Side or Back Zippers – Which Do You Prefer?

I’ve just made two dresses in the space of about two weeks. If this rain EVER stops I’ll be able to take some photos for the posts that are already written and just waiting for the images…

In the mean time though, I thought I’d ask what you think about zipper location. I’ve been thinking about this since Sunday now (I know, I’m weird). Both of the dresses I’ve made have back zippers and I happily followed the instructions in the pattern inserting them in the back seam.

But, fitting and dressing with a centre back zipper is another matter. I need to be zipped in and out of both dresses. In effect I can’t dress or undress myself and this is really quite frustrating.

I ended up tying a length of string to the zipper on one toile so that I could get in on and off with my limited contortion skills. If you’ve ever worn a wet suit with a zipper with the pull tag on, that’s what I did. The second dress involves an invisible zipper. In the end the toile was made with the centre back seam sewn up and I just wiggled it on and off for fitting. Yes, I did get stuck on a couple of occasions but furious (including language) contortions meant that I extracted my self eventually.

So the good thing is that I’ve rediscovered a love of dresses that I probably lost around 20 years ago. Gingham polyester summer uniforms anyone?! The bad thing is that I like to be able to dress myself, particularly for day wear. This has led to the zipper placement obsession.

From Gertie’s Side Zipper Tutorial

The solution for me seems to be to put the zipper in the side seam. A lot of vintage dresses have side zippers which are usually lapped and modern invisible zippers should work as well. I couldn’t fully understand why zippers aren’t inserted into side seams so did a bit of research and came up with some potential answers:

The side seam is often curvier than the centre back seam. This bias element makes it more comfortable when you wear the garment as it has some give and flex. This also means that the seam is more likely to twist and warp when you insert the zip. The centre back however is often on the straight grain so is much more stable.

So, the solution may be to stabilise the seam – perhaps with organza cut on the straight grain? Sunni has a great tutorial on inserting a zipper into a bias seam and I can’t see why those principles shouldn’t be applied to a side zipper where there is an element of bias.

As the centre back is on the straight grain, it doesn’t necessarily need stabilising. It’s also a nice straight and pretty much flat seam. In contrast the side seam can be quite curvy (think of a fitted bodice into a pencil skirt) so the application is probably tricker. As well as contending with the curves you’re also inserting it into a seam that is closed at the top and bottom. When it comes to RTW production lines and the costs involved, a side zipper is likely to cost more.

For me thought, I’d hand pick the zipper. This would give me the control I need and prevent difficult fabric wrestling at the sewing machine. This is unlikely to be an option for most RTW as hand sewing is an expensive process.

A theory based in history is that zippers were more likely to fail when they first appeared. Covering a failed zip would be much easier in a side seam with the judicious use of pins and an arm to cover it! Centre back it would be there for all to see. As they’re much more reliable now, the ease and cost savings of using the centre back seam becomes possible.

A final possibility is that side seam are under more stress than centre back. Particularly with fitted styles. At the back, the seam only deals with motion in pretty much one plane (forward and back or side to side). A side seam deals with both these plus a twisting motion. It’s possible for it to deal with all three at once! Therefore the zipper is potentially under much more strain. Due to the bulk that a zipper can add, it may also mean that the side line or silhouette isn’t as smooth as it could be.

Basically, at the moment, I can’t find a good reason why my handmade dresses shouldn’t have a side zipper; particularly if the item is for every day wear. A slinky evening gown where you want a sleek line would be a good reason for a back zipper. Plus I don’t mind asking for help for occasion dressing!

I fully recognise the added difficulty and costs that would be involved in a RTW production line and how this may explain the shift to centre back. But for a Me Made item it seems logical to move it to the side seam.

I wonder why pattern companies still put them in the centre back – is it so the finished item is more RTW in style and finish? Or are there drafting considerations? It may well be that not cutting the centre back on the fold leads to more economical use of fabric. This would save costs for both RTW to Me Made items.

