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Sewing Zippers and Buttons
Machine Sewing Class
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Zippers and buttons that let you open and close things are an important part of a lot of sewing projects, especially when you're sewing with non-stretch fabric. In this lesson we'll learn about some of the different types of zippers and buttons and how to use your sewing machine to attach them. We'll also learn how to use the buttonhole function on a sewing machine to create clean strong buttonholes. Then we'll apply our zipper attachment skills and learn about lining by making a simple zippered case that you could use to store toiletries or other stuff.


Anatomy of a Zipper

There are many kinds of zippers, but they all have the same basic structure:

  • Teeth - the actual zipper part of the zipper, the teeth interlock when the zipper is closed.
  • Slider - the mechanism that fits over both sides of the zipper teeth to separate them or interlock them.
  • Pull - the pull lets you move the slider up and down the teeth.
  • Top Stops - the two points at the top of the zipper that stop the slider from coming off.
  • Bottom Stop (or Stops) - on a regular zipper this piece holds the two sets of the zipper teeth together at the bottom, so they don't separate. On a separating zipper, there is a separate stop on each set of teeth.
  • Zipper Tape - the fabric strips on the edges of the zipper that allow you to sew it into project.


Types of Zippers

There are many types of zippers that are good for different purposes, but here are a few of the basic distinctions:

Separating Zippers - the two sides of separating zippers detach completely from each other when the zipper is unzipped. This kind of zipper is used on the front of coats and other things that need to open and close completely. Some kinds of separating zippers have two sliders that allow the zipper to open from either the top or bottom, or the middle.

Metal and Moulded Plastic Zippers - zippers come in two basic structures: chain and coil. Both metal and moulded plastic zippers are chain zippers that interlock with sets of individual teeth. They are usually larger and more heavy duty that coil zippers.

Coil Zippers - made out of tiny spirals of plastic, coil zippers are smaller and more lightweight. Coil zippers are usually used in garments. The teeth and can be sewn over so the zipper can be shortened easily.

Invisible Zippers - invisible zippers are a type of coil zipper that has the teeth of the zipper on the back of the zipper tape. The front of the zipper can be almost entirely covered with fabric when it is attached, making it nearly "invisible". Invisible zippers are used on a lot of clothing, especially dresses and formalwear.

Zippers Sizes

Coil zippers come in numbered sizes. The numbers correspond to the millimeter width of the teeth when they are zipped closed, for example, on a #5 zipper the teeth are 5mm wide. Zipper sliders usually have this number printed on the back of the slider.


Shortening Zippers

The length of zipper is measured from the top stop to the bottom stop, you don't count the ends of the zipper tape that extend beyond the zipper.

When you are working with non-separating coil or invisible zippers, you should always buy a zipper that is longer than you need because you can shorten a zipper by just sewing across the bottom of the zipper to create a new "bottom stop". Sew back and forth a few times with a sewing machine or just whip stitch by hand around the zipper coils.

Once you have sewn it, trim an inch or sew below the sewing line.

If you need to shorten a separating zipper, it's a bit more complicated. The easiest thing to do it to plan your project to use a standard zipper length, but of course this isn't always possible. Some sewing shops will shorten zippers for you, which is a nice option if it's available. But you can shorten separating metal zippers yourself with a little effort.

First, when you buy your zipper, ask if the store sells extra metal zipper stops, this will make your job easier.

Mark where you want your zipper to end. Then cut the zipper about an inch above your mark, making sure your zipper pull is few inches BELOW where you are cutting.

Carefully cut away the teeth on both sides of the zipper above your mark, cutting as close to the teeth as possible.

Then use your plyers to remove one more of the teeth from each side. Take a lighter and melt the cut edges of the zipper to seal them.

Then take your extra zipper pulls and crimp them down very hard with your plyers where these last teeth would have gone.

Voila! You have a zipper that is just the right length.


Attach Your Zipper Foot

In order to sew most zippers, you need a to use special foot, called a zipper foot. Unlike the regular foot on the left, which presses down on both sides of the needle, the zipper foot on the right only goes on one side of the needle, leaving the other side open.

This lets you sew close to the raised teeth of a zipper so you can install it neatly like this:

My zipper foot attaches just like a regular foot, by snapping into the bottom of the presser foot holder. This zipper foot can be moved to either side of the needle by attaching to the right or left portion of the bar, which allows you to sew both sides of a zipper. Some zipper feet slide from left to right when you loosen a screw, and with some machines you actually have to buy separate right and left side zipper feet, but the concept is the same.


