Closing the Brilliant Retro,

…or how to install a zipper in 168 easy steps.

But first, when we last chatted about knitting, I was on the verge of assembling my Brilliant Retro cardigan. I started by seaming the sides of the sweater using a thin, smooth yarn – as much as I love Classic Silk, it is too thick and nubbly for pulling through all those running threads.

Can you identify the yarn I’m using for seaming? If you’re thinking periwinkle by the people who do it best, you’ve got it!

Now the zipper installation can begin, and my adventures are documented in the extended entry. I must warn you that I have the heart and mind of a perfectionist (but you knew that), and I certainly didn’t take the easy way out with this finishing touch. For quick and dirty directions, may I suggest Claudia’s tutorial? Absolute quality in every shortcut :).

Okey dokey, I see you’re here. Hope you’re ready :). Click on the thumbnails for bigger pictures.

After the front pieces of Brilliant Retro dried, I measured the length along the cardi opening. It measured 22″. Twenty-two inches. Hmmm… seems a little long. Unless I plan to grow another foot within the next week, 22″ will continue to be the distance between my collarbone and my crotch, not between my collarbone and mid-hip.

And then it struck me – this is a close-fitting sweater, and the front pieces will stretch widthwise and shorten lengthwise when the sweater is actually worn! This is exactly the dilemma Carolyn faced with her Olive sweater, except in her case a cardi knit out of thick cotton will get longer when worn.

So how do I go about selecting the right zipper length? I certainly don’t want to put a 22″ zipper in there. In fact, I’m sure all of us have a store-bought cardigans where the zipper buckles when closed – no, my tummy doesn’t protrude sharply from my body, though you’d think so from the picture! It seems to me that’s the result of setting in a zipper which is too long for the cardi’s fronts once they’re actually on and closed!

The choices are simple: (1) use a 22″-long zipper, and the cardi will look perfect when laid out on a flat surface, but wavy on the person, or (2) use a shorter zipper, and it won’t buckle when worn, but will probably look crappy as still life.

Hmmm… 😉

I have no interest in making pretty still life.

To determine the proper zipper length, I put on the sweater-in-progress, and pinned it closed. I got a good idea of what it’d look like if I used a bunch of little buttons as recommended in the pattern – no, thanks!

Then I draped a tape measure over my chest, allowing slack for all the curves, and noted the actual length of the opening. Wouldn’t you know it – 19.5″. I think that if I went with the originally measured 22″, the 2.5″ difference between the length of the zipper and the length of the cardi fronts would result in major frustration.

I bought a 20″ zipper in a cream color (boring – I know), checked that it was functioning fine (always a good idea), and while it was closed, pinned it into place. Considering that my sweater fronts were now longer than the zipper, I used the “divide and conquer” method of distributing the slack – pin the two ends, then the middle, then the middle of the middle, and so on. Of course the zipper looks like shit and a half when displayed on a flat surface, but fortunately I’m not two-dimensional and the sweater is meant to be worn :).

After pinning, I wanted to make sure I was on the right track, so I carefully opened the zipper, put on the sweater, and closed it again. “Carefully” being the operative word – there are lots of pins and zipper teeth, all in one place.

And voilà! No buckling after this rough manipulation!

Now I simply needed to stitch the zipper into place.

I’m not fully competent to give you sewing instructions, but basically, I first attached the outermost edge of the cardi to the zipper backing, using the most invisible stitches I could muster, making sure the knit fabric followed a straight line along the zipper teeth. Although there are many ways to invisibly sew through a knit fabric, the specifics are determined by the yarn, gauge, drape, and selvedges used in the project. Trial and error are an important component here.

Although my first line of stitches was neat and strong enough, I wanted to back the zipper with some grosgrain ribbon – it would seal the entirety of the zipper backing, and add a nice finishing touch. I folded the cream grosgrain (boring – I know) under the bottom edge of the zipper, and stitched it to the zipper backing (not the knit fabric).

When I reached the top of the zipper, I tucked the extra zipper backing under the fold of the grosgrain.

Last, I secured the outside edge of the ribbon with some quick little stitches – didn’t want to make those too firm, since this cardigan is meant to stretch over my bust.