The pattern Sunni is using for her shirt dress sew along, Simplicity 1880 (I’m going to do the wrap dress), has a side zipper. Is this driven by the design, or a conscious choice by the designer to make dressing and undressing a little easier? I suspect it may be the first…

Going forward I intend to change my centre back zippers to side ones on dresses I intend to wear day to day (unless it’s a jewel neckline! My head’s got to fit through the neckline for this to work!). Converting from a centre back zipper to a side zipper should be fairly straight forward:

  • Cut the back piece(s) on the fold having removed the seam allowance at centre back
    Insert the zipper in the side seam (usually a 14″ zip)

Gertie and Casey both have great tutorials on side zipper insertion (both of the lapped variety).

What do you think about zip placement? At least this way I’ll be able to dress myself – and massive kudos to anyone who is able to deal with their own centre back zip!

Oh my, CB zips seem to be getting some serious love! If anyone has any tips on how they manage to get them done up on their own, please let me know!!

Huzzah, Marcy has shared the secret (how dumb am I?!) and I can get both dresses on with out any help! I still think I may give side zips a go though, just for the challenge and experience. I may still love them, and its good to have options…

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30 thoughts on “Side or Back Zippers – Which Do You Prefer?

  1. I prefer back zips. I should probably be up front in saying that I don’t tend to have a problem doing them up. Yes I’ll ask the boy for assistance if he’s around, but if i’m alone I’m still fine. I have only a few garments with side zips, which includes one of my favourite RTW dresses, which I don’t know if it’s because of the way the zip is put in, but if i don’t have an extra layer underneath it it pinches the skin under my arm (both the outside and the inside of the zip actually. The pinching on the inside can be tackled by wearing a t-shirt under the dress, which I generally need to do anyway as it is a bit low cut on me for everyday wear (not least because my bra tends to show as soon as I move).

    Whereas back zips, you put the dress on, and once it’s zipped up you don’t have to think about it anymore.

    So yeah, my preference goes to back zips, I find them more comfortable.

    1. I’m impressed! I can only get them so far (bottom of my shoulder blades) and then I’ve had it!

      I guess there’s a stretch of about 4″ where I can’t reach the pull. So low-ish backed dresses aren’t a problem, just ones that go all the way up.

      I wonder why the side zip pinches under your arm? Gertie recommends that the zip stops 3-4″ before the underarm and the rest of the seam is just sewn normally. That makes sense to me as it should avoid any pinching.

      I can see the pros and cons of both.

  2. I prefer a back zipper just because I can do my hair while I’m wearing my bathrobe and then get into a dress without messing up my ‘do! I find it WAY hard to get into a dress with a side zip that stops before the underarm– I always feel like I’m going to rip the seam above the zipper.

  3. I prefer CB zippers – the zip tab always seems to scratch at my underarm – and I get grazed 😦

    Plus, if you gain/loose a few pounds (I’ve lost 25 lbs since the start of March) then a CB zip means it’s easier to take in the side-seams without having to unpick & re-sew a zip back again LL!

    1. 25lb in 3 months?! Holy Moly, well done you! I can see your point about alterations. I’d love to know how you CB loving girls cope with the zips!

  4. I can do up back zips but I prefer the hidden side zip for its invisibility. Sunni’s tutorial stabilising with organza is great – I haven’t had any problems since I’ve used it. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to change the location from back to side though!

    1. I’m starting to get jealous! How do you all manage the CB zips?! Or am I just not as flexible – which is distinctly possible LOL πŸ™‚ I’ll have to practice my zipper technique I guess…

  5. I have two dresses I regularly wear to work (I’m working on increasing this number but it’s slow going). One of them has a side zip but I require my husband’s help with this one. Turning myself to grip the zipper makes it impossible to zip. A better fitting dress or a better zipper installation might mitigate this, but from my small sample size, a side zip is actually harder to get on than a back zip.

    I also agree with preferring to step into my dresses rather than wiggle into them from below – which would be the case with an enclosed side zip.

    I can reach from under to about my shoulder blades, then I hunch my shoulders up to raise the zip high enough to reach behind me from above and grab it. For a very fitted dress this might be impossible and there would be about an inch I’d have trouble with.

