A Guide to Zippers

3 white zippers

Introduction to Zippers

Zippers are one of the most elemental but revolutionary inventions. They drastically changed both the fabric and fashion industries. The patent for the first prototype of the zipper was owned by the inventor of the sewing machine, Elias Howe, in 1851.

The standard modern zipper is weather resistant, durable, and available in a variety of colors, materials, and sizes. Zippers are used on many different items including clothing, vehicle covers, bookbags, handbags, and more.

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How Do Zippers Work?

A zipper track has a row of teeth on each side. These teeth all have a hook and hollow. The slide moves up and down the zipper track. The slide pushes the teeth together to close the zipper track. A high-quality zipper provides a very strong bond that is difficult to break without moving the slide in the opposite direction to separate the teeth. Zippers require all of the teeth to be exactly the same size for the mechanism to work correctly.

Choosing the Right Zipper

Zippers can be used just about anywhere. These fasteners make their way into boat covers, patio enclosures, cushions, recreational gear, and apparel. With so many variants, it can be difficult to decide which type is the best choice for a specific job.

To shed some light on this, we’ve broken down and explained some of the most common zipper components and types below.

Standard Zipper Parts

diagram of zipper parts
  • The elements (or “zipper chain”) refer to the teeth or coil that interlock with each other and run along the middle of the zipper.
  • The slider is the pulling mechanism that opens and closes the interlocking elements (more on slider parts below).
  • The zipper tape is the fabric attached to either side of the elements.
  • Top and bottom stops refer to the small pieces of metal or plastic placed at either end of the zipper to stop the slider from falling off the zipper chain.
  • Top and bottom extensions refer to the pieces of fabric at either end of the zipper unit.
  • The insertion pin is the small, straight piece of metal or plastic where the slider is led into the chain, while the retainer box is the square-shaped piece that stops the slider at the end of the chain and holds it in place.

Types of Zippers

  • VISLON® zippers have a closure structure resembling “teeth.” They’re made of plastic teeth injected onto the tape. Stiffer than coil zippers (see below), they typically work better for straight applications.
vislon zipper
  • ZIPLON® zippers are often referred to as “coil” zippers because they have a closing structure where the teeth resemble “coiled” plastic. This coiling structure allows the zipper to bend well around curves. This makes them great for “smile” curtains, boat covers, cushions, or U-shaped openings in boat enclosures.
ziplon zipper
  • Metal zippers are commonly used in applications that don’t require weather capability.
  • Concealed zippers, also called “invisible zippers,” are designed so that the elements are hidden under the tape.

Zipper Sliders

When shopping for sliders, note that there are ZIPLON-compatible sliders and VISLON-compatible sliders. In general, your zipper slider size & type must be compatible with the zipper chain you are intending on using. The first step is to match your YKK zipper chain size number with the same YKK zipper slider number. For example, a #8 zipper chain will require a #8 zipper slider..

Diagram showing the parts of a zipper slider
  • Slider Parts

      • Crown (top)
      • Puller or pull-tab
      • Body (part that engages with zipper elements)
      • Throats
  • Slider Options

      • Single Slider (one per zipper unit) option
        single zipper slider
      • Double Slider (two per zipper unit) option
        double zipper slider
      • Autolock Slider (or AutoLok)

        This slider type stays in place where you put it. It will not open the zipper chain unless you pull the slider.

      • Non-Locking Slider

        This slider has no locking mechanism to keep it from sliding.

      • Round Slider
        rounded zipper slider
      • Square Slider
        squared slider

Zipper Chains

  • Zipper Chain Options

      • A continuous zipper, or plain zipper chain, has no finished end, which makes it the most modifiable. It’s great for bags, pillows, tents, and custom projects.
      • Infographic showing closed and open zipper types
      • A finished, closed, or separating zipper is finished at either end to stop the slider. The two ends separate at the end, making them ready-made for jackets and enclosures.
      • closed zipper
      • Either side of the zipper end comes in closed or open varieties.
      • 6 zipper types for left to right: Closed-end, Open-end, Two-way Open, Double Sliders with Head to Head orientation, Double Sliders with Bottom to Bottom orientation, and Top Open zipper types

Zipper Pulls

Handbags and similar products often have zipper pulls (or pull cords). These pulls allow you to easily use the zipper by extending the length of the slider. This makes it much easier to use a purse, backpack, or any other zipper with a slider that's too small or difficult to reach. We offer quality-made, easy-to-use zipper pull cords for your next project.

