Zip Tips

As the owner/operator of a busy sewing shop that specializes in repairs, replacing zippers is a big part of what I do. I thought it may be helpful to share some information and tips about zippers this week.

Zippers are such a wonderful and effective invention.

I have always loved witnessing human ingenuity; the sheer genius of this simple design delights me. We use zippers in so many of the items we use every day that it’s difficult to imagine how the world ever got on without them.

There are a few different styles of zippers: the nylon coil zipper; the invisible zipper; and the toothed zipper.

Toothed zippers come in a few different materials. These include plastic molded zippers; nickel; aluminum; antique brass and brass. The zipper tape (the fabric part of the zipper) is usually made out of either cotton, a cotton blend or a synthetic fibre.

Nylon Coil Zipper

The nylon coil zipper consists of a long nylon “wire” that coils all the way from one end of the zipper to the other in one continuous piece on either side. These are typically seen in

  • jackets
  • dress pants
  • some dresses
  • skirts
  • bags

Nylon Coil Zipper

The nylon coil zipper works well until something disrupts any part of the coil.

Once that coil has been bent or squished, don’t expect to be able to repair the zipper. It will have to be replaced.

I don’t like to use this style of zipper in anything that gets a lot of wear and tear. So jackets, work clothes, back packs and duffle bags would be items I would avoid using this type of zipper in.

Invisible Zipper

The invisible zipper is a coil style zipper that is made in such a way that when it is installed, the stitching lays directly next to the zipper coil. Once installed, this zipper becomes “invisible” as the installation site simply looks like a seam with a dainty zipper pull at the top edge. These zippers are typically used in dresses, skirts and dress pants, any garment that you want to maintain smooth lines for the sake of fashion. The challenge with these zippers is that when you install them, any bulky areas along the seam will tend to stress the zipper when it is being opened and closed. So in a dress, the area where the skirt and bodice meet, for instance, would be a typical failure site for this type of zipper. When I install these, I try to back off just a bit at those bulky places to give the slider a little more room along the coil to make it past without having to be forced. There is a special sewing machine foot designed specifically for installing invisible zippers. It’s very challenging to install them without the special foot.

Toothed Zippers

Toothed zippers are commonly seen in coats, jeans and other casual and work pants, bags and packs. In my experience these tend to hold up the best. The actual zipper chain is definitely bulkier than a coil style zipper is. So for some applications, personal taste may dictate steering away from this style. That having been said, when replacing jacket and backpack zippers,

I always encourage my customers to go with a toothed zipper.

In more fashionable coats, a good compromise is to use an antique brass zipper. These look classier than the plastic or other metal ones. Toothed zippers are available in a number of different materials. (see photo) These zippers make it really easy to customize their length. You can remove teeth with a pair of pliers and easily install “top stops” at the ends to keep the zipper slider from simply zipping right off the ends.

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Zipper chain is what we call the body of the zipper. This can be purchased by the metre and cut to fit in openings that are closed at each end (imagine a backpack pouch, a purse, a duvet or slip cover). The sliders are purchased separately and installed once the zipper is in place. You can get top and bottom stops to apply to the ends, although with many installations, you can simply sew across the end to keep the slider from coming off the zipper chain. Zipper chain is available in a variety of materials and weights. Typically the size we see most is #5. When you see the really big, chunky zippers, (think motorcycle gear) they are usually a size #10. In upholstery cushions, I generally use a #4 aluminum zipper chain.

Plastic or Metal?

Choosing whether to use plastic, or metal comes down to a few different factors. Some people simply prefer one look over the other. If the garment is being used in severe or very snowy conditions, it’s good to know that plastic toothed zippers tend to handle snow and cold better (generally) than metal zippers. When your hands are cold, it’s definitely nicer to handle a plastic zipper. The teeth on metal zippers feel sharp to the touch, not that they would cut you (they won’t). If you are using material that may snag easily, don’t use a metal zipper as the teeth are much more likely to catch on it and cause damage. If you are working in an environment that could potentially be hostile to plastics, choose metal. Brass zippers can be special ordered with fire retardant zipper tape for use in coveralls, coats and other items used in harsh environments (think fire fighters, welders etc.).

Most zipper tapes consist of fabric made of synthetic fibres. Some of the heavier zippers have cotton or cotton blend zipper tapes. Synthetic fibres melt. This is handy when you are customizing a zipper. When you cut the ends, simply use a lighter to melt the edges and they won’t fray. Hot melting synthetic fabric is nasty if it gets on your skin. It melts right into your skin; it hurts something fierce! (I speak from experience.) So you definitely want to be careful with it. It also offers some insight as to why we use fire retardant treated cotton taped brass zippers for fire fighters, welders and airplane mechanics’ safety garments.

The only other thing to add is that zippers come in closed and open ended styles; also called separating and non-separating. Open ended zippers open up all the way, like in a jacket. These can also be purchases as 2-way zippers that open from the top down, from the bottom up and separate to allow the two sides to open completely. 2-way zippers should be used in coats with openings longer than 28″. The idea is that when you sit, the bottom of a coat will pull apart and put stress on the zipper. The 2-way zipper allows you to open up the bottom of that zipper to give your bottom space to sit without harming the zipper. Non separating zippers are used in all applications that don’t require the 2 sides to open up in the way a coat does.

And there you have it. The modest zipper, doing its part to make the world a better place. 🙂

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