We’ve all been there before. You’re sewing along, and you need to add a zipper, but which one?
There are so many different types of zippers out there that it can be hard to figure out which one is right for the project you’re working on. Should you use an invisible one or a regular one? What about metal zippers vs plastic ones? Which length should you choose? And how do they even work?
The first thing you need to know is that there are two main types of zippers: invisible and exposed.
Invisible zippers are great if you want your garment to look seamless or don’t mind having an extra step in your sewing process.
Exposed zippers give a more industrial look and finish off garments beautifully, but they require some additional steps before using them in your clothing projects.
To help you decide which type of zip would work best for your next sewing project we have created this guide with all the information you could possibly need on how to choose the right zip fastening for any sewing project!
History Of The Zipper
The patent for the first modern zip fastening was issued in 1917 to Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American engineer, who also created the machine to manufacture them. Before the invention of zippers, common clothing fastenings were either buttons or hooks and eyes.
The zipper was not immediately embraced by women as it was deemed too masculine for everyday wear and there was a fear that they would actually damage the fabric used in women’s clothing.
House dresses featured zippers but were often hidden behind bows or other decorative elements. It was not until design innovations were made to make zippers more feminine that they became popular with women’s clothing.
The zips used in clothing today are almost all made of nylon or metal, though zippers were once exclusively made of brass or steel.
How Zips Are Made
Zipper teeth are made from metal, nylon or plastic in a variety of materials, colors and sizes. The teeth can be created as individual zipper tooth or as a spiral coil.
They are combined with a fabric tape so that they can be sewn into the seams of clothing or sewn onto fabric for pockets and exposed zip openings. The most common tapes are made from polyester and nylon, though cotton is also a favourite and other fabrics are also in use for more specialist zippers.
When the zip pull is used, the slider ‘slides’ along the teeth and brings them together underneath to ‘close’ the zip. If too much stress is added the teeth can separate, but for the most part, a zipper is a very secure fastening for clothing!
Usually there is a stopper to prevent the zip from fully separating – these are sometimes called non-divisible zippers – but there are also open ended zippers that allow both sides of the zip to separate.
5 Parts Of A Zip: Zipper Anatomy
In case there are any terms that you’re not sure of, here’s an overview of the five different parts of a zipper:
- Zipper Tape
- Zip Teeth
- Zipper Slider / Head
- Zipper Pull tab
What Is Zipper Tape
Zipper tape is the fabric element of any zip. It is what is sewn into seams or onto fabric in the case of exposed zips.
It can be made from cotton, though nylon and polyester are more commonly used, and some zip brands such as YKK also create zippers with tape that is patterned or featuring color combinations!
You should decide the tape based on the garment and fabric you are sewing. As an example, a heavy cotton taped zipper would not do well inserted into a silk skirt while a zip made with satin tape is not the best suited to outerwear garments!
What Are Zipper Teeth
The part of the zipper that closes and opens. Whether spiral or individual teeth, this is a key part in the design of the zipped fastening!
The Slider Or ‘Head’
The slider slides long the zipper teeth, bringing them together and separating them. The slider width is often a key measurement used when measuring for a zipper.
The Zipper Pull Tab
Used to pull the slider up and down the zipper teeth. It can be customised to suit your project better.
The Zipper Stop
This refers to the stops at the top and bottom of a closed zip to prevent the slider from sliding off as well as the stop and retainer box on separating zippers – the latter of which ‘holds’ the slider on one side!
Six Different Types Of Zippers Used In Sewing
There are six types of zippers used in sewing, with zip teeth made from plastic, nylon or metal! Other things to consider when selecting one are the fabric tape, how they open and the method used to sew them into – or onto! – fabric.
Zips can be sewn into garments so that they are ‘concealed’ or used as a visible design feature, like exposed zips in leather jackets. Let’s look at the main types of zippers:
- Open ended (also known as separating zippers)
- Two way open-ended
Both the molded plastic zipper and the metal zip are considered as standard chain zippers – they feature teeth made from either metal chain or molded plastic and are closed at the bottom. This keeps the zip opening limited to the length of the zipper, as there is a ‘stop’ at the bottom of the teeth to prevent it opening any further.
Like all other types of zippers listed here, they are inserted into garments using a zipper foot.
