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Sewing With Zippers

I’ve been planning to write this post for some time – in fact I was planning on doing it when I still used my vintage machine, but things got in the way (namely the forever problem of irregular tension which led me to giving up with the old machine and buying a new one). Sewing zippers can be a little daunting at first, though they’re a common fastener and so you’re likely to come across patterns requiring them in everything from clothes, to bags, to gifts and items for around your house or travelling. With the right foot for your sewing machine (and the right zip for the project you’re working on), they can be quite straightforward to install.

There’s lots of great tutorials on actually sewing zippers in place, so I’m not going to repeat what they say but I have linked a few later on in the post. The intention behind this post is to help you work out which zip and which zipper foot you need for your projects so you buy the right kind, as it’s surprisingly easy to get the wrong zip for your projects!

Most zipper tapes are made of synthetic fibres
When sewing with zippers, it's important to use the right zipper foot and zip for your project

Zips are sold by the inch, not in metric (usually)

The first thing to note is that zips are commonly sold by length in inches, not centimetres, though some sellers do convert to metric. The length refers to the zip from the top tooth to the stopper, not the length of the zipper tape, which tends to have approximately an inch on either end (if it’s a closed end zipper, or an inch at the top and end in line with the bottom of the zip if it’s an open end one). This additional couple of inches is there to make sewing the zipper in place an easier task, so don’t cut them down. You can also buy zippers on or from a roll, though these require manually cutting to length and inserting the correct stoppers and top teeth for what you need, so unless you’re sewing with zips a lot, then you probably won’t need these.

There are several types of zipper, so it’s worth making sure you get the right one for your project.

The different types of zipper

  • Invisible zip – typically used for dresses and tops, concealed zips do what the name suggests: sewn in properly, they look invisible on the right side of your clothing. Most invisible zips are made from nylon and can be easily damaged, so be careful when working with and using them! You will need a foot for your machine that is specifically for concealed zips in order to properly install them though and this isn’t the same as a regular zipper foot.
  • Jeans zip – designed exactly for the purpose it suggests, jeans zips are the ones you’ll ideally want when working with denim. They tend to be brass zips with the typical stubby zipper pull you’ll find on most jeans – and often they’re on a denim or navy coloured zipper tape.
  • Heavy duty zip – these are typically made with metal teeth and, as the name suggests, they’re designed for heavy duty work. As such, the teeth and the pull tend to be bigger and the teeth are designed to hold together better in situations where there might be more weight or stress on them. Heavy duty zips also have different “numbers” or sizes, which refer to the size and width of the teeth – this is because the different grades are designed to hold different weights. Your pattern might specify a 9″ No. 3 zip, for example. They’re typically useful for things like overnight or duffel bags, where you’re carrying a lot of clothes or other heavy items, but you can also use them in place of a chunky zip if you prefer.
  • Chunky zips – large zipper teeth and a large pull create the chunky look of these zippers, though they aren’t necessarily designed to take much weight or stress since most of these zippers are plastic. If you want a chunky looking zip in metal, you’ll probably find that a heavy duty zip is what you’re looking for.
  • Waterproof zip – very useful to install on bags, jackets, tents and anything else you want to make waterproof, these zips form a waterproof barrier when properly installed and closed. They aren’t common in most sewing or dressmaking stores though, so if you need one you’ll have to have a good look around to find one.
  • Trouser or skirt zip – these zips are perhaps the most general kind for clothing and can be found in both plastic and metal.
  • Cushion zip – like trouser or skirt zips, though generally slightly longer to account for typical cushion sizes, these zips are only really made for occasional use (how often do you change your cushion covers?!)
  • Generic zips – these won’t necessarily have an assigned name, but will generally be referred to by their closure style, as explained below. They can be found in a range of colours, lengths, metals and plastics.

In addition to these different types of zips, many have different styles. There are some, like jeans zips, which have a set purpose and so will always be the same style, but it’s important to ensure you’re getting the right one for what you need.

  • Open end – open end zips allow the zipper to fully separate when it’s open and require the stoppers to be properly aligned in the zipper pull in order to close again. You’ll typically find these on items of clothing such as jackets, where you don’t want the two halves of the zipper to be permanently connected to each other.
  • Closed end – closed end zips have a hard stop at the end and cannot separate out fully from one another. These are most useful where you know you don’t require the zip to be fully separated, such as in a pair of jeans or for a zippered pocket in a bag.
  • Dual pull – these zips are open ended and have more than one pull inserted. You’ll likely find these on longer zips used for big bags, jackets and larger items such as tents where it’s useful to have more than one pull to open and close the zipper.

You’ll want to use a zipper foot when working with zips. These generally look like a presser foot with half the foot missing or with just one central prong and two small cutouts on either side, as this allows you to get very close to the zipper. Many machines come with a zipper foot as standard, though not all do so you may need to buy one.

Sewing with zippers requires a zipper presser foot
On the left is the zipper foot from my vintage sewing machine, on the right is the one from my new machine.

Both of my machines came with a zipper foot, though they couldn’t be more different! The one that came with my vintage machine has the right side cut out, which meant I quite often got my pins the wrong way around! It also meant that the bulk of my project ended up pushed up against the machine instead of on the table as in “normal” sewing. My new machine has one of the newer style with a central prong. On the back of the foot you can attach the foot so that you can sew on either side of the zip, which is really rather useful.

Sewing with invisible zips in the design

If you’re sewing with an invisible zip, the zipper foot you need is shaped a bit like an iron with the tip cut off and it has a small opening for the needle to pass through. Don’t try and sew an invisible zip with a regular zipper or presser foot as you will more than likely damage the zipper. These are some of the more delicate zips you can work with and so you really need to give them the time and attention they deserve. Made to Sew have a really thorough tutorial on sewing with invisible zippers – if you’re considering a project which uses one, check out her video. It’s long, but if you’ve not sewn with invisible zips before, it’s worth taking the time to watch.

Now you have the right zipper and the right foot to insert it, they’re quite straightforward to sew. There are some fantastic tutorials on Youtube for doing different projects with zippers – I always refer back to Professor Pincushion’s tutorial when I need to make a zippered pocket and Made Everyday has a great tutorial on making a simple zipper pouch which is really easily customised. If you’re attempting to use open end zips for the first time, check out this tutorial by Make It Coats.

Sewing with zips is quite common, particularly jeans and trousers
Lots of people get intimidated by sewing zipper flies on jeans, but they're not as hard as they look

I’m sewing my husband’s jeans at present, so I’m working with a 6″ jeans zipper (these have closed ends) and sewing it into the fly. Some patterns will give an explanation of how to do this – but to be honest I often find that watching something tends to make more sense as I can follow along and see exactly how I should be sewing. Tilly and the Buttons have an excellent step-by-step guide to sewing a zip fly on a skirt, but the principal is the same for sewing trousers, and you can cross reference the pattern instructions with the video to ensure you don’t accidentally miss a step. Don’t forget to sew the bartacks, as these give some strength to an area which will get a lot of stress!

Hopefully, this takes away some of the confusion you may feel about sewing with zippers. When you have the right zip and presser foot for your project, they’re quite straightforward to sew and nothing to be intimidated by.