Saturday, March 2, 2013

How to add a recessed zipper: tutorial

And now, Add a recessed zipper!

You know, zippers and I haven't always got along.  We fought.  We argued. We struggled.  But I think we're coming to a good place, a place of understanding and acceptance.  I think we're going to be friends, even.  Even when I had to put a zipper in a bag that had no closure whatsoever, and I decided to make a zipper panel for my friend's Amy Butler Sweet Harmony Tote-turned-diaper bag.  Here's how I did it, in case you want to add one to your tote, too. . . .

Measure. . . 

So first, I measured the front of the bag from end to end along the top edge, but not necessarily where the main panel began and ended. . . .

be sure to include the handles in the measurement, measuring the total width of the top of the bag.
otherwise, the zipper won't be long enough, and you can't access the bag well.

Get a zipper. . .

I purchased a zipper longer than that bag measurement (a 30" heavy duty zipper, which is much too long, really, but selection is very limited locally.)  I cut the zipper down to a few inches past the width of the bag, zig zagging over the teeth at the end.  Having the zipper longer than the width of the bag allows for easy access into the bag.  I then covered the zipper ends in a bit of fabric, with the raw edges folded, pressed under, and topstitched.

The panels. . . 

Next, cut two fabric AND two fusible interfacing rectangles for the panels / plackets using these dimensions:

You'll want to cut each rectangle twice as wide as you'll want your finished panel, plus a double seam allowance (if your seam allowance is 1/4", cut 1/2" wider to allow for the seam allowance on both edges.)  I cut mine 4" wide, and I used a 1/4 seam allowance.

Cut your rectangles the width of the bag front, plus the double seam allowance.

Press. . .

* Fuse your interfacing rectangles to the wrong side of your fabric rectangles.
* Fold each panel piece in half lengthwise, matching raw edges, wrong sides together, and press.
* Fold the short ends of each panel under the width of your seam allowance (here, 1/4") and press well.
* Now, fold under the seam allowance (again, 1/4" here) along the long edges of each rectangle, and press well.
* Once your two panels are pressed, hold it up to the bag, to make sure it is the exact length of the bag.  Make any necessary adjustments now, by re-pressing if you need to.

Pin. . .

I'm not that big on pinning, if I can get away with it.  But in this case, I realllly recommend pinning your panel and zipper.  A lot. Basically, you're going to sandwich the zipper inside each panel, so you'll want to pin carefully, making sure the top and the bottom edges of the panel are the same distance from the zipper teeth.  You're going to sew one seam along the zipper, so you want to get it right the first time, if you can.

Match the end of one fabric panel with the open end of the zipper. . .

one side pinned

. . . and pin the entire panel a "safe" distance from the zipper teeth, while still making sure you have enough zipper tape to catch inside the panel.  I pinned the panels 1/4" from the teeth.

Topstitch. . .

Using a short stitch, slowly sew very close to the panel edge. . .
* first across one short end,
* then pivoting at the corner,
* and continue sewing along the long edge,
* and finally across the last short end.

While sewing, feel with your fingers to make sure the panel edge under the zipper is directly under the top edge.    If you didn't catch the bottom edge of the panel in your stitching, or your zipper tape slipped out of the panel edges, you'll have to rip out that section, re-pin, and stitch again.  :(  I hate that.

Repeat for the other side.

CRAZY how the print matched up on the panels!  totally by accident!  haha!

Attaching the zipper panel. . .

One neat feature of this pattern is the fake piping effect at the top edge of the bag.  It's really the bag lining peeking over the exterior of the bag, about 1/8", just enough to create the look of piping!  Once you've pressed the fake piping (lining) in place, pin the tote handles in place, according to pattern directions.  NOW, it's time to pin the zipper panel in place.

It's a little tricky, as you'll want to pin the zipper panel on the inside of the bag, exactly 1/8" from the very top edge of the fake piping, so the zipper panel edge will then line up perfectly with the exterior fabric's edge on the outside.  (OK, now who's getting overly-wordy??)  

First, you're going to match the short ends of the zipper panel with the exact outer edge of the tote handles, on the inside of the bag.

I had to rip out and re-do this section FOUR TIMES because my stitching kept 
missing a tiny section of the panel behind the handles.  PLACE AND PIN CAREFULLY.

Pin the long edge of the zipper panel exactly 1/8" from the top piping edge.

Now, this pattern calls for topstitching along the bag's top edge, which will stitch the fake piping into place, and attach the handles at the same time.  Since you've just pinned the zipper panel to the inside top of the bag, you'll be attaching the panel to the bag at the same time when you do this step.

left side pinned, right side sewn

Again, SEW SLOWLY, as you have to catch the handles and zipper panel in your topstitch, and want the outer topstitching to look clean and professional, and all at the same time.  It's also VERY bulky and awkward around the handles, so be careful!

Repeat for the other side, and press the bag.  The pattern calls for a second line of topstitching on the tote, which I omitted, due to the zipper panel.


a top view of the completed zipper panel, with a little peek at the 
hidden cell phone pocket inside one exterior pocket

this is the longer-than-the-bag dangly zipper.  it can be tucked inside the bag, or left to hang out.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment!  Hope this helps!  :)


  1. Connie, you are so good! Wish I could sew like that. I love it!

  2. Thanks so much for your explanations. This bag has been my WIP for months now, while I was figuring out how to put in a zip. I' m not sure though if my machine will sew through all these layers, especially where the handles would meet the zipper panel. As far as I can see you put in the zip as the very last step, after the bag was more or less finished? Again, thanks again for your tutorial!

  3. You're welcome, Margareth! I think I mulled over how to do the zipper for about a month myself, before I even attempted making the bag. ;) It IS tricky nearest the handles, but thankfully, there are only a few stitches there, where the bag is THAT thick. Sew very, very slowly. I wasn't sure my machine could handle that part either, but it did. You can manually turn the wheel of your machine if you have to! If your machine can't handle that area, you can finish it by hand in the handle areas. And yes, putting in the zipper panel is the very last step. If you have any questions or need some help, feel free to ask! Thanks for dropping by! :)

  4. I've been looking all night for putting a zipper in a bag .of course the zipper in already on a panel.


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