Vintage Sewing

So close and yet so far

January 19, 2013

Hi everyone

This is my first post on wesewretro, though I’ve been eagerly reading it for some time now. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the amazing creations posted here and it has really inspired me with my own projects. Sadly my first post here is a call out for some advice on a sewing disaster that has me completely stumped!

I started making this dress late last year:

The pattern is self drafted (one of my first experiments in self drafting) and the concept was for a 1950s style party dress to wear for New Year’s Eve. Though the style is simple, the dress is quite constructed. It has a sturdy built in foundation with boning and bra cups. The fashion fabric (a lovely rose coloured embroidered cotton voile) is hand draped in pleats onto an underlining of cotton poplin, and the whole garment is lined again in cotton poplin. The skirt is very full (1.5 circles). Here is a picture of the bodice up close:


And here is a picture of the foundation inside (with the lining folded back):

Everything was going really well until I got to the final stages. I used an invisible zipper in the left side seam, and while it zipped up OK when the dress was not being worn, as soon as I tried it on I discovered that it was impossible to get the zip past the waist seam when on a human body!

Because it’s strapless the dress is a snug fit, but it’s not too small. I think the problem is that because of the foundation and all the layers of fabric the waist seams are too bulky for the zipper to get past when it’s being worn and not lying flat. I tried clipping back all the seams rather savagely but it didn’t help. In retrospect, I should have made the foundation a separate piece with its own closure (hooks and eyes etc) and used a zip just for the outer layers. I didn’t think to do that and the foundation is now very firmly stitched all in one with the bodice. I think it might be too late to separate it again (without dismantling practically the whole dress) and am desperately trying to think of another stronger closure to use for the dress as it is. The problem is that having clipped the seams there is not much seam allowance left to play with.

Does anyone have any suggestions on what to do? Would a regular zipper be stronger than an invisible? What techniques do you use with bulky waist seams? Any advice would be really appreciated – I would really hate to have to put this dress down to experience as it’s SO close to wearable.


  1. Wow! This dress is a really great first attempt at self drafting!

    I’m a bit confused at exactly what the problem is. Does the zipper get stuck at the horizontal waist seam? Is it getting bound up in the lining fabric?

    1. Yes, the zip’s getting stuck at the waist seam. The lining’s not stitched down yet so it’s well clear of the zip. I think there’s just too much bulk for the slide to pass over the waist seam.

  2. Do try a regular zipper. Invisible zippers are very weak and don’t do well with bulky layers. I actually got stuck in a dress from an invisible zip that got stuck on a too bulky seam. My husband had to rip the zipper apart to get me out of it! You might also try doing a hand picked zipper instead of a machine one. It’ll look very nice with how fancy your dress is plus you’ll have more control over how your small seam allowance is laying.

    1. this is exactly what I was going to say. Invisable zips are only for slinky garments where you really don’t want to see any zip. For this type of foundation dress, you need a better zip.
      Try a hand picked, lapped zip, with the inside machined to the seam allowances for best result.

  3. I have run across that before as well. What I have done is sew the invisible zipper as normal but stop a little before I get to the waist seam. Lift the needle, and move the needle out a couple clicks. Sew over waist seam and return needle position back to were you started from. This gives the zipper head a little more room to maneuver past the extra fabric. Hope this helps.

    1. Oh wow – I just followed your advice to fix a store bought dress I couldn’t do up – worked perfectly first time! I unpicked the row of stitches closest to the teeth of the zip and now I can do it up fine while wearing it. Thank you to you and everyone on this thread! Genius!!

  4. do try a regular zipper. i have no faith in invisble zipper (but that might just be me!) also, do you have a waist stay? you do not mention it, and i think it is quite essential in a dress with such structure. i hope it helps, it would be a shame not to finish this dress!

  5. I think you have already gotten some great advice. I just want to add I think your dress is beautiful! What a great job at drafting. Keep persevering, it will be worth it!

