets can help protect zippers from getting caught on loose clothing and from spills or rain.
Pants zippers: Pant flies are modified plackets, using a specially-cut front pattern combined with a matching facing piece. Inserting the zipper requires steps to be followed in a precise order. Follow the pattern instructions carefully for a properly-functioning pant zipper.
Invisible zippers: Invisible zippers are unique in construction and installation. You’ll need to follow the instructions included with the zipper very carefully. Read through the process a couple of times before you start. Don’t skip the step about pressing each side flat before sewing it, as this exposes the seam line.
Invisible zippers come in one size and are plastic or nylon coil. They are primarily used for formal wear such as prom or wedding attire. Try to buy the exact size you will need. Watch a video tutorial if possible before installing your first invisible zipper. And please, take your time as every detail counts.
Replacing A Damaged Zipper
Replacing a broken zipper can be more complicated than putting one in a new garment. Experienced sewers know that putting in the zipper is one of the first steps in making a garment. So replacing it can be a conundrum.
As a professional seamstress, the best advice I can give you when replacing a zipper, especially in a store-bought item, is to PAY ATTENTION!
As you remove the broken zipper, look carefully at how it is inserted–how the seams meet or overlap and where the sewing starts and stops. Take notes if it seems complicated. You will want the new zipper to look like the old one did–as if it just came from the store.
You may be able to repair the zipper if the pull has come off or a stop is damaged. Success depends on the type of zipper and the amount of damage. The bottom stops of separating zippers cannot be repaired. And if the pull is lost on a colorful zipper, it may be impossible to match.
There are video tutorials to help you replace jackets and pants zippers if you need them. But there’s no guarantee the zipper you’re replacing will be put in the same as the one on the video. So again, take careful note of how the old zipper was put in, and you should be able to duplicate the process in reverse.
Zipper Sewing Tips
Take your time!
Never hurry a zipper, or you may end up ripping what you’ve sewn. Plan and measure carefully. Anticipate each step. Sew on a slow speed for greater control.
Pin, pin, pin!
Use as many pins as necessary to secure the zipper in place. Any slip in placement will be evident in the finished product. If you don’t like pins, be prepared to do some serious hand basting. You can also use temporary basting tape to hold the fabric and zipper in place.
Before giving up on a stiff zipper, try using some wax or zipper lubricant to get it moving smoothly. It could save you a lot of time, money, and frustration. It can also keep a sticking zipper from further damage.
Use your iron.
Use an iron to press a new zipper once installed before assessing the success or failure of the effort.
If you’re not sure of the exact size of the zipper you’ll need, buy one you know will be too long and shorten it later.
Having an extra-long zipper can also enable you to let it hang out the top so you can sew the sides without the pull being in the way. Then add new top tabs where you need them and trim/turn under as appropriate.
Start at the same end for each side.
Start both sides at the top or bottom, whichever you prefer. Fabric tends to push ahead, so if you sew one side from the top and the other from the bottom, you could end up with uneven fabric edges.
Zipper feet are designed to be used on either the left or right side of the zipper. But if you’re not comfortable starting from the same end for both sides, remember the tip about lots of pins to keep the fabric from slipping.