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Everything I Know About Zippers

Well .. not quite everything, but let's go with what's been converted to HTML. You will see in the sidebar what I have planned for this page, and if the item appears as a link, what is here now.

Many people would rather chew nails than sew a zipper into a garment, but avoiding zippers severely limits what you can make.

The big problem seems to be getting past the zipper pull. I've read many ingenious solutions to this problem, but the most common one goes like this:
"I always use a longer zipper; example for a skirt where you need a 7-inch zipper, I get a 9-inch one. When sewing the zipper in, I let the extra length hang off the top. Then I bartack the top and cut off the excess."

There is really no need to go to that extra trouble and expense, not to mention the risk of ruining the zipper completely. If you remember to put the needle down first, you can raise the presser foot and move that pull anywhere you want.

Before you start to install any zipper, read Keying a Zipper, and be sure to follow the steps in Tips for Perfect Zippers. Then go to the type of zipper application you are using.


Keying a zipper

This is the single most important tip I've ever learned for setting perfect zippers. It's from Claire Shaeffer's wonderful book, High Fashion Sewing Secrets, p.96 (quoted with permission)


To key the zipper, close the zipper and stitch across the zipper tapes above the top stop. Then clip the stitching between the zipper tapes. If your zipper is in a dress or blouse, stitch 1/4 inch (6 mm) above the stop to leave room for a hook and eye.

If the zipper is in pants or a skirt, stitch only 1/8 inch (3 mm) above the top stop.

key zip

To key the garment, staystitch across the neckline (or waistline) just inside the seamline. Before continuing, check to be sure both sides of the opening are the same length between the key stitching and the end of the opening. Clip the threads between the sides of the garment.

Align the stitching on the zipper to the stitching on the garment when you set in the zipper.

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Tips for perfect zippers

from Clare Schaeffer High Fashion Sewing Secrets, p 112


  • use the correct length of zipper
  • set the zipper before assembling the garment, while the sections are still flat
  • finish the seam allowances before beginning to set the zipper
  • chalk-mark the seamline
  • instead of basting the garment opening, carefully press the seam allowances under, according to the type of application you are using
  • always stay the opening by applying strips of fusible interfacing to the wrong side of the seam allowances
  • always key the top of the zipper and the garment
  • steam press the zipper to remove any creases or wrinkles
  • make your zipper self-basting by using wash-away basting tape
  • ease the fabric to the zipper tape. The minimum amount of ease is 1/8 inch of fabric to 12 inches of zipper

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Inserting a centered zipper

Photos below are of a set of samples I made for my Durham College classes to illustrate the steps in sewing a centered zipper, which explains why the zippers are different colours. Contrasting thread, with different colours in needle and bobbin was used to show up on the samples. When sewing a zipper into a garment, you would of course use matching zipper and thread colours.


Step 1. Prepare the elements

  • stitch key lines on the garment's upper seamline and the zipper tapes
  • use bias strips of interfacing slightly narrower than the seam allowances
  • clean finish the raw edges
  • mark where the bottom stop of your zipper actually falls
prepare to install centre zip

Step 2. Sew the garment seam

Starting at the bottom of the garment, match the raw edges with right sides together and any notches matching, stitch the seam up to your mark for the bottom zipper stop. Reinforce this point by backstitching.

Press the seam open. Continue to press the seam allowances back along the opening for the zipper. Press again, on the right side, making sure there are no bubbles or tucks at the bottom of the zipper opening.

Step 3. Stitch the zipper tapes to the seam allowances

Change the presser foot to a zipper foot.
Lay the garment, wrong side up, with the top closest to you.
Lay the zipper, face down, on the seam allowances, with the top closest to you.
Pin, baste, or Wondertape® one side of the zipper tape to the seam allowance ONLY, carefully matching the key lines at top and keeping the zipper teeth or coil centered on the pressed edge of the opening.
centred zip step 1 Flip the rest of the garment away to your left. Using your zipper foot, start at the bottom of the zipper tape and stitch the zipper to the seam allowance, keeping your stitching in the middle of the zipper tape.
When you are within an inch or two of the top zipper pull, put the needle down, raise the presser foot and slide the pull down past the needle and out of your way. Put the presser foot back down and continue stitching to the top of the zipper tape. Lock your stitching at both the beginning and end of the seam.
Again, lay the garment wrong side up, with the top closest to you and fasten the other side of the zipper to the other seam allowance, being careful about matching the key lines and keeping the teeth centered.
If you have trouble keeping the pressed seam edges together under your zipper, hold them together temporarily with a piece of tape on the right side.
Stitch the zipper in the same way, to this seam allowance ONLY.
centred zip step 2

Step 3. "Topstitch" the zipper opening

--except we are going to 'topstitch' from the underside.
centre zip step 3 I find it easier to keep my stitchlines straight and even when the feed dogs aren't fighting with the zipper coil, so I do this last step from the 'wrong' side.
Before starting to stitch, be sure the folded edges of the seam allowances are lying flat, and meeting over the centre of the zipper coil.
Keep your stitching exactly 1/4 inch from the zipper coil. Stitch down one side (moving the zipper pull out of your way as necessary) until you are one or two stitches past the bottom zipper stop.
Pivot and stitch across the bottom of the zipper, until you are exactly 1/4 inch away on the other side. Pivot again and stitch to the top.
While stitching, stop every once in a while and lift the garment up to check that everything is still in position underneath.
Voila! A perfectly-finished, centred zipper. finished centre zip

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The fly-front zipper with a shield

I like a fly front zipper with the teeth inset 1/2 inch from the centre front fold on the overlap (right-hand) side, and a fly shield behind the zipper teeth on the underlap (left-hand) side. This means that the waistband must be cut with an extension beyond CF on the underlap side to enclose the width of the fly shield, but since I also like the waistband to extend beyond centre front on the overlap side, both front waistband pieces can be cut the same.