Before moving on to the other side of the zipper, I tried on my sweater-in-progress. The lack of buckling is very encouraging indeed :).

And just when I thought, “I’m so close!” I remembered that the sleeves aren’t attached yet, and there’s a a petite collar-ette to knit. A vest is a wearable thing, no? 🙂


61 thoughts on “Closing the Brilliant Retro,

  1. frecklegirl jess

    So helpful- bookmarking this and Claudia’s for my next (and 1st) zipper install. 🙂

    She’s looking great so far! Trying not to be bitter. (scowls at own craptastic BR)

  2. Ingrid

    This is a fantastic tutorial! I was scouring the internet looking for something like this a few months ago. Seeing that I didn’t find what I needed, I opted for buttons.

    If you ever decide to sew a collar separately and then attach it to your knitting, I’d LOVE a tutorial for that.

  3. Katarina

    Fab tutorial! I’ve always liked that cardi too, but have been put off by the in-between-button-holes. I’m definitely doing it your way if I’m ever doing it.

  4. Marlena

    Oh! Why didn’t I think of that? This tutorial makes me want to rip the zipper out of my Ribby Cardi, I thought the buckling was unavoidable. Thanks so much for sharing!

  5. Kai

    I have this bookmarked too!!

    I have to knit the Urban Aran Cardi for Ollie (my partner) and then do this zippery magic… eek..

    I think with your instructions I can’t go wrong! Yay!

  6. whitney

    Oh, how clever, I would never even have thought to do that to keep the zipper from buckling! I am definitely bookmarking this post to come back to when the time comes for me to install my first zipper.

  7. Cirilia

    I know how annoying it is when someone offers tips AFTER the fact but I have to mention them because I know you like to weigh all options. Before installing my first zipper I read far and wide and got conflicting info. I finally developed a hybrid method but my two favorite tips were 1) wash the zipper before installing it and 2) baste instead of pinning.

    Since I’ve started reading sewing books I’m appalled at the idea of having to pre-wash my fabric multiple times to account for shrinkage but judging from the change in texture after I washed my zipper I’m betting there was a good bit of sizing/starch in it and I was glad to have it gone.

    The basting is just another step, I still pinned everything into place the way you did but then I basted and removed the pins. It helped everything to lay (lie?) very flat. In the words of Borat “I like!”

  8. Pam

    It seems so illogical on the face of it, a 20″ zipper for a 22″ length sweater? I never would have figured that out, although the way you explain it makes it so obvious now. Thanks for the tutorial!

  9. Ashley

    “Now I simply needed to stitch the zipper into place.” Ha! Oh yes–that’s all. 😉

    It looks great, sleeves or no sleeves!

  10. laura b

    Thanks for the incredibly useful directions. You’re right… I do have store-bought sweaters that do that bulge thing. Anyway, I’ve been scared off by zippered patterns in the past, but now that I’ve got your detailed instructions, maybe I can do it! Thanks again!

  11. Carolyn

    OH GOD thank you. Seriously. I don’t know why I didn’t realize this. Without the freedom of experimental time now, things are just pushed aside…I actually pushed aside a near finished sweater!! I am working on it today!

  12. Su

    Oh thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouu…. I’m working on a cardi that I designed right now that I intended to put a zipper in and while it’s not as close fitting as the Brilliant Retro it’s not exactly loose either. I would have totally forgotten to allow for the “stretch over the boobage” factor when measuring for the zipper. Thank you for reminding me! 🙂

  13. Carrie

    Thanks for the tutorial. It’s your perfectionist nature that allows you to fit your clothes well, and it’s the need for a sweater to look good on the hanger than makes store-bought clothes look terrible when worn. I aim to get better at fitting my own clothes as well, including taking a sewing class or ten.

  14. Tana

    I love your directions! It’s so nice to read something that is logical and includes oddities like I would do (the middle of the middle? Yes!).

  15. Denise in Kent, WA

    Positively brilliant! Thanks. This is one of those things that, upon reading it, you think “Of course!” and smack yourself on the forehead. I’ve long wanted a zippered cardigan and am more likely to tackle one now that I know how to avoid those unsightly bulges.