  6. Can you zip it up if a second person holds the two sides if the dress close together above waist? If so, I’d suggest adding a tight waist stay to snug you in to make it easier for the zip, as you say it works when dress isn’t worn.

  7. WOW, that’s some amazing work. I hope you can find a solution. I think a regular zip would help – an old metal-toothed one would be true to the era, also. Good luck!

  8. I have had this EXACT same problem. An invisible zipper works by essentially turning in on itself, and if the pull outward on the fabric is stronger than the pull inward the zipper is able to exert, it’s not going anywhere. A snug fit combined with a bulky waist seam are death to invisible zippers.

    In my case it was a heavy silk satin cocktail dress with a piped waist seam. Zipped when on the table, wouldn’t go past the waist when on me. I took the invisible zip out and put in a vintage metal zip instead. Worked perfectly!

  9. Beautiful!

    You have plenty of great suggestions here.

    I just want to add I’ve had the same trouble, I love invisible zippers myself, and they were my go to for most skirts and frocks, but now I think carefully before I install one on a seam that includes many extra layers of fabric. I have also tried adding an extra piece of fabric (say just 1cm) matching carefully (it was stripy fabric) to give a flatter join – as I had spent so much time on the dress, it worked well, and is a side zipper and not too noticeable… but I may have to replace it in time.

    All the best in completing it!

  10. Oh, I’ve had this happen too. I understand your concern about not having enough seam allowance to work with if you remove the invisible zip, and unfortunately I don’t have any concrete suggestions there beyond, “rip it out and make it work”. Maybe you could stabilize the remaining seam allowance with some silk organza?

    Have you tried any sort of very squeeze-y foundation garment? Like a waist cincher? I understand that the dress is not too tight, but sometimes the smoothness of a control garment is just enough to relieve the stresses in that bulky waist seam area to allow the zipper to travel.

    1. Thanks, good to know I’m not the only one to have this problem! That’s a great idea to use silk organza on the seam allowance – I’ll give that a go. The waist cincher also sounds like a clever idea, and probably true to the 50s silhouette (though I’m not sure how I will breathe wearing all that structure!)

  11. When I make costumes that are heavy or with a lot of layers, I always use a normal zipper. A waist stay or even a piece of elastic that’s a little too small can help you wit the invisible zipper problem as well. If you really want to achieve that 50ies look a waist stay or elastic will also help you to get there! An elastic is a little more comfortable to wear for a long period than a waist stay is, but both give great results!

  12. I am agreeing with everyone on the use of a regular zipper and adding a waist stay. Just to give another option (may be past this point for this dress, but in the future) is that if you add the regular zip to the foundation layers, but leave the sheer overlaying layers of the skirt free. Finish the seams on the sheer layers and have them code with a tiny sewn on snap here and there. That way you get the durability of the regular zip, but once it gets to the skirt it won’t be seen really. I see it on vintage dresses/wedding dresses of this sort all the time. I hope that made sense. 🙂 Good luck, it’s a beautiful dress!

  13. Hi everyone, thanks so much for the very helpful advice! I’m going to try again with a regular zipper (hand picked if I can figure out how to do it) and a firm waist stay. I didn’t know this was such a common problem with invisible zips, I only ever learned to put in invisibles so they have always been my default choice. Hopefully my next post on here will be pics of the finished dress! Muchly appreciated!

  14. If the regular zipper doesn’t work, sometimes you will see a vintage garment with a whole row of hooks or buttons at the side closure. Either of those could work for you, although they would be a bit harder to get dressed 😉 You would probably want to add a narrow placket on the inside of the front edge for either of those options.
    What a fun dress! Great job!

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  16. Brand-new invisible zipper application here. Sewing daughter’s prom dress. Sewed in, couldn’t zip past waist. Ripped those few stitches, then used a wider seam with regular zipper foot as suggested and zips beautifully. Thanks for the suggestions, you saved the day!
    Beautiful dress!

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