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Zips and Zippers Part 1

I think installing a zip or zipper as they are more commonly referred to in the U.S. is one of the more intimidating sewing tasks. I know so many people who try to completely avoid installing a zip and find other closure methods instead, simply because they are too overwhelmed by the task.

I think there are three common reasons why people want to avoid them

1. When you look at zips that have been installed you realise they aren't all installed the same way and that makes us worry that even if we were to install the zip we may not have chosen the correct method. Then we get overwhelmed with having to learn all those different ways. These tutorials are going to show you a few ways to install zips that in turn will give you the confidence to be able to tackle a more complicated looking one.

2. Zips either come with no instructions or they come with some very basic instructions a bit like flat pack furniture and we all know how confusing that can be. Hopefully the instructions in the next parts of these tutorials that work through an easy project will help you understand how you can use a zip for your own needs.

3. The vast amount of different kinds of zip. You can get different colours, lengths, widths, plastic or metal teeth, different size sliders and pulls, some have two sliders some just one, and sometimes you can just buy a length of zipper that you cut to size as needed, these sometimes have the sliders already on and some come with the sliders separately for you to install yourself. To add to all that the manufacturers try to help us by naming the zips, I have seen them called, handbag zips, sports zips, locking zip, jacket zip. fashion zip. No wonder we feel like it's all a bit much and maybe not worth the effort. This isn't true, zips are one of the easiest closure methods in sewing and one of the most secure, they close the opening completely not leaving small gaps for things to fall through.

First lets look at size, the length is pretty easy, measure the length of the place you want to install the zip and buy a zip at least that length. It does not matter if you buy a longer zip usually because you can cut it down to the size you need. The width of the zip usually is between 1" wide and 1.25" wide. Sometimes they are numbered as #3, #4.5, #5, these numbers refer to the width of the teeth in mm, not the tape. The most common zip that you find is the all purpose zipper that comes in a cardboard package these are almost always a 1" wide tape with #3 teeth and they have a small pull, usually the nylon teeth are coloured to match the tape and the slider and pull. These are good to use when you don't want the zip to stand out, as in a dress or cushion cover. #4.5 zips have 4.5mm wide teeth and usually a 1.25" tape and a number #5 zip is similar but the teeth are slightly bigger. These bigger sizes can be used for bags and jackets and things that need a strong zip.

You can also buy zipper tape, this is a long length of zip that you cut pieces off as you need them so you can cut to the size you want and there is less waste. It is a good idea when using this kind of zip to cut it an inch or two longer than you need, especially if the slider isn't already attached to the zip.

Colour is also easy, if you want the zip to blend into the item as you might for a dress or cushion cover, then choose the best colour match. With other things such as a bag you can choose if you want to match the colour or go for something that stands out more and adds to the flair of the item. If you want to match the colour but you can't find a colour that matches, try black, white or a shade of grey or beige, those neutrals, if you choose the closest won't pull the eye as a colour that's not quite right would.

Most zips now have nylon teeth, but you can get some that are metal, metal teeth are seen as being stronger and work well with stronger fabrics like denim jeans. Often though the metal zip is used as a fashion choice, there are even some nylon teeth that look metal. If you are using a zipper with metal teeth be very careful sewing over the teeth, if the needle hits the metal it will break. Nylon teeth are generally safe to sew over but still go slowly as they will sometimes still break the needle if you are not careful.

The slider part of the zip (the part that moves up and down to open and close the teeth) will be sized to match the width of the teeth and usually the same colour and material as the pull (the part you hold onto to pull the slider up and down). The pull can vary in size quite a lot, The basic zip normally has a very small pull, which can be a good thing if you are using the zip on a dress or a cushion cover where you want the zip to be hidden. Sometimes though, it is better to have a larger pull so it is easier to hold onto, such as on a bag. One important thing to remember about the slider of a zip is that it can be changed!