Sewing a Separating Zipper

Depending on where you are using a specific zipper, there are variations on how to attach them, but the basic idea is the same: you attach the zipper to your project by sewing the zipper tape onto fabric.

To show you one way to do this with a separating zipper, I'm going to cut two pieces of fabric about 3" longer than my zipper, and hem them on the bottom edges. Imagine these two pieces of fabric are the center front of a jacket or something else you want to add a zipper to. Since the bottom end of the zipper is finished, you will usually hem the garment before you attach the zipper, and finish the top after you attach the zipper.

Lay your fabric pieces next to each other, right sides up, then detach the two sides of the zipper completely and remove the slider.

Flip each side of the zipper over so the zipper tapes are matching up with the edges of the fabric pointing in, and and the teeth are pointing out. Make sure the bottoms of the zippers are matched up to the hemmed bottom edge of the fabric. Pin the tape down, 1/4" in parallel to the edge.

Now we are going to sew the zipper down, using our zipper foot. Sew from top to bottom about 5/8" in from the edge of the fabric, so you are sewing about 1/8" from the zipper teeth.

Now fold the zippers under so the teeth are pointing towards each other again. Press the edges of the fabric back away from the zipper teeth with your iron.

Go back to your machine, and with your zipper foot still on, topstitch the fabric down next to your zipper on each side 1/4 out from the fold.

Slip the slider back onto the zipper teeth and try zipping it up.

Depending on what you are creating you might finish the top of your zipper in different ways, but a simple way is to just hem the top of the fabric, folding the end of the zipper tape into the hem. Before you do this, you can trim the zipper, tape if it's too long. If the zipper tape fabric is synthetic, as most is, you can melt it with a lighter to seal it.

Then fold the ends of the tape to the side and enclose them into hem at the top of the fabric.


Sewing an Invisible Zipper

Invisible zippers have a bit of a reputation for being tricky to sew in properly, but don't believe the hype, they're really not that difficult. Some people also like to use a special foot for installing invisible zippers, but with a couple of tricks you can use a regular zipper foot just as easily. You've got this.

To practice installing an invisible zipper, cut two pieces of fabric that are at least 5-6" longer than your zipper, and finish the edges of your fabric as you like. I've used a zigzag stitch here.

These two pieces of fabric are going to for a seam, imagine it's the center back seam of a dress or something like that. Below the zipper, the two pieces of fabric will be sewn together in a regular seam. You can sew bottom part of seam now, leaving the top open to install the zipper, or you can install the zipper first and then sew the seam. Installing the zipper first can help prevent pesky puckers that sometimes form at the base of the zipper, so I'm going to show you this method.

Mark a sewing line 1" in from the edges of the fabric. Make a mark on these sewing lines 1 1/2" down from the top of the fabric where the zipper will start.

Open the zipper, then, from the back press the teeth open until they lay flat. Be careful, though, not to melt the teeth though.

Place zipper on top of the fabric, right sides to right sides, and pin the zipper tape to the fabric like this with teeth aligned just outside the sewing line. Use your pins to help keep the teeth rolled open as you pin. If you want, at this point, you can hand baste the zipper before you machine sew it in, but going straight to the machine from here works too.

Now sew this side down with the regular zipper foot, stitching as close as possible to teeth, pressing the teeth down with your thumb as you go.

Sew as far down as you can before the slider gets in your way, then stop. If you want you can try lowering the needle, raising the presser foot and pulling the slider up past the presser foot, but I find this is difficult, and that sewing with the zipper teeth closed doesn't work well, so I prefer to just stop a bit above the bottom of the zipper and then hand stitch over the teeth of the zipper at this point later to create a new bottom stop.

If you want you can re-enforce the zipper by sewing the tape down with another line of stitches about 1/4" out from the first, you might want to use your regular zipper foot for this.

Now pin the second side of the zipper on to the other piece of fabric like this, matching the teeth up to the sewing line in the same way.

Sew the second side on the same as the first, but switch your zipper foot to the other side.

Now it should look like this:

Now close the zipper and fold the fabric right sides together.

Pin the bottom half of the seam seam, and sew with the zipper foot, starting where the zipper sewing lines end.

Press bottom open. You just installed an invisible zipper!

