What's the Fuss! (Or, how not to write about zippers.)

I made Simplicity 2226 this weekend (pics coming soon) and it’s a nice pattern — very straightforward, which is good as it’s intended for beginners. (I liked it because I wanted something that in my head I was calling “a Modcloth-esque bike-friendly skirt” — something that looked kind of kicky and cute, but had good pockets and wasn’t so full that I had to worry about it getting caught in my bike spokes.)

Because it was so simple, I pretty much ignored the instructions. (At this point, I can make a waistbanded skirt in my sleep. Actually, if I could be a sleep-sewist, that would be the best thing ever. Wake up to find myself hunched over the sewing machine, having just finished hemming something? Awesome!)

But in folding up the instruction sheets to shove them back in the envelope, my eye fell on this:

what's the fuss!



Leaving aside the slightly unidiomatic “what’s the fuss,” telling someone “oh yeah this thing you heard was hard is just a matter of simple steps” is step one on the list of ways to make people 1) fail and 2) feel bad about themselves for failing.

Because, honestly, zippers don’t just “appear complicated”, they ARE complicated. They require you to have both spatial eptness and patience, which are two things that it took me years to develop as a sewist. Sure, putting in a zipper is simple, but simple ain’t necessarily easy.

I’m not saying that beginners shouldn’t attempt zippers! I think you absolutely should — I think everybody should. Zippers for all! But underselling the difficulty is not the way to inspire confidence in beginners — because when they screw up (and they most likely will, I end up unpicking zippers at least ten percent of the time and I’ve been doing this for DECADES) they won’t think “oh hey zippers are hard, let me cut myself some slack and try again,” they’ll think “oh hey the instructions said this was simple and I screwed it up and oh noes I will never learn to sew!”

Lest you think I am overstating this, I regularly have this conversation:

Would-be sewist: “Did you really make that dress? I would love to learn to sew! I tried to make a skirt once … but I couldn’t put in the zipper right.”

Me: “Zippers are hard! They take a lot of patience.”

WBS: “I guess I just don’t have the knack!”

Me: “It’s really just practice.”

WBS: ::disbelieving stare::

It’s much better to be upfront about it. “Zippers can be complicated, but with careful attention and patience you can get one inserted straight on the first try 90% of the time.” I’d also include a list of things you can do to make zipper-insertion less painful, like hand-basting (some people have luck with gluestick basting, I’ve heard), making sure you have a good zipper foot, always sewing in the same direction on both sides, marking where seams should cross on both sides of the zipper tape (I always do this, it makes a huge difference in getting waist seams to line up), increasing the seam allowance if necessary, and so on. (Has anyone written a “Troubleshooting Your Zipper Insertion” blog post or YouTube tutorial yet? That would be genius.)

TL;DR summary: telling people something is simple makes them feel stupid if they don’t get it right the first time. Telling people something takes hard work but is worth it makes them feel great, even if they get sub-par results. (Psychology geeks: this is probably related to the “Fixed mindset/growth mindset” paradigm.)

34 thoughts on “What's the Fuss! (Or, how not to write about zippers.)

  1. I once got a zipper absolutely perfect. The waist band seams lined up perfectly! I was so pleased with myself. Unfortunately the waistband was also too low – I need to unpick the whole thing and redo the bodice/waistband interaction entirely. It’s been about two years and I haven’t been able to bring myself to do it yet, because unpicking that perfect zip would break my heart.

    My best zip tip was when I found my Year 8 sewing class notes and it said to put the zip in /before/ you sew the rest of the seam, not after. That really helped. :p

    Also, is ept/eptness a “real” word? I think I’ll have to start using it regardless.


    • I think the closest real word is “apt.” I like “ept,” too. I also like to compliment my friends on their “couth,” even though that is a late back formation from “uncouth,” so not a real word by itself until the late 1800s.