    I’ve occasionally seen vintage zipper pulls you hook into the tiny hole on the pull and then you can dress yourself. They remind me of a back scratcher in shape. Some invisible zips don’t have a hole at all though. Not sure what you’d do there.

    1. Ah, so that’s the secret! I just had a go with my two dresses and what do you know?! I can get them both on by myself! Huzzah!

      Thank you for explaining what the blimmin’ obvious to most other people.

      I still think I may give the odd side zipper a go though, just for the challenge and experience.

      Thanks a million Marcy!

  6. As someone who is fairly new to sewing, this is really interesting. Thank you for taking the time to post it, I’ll definately be referring back to it again. πŸ™‚

    1. I hope its useful, if only in helping people consider the options! I have to admit that I’ve gone from one camp to having feet in both as a result of the conversation. Its one of the things I love about blogging!

  7. Definitely interesting food for thought! I have to say though, I do prefer a back zipper, for comfort and ease of getting into. Doing up the top couple inches can involve some contorting of one’s shoulders and arm joints but I never have any serious issue with it unless the dress is too tight, in which case I shouldn’t be wearing it anyway LOL

    I like the idea of the side zip being invisible, and having a nice unbroken back piece with no seam, however in practicality, I find it uncomfortable to wear and hard to get into. Then again, I don’t think I’ve ever had a garment with a lapped side zipper; perhaps that would increase the comfort level, as the zip wouldn’t be sitting against the inside of one’s arm πŸ™‚

    1. I am wondering if the lapped side zipper would solve the discomfort issues. I think its the method I’ll employ when I make my (faux) shirt dress. I’m glad I’ve worked out the shoulder and arm contortion solution as I can now get into both my dresses on my own! Yay!

  8. I’m going to sit on the fence I think, I’ve done side and back and I think I prefer wearing a side zip as its concealed but inserting a back zip is easier. I also need to make adjustments to the upper CB due to having some sort of weird humpback thingy that necessitates an neck adjustment. I would need to have a centre seam or zip so I might as well put it in but it does look neater underarm. So that doesn’t really help does it!!!

    1. I find your opinion really helpful and I’m glad you shared it. I still have a fascination and desire to try a side zip so its nice to find some who are fans of that method.

  9. I prefer centre back zips, purely because they are quicker to put in! If you want to stabilise the fabric for a side zip insertion, instead of organza you could use a fine sheer fusible interfacing, cut as a straight strip. Try Gill Arnold’s stuff: http://www.gillarnold.co.uk

    1. Thank you for the link to Gill’s site. I’m off to have a look… A woven fusible may well be better. I’m looking forward to trying all this out now!

  10. I do it the same way Marcy does, although it means a bit of wiggling usually. That said, if I make a zippered dress, I usually opt for a side zipper (or not inserting a zipper at all…). I have never thought about why, I just prefer it. But you make a reasonable case for the back zipper…

  11. I’m an old-time sewer from the 1970s. When I made my dresses and since I’m right-handed, I always put the zipper on the right-hand side of the dress to make zipping up easier.
    I just bought a dress online that’s 100% polyester with absolutely no give. It has a left-side invisible zipper that’s way too short (9-1/2″). Back is one piece so no center seam to put in a CB zipper. To get into the dress, I have pull each shoulder of the dress to get the shoulders in one at a time and scrunching up my shoulders…does this make sense? I end up sweating like a pig and leaving make-up traces on the dress. Wonder if putting in a longer zipper will help. I was even thinking of putting another invisible zipper on the other seam. Any ideas?

    1. Sorry it’s taken me a while to reply! I’m no expert by any means, but I’d try a longer zip first of all as you’ll have more room to manoeuvre when getting into the dress. I know that some dress patterns have short zippers and the reviews have suggested using a longer one instead to make getting dressed (and the reverse!) easier. 9 1/2″ does sound very short!

