We all know the feeling. You buy a dress that looks beautiful on the rail, but as soon as you try it on at home, you realize there’s something not quite right about the fit. If you’ve got a closet full of dresses you haven’t worn because of some minor fitting problems, you’re not alone. Thankfully, you’re also not without hope.
Even if your sewing abilities fall more towards the novice side of the scale than the pro, you should still be able to master the basic skills needed to turn a poorly fitting dress into a figure-flattering vision. Understand how, and when, to use a side zipper, and trust me, your frocky-horror days will be over.
While side zippers aren’t a fast -track solution to each and every type of fitting problem you’ll come across, you’ll be amazed at how many issues they will solve. A wide ribcage causing problems when you pull a dress on over your head? Got too much junk in your trunk to step into a skirt and pull it up? Then say hello to the side zipper, a nifty little tool that’ll give you those few inches of extra wiggle room you need. Simply zip it down to pull the dress on, and zip it up to return the dress to its original form… how much simpler could it get?
But why side zippers over back or front zippers, I hear you ask? One word: invisibility. A zipper at the back of the dress is hard not to notice; a zipper on the side, on the other hand, is discrete to the point of being completely unnoticeable.
While a back or front zipper requires you to create a new seam in the dress (thereby altering its style), a side zipper utilizes an existing seam, allowing you to change the fit of the dress without making any changes to its fundamental design. If you don’t want to ruin or change the aesthetic of your dress, a side zipper is the way to go.
If you’ve reached the conclusion a side zipper is the best way to solve your fitting problems, the next step is figuring out which side of the garment to place it. Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong answer… after all, one of the beauties of designing, making, or amending your own clothes is that you get to do exactly as you please.
Back in the days of old, ladies were dressed by someone else; buttons and closures were consequently placed on the side that made it easiest for the person doing the dressing to access. But that was then, and this is now, and the only thing you need to think about these days (at least in this instance) is yourself.
As a general guideline, most people will find it easier to work a zipper on their non-dominant side (i.e. on the left if you’re right-handed, on the right if you’re left-handed). This usually makes it a lot easier to get in and out of the garment than it would otherwise.
So, we’ve worked out the side you place the zipper is 100% down to you. But what about how high you place the zip? As it turns out, this is by far the more crucial of the two questions.
As placement can make a big difference both to how the dress looks and how comfortable it is to wear, it’s worth spending a few moments to work out what will work best, based on both your own body shape and the design of the item.
Let’s look at the design of the dress first. If you’re dealing with a sleeveless dress, installing a zipper is as easy as pie: simply cut directly from the armpit down the seam to create an opening. If your dress has sleeves, things get a little trickier: leave at least an inch below the seam before you add the zipper.
Turing to body shape, ladies with larger busts will find a zipper placed as close as possible to the armpit seam the best. Those with wide ribcages will usually benefit from a zipper placed just above the waistline, while the broader hipped will find a hip-level zipper the most convenient.
Adding a side zip to a dress is a lot simpler than most people think, requiring the bare minimum of sewing skills to master. Providing you can stick a few pins through material, get to grips with a pair of scissors, and work a sewing machine, you’ll have the job done before you know it.
Gently remove the stitching from the seam along the area where the zipper will go. Be careful not to tear the fabric or remove more stitches than are necessary.
Prepare the zipper by rolling it out and pressing it with an iron so that the teeth lie slightly flatter.
Lay the unzipped zipper into the opening you’ve created, ensuring the sides of the zipper line up with sides of the seam fabric. Pin the zipper in place (if you’re using a slippery fabric, you may prefer to hand baste it in place instead).
Flip the dress inside out so you can only see the top of the zipper.
Using the zipper foot on your machine, stitch the zipper in place, sewing from the bottom to the top.
Remove the pins or basting stitches to finish.
So far, we’ve looked at how to sew in a visible side zipper. But there’s another type of zipper – one that requires a slightly different approach to the one we’d otherwise use. Invisible zippers are gaining increasing traction in the sewing world, providing the perfect solution to ill-fitting formal dresses and attire where the aesthetic might be ruined by a visible zipper.