Coil zippers are made from nylon or polyester coil and used in clothing. The coil is created from a spiral element and they are closed at the bottom.
There is an incredible selection of coil zippers on the YKK website to help you better understand the many different options available!
This is a zip made in one long continuous length, and can be cut to the exact size that you need. You then purchase zip sliders and pulls separately to better suit your design.
Invisible zippers are a type of zip that doesn’t leave any visible stitching on the garment they’re being sewn into.
They have very fine teeth which when closed, make it concealed and the tape used is often finer, more mesh-like in appearance.
When sewing in an invisible zipper, you’ll need to stitch the seam very close to the zipping element – there’s no need for any topstitching – and the best result is achieved when using a dedicated invisible zipper foot for your sewing machine.
Open Ended Zippers
Open ended zips are the opposite of a closed end zipper, and are also known as separating zippers. These zip from the bottom up, and are used in clothing items like zippered hoodies, dresses with a centre front or centre back zipped opening and jackets or coats.
When sewing in an open ended zip, you’ll need to carefully align and secure both sides of the zipper before sewing, otherwise you may hand up with the start and finish point being wonky!
Two Way Open-Ended Zippers
Two way open ended zippers are zippers that open at both the top and bottom.
They are a little more ‘gimmicky’ than standard open ended zippers, but some people like them – on jackets they can be used to open up the top and bottom for more ‘space’ and when used on dresses, they can be used to hide or reveal more skin.
Essentially, two way open ended zippers are used as more of a design feature than a functionality feature in clothing.
Difference Between Invisible zipper Vs Regular Zipper
The main difference between an invisible zipper vs regular zipper is the visibility. When sewn in correctly, the invisible zipper is completely concealed as the zipper teeth are on the underside of the zipper. A regular zipper has the teeth on the top of the zipper tape and so are visible when sewn in.
Zipper Size: What Sizes Do Zippers Come In
There are some standard lengths that are commonly used, but you can also buy zips in less common sizes too. And of course, you can buy continuous zipper chain and cut to a custom size!
When it comes to zippers, they are sized based on the zipper length and the width of the teeth when the teeth are closed.
How To Measure A Zipper
To measure a zipper, you’ll want to make sure it is closed, and then take your measuring tape and measure from the top stop to the bottom stop. Ignore any tape above and below these stops!
You’ll also want to measure the width of the zipper teeth and even the slider at its widest point too, to make sure there is enough space to accommodate the zipper in full.
Zips Sizes #1 To #4
These are smaller sized zippers suited pants, skirts and dresses. The coil or teeth on zips in these sizes will be narrower – between 1mm and 4mm – and the zip slider or ‘head’ as it is often referred to will will be narrower and smaller.
Zips Sizes #5 To #7
These are medium sized zippers. Sized between 5mm and 7mm, they Make a great jacket zipper and work well for coats and sportswear items too.
Zips Sizes #8 To #10
These are large sized zippers which are best for any heavy duty clothing in need of a strong chunky zip – jackets and skiwear spring to mind – or if the zip is being used as a design feature rather than a functioning fastening.
Difference Between A #3 Zipper vs #5 Zipper
The main difference between a size 3 zipper and a size 5 zipper are the width of the coil or teeth and the side of the slider. A #3 is narrower and smaller, the #5 is wider and bigger.
Choosing The Right Type Of Zipper
It’s important to choose the right type of zip for your sewing project, and this guide will help!
If you’ve been unable to source a zipper in the exact length that you’d like, continuous zipper may be the best choice for you, as you can buy it by the yard or meter!
Use a continuous zipper:
- When the zip length options available are not right for your sewing project
- When you want to save on waste, and cut zips to size whether short or long
- When you want to add a zip pull or slider in a certain style as a design feature
Invisible Tooth Zipper
As mentioned above, this zipper is great for concealing openings in garments!
Use an invisible tooth zipper:
- When the opening needs to be concealed
- When the fabric is lightweight and a heavier zipper would drag and distort it
Zips with metal teeth have long been a firm favourite. They come in different metal colors, and are strong and long lasting.
You can also adjust the length of a metal toothed zipper by physically removing some of the teeth!