Photos below are of a sample I made, using muslin. The wrong side of the fabric is cross-hatched. Centre front lines are marked in red.


Step 1. Adapt the pattern

Cut the pant or skirt fronts with seam allowances that extend 1 inch beyond centre front line, for the length of the zipper teeth, then curve this extension back to the normal seam allowance so that it ends 3/4 inch below the bottom zipper stop. On the underlap side (the left-hand side for women), trim the extension back to 5/8 inch beyond centre front.

fly_zip pattern

Cut 2 fly shield pieces, the same width and shape as the overlap extension, but with 1/4 inch seam allowances added to the curved edge. The under shield piece may be cut from self-fabric or from lining.

Step 2. Prepare all the elements

  • interface the seam allowances and the under shield piece
  • construct the fly shield by sewing the two pieces together along the curved edge; notch the curve, turn and press
  • key the zipper and the waist seamline on all pieces
  • clean finish all raw edges
  • press overlap extension to inside on centre front line
  • chalk mark the topstitching line on right side of front overlap side, or do as I do and use a template
  • stitch the crotch seam on pants fronts (or the centre front seam on a skirt) to the zipper stop mark

Step 3. Sew the zipper and the fly shield to the underlap side

Lay the zipper face down on right side of the underlap extension, with the edge of the zipper tape aligned with the edge of the extension, and the key lines matching. Pin, baste, or --my preference-- Wondertape.

Lay the fly shield on top of the zipper, with the straight edge of the shield aligned with the zipper tape and extension edges and key lines matched.

Pull the zipper pull down. Using a zipper foot, start at the top and stitch this 'sandwich' together, 14 inch from the edge. When you have stitched about two-thirds of the way down, stop, with the needle down, raise the presser foot and pull the zipper pull back up to the top. Continue stitching to the bottom of the shield.

Turn the zipper and shield back so the zipper is face up. Press.

Depending on the weight of your fabric, you may wish to topstitch the edge of the fold to the zipper, stitching through the shield as well.

Step 4. Sew the zipper to the overlap side

Fold the overlap extension out, away from the pant. Place the zipper face down on the extension with the edge of zipper tape aligned with the edge of the extension. Be sure the key lines at the top match. Pin, baste, or use Wondertape.

Pull the zipper pull down. Using a zipper foot, start at the top and stitch the zipper tape to the extension only. When you have stitched about two-thirds of the way down, stop, with the needle down, raise the presser foot and pull the zipper pull back up to the top. Continue stitching to the bottom of the zipper tape.

Step 5. Topstitch (this is the only tricky part)

Fold the extension back to the inside. Topstitch on the right side, following your chalkline or template. Stop stitching exactly at Centre Front. Keep the fly shield and underlap zip folded away so that you don't catch them in the topstitching.

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Changing zipper type and length

Unless the extra length inside the garment will be irritating, I prefer NOT to cut zippers, but to shorten them by simply stitching a new bottom-stop across the coil or teeth, either by hand or (very carefully) by machine.
Sometimes, however, you may really need to perform surgery on a zipper. This is how to do it.


To Shorten a Coil Zipper

To do this, you just need a pair of scissors:

  1. Pull zipper slider down out of the way
  2. Mark the desired length on the zipper tape
  3. Cut off excess zipper tape to within about 1 inch of your mark
  4. Fold the extra inch under and back towards the slider. Pin or tack in place.

To Shorten a Tooth Zipper

You will need: 2 top-stops, scissors, and pliers or nail clippers

  1. Pull zipper slider down out of the way
  2. Mark the desired length on the zipper tape
  3. Cut off the excess zipper tape to within 1 inch of your mark
  4. Remove the small zipper teeth between your mark and the cut end of the zipper tape. Remove them one at a time with nail clippers or pliers, being careful not to cut into the tape itself.
  5. Place a top-stop at the end of the teeth on each side and press firmly in place.
  6. Fold the extra inch under and back towards the slider. Pin or tack in place

To Change a Separating to a Non-Separating Zipper

You will need: 1 bottom-stop, scissors, pliers or nail clippers

  1. Do the zipper up. Cut off the bottom joining teeth of the zipper.
  2. With your fingers, gently separate the bottom 1 to 2 inches of zipper. Remove the last few zipper teeth one at a time with nail clippers or pliers, being careful not to cut into the tape itself.
  3. Push the bottom teeth of the zipper together with your fingers and clamp a bottom stop into place below them.

Seal the zipper tape raw edges

You can use a lighted match to seal the raw edges of the zipper tape when you have cut it. Hold the edges just above the flame. The fabric will melt slightly and then will not ravel. Just be very careful.

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