Zipper Quality and Durability

When it comes to zippers, choosing the right quality is paramount to ensure long-lasting performance. Opting for high-quality zippers significantly impacts their durability and overall lifespan. There's a notable difference between plastic and metal zippers in terms of their resilience to various environmental factors.

  • Plastic Zippers

    • Plastic zippers offer unmatched durability thanks to their high resistance to dirt, corrosion, and UV rays. Even though a broken tooth can't be repaired like with metal zippers, plastic teeth will stand up better over time in harsh conditions. Plastic zippers are the optimal choice for applications with long-term exposure to outdoor elements. They maintain smooth functionality through years of sun, rain, salt, and dirt without requiring much maintenance. From boat covers to rugged luggage, plastic zippers keep performing when the going gets tough.
  • Metal Zippers

    • Metal zippers, on the other hand, have the advantage of being repairable if a tooth becomes damaged. They are known for their sturdiness and can withstand heavy use. This makes metal an ideal choice when longevity through repairability is important. Metal zippers are susceptible to rusting, especially in marine environments with saltwater exposure or highly humid conditions. Galvanized and stainless steel zippers offer some corrosion resistance. But in general, metal zippers require more maintenance and lubrication than plastic to prevent seizing up over time.

By understanding the differences between plastic and metal zippers, you can make informed decisions based on your specific application needs. Investing in high-quality zippers ensures that your projects maintain their functionality and appearance over time.

Tips of the Trade

  • Plastic zippers cannot be repaired if a tooth breaks off while metal ones can. However, plastic zippers typically last longer and are more resistant to dirt, corrosion, and UV rays.
  • For sticky zippers, try applying a zipper cleaner and lubricant.
  • Before sewing on the zipper, apply seam tape to the fabric to hold in place.
  • The larger the radius of the zipper tape, the less chance there is of puckering.

YKK Zipper Sizes and Styles: How to Read YKK Product Numbers

YKK is the world’s largest supplier of quality zippers as well as other fastening products. Read on to learn how to read YKK product names & understand how sizes, features, and materials can be decoded from that naming convention.

One of the quickest ways to differentiate zippers is by the chain size, or coil width, indicated via pound sign (#). The proceeding number corresponds to YKK zipper width in milimeters. For example, a #5 zipper has a wider coil width (5mm) than a #3 zipper (3mm):

Diagram showing the width of zipper tape

For an even deeper understanding of zipper nomenclature, let's breakdown the following product name:   YKK VISLON® #8 Separating Zipper Automatic Lock Short Single Pull Metal Slider #VFUVOL-86 DAE 5/8” 60" Black (Item #280085).

  • #8 = Chain size, or coil width (8mm in this case)
  • Separating = Zipper chain has finished ends
  • Automatic Lock = Zipper slider locks in place (also called AutoLok)
  • Short Single Pull Metal = Zipper slider material & identifying slider features
  • U = Reversible automatic lock
  • V = Black nickel
  • OL = Open-end left insert
  • 86 = Zipper gauge
  • D = Made from die-cast zinc
  • A = Additional reference to AutoLok zipper slider
  • E = Enamel coated
  • 5/8” = Width of fabric tape on either side of the zipper chain
  • 60” = Total length of zipper roll
  • Black = Zipper color
  • Zipper Nomenclature

      Diagram highlighting different parts of the zipper naming scheme
  • Types of Sliders

      Infographic showing different types of zipper sliders
  • How Are Zippers Sized?

      The size of the zippers you need will depend on the size of your project. Make sure to measure the area you want to enclose before ordering zippers. The teeth, slider, and other parts of the zipper can also come in a variety of sizes. Full zipper tape rolls are typically sized by chain or coil width, tape width, and length. For a sizing example, refer to item #280085 above.

  • What Materials Are Used in Zippers?