If you’re planning to add an invisible zipper, make sure you have a sewing machine with a zipper foot- it’ll make the process much easier.
What You’ll Need
Serge the joining seam edges where you plan to add the zipper. Line up the seam edges side by side, with the right side facing out. Measure ¾ of an inch in from the top edges on both sides and mark the spot with a fabric marker or pin. This will be where you’ll add the zipper.
Again using pins or a marker pen, mark the length of the fabric with a 5/8 inch seam allowance to indicate the placement of the zipper.
Unfurl the zipper and iron the curled teeth on a low setting to encourage them to lie a little straighter.
Place the zipper coil, right side down, along one of the marked seam allowances. Pin or baste in place.
Lay the zipper teeth under the right grove in the invisible zipper foot and stitch in place. Work from the top edge down. Once you reach the zipper end, backstitch to secure.
Pin the other side of the zipper in place on the other pattern piece, ensuring both sides are aligned, and repeat step 5.
Zip the zipper closed, place the right sides of the pattern pieces together and move the zipper tails aside. Place the project into the sewing machine and stitch 2 inches away from the zipper to finish the seam, backstitching at both the beginning and end to secure. Switch to a regular presser foot and follow the stitching line to complete the seam.
If you want a right-handed zipper but have somehow got stuck with a left-handed one, it’s a piece of cake to change it over.
Fully unzip the zipper
Using small, nipper type pliers, remove the end stop.
Remove the slider, turn the zipper tape over, and replace both the slider and the end stop. Job done!
If you’ve lost some weight or couldn’t resist a massive discount on a dress just a shade too big, a few alterations should soon have it fitting like a glove. While a side zip makes the process of taking in or letting out a dress just a fraction more challenging than it’d otherwise be, it’s still possible.
As the best method depends on where you need to make the alterations (whether at the back, the front, or the sides), along with where the seam (if any) is placed, taking a few minutes to figure out the optimal place for the adjustment is well worth the effort.
Up next, we look at two of the easiest methods for adjusting dress size.
If your dress is too small, you should still be able to let it out, side zipper or no size zipper. Just bear in mind that most dresses can only be sized-up by one or two sizes, depending on the amount of seam allowance.
If the dress has a back or front seam, your best option will be to let it out and re-sew with a smaller seam allowance. If, on the other hand, it only has side seams, the method will be slightly different. Start by taking in the non-zipped side the standard way. You’ll then need to take the zipped side in by moving each half of the zipper inwards, without removing the entire zipper in the process. Sound complicated? Don’t worry, once you get going on the below steps, it’ll all fall into place.
Starting from the top edge, unpick the zipper stitching down to the halfway point.
Move and realign the zipper inwards by about ½ inch and pin in place. Insert the needle at the neck edge of the zipper, and stitch the zipper back in place, spreading the teeth to the left as you do.
Fold the facing down, right sides together, and serge away the excess seam allowance to finish.
If your dress is a fraction too large, the easiest option is to simply take the back in using the following guide.
Flip the dress inside out and try it on to decide exactly how much it needs to be taken in by. Mark the amount with pins (if you can, enroll the help of a friendly volunteer for this part- it’ll make it much easier).
Remove the dress and lay it flat, folded lengthways, on a working surface. Make sure the armholes, neckline, and waistband of the two halves of the dress are aligned.
Pin the entire dress according to how much you need to take it in by.
Using a straight stitch and your pins as the guide, sew the dress from neckline to hem.
Cut off the excess fabric and use a zigzag stitch or serger to seal the raw edges.
Sometimes, zips can feel like a necessary evil. If a zipper is positioned on a side or in a way that makes accessing it a struggle (maybe even to the point you balk at wearing the dress at all), a few little tricks and tips will make your life much easier.
First of all, ask yourself whether you really need to use the zipper at all. If it was on the dress when you bought it, and the dress is just about loose enough to pull on regardless of whether the zipper is zipped or open, you’ll do no harm by leaving it permanently zipped up.
If you’ve added the zipper to alter the fit, it’s likely you’ll need to open it to some extent, but ask yourself whether you need to unzip it all the way. You may find the dress just as easy to slip on, and a darn sight easier to zip up, if the zippers at half-mast.