Tutorials: Rolled seams and hidden zippers

I’ve been doing a bunch of sewing lately, so I thought I’d put up two of the tricks that I use constantly in garment sewing. One is a rolled seam, or fake French seam, and the other is a method for setting zippers that is really easy and hides the zippers.

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100_0623 (1024x768)100_0624 (1024x768)100_0627 (1024x768)100_0633 (1024x768)100_0634 (1024x768) Making a rolled seam

The rolled seam is particularly useful for translucent fabrics and lace, where an ordinary seam with fraying edges will show on the outside and look bad. One solution is to do these seams with a serger, but if you don’t have a serger, you will want another way to bind up the seam allowance. My favorite method is rolling the seams, and I use this method on virtually all of my projects, whether the fabric is translucent or not–it requires exactly twice as much work, but it does so much to prevent fraying and avoid loose threads tickling or scratching me, that I think it is almost always worth it.There are plenty of tutorials online for French seams, but they all seem to do it the “proper” way which is slightly harder in my opinion, although for really sheer fabrics and ill-matched threads I can see the benefit. My way is:

  1. Make your ordinary 5/8″ or 3/8″ seam, with right sides together, whatever your pattern calls for.
  2. Press the seam open (I press seams with my fingernails/pinching, no need for an iron and board; if you do this be careful not to stretch the fabric).
  3. Fold the loose edges of the seam allowance in to the center, and pin the two sides together so the loose edges are hidden.
  4. Sew close to the edge of the folded seam allowance, using an ordinary straight stitch.
  5. Press the rolled seam in whatever direction your pattern calls for, choosing one if it calls for open.

Compared to the proper French seam (see e.g. this tutorial), this method has the advantages of a) not requiring any more careful measuring and trimming than for a basic seam (French seams are easy to mis-measure, especially with stiff or thick fabric), b) working easily on curved seams, like setting sleeves, which would be absurdly tricky at best with a proper French seam, and c) allowing you to fit the garment and adjust the seam between steps 1 and 4. It does have the downside of having more stitches showing, but this is to my mind a negligible downside in most cases.

Compared to basic seams, rolling gives a stronger seam by slowing or stopping fraying. Compared to pressed-open seams in particular, it is also stronger because the stress is on the fabric rather than the stitches alone, and the rolled seam doesn’t have the problem of gapping between stitches. As mentioned above, garments with rolled seams are also more comfortable to wear, as they don’t shed loose threads or fuzz to annoy you. On the other hand, the rolled seam is unavoidably thicker than a basic seam, especially a pressed-open seam, and can lead to annoying pile-ups of fabric at seam intersections.

The other trick I want to talk about involves setting zippers. Zippers are intimidating, and can be frustrating, but this is hands-down the easiest method I have ever seen. You don’t need a zipper foot, you don’t need a fancy “invisible zipper” from the store (although these will work fine). The only problem is you do need to be willing to top-stitch the seam, that is, you need to be okay with two lines of thread running parallel to the seam that are visible from the outside of the garment.

  1. Pin the seam that you are going to set the zipper in, right sides together, as if you are going to sew a normal seam. Baste (that is, sew, but without backstitching on the machine or chain-stitching by hand or whatever you do the reinforce the seam) the seam at the ordinary seam allowance. Make this basting easy to pull/pick out afterwards–long, loose machine-stitches or by-hand running stitches are good. I recommend learning the technique on 5/8″ seams before trying it on narrower seam allowances.
  2. If the zipper is set into part of a longer seam, and you haven’t sewn the rest of this seam yet, this is a good time to do so, with your ordinary seam-reinforcement techniques.
  3. Press the seam open.
  4. Lay the (closed) zipper face-down on the seam, on the inside of the garment. Center the zipper teeth over the seam, align it however you need to vertically, and pin it down. You may want to pin from the outside of the garment, so you can remove the pins more easily in the next step and so that the fabric will tend to curve over the zipper rather than the other way around.
  5. On the right side, sew parallel to the seam, close to the edge of the zipper tape, down one side and up the other. You want this line of stitches to be far enough away from the teeth that the zipper pull passes freely–so, at least a quarter-inch in most cases–but close enough that you catch both the zipper tape and the seam allowance. This is easy to do on the machine, but if you are sewing by hand, you can take additional steps to hide the line of stitches–make the topside of your stitches as small as possible, or sew through the seam allowance and zipper tape on every stitch but only through the top layer on every third or fourth stitch.
  6. Remove the basting you did in step 1.

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Wrong side: back of zipper tape is visible, as is the pressed-open seam allowance (black floral pattern, lined with white).

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Right side; zipper pull is at center left. A few stitches (gray) are visible. Fabric flaps nearly overlap.

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Right side with flaps pulled back. Note that, because the seam allowance was properly caught in the stitching, no frayed edges appear.

From the right side, the zipper should be well-hidden by two folds of fabric that just meet at the center and are pressed flat. From a distance, this will look quite like all the other seams in your garment.

Bonus: for lined garments, it is fairly easy to extend this process to hide the zipper on the inside as well as the outside, protecting your skin from the scratchy zipper tape. Baste the lining sections together just like the main fabric sections, and when you have placed the zipper over the main fabric seam, place the lining seam over the zipper, being careful to line up both seams and the zipper tape, with the wrong sides of the lining and shell facing each other. If a three-layer sandwich intimidates you, attach the zipper to the lining first, placing it face-up over the seam and otherwise following steps above, and then attach the main fabric.

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5 thoughts on “Tutorials: Rolled seams and hidden zippers

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