  2. for the last 20 years i only use invisible zippers if possible. because they were sewed in on the zipper tape with seams not showing on the right side of the garment its really easy and done without thinking about. when i had trainees they only get 2-3 times till they sew zippers neat and nice with this method. no basting, no pins used.
    (i dont use a “invisible zipper foot”, only a “one leg” foot – einbein)


  3. “step one on the list of ways to make people 1) fail and 2) feel bad about themselves for failing.” Yes! Totally agree!

    “Zippers for all!” LOL!

    I love how invisible zippers look, but as I’m putting them in, I feel like I’m just closing my eyes and making a wish that it will all turn out OK. 9 times out of 10 it does turn out OK, but every single time, I hold my breath and never know until I’m done.


  4. Professionally, as a training developer, it’s a big no-no to use the word “simply”. At best it’s insulting, and at worst, it’s wrong.

    Personally, every time I see that word in instructions, I know it’s exactly the opposite of simple.


  5. I get zippers right 90% of the time too but I am still intimidated EVERY time I have to put one in!

    My perfect zipper happened when I made a dress for my daughter when she was a high school freshman. It was a side zip (I’d never done that before) and was lined and it was a thing of beauty!

    She’s outgrown the dress but I refuse to give it away! I will treasure it always.


  6. When I made this skirt I made it with an elastic back waist instead of a zipper because I wanted it to be extra comfy and sit lower on the waist, although it means that if I put something in the awesome pockets the skirt tends to sag. I was working on an a-line skirt last night and did the zipper wrong the first time, but I always remind myself when I’m sewing that I know how to do things, and it doesn’t mean I’m a failure if I have to pick it out and do it again.


  7. Ugh! I have gotten pretty good at inserting invisible zippers, but I do every “optional” step outlined in my trusty Reader’s Guide to Sewing. Lay down a line of stitching to guide me? Yup! Baste it in? Yup! I consult the book every time, too…and still there are times I have to pick it out because the stitching isn’t close enough or I managed to sew the wrong side of the zipper to the fabric. (This seems to be a specialty of mine.) Definitely a bad way to write directions!


  8. I have never figured out why everyone has such a hard time with zippers. The first time I put one into a jumper I was making, just followed the instructions in my “Let Yourself Sew!” book and it turned out great! I was 14! and it was PLAID! Guess that I didn’t know it was supposed to be difficult. Ah! the ignorance of youth!

    I do like invisible zippers more than centerset or placketed for dresses, but the best is that I have figured out how to put invisible zippers into the seam of a corded or trimmed pillow cover and into the side seam of a chair slipcover? And did you know that they make HEAVY -DUTY invisible zippers? the best!!!!!


    • Do you notice that you’re doing the *exact same thing* here that the original post complains about? You’re saying, “Oh, zippers are EASY, I don’t know why anyone has any trouble with them, it must just be that people say they’re hard and so everyone expects them to be hard, but they’re really EASY! If they’re not easy for you, then something’s wrong with YOU.”

      Allow me to introduce you to a common Internet acronym: YMMV. This stands for “your mileage may vary,” and it means that *not everybody is alike*. Just because zippers are easy for you doesn’t mean they have to be easy for everyone — and if you look at the rest of the comments, you’ll see plenty of people with decades of sewing experience saying that they *still* sometimes have trouble with zippers.


  9. I’ve been sewing for fifty years, and zippers still cause me pain. You are correct – get a good narrow zipper foot that fits your machine. That cannot be stressed too much. The new wide(r) zipper feet just don’t work well (at least for me). If the fabric is slick, some sort of basting is a must. In the “old” days, zipper tapes had a woven in design, so it was easier to get a straight line by sewing along the design. Now (or at least on the zippers I’ve purchased) the tape is plain.


  10. Honesty is always appreciated when a difficult task is at hand. I don’t like it when people lie to me (“This won’t hurt a bit!” “You’ll hardly even notice that you’re getting less in the bottle for only a slightly higher price!” etc., etc.) Much the better policy to say that something is well worth the practice to learn, that acquiring new skills always feels awkward at first, that there are many ways to accomplish fastenings for garments besides a sewing pattern’s instructions.


