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We call this a “flat top” zipper. We’ve also heard it referred to as a set-in zipper and a recessed zipper. You can make up your very own name; the Penelope Zipper would be one option. You’ve undoubtedly seen this type of zipper on loads of handbags and totes. It sits below the top of the bag, running flat across the top (thus the vote for my name), featuring tabs at either end (to hold on to, making it easy to zip open and shut), and is secured to the bag’s lining with a simple facing (which is what allows it to be recessed). When you want a professional look plus the security of a full closure, you can’t go wrong with the inset-flat top-set-in-recessed-Penelope zipper. Read on to see how easy it can be.

For this tutorial, we are using a 24″ zipper and a finished trim strip width to either side of the zipper of approximately ½” (the total width across is approximately 2″, counting the zipper itself). Our bag’s top opening is 24″, so we will use the full length of the zipper. Your project may call for a shorter or longer zipper and/or narrower or wider strips to either side, but you can use the same assembly steps for any size.

We will take you up to the point of attaching the zipper to a facing. Past this step, the variables in projects make it too hard to be generic, however, attaching the finished zipper unit to the bag’s lining is the super easy part.

There are three Sew4Home projects at the end of this article (the bags featured in the photos above) that use inset zippers, so you can put your new-found knowledge to work right away.

In addition, our popular book, Sew4Home Bags and Totes – 10 Easy, Fashionable Projects Anyone Can Sew showcases a wonderfully big and bold shopper on its front cover that uses an inset zipper. The book is available now at your favorite in-store or online bookseller, including Amazon, where you can take a peek inside at the cover bag and the other projects.

Gather your materials

Depending on the project, you may have different types and/or colors of fabric for each item. We used one color for the zipper side strips (white), a second color for the zipper tabs (green), and a stylin’ metallic zipper. The technique really looks best with a larger, “chunkier” zipper. Our gray and white Greek Key fabric will stand-in for the facing fabric at the conclusion of the tutorial.

  • ONE 24″ zipper
  • FOUR 25” x 1½” zipper trim strips (we used white)
  • TWO 4″ x 2½” strips for the zipper tabs (we used green)
    NOTE: These tabs will fold down to finished 1½” x 1½” squares, which is appropriate to the width of our zipper unit and a size appropriate for most applications, however, you could certainly go slightly smaller or larger.  
  • TWO 1½” x 1½” squares of fusible batting for the tabs; again, these are sized to the width of our zipper unit and must match what the tabs will fold down to

Trim strip length: The strips are turned under ½” on each end, so your finished length will be 1″ shorter than your cut length. You can adjust/cut a zipper to be shorter than its purchased length, but you can’t make it longer. Even if going shorter, try to purchase a length within an inch or two of your opening. For example, if your bag’s top opening was 23″, you could still cut and use a 24″ zipper. Your cut trim strips would then be 24″ in length, finishing at 23″.

Trim strip width: The 2″ finished width is fairly standard for a medium to large bag or tote. You can certainly go narrower or wider. The strips are usually sewn approximately ¼” to either side of the zipper, giving a zipper reveal of around ¾” total. Your strip will lose ¼” in the zipper seam and ½” in the facing seam. For our sample this equalled a finished width, once everything was stitched in place, of approximately 2″.