  12. Whenever I buy a dress with a zip I almost always choose one with a back zip. Not sure why but they seem to look better on me. I admit I need help to get them on and off and I haven’t solved that problem even after the advice given in your replies. It’s probably because I’m not very flexible and I like my dress to be a fairly tight fit so there’s always an inch or two that when the zip gets there I can’t reach it whatever I try. It’s no problem though as I have a husband who is so used to helping me that if he’s in the room with me he zips or unzips me without me having to ask. If he’s away from home I simply wear something that I can get on and off by myself. It only backfires if he zips me up in the morning and is then late home after work. I haven’t yet faced the embarrassment of going to a neighbour to be unzipped – I’ve just waited for him to get home.

    1. A back zip is best for looser dresses. A back zip make a tight dress impossible to put on your self. Because you must hold it up and pull the zip straight tight to get the zip up all at once. Or have someone else ripp it up. With a back zip I usually put the dress on back wards and zip it up half way then turn it around and attempt to reach the zip at my back and pull up the final part. Side zips I think create a more invisable loon and more divas on the dress. Then the side and back stichings. It also hides behind the arm super handy πŸ™‚ but poorly seamed side zips can pinch your skin. But only if the material is lower then the top of the zip connector. A simple if to a pinching side zip is to see a small part of material to drop down over zip on the inside of dress to stop rubbing on skin. But I do preference a side zip because it good for a more curve showing effect, to have main attraction to body shaping.

  13. I almost always stabilize seams where zippers are placed. There are few exceptions to this. Yes, organza is wonderful and I frequently use it. However, I rarely use it to stabilize zipper seams. I typically (not always) stabilize zipper seams with fusible interfacing. To stabilize a zipper seam with fusible interfacing follow these steps:

    1. Apply to wrong side of seam allowance – Apply interfacing to the wrong side of the seam allowance where the zipper will be placed.
    2. Width of interfacing strip – Size of interfacing should be 1/8” wider than the seam allowance. I normally make my own patterns, so my seam allowance is generally ½”, so my interfacing strip would be 5/8” wide (1/2” seam allowance + 1/8” = 5/8” wide interfacing). If you use a commercial pattern, your seam allowance is 5/8”, you will add 1/8” to the 5/8”, so your interfacing strip will be ¾” wide (5/8” + 1/8” = 6/8” or ¾”).
    3. Length of interfacing strip – The length of your interfacing should be 1” longer than the zipper. If you had a 7” zipper, your interfacing should be 7” + 1” = 8”.
    4. Application of interfacing – Listed below are some notes regarding applying the interfacing:

    a. Distance from top edge – The interfacing strip should be placed down from the top edge the distance equal to seam allowance width minus 1/8”. So, if you are using a commercial pattern your seam allowance would be 5/8”, you would subtract 1/8”, and the interfacing would be placed ½” from the top edge (5/8” sa – 1/8” = ½” from top edge). If you are making your own patterns (especially if you work in the apparel industry), your seam allowance will probably be ½”, so you would subtract 1/8” from ½”, and your interfacing would start 3/8” from the top edge or cut edge (1/2” – 1/8” = 3/8”). This will prevent the seam allowance having too much bulk, but the interfacing will be caught in the seam.
    b. Apply the interfacing – Apply the interfacing to the wrong side of the fabric with a hot iron and steam. It goes on both seams.

    Lapped verses invisible – If you are talking about a strapless dress, a regular zipper with lapped construction should always be used over an invisible zipper. If a strapless dress is made properly, it should include boning, built in cups or bra, waist stabilizer, etc. and the dress should be fitted tightly so it stays on the body. For a strapless dress, there are no straps or fabric over the shoulders to support the dress. If the dress has good construction, it should support the bust. This means it will fit the body like a glove. Invisible zippers are weak and will break if you put them on a strapless dress that is constructed properly. Remember when I say constructed properly I am including boning (at least 13 pieces or more on a standard strapless dress), built in bra, waist stabilizer, etc. and it will fit the body and stay on the person without any fear of the dress falling off the person. So, use a regular zipper (not invisible zipper) with lapped construction method for strapless dresses.

  14. Back zipper all the way!!! im a 0/2 and with a side zip zeros dont fit bc my waist is 24 but my rib cage is barreled shape and is 34☹. side zippers are just bad lol

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