I've been asked about putting a zipper in the t-shirt tote bags from the sewing summit. I sort of addressed using a zipper for the clutch I made from my toddler's old shirt, but I wanted to put together a blog post on how to sew a zipper in. This is specifically for bags, but you can use some of the tips for sewing zippers into clothing as well.
Because the tote bag from the sewing summit has boxed corners, I recommend putting in a recessed zipper if you want to add a zipper to that tote bag. I'll write up a tutorial on recessed zippers too, but this is just an overview of zippers as a whole.
The first thing you should do is take a look at what kind of zipper you have. There are two kinds, nylon and metal. I use primarily nylon zippers. Metal zippers are really, really, really hard to sew over (sewing machine needles do not like to go through metal, go figure), so it's difficult to put in zipper tabs, or really encase the ends at all. Metal zippers are fantastic for jackets, where it is designed to open all the way and you don't need to worry about sewing through the zipper.
Nylon zippers, on the other hand, can be sewn through, making it easier to attach zipper tabs or enclose within a bag. They are also easier to trim, so if you have a zipper that's too long for your project, you can still use it. And while lots of nylon zippers are colored the same as the zipper tape (the fabric part attached to the zipper teeth), you can buy nylon zippers that are colored to look like metal zippers, giving you the beautiful look of a metal zipper with the ease of nylon zipper.
To sew a zipper into a bag, you'll want to have your lining pieces and main bag pieces. You may also want to have two pieces of zipper tabs (for a recessed zipper, you'll need these). As you can see in the picture, I trimmed my zipper. When trimming a zipper, be careful to keep the zipper pull INSIDE the trimmed area. You may also want to sew a few stitches right near the cut edges, over the zipper teeth, just to make sure you don't accidentally pull the zipper pull right off (that is...not fun).
Or, you can put the zipper tabs on right away, which you'll generally need to do before sewing the zipper in anyway. I usually cut zipper tabs in a 2 inch square, but you may need to adjust that if your zipper tape is quite wide. You'll start by folding the square in half and pressing.
Then fold the raw edges in to the middle crease.
Insert the zipper in so the end touches the middle crease. Topstitch on the double folded edges. You can trim down the excess zipper tabs once you've finished. I also zig zag stitched over the raw edges, just to keep them from fraying, but you'll often sew over the raw edges, so that's not strictly necessary.
If your zipper is going to be longer or shorter than the bag itself, you'll need to line up the pieces without matching the edges. The easiest way to do that is to find the middle of the lining piece, the main fabric and the zipper, and mark with a pin.
Then you can line up the pins.
To sew in the zipper, you'll want to put your lining piece down face up. Then put your zipper down face up (so the wrong side of the zipper is next to the right side of the lining. The main fabric will go face down on top of that (so it will be wrong side up, and the zipper and main fabric will be right sides together).
Once you've pinned it together, take it your sewing machine. Be sure to use a zipper foot. My sewing machine came with a zipper foot, and it's likely yours did too, but if not, you can most likely buy one for your machine fairly inexpensively.
Move your sewing machine needle as far over as it can go, so you can put the zipper foot right next to the zipper teeth, and the stitching will be as close to the zipper teeth as possible. Then sew away!
There will come a point where you will need to move the zipper pull. It's too bulky for the zipper foot to go around and keep a nice line of even stitches. When you get to that point, leave your needle down (in the fabric), lift your zipper foot, move the zipper pull (preferably towards where you have already sewn), put the foot back down, and keep sewing to the end.
Once you've sewn all the way to the end, move the fabric so the main fabric and the lining are wrong sides together. Press. I also like to topstitch, it helps keep the fabric from getting caught in the zipper.
To topstitch, I don't change the foot or needle position, I just put the zipper teeth up against the far side of the zipper foot. You'll need to move the zipper pull again as some point.
Then it's time to sew the other side! You'll layer the fabric and zipper the same way, with the lining face up, then the zipper face up, then the main fabric face down. The side that's already sewn should stay well out of the way. The only difference is now you can match up the edges of the fabric with the edges of the fabric already sewn in.
And that's it! Zippers can seem really intimidating, but they're really not too bad, once you get a chance to try it.
Do you have any good tips for sewing zippers? Leave them in the comments!