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Railroad Zippers Simplified

Of all the zippers that can be applied when you are sewing garments — invisible, lapped, exposed — the conventional zipper, aka the railroad zipper, is by far the most difficult of them all to insert. When it comes to inserting zippers, this particular zipper is far more difficult than the often feared invisible zipper. How is that possible?

The Trouble with Inserting Railroad Zippers

For this zipper to look good, and I mean really good, the exposed stitching that surrounds the zipper must be perfectly straight and evenly spaced. And the zipper teeth must be centered within the seam opening. No easy task, even for yours truly, who has been sewing, like forever. Making sure that happens requires a focused attention to preparing for that final step. Here, we will take a look at how to insert a railroad zipper.

Railroad Zipper in a Pink Garment

Granted, applying this common type of zipper requires very few steps, which at first, sound rather easy to accomplish. But the devil is in the details when it comes to making sure this zipper looks professionally done. It’s all in the prep work that counts.

Follow these steps to simplify the process of inserting a railroad zipper:

Step 1:

It starts with baste stitching the zipper opening with the usual ⅝” seam allowance. Now, press the seam open. Working from the right side of the project, draw stitching guidelines to help frame the zipper. This is one of the most important prep steps, so do it carefully and as precisely as possible. I prefer to use a fine-tip fabric marking pen to draw the lines. Make sure your lines are exactly ¼” – ⅜” from each side of the center seam line.

Marking Your Seam Lines for a Railroad Zipper

Step 2:

Use a zipper that is 2″ longer than needed. Don’t worry, you’ll see why in just a moment. Working from the project’s wrong side, take that zipper and lay it over the center seam line with the zipper tab positioned above the top edge. And, I mean lay that zipper exactly over the center line. This is one of those really important details that will make a marked difference in the finished appearance of this zipper.

Lining the Railroad Zipper up on a Garment

Step 3:

To hold the zipper securely in place, hand baste the zipper in place. Or, you can simply use scotch tape to secure it. This again is another important detail that will ensure the zipper teeth remain perfectly centered and securely in place.

Holding the Zipper in Place on the Garment

Step 4:

Your prep work is now done. The zipper is securely centered over the center seam line. That annoying tab that always gets in the way distorting your stitching lines is no longer a problem. The center seam line stays intact. And you have a set of guidelines that will ensure the stitching that frames the zipper is straight and even on both sides of the center seam.

Step 5:

Remove the tape from the back of the zipper and undo the basting stitches that are holding the center seam together. Now open the zipper so the zipper tab is midway into the zipper opening. The excess zipper that hangs above the top edge can now be trimmed even with the top edge.

Step 6:

The method in which the top edge is finished, either with a waistband or facing, will contain the zipper tab and prevent it from running off the garment. For added insurance, you may hand sew several stitches around each side of the zipper teeth ¾” below the top edge, which in essence serve as bumpers or stops (done in contrast color in the photo for teaching purpose).

Voila! A zipper you can be proud of. Prep work is important in sewing. Of course, it adds extra time and labor to the process, but it can also turn a homemade project into a professional looking one.

Mastering in Minutes: Zippers

Intimidated by zippers? Don’t be!

Bluprint expert Callie Works-Leary takes you step by step through 3 zipper insertions so you can properly prepare the seam, place the zipper and stitch it for a professional appearance. Get the Tutorial



Some great tips here, thank you. I wonder about having the zippper tab positioned above the top edge.. how do I deal with telhe bulk of zipper teeth when finishing that edge?

DiAnne Thompson

I was wondering the same thing. I think I will try this but instead of cutting the zipper flush with the top of the garment, I will trim it back to the width of the seam allowance. That way when you sew on the facing, you won’t have to deal with the additional bulk of the zipper teeth.

Heather Seamons

My question as well. What do you do with the bit sticking up over the edge of the fabric?

Wendy Wiggins

I have never applied a zip like this! I position the right side of the fabric up to the zipper teeth and stitch close to this. I then lap the left side over, so it covers the teeth and a little more; stitching that across the zip at the bottom and then up close to the teeth. You only see one line of stitching. Happy to submit photos if required! 😉


I have the same question. Like the scotch tape idea.


Like Geri, I wonder about applying the facing. Can you take us through that step, and also show us the finished neckline, both inside and outside? The rest of the tips are great! Thanks.


This is how I learned how to put in a zipper many many many years ago. It’s not hard. LOL, It’s the invisible zipper I have problems with.


I would love to hear from Linda as well regarding how to finish off the top of this garment with the tab so far up like that. I like the idea because there’s no working around the metal tab but what about the facing now?


i have been doing this for many years but i pin across the zip to hold it in place while i stitch 🙂


I found it easier to place a piece of scotch tape on the right side of the fabric instead of marking it. Once I pinned or taped the zipper on the inside I flip to the right side and stitch around the scotch tape. It was perfect.


What a great way to put in a zipper! I have always had a hard time going around the zipper pull. I baste my zippers in but I like the tape idea. I will give it a try. Marking the lines on the fabric before stitching also another good idea! My next zipper will be wonderful.

Lynn Ledger

Yes, I’ve used a longer zipper method – depends on what’s in the zipper drawer. But even with the correct length zipper, just unzip it part of the way to stitch the top ends, stop with the needle down to pull the zipper back up and continue stitching – repeat on the opposite side. I have to caution against using the line drawing for very light colors such as white or pastel batistes. Using supposedly removable pencils and markers on heirloom fabrics is risky business. I have always skipped the line drawing and use a piece of clear tape as a stitching guide to eliminate the risk of the line reappearing later on.

Heather Seamons

Thanks for the update re the top of the zipper


This was the greatest tip. I’ve sewn forever, but my zipper is the one thing that keeps my pieces from looking professional. That zipper tab that makes a bump in the straight stitch railroad seam, and usually offsets the top by a couple millimeters. I can’t wait to tackle another zipper now. Truly helpful. A gift. Thanks.


WOW…I have been sewing for about 100 years & zippers still make me cringe….I do most of what you said but it was that big old metal/nylon tab at the top of the sewing line that made my sewing line not so pretty at the top…NOW I will know how to handle it!! Thank you so much!!! Such a simple thing to do!


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