Attach the trim strips

  1. On each of the four zipper trim strips, fold back each end ½” and press in place.
  2. Place one trim strip right side up on your work surface.
  3. Place the zipper, also right side up, on top of the trim strip. The trim strip should be centered end-to-end on the zipper.
  4. The raw side edge of the fabric trim strip should be flush with the top side edge of the zipper tape. Depending on the width of your trim strips and your zipper, this may mean you see a bit of the fabric trim strip extending below the zipper on the bottom side edge of the zipper tape.
  5. Find a second trim strip. Place this trim strip right side down on top of the zipper. You have sandwiched the zipper between the two strips. The two trim strips should be right sides together and their folded ends should be flush with one another. Pin in place through all the layers along just the top edge.
  6. Stitch through all the layers along the one side. We used a ¼” seam allowance.
    NOTE: We used our see-through Janome Satin Stitch foot and shifted our needle position to the left to get close to the zipper teeth. You could also use a Zipper foot, but with the “chunkier” type of zipper, it looks good to be a bit farther away from the teeth (about ¼” from the teeth) than with a more standard zipper, and we found using the edge of the Satin Stitch foot was a good guide to run along the edge of the zipper teeth.
  7. Start with the zipper closed, stitch from the bottom towards the top. Stitch to just past the middle of the zipper. Stop with the needle in the down position. Lift the top zipper trim layer to access the zipper pull.
  8. Lift up your presser foot (remember, the needle is in the down position). Twist your fabric around slightly in order to be able to carefully open the zipper past where the needle is down into the fabric. Move the zipper down past the needle.
  9. With the zipper pull out of the way, you can now re-position your fabric, drop your presser foot, and finish sewing to the end.
  10. Remove the zipper unit from the machine and fold the two trim pieces away from the zipper teeth so these two pieces are now wrong sides together. The long raw edges of the two fabric strips should be flush with one another as should their folded-in ends. Press flat. Pin the raw edges together.
  11. Repeat to attach the remaining two zipper trim strips to the opposite side of the zipper, taking care to make sure the folded ends of this second set of trim strips are exactly aligned with the first set.
  12. Stitch this second side of the zipper unit in place.
  13. Press both sets of trim pieces away from the zipper.
  14. Lightly pin to hold the strips together.
  15. Along one end, start at the outer raw edge and stitch across the folded ends. We are using a ¼” seam allowance with our Janome Quarter Inch Seam foot to keep this seam precise.
  16. Pivot at the inside corner and edgestitch along the zipper seam. Do not cross the zipper teeth. You are stitching through all the layers.
  17. Pivot at the opposite end and stitch off.
  18. Repeat to topstitch along the opposite side.

Zipper tabs

  1. Find the two zipper tab strips and the two fusible fleece squares.
  2. Place a fleece square on the wrong side of each zipper tab. It should sit ½” in from one short end and be centered side to side. Following manufacturer’s instructions, fuse the squares in place.
  3. Place the right side of one tab against the wrong side of the stop end of the zipper. The tab should be centered within the zipper strip and the end of the fleece should be flush with the folded/seamed end of the trim strip. Pin in place.
  4. This is the positioning as viewed from the back (the wrong side) of the zipper unit.
  5. This is the positioning as viewed from the front (the right side) of the zipper unit.
  6. With the zipper facing up (so the tab is underneath), sew the tab to the end of the zipper. Run the seam right below the folded and edgestitched ends of the side strips. You are just stitching across the width of the zipper itself – not on the side strips. You may need to hand walk the needle across the zipper teeth if using a metal zipper.
  7. Fold up the tab so it extends from underneath the zipper and out beyond the end. Fold in the sides of the tab so they are aligned with the width of the zipper. Then fold down the top raw edge ½” to create a final finished edge.
  8. Fold the tab in half. The folded-down edge of the tab should sit just below the folded and edgestitched ends of the zipper unit. Adjust the fold of the tab as necessary to create this placement. The folded side edges of the tab should also be flush. Pin in place all around.
  9. Re-thread with thread to match the fabric if necessary and edgestitch around all four sides of the tab to secure. You can also stitch an “X” through the middle of the square for extra stability if you’d like, but be careful if you have an encased a metal stop. If you really want an X across a metal zipper, you can cut away the metal stop prior to enclosing the end of the zipper.
  10. Repeat to add the remaining tab to the opposite end.
  11. On this pull end, you’ll need to open the zipper to get close enough to the end of the teeth. In addition, the ends of the zipper tape may extend too far into the zipper tab. Simply trim them back so you can easily fold the tab into a square.
  12. With both ends in place, your zipper unit is complete.

What’s next?

  1. For most projects, the next steps will be to attach facing strips to each side of the zipper unit.
  2. When stitched in place and pressed away from the zipper unit, the remaining raw edges of this facing can then be attached to the bag’s lining, creating the recessed zipper.
  3. To see how we’ve used this type of zipper, check out these Sew4Home projects, pictured in the introduction above:
    Rocky Mountain Satchel
    Zippered Picnic Tote
    Unisex Urban Shoulder Bag
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