perfect zippers, every time: part 1

Friends, you’ve been lied to. Inserting zippers is not hard.

zipper closure of the Holland Cox classic handbag


You hear a lot of noise about how challenging zippers are. You hear dramatic horror stories of epic zipper failure. Of course the process gets built up in your head as some horrible huge thing you need tons of experience or natural talent to conquer.

Don’t believe the hype!


zipper in an envelope clutch


Like anything else in sewing, all you need is the right technique (which I’m about to show you), the right equipment (your machine probably came with a zipper foot, yes?), and practice.

I’m going to show you two ways to insert a zipper, using one of my zip pouches as an example.


perfect zippers, two different ways


the first method: with a topstitch

This is the easiest possible installation for a bag or pouch, and the only way to go if you love the look of topstitching.
Zippers in garments are a little different, but we’ll get to that later in this series!


fold under and press zipper seam allowance


step one: fold and press seam allowances
Fold and press the zipper seam allowance towards the wrong side of the fabric, on both the lining and the self (the “self” is the outside fabric). I use a 1/2″ seam allowance on my bags and pouches, but yours might be something different. If you’re using a commercial pattern, the seam allowance is probably 5/8.”


a word about interfacing:
Don’t skip interfacing in your bags and pouches! Only the stiffest upholstery fabric can hold the shape of a bag without a little help. I like Pellon Shape Flex 101 for light support or curvier shapes, and Decor Bond 809 for something a bit stiffer.


pin lining to self so that folded edges match


step two: pin fabric together
Pin the lining and the self together with WRONG SIDES FACING, so that the folded edges you just pressed are matching along the top.

This prevents the fabric from shifting when you pin in the zipper. Make sure your pins are nowhere near the folded seam allowances.


pin the zipper in between the two layers


step three: pin zipper in place
With the fabric secured, slide the zipper tape in between the folded seam allowances.

Position the zipper so that there’s an equal amount of fabric on either side of the zipper stops, and pin in place.

You see my sewing gauge set at 5/8″? That’s because I will sew up the sides with a 3/8″ seam allowance…that gives me 1/4″ clearance between my stitch and the zipper stops.

It is critical that you account for this clearance! Otherwise your machine needle may hit the zipper stops, which leads to broken needles, sadness, and dramatic zipper failure stories. Give yourself at least 1/8″ for this clearance!


topstitch zipper in place!


step four: stitch zipper in place
Use your zipper foot on the machine to get as close or as far away from the folded edge as you like. I like my topstitch about a 1/8″ away from the fold and 1/4″ away from the teeth, but that is up to you.

If you have a zipper with a decorative tape or a wider tape, you might want more of it showing.


both sides of the zipper stitched down

Repeat steps one through four for the other side of the bag, and you’re done!


the second method: without a topstitch

This method is still pretty easy! But it does require a little more visualization/thinking inside-out.
Sometimes a topstitch just won’t work! If you need to insert a zipper into a curve, you’ll have to use this method.

Sometimes a topstitch will interfere with the design on your bag (like the sanctuary wristlet from my spring 2012 collection below).


sometimes you can't use a topstitch


I use this method whenever I have some kind of applique or patchwork going on, or if I want a slightly more formal look to my bag.


pin zipper to right side of self


step one: pin the zipper to the self
Pin the right side of the zipper (where the pull is) to the right side of the front of your bag.

The raw edge of the fabric and the edge of the zipper tape should match exactly.

Just like the other method, you’ll want to make sure to position the zipper so that there is an equal amount of space on either side of the zipper stops…enough for your seam allowance PLUS at least 1/8″ clearance!

stitch down zipper with a tiny seam allowance


step two: stitch zipper in place
Stitch the zipper in place with a tiny seam allowance; I used 1/8″ here.

This stitch doesn’t even have to look pretty, since nobody’s ever going to see it!


make a zipper sandwich!


step three: pin lining in place
Lots of tutorials tell you to do these two steps at once: to stitch the self, zipper, and lining all together in one big zipper sandwich.

I like to do it in two steps! Since I can’t see the zipper underneath the lining, it could be moving all over the place under there, and I’d never know until it was too late. I feel like I have more control this way, and that my zipper is more secure in the end.