      The materials used in zippers need to strike a balance between durability and ease of use. Zipper tape is typically made from polyester or acrylic. The teeth and sliders can be made from either plastic, resin, or metal and sometimes include UV-resistant, chip-resistant enamel paint. These materials are used for their light weight, strength, smooth surfaces, and weather capability.

Applications Based On Zippers

The zippers and parts outlined above can all be used in custom projects or for zipper replacements and repair.

For industrial purposes, plastic zipper chains and sliders with polyester tape are generally the most stable. Plastic is lightweight, corrosion resistant, and weather stable while polyester offers high strength and low stretch. However, choosing the right zipper will depend on your specific application.

Zippers are incredibly versatile beyond just clothing. Specific types suit certain applications:

  • Bags use metal and plastic zippers for secure, adjustable compartments. Waterproof zippers work well.
  • Upholstery often relies on smooth, flexible nylon coil zippers. Concealed zippers provide a clean look.
  • Outdoor gear needs heavy duty waterproof zippers to withstand the elements.
  • Marine zippers are specifically designed for durability despite the elements. Marine-grade zippers are engineered to withstand corrosion, UV degredation, and resist salt water damage.
  • Garments use metal, plastic, coil, and concealed zippers for closures and design elements.
  • Industrial applications utilize very large, durable plastic zipper chains.

Consider intended use, environment, and aesthetics when selecting the right zipper.

The following is a basic guide and is not intended to be a comprehensive list:

  • ZIPLON (coil) = curved applications (marine enclosure panels, “smile” curtains, tents)
  • VISLON (teeth) = straight applications (biminis, enclosures, apparel, cushions)
  • Sunbrella® SUNZIP™ = Sunbrella Acrylic tape, UV-resistant resin teeth, and enamel metal sliders make these great for marine applications
  • Plastic = marine, saltwater, outdoor settings (awnings, boat covers)
  • Metal = applications that don’t encounter extended exposure to the outdoors (apparel and fashion, bags)
  • Concealed zippers = uses where aesthetic is important (apparel and fashion, bags, decorative pillows and cushions)

Zippers for Specialized Environments

When selecting zippers, it's crucial to consider the conditions and environment they will face. The right zipper type ensures optimal durability and performance for the application.

  • Saltwater and Marine Environments

      In saltwater and marine settings like boat covers and enclosures, corrosion resistance is key. Plastic zippers with polyester tape excel in these conditions. The plastic teeth resist saltwater damage while the polyester prevents moisture deterioration. This makes them ideal for applications that will be exposed to ocean air and water.

  • Extreme Weather Environments

      For uses like tents and gear for extreme conditions, look for zippers that can handle temperature fluctuations and moisture. Nylon coil zippers like ZIPLON are flexible and durable against rain, wind, snow, and UV rays. Their tight coil structure prevents moisture and debris from seeping in.

  • Industrial Applications

      In heavy duty industrial uses such as equipment covers, metal zippers provide the strength and durability to withstand frequent use and abrasion. Stainless steel teeth resist corrosion and deformation under stress. Cotton tape balances strength with flexibility.

When the right zipper is matched to the environment, your projects maintain both functionality and aesthetics even under demanding conditions.

How Do Zippers Break?

Almost everyone has experienced the unfortunate event of a zipper breaking while zipping or unzipping it. There are a few common reasons why a zipper may break.

Zipper is stuck: If your zipper is stuck, there is a good chance that there is something blocking the slider from moving. Fabric or loose threads are common reasons why a zipper gets stuck. You can use a zipper lubricant (like IOSSO® E-Z Snap, Zipzap, or YKK® ZIPPY COOL®) to lubricate the slider and free your zipper.

Zipper will not close or keeps popping up: The zipper may have a thread or cloth stuck in it, crooked teeth, or the slider may be broken. If fixing the teeth or freeing the zipper does not work, you may need to replace the zipper.

Slider pulls off: If the slider is coming off, you should replace it with a new one. Make sure to choose a slider that is the correct size for your zipper and its teeth.

Curious for more?

Check out some of the free materials and industry insight available in our Resource Center.

Some Common Zipper Questions


The purpose of this guide is to give fabricators some general guidelines and product information.

This guide should not be considered as the sole source of information on zippers. This guide is strictly informational.

Please reach out to your local customer care team for more guidance.