Depending on the structure of your project, you will finish the top end of the zipper in different ways, but you could just fold over the end and hem it like you did with the separating zipper.


Buttons

The other most common kind of closure used in sewing is buttons. You'll find buttons on shirts, jackets, pants bags and all kinds of other things. They are simple and practical, and they can also be used for decoration.

There are two basic kinds of buttons: hole buttons and shank buttons.

Hole buttons are attached through holes that go all the way through the button. They come with either 2 or 4 holes, and are usually used on shirts and some other garments.

Shank buttons are attached by sewing through a loop on the base of the button. Shank buttons are often more decorative because the thread doesn't show on the top of the button so it can be can be textured or covered with fabric.

Shank buttons automatically leave more room between the fabric and the button, so they are are often used on garments made of thick fabric, like coats.


Sewing Buttonholes With a Machine

In order to use a button as a closure, you need some kind of buttonhole. It's easy to sew a traditional buttonhole with most sewing machines, and some even have automatic buttonhole settings and a few buttonhole options. Mine just has one manual setting, but it works great.

To practice sewing buttonholes, first create a fused and hemmed edge on two pieces of fabric. Fusing your fabric will help you create stable buttonholes that won't unravel.

Measure button diameter of your button, and, if the button is extra thick, measure the thickness too. Add these measurements together and add 1/8" to get the length of your buttonhole. If you are using particularly thick fabric, you might have to add more. For this reason. It's a good idea to make a test buttonhole with your measurements to see if your button fits.

Draw your buttonholes on the hemmed edge. With a T at each end like this:

Blouse and shirt buttonholes are usually positioned vertically, while outerwear buttons are horizontal because that leaves room for the button to slide as you move or put on more layers. Decide which way you want to orient your buttonholes, then mark far enough from the folded edge of the fabric that the buttons don't overlap the edge.

Put the buttonhole foot on your machine if it has one. Mine came with a simple buttonhole foot, but I actually find that my regular foot works better.

To start making a buttonhole on my machine, I set the stitch length selector between 0 and .5 to determine the density of the buttonhole stitches, and set the stitch selector to the first step in the buttonhole sequence like this:

On my machine you start your buttonholes from the back, so place the fabric under the foot and lower the needle so it is in the top center of the T.

Start sewing to create the left side of the buttonhole, stop when you reach the end of your mark, with your needle to the left.

Turn the dial to the second step in the buttonhole sequence, then sew about 6-8 stitches across the base of the buttonhole. Stop with your needle to the right, raised above the fabric. Then turn your dial to the third step in the buttonhole sequence.

Sew up the right side of the buttonhole, the machine will automatically sew backwards.

Stop when you reach the top where you started, stop with your needle to the right, then turn your dial back to the second step in the buttonhole sequence and sew about 6-8 stitches to close off the top of the buttonhole, then set your stitch to straight stitch and your stitch length to zero and sew a few stitches in place to lock.

Now you need to cut open the center of the buttonhole. A good way to do this is with a seam ripper. Before you cut, put a pin across both ends of the buttonhole so you don't cut through the stitches.

Then use the seam ripper to cut right down the center of the buttonhole.


Sewing Buttons With a Machine

Sewing buttons on by hand is really quite easy (though I swear the most common sewing question I get around the office, is "can you help me sew this button on??"... and yes, it's almost always a guy asking). If you are just re-attaching a single button, hand sewing is probably the most efficient, but when you are sewing a project that has a lot of buttons, sewing them on with a machine can save you time. Unfortunately, however, you can only sew 2 and 4 hole buttons on with a regular machine, not shank buttons.

To sew a button on with your machine, first mark where you want the button to go, in this case I'm using the buttonholes I made to mark the position of the buttons.

To hold your buttons in place on your fabric, it is helpful to use clear tape which you can remove after you sew.

Before you sew the button on your machine, you need to lower the feed dogs so the button will just stay in one place under the needle. To do this on my machine, you remove the extension table and open the bobbin compartment. To the right of the bobbin there is a lever which you have to push down and to the right to fit into the next slot. You should see the feed dogs drop below the needle plate.

To raise them again later, move the lever back to the left, and then turn the handwheel towards you until the feed dogs pop back up.

You can buy a special foot that is designed for sewing on buttons, but I find that my regular foot works fine. the only problem is that when sewing in smaller buttons, the regular foot will sometimes rock backwards, so you might need to put something under the back of the foot to prevent this.

