Altering with the Zipper

Every client who wants a tighter fit in her bodice tells me, “you can just take in the side seams a little”. Most don’t realize that is exactly where the manufacturer places the boning either in the fabric seams or the lining seams and that involves removing it, snugging up both seams (which will be 4 separate stitching lines) and then replacing the boning. It also involves maybe opening the waist line seam if there is one to manage all this stitching. It also will involve detaching the lining from the fabric at the underarm seam which may or may not have piping…simple isn’t it…NOT. Here is the other feature of making changes in an underarm seam while it does snug up things, it may have a deep curve so when you are done, the armhole it too tight and higher. Is there another way?

In my world, I stand behind the girl and grab the fabric on both sides of the zipper and pull tight and ask her if this is what she wants it to feel like. Normally in brides it helps pull the boned cups closer to her body and she likes that. In bridesmaids and prom dresses it helps hold the strapless concoction up for the evening without the girl having to spend her time tugging it up. They get a big smile and I know this is the solution. So while holding on to the client like a mother cats grabs her kittens by the scruff of the neck, I pin out the excess through all layers of the zipper sides in a vertical line as far as I need…normally just past the waist with the most fabric pinned out at the top. My fingers are crossed that the top portion is not more than 1 inch on each side but I have had to remove up to 2 inches on each side at times. The more you remove/slide the zipper over, the further away the top of the zipper will be in the finished project…remember geometry? As the zipper is angled away from center back the length of the area grows and you will have a gap at the top edge.

After the client departs I thread trace the new zipper teeth line with red thread but not through to the lining. On this dress the lining is separate so it is treated separately. Some days you get lucky and the lining is attached to the fabric first and treated as one unit. On this project I had to thread baste a line of stitching to hold the (I hate glitter) netted pleats away from the new zipper teeth line before pinning the invisible zipper down. If you need to hand baste the zipper after pinning, (to make sure horizontal lines match up well) go ahead before you machine stitch.

1-mark-and-pin  2-detach-lining  3-2-lines

Let’s get stitching…slap on that invisible zipper foot and go!4-stop-stitching5-attach-zipper

Then close the zipper: 6-close-zipper 7-flip-corner-down Switch back to your regular presser foot.

Let’s reinforce this zipper in place and run another row of stitching along the outer edge. It didn’t come this way but we are professionals who add extra touches…you don’t have to do this step.8-left-needle-position 9-stitch-edge-down

As we come up to the top just carry on and stitch over the flipped over corner. Then another step I usually don’t do is to topstitch the pleats but these little suckers are bound to crawl right into the teeth and snag and rip…who needs that?

10-fold-corner11-topstich-pleats So are we done yet? What happens to the lining? It is folded under the same amount that you moved the zipper over. I don’t trim anything away. In fact, I tell the client this is so she can sell or give this dress to someone who is larger and they/the next poor seamstress can let all this out to the original seam lines. They all seem to think this is a good idea…for me it makes me seem kind and planning for their future…it is a selling feature.


I hand sew the lining to the zipper tape and along the top edge before attaching a hook and eye. The tiny stitches will not be seen from the right side and for those of you who think this should be done by machine…have at it! So many dresses don’t have open area where you can maneuver attaching the lining back the way it was so for me, hand sewing is faster.

Give all the layers a shot of steam and move on to the next one waiting in line. I know this seems scary and drawn out but after the first 100 you can get pretty fast and eliminate a couple steps. I charge one hour labor for this but if the lining is attached in the first place it goes faster.

Whew…it’s time for a diet Dr. Pepper after this!

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31 Responses to Altering with the Zipper

  1. theresa says:

    Well it IS early in the day for a G&T, so a Dr. Pepper will do. Just the thought of boning makes me want to go back to bed, but what a nice job on that zipper and lining. Those brides have no idea how lucky they are to have YOU!

    • mrsmole says:

      Thank you, Theresa…the look on their faces when I zip up their dress for the final try-on says it all…their gratefulness is reflected in the checks they write.

  2. Tia Dia says:

    “while holding on to the client like a mother cats grabs her kittens by the scruff of the neck”…. Hilarious picture, but true! I’ve only altered a couple of dresses like this for friends, and out of (what I think is my) sheer laziness will opt for the CB zipper option rather than the side seams because it takes less time! Love the pretty tulle fabric in your pics.

