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1/30/13: Tutorial — How to Replace a Coat or Jacket Zipper


If you liked this blog on Facebook or have been following me on Twitter, you would have known about my plan of posting a sewing-related tutorial soon. I haven’t done one of these tutorials in about a year (last one made on 1/20/12!), so I thought it was high time I typed one up. Step-by-step tutorials and even generalized tutorials is my all-time favorite feature of sewing blogs of today and as I’ve said in the past, I wouldn’t have learned so much about sewing in such a short period of time if it wasn’t for certain blogs like, Elegant Musings, DixieDIY, Blog for Better Sewing, and A Fashionable Stitch. These five blogs are considered TNT (Tried & True) in my book and I always seem to be coming back to Sunni’s pant fitting posts and Tasia’s understitching and underlining how-to’s.

Back to the main topic. Zippers. Broken zippers to be exact. Since my family has a farm, there is a lot of work wear in circulation and we all know what happens with work wear. It wears down and wears down quickly. We also know the sad but true story: before the pocket tears or the elbows need patching, the zipper usually sends the said work wear back to the far corners of the closet with a tear and a prayer that someday, someone will find a way to replace a zipper.

Happily, there is a way to replace zippers in windbreaker jackets and bulky, thick winter coats. Took me awhile to figure out the best method but I managed. I even took on a few orders the other year. So let me take you through my process. . .

For tools and supplies, grab tailor’s tape, seam gauge, basting thread and needle, separating zipper (we’ll get to details later), sewing machine and all-purpose thread, and most importantly, seam ripper,.
These are the two garments I will be working on today. My sister’s windbreaker. . .

and my father’s winter coat.

So what’s a separating zipper?

Well, it’s this:

The white, separating zipper above makes it possible for you to open the zipper at the bottom. You cannot do this with a closed-end zipper, like the black one below:

You can easily distinguish between the two by the large zipper box that is located at the end of a separating zipper. And yes, it is referred to as zipper “box.” You are going to be such a zipper lingo whiz after this!

Moving up to the top of the zipper you will find the zipper stops, which are the plastic or metal clips that are clamped onto the top to prevent the slider from sliding right off the zipper teeth. You can see the stops here:

Assessing the Problem

Before you even start ripping out the zipper, take a closer look and determine the real cause of the zipper not working. Who knows, maybe you don’t need to replace the zipper! Look for these things:

1. Zipper teeth are missing or jagged
2. Zipper box is broken or missing
3. Zipper slider is loose and seems to be coming off teeth
4. Slider just can’t seem to align teeth correctly
5. Slider doesn’t smoothly glide up and down teeth

Problems #1 and #2 mean, without a shadow of a doubt, a zipper replacement. However, with #3, #4, and #5, there is hope in salvaging the old zipper. If your slider seems loose or is not aligning the teeth correctly, it could just mean that the slider is bent.

How to Fix a Bent Zipper Slider

Using long nosed pliers, pinch the slider slightly to make the gap smaller. Don’t clamp down too hard! Remember, it’s easier to make the gap smaller than larger. So pinch and test, pinch and test. If you just can’t seem to make the slider work, you might want to replace the slider. It isn’t the easiest job but it does save you the hassle of replacing everything. To do this, seam rip the top portion of the zipper when it’s closed and snip off the zipper stops. Try to keep the zipper tapes’ teeth connected! Carefully slide the new zipper slider onto the unopened zipper. Once the slider is on the zipper tape, clamp two zipper stops on the top and re-sew the top portion of the zipper.

Now about #5–slider doesn’t slide up and down smoothly. There could be some miniscule flaw in the zipper but chances are the zipper, especially metal or brass ones, just needs a lube job. Have you heard about zipper soap? There are a number of good brands on the market. Like the McNett Zip Tech. Well worth a try!

Measuring the Zipper

To figure out what length your zipper replacement should be, you have to measure the old one. Use your tailor’s tape and measure from top of zipper. . .

To bottom. . .