Position your button under the foot with the holes of the button in the opening of the foot, drop the foot and and set your stitch to zigzag. Use the handwheel to slowly lower the needle into one of the holes of the button and then the other. If it doesn't hit the center of both holes, adjust the zigzag until it does.

Then press down on the foot pedal to sew about 8 stitches through the button. Pull the button out and snip the threads leaving about 4 inches.

Thread the threads onto a hand needle and stick them through one hole of the button so they are between the button and the fabric. Wrap the threads a few times around under the button, making a little shank. This doesn't make as tall as shank as you can make when you are sewing on a button by hand, which is one disadvantage of the machine button sewing method.

Now use the needle to bring the threads to the back of the fabric and tie them off to make a knot.

Now you have a set of buttons and matching buttonholes. We won't be using buttons in our class project in this lesson, but they are definitely an important skill to master, and in the next lesson, we'll use buttonholes for the drawstrings of our pajama pants.


Quiz

{
    "id": "quiz-1",
    "question": "The interlocking parts of a zipper are called:",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "teeth",
            "correct": true
        },
        {
            "title": "claws",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "gears",
            "correct": false
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "That's correct",
    "incorrectNotice": "That's incorrect"
}
{
    "id": "quiz-2",
    "question": "True or false: you need an invisible zipper foot to insert an invisible zipper.",
    "answers": [
        {
            "title": "True",
            "correct": false
        },
        {
            "title": "False",
            "correct": true
        }
    ],
    "correctNotice": "That's correct",
    "incorrectNotice": "That's incorrect"
}

Create a Lined Zipper Case

Now let's put our zipper attaching skills to good use by making a little case that can hold toiletries or other things. In the process we'll also learn one method for sewing in a lining.

One thing I especially like about a project like this, is that it emphasizes how sewing is a puzzle about spatial relations and order of operations. So much of what we do when we construct a sewn object involves figuring out how to do everything inside-out so that when we flip it around, the work we've done is hidden. Learning to think this way takes a little practice, and can be brain-twistingly frustrating!... but mastering it is incredibly useful, and really rewarding if you have a penchant for puzzle solving :)

Materials:


Cut the Fabric

We don't really need to follow a pattern for this project because it is such a simple shape. All you need to do for the body of the case it cut out two identical rectangles, one in your lining fabric and one in your outer fabric. The short dimension of the rectangles will be the length of the bag and the longer dimension will be the distance all the way around the bag:

You can vary the size easily, as long as the shorter ends of the rectangles aren't longer than your zipper. I am using a 16" zipper, so I made my rectangles 16" x 24". In the end I thought this was a bit too big, so I'd suggest a size of about 15" x 22".

I cut my rectangles out with a ruler and cutting wheel because they have nice straight lines that are easy to cut. I cut them out individually, but you could also lay them on top of each other and cut them together. Mark your dimensions, then lay your ruler over the fabric and hold it down firmly with one hand while running the cutting wheel along the edge with the other hand. Press down firmly with a smooth motion (also, be careful).


Attach the First Side of the Zipper

Lay your lining fabric out with the right side facing up. Unzip your zipper and lay it right side up, lined up with one of the short sides of the fabric. Line the zipper tape up with the edge of the fabric with the top zipper stop about 5/8" in from on edge of the fabric.

Pin the zipper tape down in a few places.

Take your outer fabric and lay it over the same side of the zipper with the right side facing down. Align this piece with the lining piece and pin all three together. Removing the first set of pins as you go.

To make sure this zipper goes in really cleanly, I basted the three layers together about 1/4" from the edge, tying my thread off at both ends.

Put a zipper foot on your machine, oriented to the right side of the needle, then sew along the edge of your fabric close to the zipper sandwiching the the zipper tape between the two layers of fabric.

When you are done, you should be able to fold back both sides of your fabric to expose the zipper.


Attach the Second Side of the Zipper

Now we are going to do the same thing to the other side of the zipper. Lay what you've sewn so far out like this, with the two layers of fabric folded down, exposing the attached side of the zipper and the lining layer folded back under to meet the unattached side of the zipper.

Line the unattached side of the zipper up with the raw edge of the lining, and pin it down the same way we did on the first side.

Now fold the outer fabric up from the front, and line it up on top of the zipper with the wrong side out.