  3. mrsmole says:

    Is this the year of glitter tulle? It drops off the dresses all over my room and me and the sewing machine and the bobbin case…vacuuming doesn’t remove it, lint brushes don’t touch it…even packing tape won’t shift it….my platform is covered in it so it sparkles…you can have it! ha ha

  4. Cindy says:

    I’m with you! I’d rather alter at the zipper than the sides any day. I once had a district manager ask why I was altering at the zipper on the dress I was working on. She mentioned that the last place she worked at made the dresses so you didn’t have to do the alterations at the zipper. Can you tell she doesn’t sew? I wanted to say that whoever gave you that line of garbage was just afraid to
    do it at the zipper but I behaved myself and just told her this was faster.

  5. I know exactly what you are talking about and I do the same thing, grab that dress by the center back and pull tight. I know from wearing RTW strapless dresses that it always does feel they are not going to stay in place. and I agree, glitter is awful !!! love your blog posts and I hope you survive the summer season with only nice clients 🙂

  6. mrsmole says:

    Yes, Cindy it is faster and you, as the seamstress, have more control of the amount you take out. Instead of having to make both side seams even, you can see what you are doing with each side of the zipper. You can discover also that the client may have a sway back and you can help slightly with that at the same time…you never know, it is a treasure hunt most days.Thanks for dropping by!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    I love hearing all your tricks of the trade! Thanks!

  8. mrsmole says:

    You never know when you will be called upon to tighten a dress that will probably be worn once in a lifetime as a bridesmaid or prom dress and this at least eases the pain! You are really in pajama making mode on your blog…what fun!

  9. Tee says:

    I’ve done this lots of times for my clients. Another similar alteration is taking in the center seam of pants instead of the sides. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Gjeometry says:

    Thanks for the tips! I still have to get me an invisible zipper foot! It was promised to me for Christmas, and it is now June. So, you do that math. 😛

  11. Beads, sequins and glitter all get me grinding my teeth (whilst still smiling at the client). I agree that altering at the zipper is by far the easiest way to fit – but why do so many people buy MASSIVE dresses that need too much out to use the zipper seam?
    Many of my current pile have laced backs which meet so I have to go to the boned seams. My dentist isn’t going to be pleased.

    • mrsmole says:

      Hi Kim, my clients cause me so much teeth grinding that my dentist says I should wear my night guard during the day as well to keep the wear and tear down to a minimum. My theory is the client falls in love with the dress from the bust line up and expects we can fix everything from there down and they don’t even bother to look at what is going on behind them. Half of them never even try on the dress as it is ordered from China where their measurements are swept up into some vortex and you are mailed just the next dress in the queue to be sent out.

  12. Trish says:

    I tend to do the underarm alteration because I have a problem getting the zipper to match at the bottom: I seem to end up with one side slightly longer than the other (creating a bulge), even though they meet at the top! Do you have any suggestions for avoiding this problem?
    Our local shopping centre alteration person has solved the problem of underarm alterations: I’ve been told he just takes a big tuck under the arm! I can’t believe some people stay in business with those sort of practices but I suppose his customers don’t know what they’re getting until it’s too late.

  13. mrsmole says:

    Basting would keep them the same length although I often find that they were not the same length to start with once the top 3/4 of the zipper is detached. Operators are expected to make both sides fit the zipper tape in the factory no matter what they start out as. Fusing a thin strip of interfacing along the new stitching line on the wrong side works too to replicate the factory installation as we are going slightly bias when we move it over an inch or more. You can fold under the top edges a little (1/8 inch) to hide any differences. Sewing both edges in the same direction helps too, although I can’t resist just flipping the zipper and going down one way and back up the other…OK, I cheat but my invisible zipper foot is metal and holds fabric down pretty well. If there is a waistline seam to match then that is a good guide as well. The public knows so little about altering that bad tailors can get away with all sorts of evil techniques!