Use a metal tooth zipper:
- When you need a strong zipper that will last many years
- When you want a more ‘expensive’ looking zipper – I love Riri zippers for this!
- When zipper weight isn’t an issue – metal zippers are the heaviest type
Nylon Coil Zipper
These are more flexible than metal zippers, come in a variety of colors and are the most common zipper type used in clothing. They usually have a smaller slider as the coils are narrower than toothed zippers, which makes them a touch easier to sew in.
You can also sew over the teeth easily with your sewing machine and not break your sewing needle – as long as the needle is not a fine one!
Use a nylon zipper:
- If you want to be able to shorten easily – you can sew over the tape several times to prevent the slider from moving further down
- If you need a flexible zipper – the spiral coil is more malleable than plastic or metal
Open Ended / Separating Zipper
Sometimes called a ‘dividing’ zip, the open ended or separating zipper is used:
- On items needing to be fully opened to put on, like jackets and coats
- As a centre front or centre back design feature on clothing like dresses and skirts
These are zippers used with design in mind. The teeth are big and made from plastic, and are usually open ended, though you can buy with smaller plastic teeth too.
They are not as long lasting as zip fastenings with coils as once a molded tooth has been damaged or broken off, the zip is no longer usable.
Use a plastic zipper:
- When you need a chunky zipper as a design feature
- When you need a zipper with a more structured tape
Two Way Separating Zipper
This zipper type is useful for:
- Providing more customisable styling options – such as a pencil skirt where the split height is adjustable based on personal choice
- As a design feature in more trend based clothing
Types Of Seam Allowance For Zippers
When zips are placed into garments, they need a seam allowance to allow enough room to work freely and not catch on the main fabric of the garment. 15mm is a good amount for most zips used in garment sewing patterns, but there are things to consider before sewing them in.
If you plan to sew in a very wide and dramatic zip, then you’ll probably a wider seam allowance amount. A zipper with teeth that cover 2″ / 5cm in width will have a wider amount of tape, and so will require more allowance to be sewn securely.
Meanwhile a narrow invisible zipper will need a smaller amount of seam allowance to align the edge of the tape with the edge of the fabric.
As a standard, I personally use 1cm, especially when sewing in an invisible / concealed zipper.
Finally, your zipper seams should be straight and flat but zips can be sewn into curved seams – it just takes a little more practise to get the zip to sit nicely.
Types Of Zipper Application
Whichever type of zipper you opt for, you’ll need to insert it, and this is best done by sewing machine with a dedicated presser foot.
Presser Foot Choice
The three options are:
- Adjustable zipper foot – indents on both sides of the foot allow the foot to be used with the needle in the centre position, to get a closer stitch line when sewing zips
- Concealed zipper foot – a specially created foot which allows the zipper teeth on an invisible zip to run beneath the foot while the sewing machine needle stitches close, enabling a beuatifully concealed application!
- Standard presser foot – while not recommended, it is possible to install a zipper using a standard presser foot, though you’ll want to make sure that the needle position is adjusted to accomodate the position of both the teeth, slider and pull.
Methods Of Zipper Insertion
There are ways to insert a zipper:
- Trouser Fly
You can learn more about the different methods of sewing zippers here and if by this point you’ve decided that zips aren’t for you, you can check out these clothes fastenings which make great zipper alternatives!
Final Thoughts On Zip Fastener Choices
The zippers that you use in your clothing projects can make a big difference to the final outcome. Use metal zippers when weight isn’t an issue and strength is needed, and nylon coils for more flexible zips that are easier to sew into seams, whether straight or curved.
Consider also the type of zipper needed – is it visible or concealed? – as well as the tape type too!
Most of all, have fun sewing zippers into your hand sewn clothing items!
Eve Tokens (aka The Creative Curator) is a fashion designer, creative pattern cutter and sewing pattern designer.
Eve graduated with a 2:1 in Fashion Design from the University of The Creative Arts in the UK, has a BTEC diploma in Creative Pattern Cutting, a Foundation Degree in Art & Design from Wimbledon College of Art and gained extensive experience in the fashion industry by interning and freelancing for London based fashion brands – Hardy Amies, Roland Mouret, Peter Pilotto and others.
As well as running her own small sustainable fashion brand, Eve has more than 25 years experience sewing and making clothes for herself and family members.