Pin it down so you are sandwiching the zipper tape between the two layers of fabric like you did on the other side.

Baste and sew in the same way. When you're done the whole thing will look like this:


Press and Topstitch

To make sure the zipper is sitting neatly in the case and doesn't catch on the fabric when we zip it closed, we need to press the fabric away from it on each side and topstitch it down.

To do this, first flip the layers of fabric around so they are arranged like this:

Then press the outer fabric and lining back away from the zipper with your iron on both sides.

Put the regular foot back on your machine and set your stitch length to about 3. Topstitch over the folded layers about 1/4" away from the fold. I used the zipper itself as a guide for the far right edge of my foot.

Repeat on the other side of the zipper.


Cut the Corners

Now we are going to cut out little squares from the corners of the fabric that will be sewn to create the box corners of the case.

First flatten all the layers with the zipper in the middle, measuring to make sure it is even on both sides, and placing a couple of pins through all the layers next to the zipper to keep it in place.

Then use your ruler to mark a box in each corner. The size of this box will determine how tall the sides of the case are (they will be about 1/2" taller than the diagonal of the square). You can choose the size of the square, but you need to make it 1/2" longer on the side parallel to the zipper (the side I'm marking with the chalk here) to account for the seam allowance on the end. 2"x2 1/2" is a good size.

Place a pin in each corner as you mark them, and when all the corners are marked, cut them out with your scissors.


Sew the Ends Closed

Once you've cut the corners, flip the layers around again back to the way they were right after you sewed in the zipper with the loop of lining fabric on one side and the loop of out fabric on the other, right sides facing in. The cut out corners should all be matching up with the zipper in the middle.

Open the zipper a little so you don't sew over the zipper slider, and pin both ends closed across the ends of the zipper.

Sew the ends closed 1/2" in from the edge with your stitch length set back at 2.5.


Flip and Topstitch

Now you need to turn the whole thing right-side out. Reach into one of the cut out corners and start turning it.

This will take a little fiddling, but eventually it should look like this:

I decided to topstitch the seams along the ends, because I thought that would look nice, but you don't have to. To do this, open the zipper, and use your hands to flatten the lining against down away from the end seam below the zipper.

Change your stitch length to 3. Take the accessory box off your sewing machine to expose the free arm, then maneuver the seam under the presser foot by sticking the free arm inside the case through the open zipper. Topstitch about 1/4" below the seam, and repeat on the other side.


Pin and Sew the Corners

Now we are going to sew the first of two sets of seams that will create clean finished edges on the corners of the case.

Keeping case turned right side out, pinch all the corners and pin them together like this:

Then sew about 1/4" in from the edge on each corner.

Trim away the excess so only about 1/8" remains. Repeat on all four sides.


Create the Handles

Before we sew the seams that will finish these edges, we need to create the handles that will be sewn into them.

I decided I wanted my handles to be 1 1/2" wide, so I cut a strip of my star wars cloth 4 1/2" wide and 16" long. I also cut a strip of fusible the same length and fused the back of the fabric.

Then I folded the long edges of the strip in 3/4" and then another 3/4" like a double fold hem on each side that met in the middle.

I topstitched down each side, and then cut the whole strip in half creating two 8" long sections.


Sew in the Handles

Now we are going to do the final step which will both finish the corner seams and attach the handles.

To do this, line the ends of handle strips you created up with the corner seams. The middle of the handles, should sit right at the end seams of the case.

Pin the handles down about 1" from the corner seams on each side, then flip the whole case inside out.

Pinch the corners and pin them together like this:

Sew the corners about 3/8" in from the edge, creating a french seam that encloses both the seam allowance of the corner seam and the end of the handle.

Turn the whole case right side out again and the ends should look like this:


You're Done!

Flipping the whole thing inside-out and back so many times can get a bit dizzying, but it's kind of magical how it all ends up finished in the end, isn't it? No hand sewing required!

Now you can use your little case to store whatever you like (and, if you use the same lining as me, whatever you put in there gets to live in a galaxy far far away! :). I especially love how adding an interesting lining gives this simple bag a fun twist. Like the other projects we've made, this design is easily customizable by adjusting the size, fabric and notions, so show us what you've created by posting a photo of your finished project below.

In the next lesson we'll learn some techniques for gathering fabric and then put them into practice when we make a pair of pajama pants.

CLASS PROJECT

Share a photo of your finished project with the class!

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