  11. I used to sew for a living and invisible zippers still terrify me! Plus, my lovely new machine has a zipper foot that I don’t really understand. It’s like business in the front and something completely wrong in the back. I look like a junior high home ec reject using it.


  12. “increasng the seam allowance _if necessary_”?
    _Always_ necessary. That is my biggest gripe with commercial patterns (well, neck-and-neck with how few of them say anything about doing a Full-Bust adjustment). I’ve taken to facing the front piece, when installing side zippers – smaller lump if you have to sew over a waist/dart seam, too.


  13. I’m a relatively new sewer with only a few zippers under my belt. I didn’t have much trouble, really, but overall my outlook on learning (anything) is you have to do it to master it. I’m bloody-well an expert at seam ripping.


  14. Zippers have an amazing mind of their own. Even with basting, pinning, praying and a few naughty words, they don’t always come out like I think they should. I am not a new stitcher, started at 8 years old… That was more than 40 years ago! Last one I put in pulled up a little and came across the bottom of seam. Now I have to take it out tonight and redo…. sigh….


  15. As someone else said, putting the zippers in before doing the other seams is usually the best idea, but I don’t always do that.

    The one thing that puzzles me about many sewing “guides” is that they insist that you sew from the hem to the waist or the top of the garment. Why? Considering that fabric can shift and I want the top of the garment to be even, why would I start at the bottom? It’s much easier to fix the alignment of the seams at the hem, and much less likely to be noticed than misaligned seams at the waist or neckline.


  16. It has a name in my sewing room, I call it ziplexia : a nervous condition that impairs a persons ability to insert zippers efficiently and without swearing. I find a glass of wine helps (white of course, it is the sewing room after all) .


  17. Have you written a “how-to-sew” book? Because I strongly suspect that you would be able to help me get over my extreme sewing phobia and actually learn to sew.

    You seem to have what many “experts” often lack — an understanding of what it takes to impart their particular skill, whatever it may be, to others. In other words. I think you are a good teacher.

    If you haven’t written a how-to-sew book, I hope you will. If you have, well, where can I buy it?


    • Oh man … I can’t even think about the work involved in writing a how-to book. I just recommend Ruth Singer’s, it’s much easier! šŸ™‚


  18. I hate putting in zippers and I hate doing machine buttonholes. And, for some reason, I’m not fond of the look of an invisible zipper. I know; it’s strange. My solution has been to hand pick all my zippers: I do not overlap; I do the zipper centered under the seam. It works well and looks great, but then, I like the look of hand picking.


  19. I agree with the last comment as since I learned to put a zip in by hand I have never looked back. My zips are straight, covered and look good. It’s quicker too. If in doubt take Susan Khalje’s couture dress course on Craftsy.com – worth every penny.


  20. I’ll second Gill’s endorsement of Susan Khalje’s couture dress course! It helped me learn that doing some things by hand is actually faster than fixing my by-machine mistakes.


  21. It’s amazing how many problems people have with zippers. Over the years, I’ve learned several different zipper insertion techniques. My favorite is centering a coiled sipper. Baste the seam, press it open. Place the zipper in the center of the seam and sew it in. Believe it or no, fly closures still make me pause before inserting them. To be frank, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve never even taken the time to learn how to insert an invisible zipper. Guess it’s high time I made that happen.


  22. You will find helpful instructions and photos for how to sew a zipper to the seam allowances only in the latest posts at josiesattic.wordpress.com.


  23. I completely ignore the direction in the pattern for zippers. I use the double sided sticky fusiable web trick and sew right thru it. Works every time but I still sweat when I know it’s time to put the dreaded zipper in.


  24. What’s the best brand of zipper to get? Where do you go for the best varieties? And, someone mentioned a heavy weight invisible zipper…?


  25. When we were young, I did a deal with my sister, she put in my zips and I put in her sleeves. In the end I had to learn and do it myself…and that’s what I did. I used zips from charity shops on pieces of scrap fabric…and it got a whole lot easier. I’m not saying that I love doing them, but it’s not the daunting task it used to be anymore.


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