As you can see from the picture above, not only can you buy zips with different pulls, you can also buy the slider and pulls separately. Being able to buy them separately gives you the opportunity to fix a broken zip or to add a unique designer look to your project. The pictures below show a roll of cream zipper tape with the slider and pulls already attached, it looks quite plain so I changed the plain cream pull for a pretty silver coloured one and the end result is an unique bag with a designer look.

There are a few tricks to changing the slider and pull on a zip, you can see many on youtube but the simplest one that I have found is to open the end of the zip up a little way, by just pulling the teeth apart, and then cut one side of the tape about 1/2". A zip slider has a straight side and a rounded side, slip the rounded side onto the longer side of the tape and move it to where it just reaches the shorter side of the tape, thread the shorter side of the tape into the other side of the slider and push it firmly until you hear a faint click. You should then be able to fasten the zip as normal.

Some people never seem to change their presser foot when sewing and manage perfectly well, I however am one of those people who changes my presser foot all the time. I have a few that I really like and find them useful for more than they are designed to do. In the pictures below are the zipper foot, 1/4" foot, ditch quilting foot and a standard or zigzag foot.

Top row, left to right, Four presser feet, zipper, 1/4", ditch quilting and standard; 1/4" with side blade

Middle row, bottom of 1/4" foot, ditch quilting foot with centre blade, bottom of ditch quilting foot.

Bottom row, bottom of zipper foot.

Usually when you install a zip you use a zipper foot, they have a wider bar across than the other feet allowing you to attach it to your machine with the left or right side of the bar. If you see the picture showing the underside of the zipper foot you can see it has two different levels and the left and right side are of unequal width. This is so that you can put the foot against the teeth and sew with a straight line with the zip teeth guiding you, depending which side you choose will determine how far away from the teeth you sew, which in turn determines how much of the fabric tape shows. There are different types of zipper feet, all doing basically the same thing but varying in design and maybe another would work better but I find this particular one is so small it doesn't always hold all the fabric in place. You could instead use a 1/4" foot, use the blade to guide your stitches by laying it either against the edge of the zip tape or the teeth, the one shown has two needle holes giving you a little choice in how close to the teeth you sew by moving your needle position. I find the ditch quilting foot so useful for so many other things, I don't think I've ever used it for ditch quilting, it works great for that 1/8" top stitch needed for a lot of bags, and it works great for zips using the blade to again either follow the teeth or the edge of the zipper tape. The wide needle hole gives you more choices by simply moving your needle position. And last but not least you can always use your standard foot and the different needle positions if your machine allows. Use whichever one you are most comfortable with, the way I see it their names are a guide to what they were designed for and in no way stop you from using them for your own creative uses.

Having said that, I have the same philosophy on the names of zips. When you go into a store to buy a zip you may come across ones called handbag, or jacket, or separating, locking, double sided, not to be confused with a double zipper. All these zips have features that make them great for a particular purpose, handbag zips have bigger pulls, a jacket zipper may have a special pull, or might have special teeth that fit together a little different and they will be separating, meaning when you undo the zip you can separate the two parts so that you don't have to step out of your jacket to take it off. Locking zippers simply have a little pin on the underside of the pull when you push the pull against the teeth the pin fits into the teeth and helps stop the zip from coming undone, mostly used for trousers. Double sided zips have a pull on both sides of the zipper tape, perfect for a sleeping bag, a double zip also has two sliders and pulls on it but they are on the same side of the tape, great for luggage with long zips where you can close the zip from both ends and the pulls meet in the middle. You can also lock these double zips with a small padlock through the hole in the zip pull for extra security, like on a suitcase or a private journal. Just because they have these names on them doesn't mean that is all you can use them for, if you are making a sporty looking bag and you want to use a sporty looking 'jacket' zipper, go ahead, you don't have to install it as a separating zipper, it will work just like any other zipper. Simply make sure they do have any features you do need and let your creativity fly.

Part 2 of this zipper tutorial will show you how to very easily in less than half an hour make a simple bag such as a makeup bag or pencil case, with one of the easiest zip installations.

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