Pin the lining fabric to the self, with right sides facing, forming a sandwich with the zipper as the filling. Make sure all the raw edges line up perfectly.


a word about lining:
Now is a good time to mention that your lining should be a tiny bit smaller than your self fabric…just a 1/4″ shorter will do. Then your lining will fit perfectly inside your bag, rather than bunching up along the bottom.


move the zipper pull out of the way


step four: stitch lining in place
Before you start sewing, remember to open the zipper about half way.

Stitch the lining in place with a slightly larger seam allowance than you used in step two (I used 1/4″ here). That way, you don’t have to worry about matching the seams exactly; you know the first seam won’t show.

Right before you reach the zipper pull, stop with the needle down in the fabric, and lift the presser foot. Peek under the lining fabric and close the zipper, so that the pull is out of your way.


stitch down lining with a larger seam allowance


Then you can put your presser foot back down, and continue your stitch, with the zipper pull out of the way.

Repeat steps one through four for the other side of your bag, and you’re done!

Fold the fabric away from the zipper, so that the wrong sides of the lining and the self are facing each other. Press carefully along the seams, from both the inside and outside of the bag. Admire how straight your seams look and marvel at your expert zipper installation!


both sides of the zipper inserted cleanly


a word about stretchy fabric:
If your fabric has any stretch at all to it, you’ll have to sew both sides of the zipper in the same direction, regardless of what method you use. Otherwise your bag can end up skewed and crooked, or the zipper can look rippled and bumpy. This is another excellent reason to use interfacing, which will help control the stretch.


Now that your zipper is inserted, the next step is to finish your bag by sewing up the sides!


mini clutches with perfect zippers

My next post will show you how to sew up the bag for a perfect finish. You know those dented corners you see on zip pouches sometimes? Never again friends, never again. Stay tuned for part 2!


Get on the Syndicate mailing list to get tutorials like this sent right to your inbox (plus you get a free gift when you sign up!)


Check out the other tutorials in the series:




18 thoughts on “perfect zippers, every time: part 1

  1. Your tutorial is clearly demonstrated in every way! Thank you for using attractive fabrics and perfect photos! I used to sew zippers in clothing with no fear. Now I’m sewing lined market bags, zippered throw pillows with piping and I struggle with these applications. I’ve not made the little bags yet and with three granddaughters, I’m sure they will love them! Thank you so much. Keep your tutorials coming … They are some of the best I’ve seen (and I’ve seen many).

  2. Thank you both, I’m glad you found this helpful! Gayle, I will definitely be dealing with zippered pockets inside a bag lining in a future tutorial, and I will add a pillow with piping to the list…that can definitely be a challenge. Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. This tutorial couldn’t have come at a better time as I was just about to go to bed frustrated. Thank you for sharing your knowledge, as a new sewer it can be much to learn! Thanks to people like you for helping me through the difficult times. Now I am looking forward to finishing my handbag , and the many more that will follow. Thank you šŸ™‚

  4. Melinda, I’m so glad this was so timely for you. Good luck on finishing the handbag!

    Jackie, I hope you’re inspired to start up again soon!

  5. Valerie, I can’t wait to try your techniques, esp. installing a zipper perfectly! Thanks so much!

  6. This was such a big help! Thanks so much. I have struggled and your method made it so easy. Do you have a tutorial for adding a zipper pouch to the lining of a bag. I’m making
    Ethel and it has no instructions for adding an optional zippered compartment.

  7. Thanks for this thorough tutorial. Do you have any YouTube videos on this technique, or any videos?
    Tanks again

  8. I have shared your first method of folding and pressing the zipper seam allowances with my beginner sewing class and all were able to sew their first zipper pouch with excellent results. I also used wonder tape to hold the zipper in place along the outer fabric seam allowance then pinned the lining fabric, marked a sewing guide line, and pinned on the right side of the outer fabric in order to top stitch the zipper in place. Thank you very much for sharing!

    1. Christina, I’m so glad you found this helpful! I love how excited students get with their first zipper pouches šŸ™‚

    2. Thank you for this tutorial. What do you suggest if Iā€™d like to do faux leather exterior with topstitching? Assume must be technique 2 and then Topstitch after?

  9. I have a question, Valerie.. in the instructions for the pouch without topstitch, if you add a topstitch after zipper is sewn on (step 4, pink pouch), will the corners still be as neat? Great tutorial! Very, very helpful!
    Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.