Introduction: Sewing Zippers and Buttons

Picture of Sewing Zippers and Buttons

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 I'll suggest some projects that will help you practice your zipper attachment skills.


Anatomy of a Zipper

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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

Picture of 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"
}

What's Next?

Picture of What's Next?

If you want to practice attaching buttons and zippers, there are many great projects on Instructables you can try! I’ve written one on how to sew a Zippered Dopp Kit that I think is a great beginner to intermediate project which will also show you how to attach a simple lining. I recommend trying this project because I think it demonstrates how sewing is often a puzzle about spatial relations and order of operations, which is an important concept to grasp.

If you choose to try this project or any other project that uses the skills you learned in this lesson, feel free to post a photo in the Class Project section below. I'd love to see what you've created!

In the next lesson we'll learn some techniques for gathering fabric with and without elastic.

CLASS PROJECT

Share a photo of your finished project with the class!

Nice work! You've completed the class project