Clothing, pillows, tents, shoes, and purses are just a few places where zippers are used on a daily basis. A relatively modern invention, zippers were first invented in the 1890s as a shoe closure to replace buttons, which were time-consuming to close.
Zippers gained widespread popularity during World War I when the military ordered 10,000 zippers for flying suits and money belts. Early versions of this closure had fun names, such as the Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure, Clasp Locker, Unlocker for Shoes, and C-curity. The name used today came from BF Goodrich, a company that used zippers on rubber galoshes. The galoshes were called zippers because of the sound made when closing them, and the name came to identify the type of closure no matter what type of item it closed.
Parts of a Zipper
As simple as zippers are to use, knowing the parts that work together to make a zipper helps to sew them.
(1) Coils: Also called chains, there are two coils made up of interlocking teeth that mesh together when closed. Coils may be made of nylon, polyester, or metal.
(2) Zipper Tape: The woven fabric part of the zipper to which the coils are attached is called the zipper tape. The tapes extend slightly above and below the zipper coils, except in a separating zipper.
(3) Slider: The slider is the device that moves up and down the coils to bring them together or to separate them to open the zipper.
(4) Zipper Pull: The pull is the metal tab attached to the slider to move it up and down. Zipper pulls are often utilitarian in style but can also be decorative.
(5) Stops: The metal pieces at the coil upper and lower edge are called stops. Upper and lower stops keep the slider and zipper pull from being pulled off the tapes. Most zippers have one lower stop and two upper stops, with one on each coil. Others may have only one top stop for a closed zipper, suitable for pockets and side zippers.
The two most common types of zippers are the conventional zipper and the invisible zipper. There are other types of zippers for special applications, such as separating zippers that pull apart into two separate tapes, zippers made with plastic or metal teeth along one edge, and trouser zippers with extra-wide tapes and heavy-duty metal teeth. The conventional zipper is the one familiar to most people, and it’s used mainly in skirt and pant seams and at neckline openings.
An invisible zipper is easy to install but requires a special presser foot that holds the polyester coils out of the way so the needle can stitch the zipper on the garment seamline. Once the zipper is closed, the zipper disappears into the seamline, and the only visible part is the teardrop tab.
Stitching a zipper is easiest when using a narrow presser foot that allows the needle to get as close to the coils as possible. A zipper foot is also helpful in special situations, such as for making piping, sewing trims, and stitching hook-and-loop tape. There are several types of zipper feet, and most sewing machines include one with purchase. Other styles are often available as optional accessories.
(6) Stationary Foot: This foot works with adjustable needle positions found on some machines. The foot is slim and narrow with a notch on each side. The needle is moved to the right or left as needed to stitch in the notch, allowing the foot to ride beside the coils as the needle stitches near them. Some machine brands have additional options that offer guides to help keep the stitching parallel to the seamline or dual/even-feed functions that help feed the fabric layers and zipper tapes at the same rate, eliminating slipping or shifting during stitching.
(7) Slide or Snap-on Foot: Used on machines with a stationary needle, these feet slide or snap onto the right or left of the zipper coils so the needle can stitch close to them.
(8) Invisible Foot: Necessary for sewing invisible zippers, this foot is often an optional accessory for specific brands. There’s also an inexpensive generic version sold at fabric stores that fits most sewing machines.
(9) Zipper Foot with Guide: Some zipper feet have adjustable guides that make it easy to sew parallel to the seam, creating perfectly stitched laps.
(10) Non-Stick Zipper Foot: A special coating on the sole of this zipper foot makes it useful for sewing zippers into leather or vinyl projects. The coating helps it easily slide across sticky fabrics.
Related: Installing Zippers — Exposed Zippers, Fly Zippers, and Invisible Zippers
Centered Zipper Insertion
Also called a slot zipper, a centered zipper is easy for beginners and works well in necklines and as a back zipper for skirts or slacks. Placed behind a basted seam, the zipper is then topstitched from the front along each side.
- Install an all-purpose presser foot and set the machine for a basting stitch. Sew the seam behind the zipper location, the securing stitches at each end. Change the settings to a standard 3.5mm stitch length and continue stitching the remainder of the seam below the position of the zipper location.
- Press open the seam allowances and place the right side of the zipper tape over the seam allowances, centering the zipper coils over the seam. Pin or tape each side of the zipper tape to the fabric.
- Install a zipper foot and adjust the foot or needle position as needed to sew as close to the teeth as possible. Sew from the right side and begin at the seamline at the zipper lower edge. Stitch using a 3/8” seam allowance parallel to the seamline. Pivot at the zipper beginning and across the zipper teeth, topstitching through all layers.
- Repeat to stitch the zipper opposite edge. Pull the thread ends to the wrong side and knot to secure. Remove the basting stitches.
- Use a zipper 2” to 4” longer than the opening, eliminating the need to sew around the pull tab.
- Close the zipper for stitching, so the tab is above the fabric upper edge, but don’t forget to unzip it before trimming.
- Easily shorten a zipper if needed. Find the desired length by measuring from the top down. Lower the feed dogs on the machine, zigzag across the coils at the desired point, and then trim the zipper tape below the stitching.
- Use clear tape across the zipper to hold it in place for stitching.
- Attach a seam guide to the presser foot to make it easy to sew parallel to the fabric folded edge.
Easy Lapped Zipper Insertion
A lapped zipper is sewn between two separate fabric pieces and works best for home décor and craft applications, such as pillow backs and purses. The extra-wide lap completely hides the coils of the zipper.
- Serge or overcast the fabric edge before folding, if desired.
- Fold one fabric edge 1/2” to the wrong side. Position the folded edge on the corresponding zipper tape; pin. Place the fabric under the zipper foot and adjust the foot or the needle position as needed to sew as close to the teeth as possible.
- Fold the second fabric edge 1” to the wrong side; press.
- Using a fabric marker, draw a line 3/4” from and parallel to the folded edge.
- Place the marked fabric over the zipper with the drawn line next to the coils; the folded edge should overlap the previous stitching.
- Working from the fabric right side, stitch along the marked line through all layers.
Invisible Zipper Insertion
When closed, the coils of an invisible zipper are hidden on the inside, making the zipper right side look like a seam. The zipper is stitched to the seamlines, and the only part of the zipper that shows when closed is the tab. It’s the perfect closure for designer garments where an uninterrupted line is desired. It also works well as an inconspicuous closure for pillows and bags. For this insertion, the zipper is sewn to separate fabric pieces, and the seam below the zipper is stitched after the zipper is attached to the fabric pieces.
- Install an invisible zipper foot.
- Place the zipper tape right side down on the fabric edge with the coil on the seamline.
- Position the coil in the groove of the foot, and sew the zipper length on either side.
- Position the remaining zipper tape on the second fabric edge, checking to ensure the zipper isn’t twisted. Stitch the zipper length.
- Using an all-purpose or zipper foot, complete the seam below the zipper. Zip the zipper to close the seam.
Do you have tips for inserting zippers? Share them with us in the comments!