The jacket’s zipper measures 25″ in length. Write this down.

Sometimes finding a separating zipper in the right length is hard to do. Here is the typical scenario for me using the 25″ size as an example.

I first check my stash. If I find one that is over 25″ in length I will cut off the extra length at the top of the zipper and clamp on “zipper stops” using flat nosed pliers. Zipper stops were hard to locate a few years ago but now Amazon is selling them at a real good price. Check out the Tandy brand here. If, however, I find a zipper that is 1/2″ to 1″ too short, I’ll use it anyway. I just center the zipper along the jacket edge; 1″ deficit will not make much of a difference.

If I have no zipper I will check out my favorite notions sources, (Hobby Lobby, Joann,, etc.). Usually they are way over priced but sometimes I find them on sale with free shipping. That’s when I snatch them up. When there are no good deals going on I will resort to. . .

I’ve been buying zippers from them for six years now and they have an expansive selection. They also will do custom lengths for a small fee and have fast customer service. So if you have any questions on zipper numbers, lengths, or best zipper for the job, feel free to ask.

Removing the Zipper

Hold on there! Before you grab for the seam ripper, grab a camera. This is the most important step in replacing a zipper: documentation. So get out your camera or phone and start taking shots of the jacket’s zipper stitching. Knowing where the seams and stitching are is the best way for you to wrap your mind around the jacket’s construction. I usually use my digital camera and make a video where I am dictating and pointing to the seams saying, “This seam is 1/4″ away from the zipper teeth” and, “Topstitching begins 5/8″ down from neckline.” Things like this will prove invaluable when it comes time to sew in the new zipper!

Once construction research is done, it is time to rip out the zipper. Cut through a few stitches to make an opening and then run the seam ripper along the inside of the seam. Take your time at the beginning and end of the zipper because this is where a lot of tacking was done by the manufacturer. I broke many seam rippers by rushing the process. I also take a few photos when I’m seam ripping to see the “inner workings.”

Pinning and Basting the Zipper
Take your new zipper and unzip it so you are working with one tape. For this coat I am just going to insert the zipper between the folded edges of the coat’s Front and Back. I would traditionally seam the zipper to the Front edge by opening the fold and having raw edges even, but this coat’s batting is escaping with a vengeance. (You should see what happens with a down coat! It can get messy!)

I pin the zipper in place.

After, I come back and baste the zipper by hand. You absolutely need to baste! There are so many layers to deal with and don’t forget those pesky snaps, velcro, or windbreakers that get in the way. It is the surest way to make your zipper straight and to avoid bubbling. I try to keep my basting out of the line of machine stitching I will be doing later. Makes it easier for me to remove the basting.

basting on inside of coat

There is a little trick to basting in the second zipper tape to the other side. The trick is to zip up the zipper and start pinning the second tape in place at the very top.

( zipping up zipper )
( pinning at top of zipper )

Once a few pins are in place you can unzip the zipper and continue pinning the entire length. Pinning at the top when the zipper is closed will ensure proper zipper placement. Once you are done pinning, zip up the zipper again and see if everything is aligned (like necklines and hems), and check to see if everything is lying flat. If not, repin, and finally, hand baste.

With basting done it has come time for the actual sewing!

The hand basting did most of the work here. All I have to do for this coat is machine topstitch along the original stitching line like seen in the photo:

I am using a zipper foot for the topstitching. I like to stitch with a size 100 needle and all-purpose thread, preferably 100% polyester, (just because the coat’s outer shell is of the same fiber content). Finally, I lengthen my stitch length to 3.0. Depending upon the coat’s construction, I will topstitch again right on the fold edge near the zipper teeth.

So that’s how I replace a broken zipper on a coat or jacket. It isn’t that hard to do, save for time-consuming hand basting and working with such bulky materials. With a little bit of gumption, I’m sure any home sewer can tackle the job. Just go to your nearest closet and pull out the dusty winter wear and get cracking! The cold blast is coming!

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