    • TrishB says:

      Thanks that’s great! I like the interfacing idea, because it makes sense that the stretching is caused by the bias. Sewing in the same direction should help as well, especially if I start from the bottom, and then, as you say, I can even it up at the top if necessary! It’s not a problem putting in zippers while making a garment, it’s just in something being altered. It must have to do with unwittingly stretching it a bit.

  14. Shel says:

    This makes so much sense…need to take notes. ; )

  15. Cindy says:

    usually once I have one side of the zipper sewn in I zip it up and mark on the unsewn side any seams that I want to match up and then I unzip it and line those spots up first and then I pin in the rest of the zipper. Every now and then it’s slightly off so I zip up the zipper and measure at the top of the zipper how much the difference is between the two stops (the little metal or plastic parts that keep the slider from going up and off the zipper) then cut off the bottom of the zipper and before you slide the slider off figure out which side of the zipper needs to be shifted up and mark the difference you measured on the other zipper tape (at the bottom) and put the slider back on with the bottoms lined up at the mark you made. If you get it lined up properly it will take care of that bubble. Don’t forget to stitch over the bottom of the zipper to keep the slider from coming off in the future. sometimes this is just easier than taking one side off and trying again to get everything to line up and cooperate.

  16. mrsmole says:

    I have never removed the slider on an invisible zipper on purpose…by accident only once. How about making a tutorial so we can all see how easy you make it sound. Since I am doing this in formal dresses and avoid removing the bottom couple inches of the tail and the lining etc, this may not be an option for me. Thanks for sharing your technique, Cindy!

  17. Cindy says:

    It is easy, just takes some practice. I tend to be a little lazy, I say I’m being efficient but is mostly I don’t want to do any more than I have too. I work in two bridal shops and they generate a lot of zipper repairs. If I can get a zipper with the right size slider (look an the back of the slider there are usually numbers and letters if they are the same the slider and the zipper coils are the same size) and the right color I have been known to only replace one side of a damaged zipper. It works on invisible zippers, regular zippers and separating zippers on coats and jackets. Sometimes the slider is the only thing that is wrong with the zipper and replacing it fixes the problem. I got a really good deal on a coat once that just needed the slider replaced, it took me longer to find the container with the zipper parts in it than it did to do the repair.

  18. mrsmole says:

    I’d love to watch you do this and get good at it but I have to laugh because I do everything I can to AVOID removing the zipper. You know how each manufacturer has a different way of attaching the lining at the tail, some clip and flip, some just have a huge bulge and wad of fabric, some are not attached at that point and just leave them separate….I stay away from that can of worms and just try to slide the top halves over to snug things up…sort of “get in and get out!” Maybe you could make a YouTube video to share? In the meantime, I should cut the tail off a couple zippers and try to swap the sliders just to see how easy it is?

  19. Mitch says:

    Eventhough it wouldn’t work with wedding dresses as there too many layers, I use double-sided wash-away tape when putting zippers in – works especially well when putting them into spandex – nothing can move as the fabric is held tight to the zipper tape – no bubbles or bulges. I started using it when faced with making 18 dance costumes in less than a month – it’s quick, easy and gives a good result without having to hand bast.

  20. Amanda says:

    This was the best tutorial I has seen yet. You perfectly explained how the process is done. I am an amateur seamstress, and this has made my life so much easier. I was able to fallow your instructions easily. With a little alteration the dress I am working on is coming together seamlessly. Thanks for posting.

  21. Janet says:

    Ok, this is a great tutorial, and a great idea. I was wary of invisible zips until a couple of weeks ago. However, what if your client has a dress that has only side seams and you have to take it in the sides. The zipper is not even at the end! Do you have to completely remove and reinsert the zip so it is even? Do you sculpt the side that is taller to match the side that is shorter? Thanks.

    • mrsmole says:

      Yes, I do tell the client that if the sides drop down yoiu end up with a “step-down” and the front that is taller will have to be trimmed down to meet the back so she ends up with less boob coverage. You can fold down the top edges but if it is too bulky you do have to take it out and drop it down…not my favorite thing to do…side zippers…makes me want to scream!

  22. Debbie Stovall says:

    My daughter wants me to remove the zipper from her prom dress and make it a laced/corset closure on the back. She’s a bit full-busted and finding a zippered dress that fits everywhere has been a problem. So I’m looking for hints to help me before I get started.

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