  16. Daphne

    Huh! (that’s the lightbulb going on.) Thanks for the tips; I’ve avoided finishing my zippered sweaters with zippers for a while now (using other closures). Nevermore!

  17. kelpkim

    yes, that is an extremely valuable tip you pointed out–the buckling of the zipper because it’s too long for the sweater when you are actually wearing it! and even as a vest, it looks super! :o)

  18. Jennifer

    Never ocurred to me! I love/hate zippered fitted sweatshirts because of the lovely bulge they give me. Now it all makes sense! Your work in progress looks awesome!

  19. suzanne

    You deserve a special award for figuring out the zipper-buckling thing. I thought it was just because I have no boobs, and everything simply sagged downward. Glad I can now blame the zipper!

  20. Sara

    What a lovely job! It looks perfect, and I must confess, the too-long zipper issue had not occurred to me before (although those handknits into which I’ve installed zippers have been looser anyway, which makes this a non-issue).

    Here’s an alternative method, for the completeness of your collection of tips: Rather than basting in the zipper or attempting to sew with a machine through the handknit item, one can make two crochet chains the length of the zipper of the same yarn used in the handknit, and sew *those* to each side of the zipper tape (on the front) with the machine, and then whipstitch the crochet chains to the handknit with any yarn that would be suitable for seaming the garment. This gives you an attachment that’s very secure and nearly invisible; if one wanted to attach ribbon as you’ve done here (which I think is a lovely touch and one I intend to incorporate henceforth), it should be no problem at all to sew it to the back side of the zipper tape at the same time as the crochet chains are sewn to the front.

  21. Debbie

    You are such an inspiration! Your detailed instructions make projects, that I previously would never have considered, seem possible. Thanks!

  22. TracyKM

    Thank YOU! I will never fear a zipper again (or elastic either, thanks for that tip). I never actually feared zippers, but would get fustrated by knitting a garment, and then finding out there aren’t any zippers the right length. I do have some sweaters with hilly zippers, so I am very glad to know what the solution is! I read recently on that she had this issue, and thought it was because the zipper is too stiff, which seemed logical to me too. Maybe it’s a bit of both. But now I know!

    Gosh, I wish there was something I could teach YOU–you’ve taught me quite a few things 🙂

  23. JJ

    Wow! Looks awesome already. Forget the sleeves! I love the vest look. 🙂 Thanks for the zipper instructions!

  24. Janine

    So lovely! Thank you for explaining the zipper length conundrum. I’ve never wanted a zippered sweater, but see your Brilliant Retro has changed my mind.

  25. SallyA

    Thank you, Kathy. This tutorial is just great. I’m so much the opposite of a perfectionist that I would have bulging zippers and pouffy berets and all manner of really ugly crap (in my trash probably or all frogged because I gave up). You help keep me real! One question: Why didn’t you sew w/ a sewing machine instead of the hand sewing?

  26. Jomy


    I love the color. I hadn’t realized how ‘variegated’ it was until I saw the close up.

    I see that you kinda adapted the neckline? Interesting. Did you add waist shaping as well? It fits great!

    Furthermore, the ‘proper brassiere’ (I’m a guy, I can’t spell that word correctly. period.) really does make all the difference.

    All in all, lookin’ great!

  27. catbookmom

    Thanks for the tutorial! I’ll add it to Claudia’s and with the help of a friend, I’m hoping to be successful with the zipper for my Ribby Cardi. I have fit issues, being short-waisted and pear-shaped, so I really appreciate the comments on adaptions for ‘real’ shapes.

  28. rfg

    Wow, this might inspire me never to insert a zipper… Just kidding; looks like a promising approach, I will definitely put it in the files!

  29. angelarae

    So it is…but a sweater with sleeves is so much nicer and useful in this cold, cold weather we are having. Beautiful job, as always! Some ‘man’ actually said today, on the radio, that women are more emotional and men are more analytical. I immediately thought of you. He just doesn’t know what he’s missing, does he? ;->.


  30. Lynn

    Would you look at that? A sweater made for a person, a person with a great figure and curves.

    It’s going to be amazing. Thanks so much for the info!

  31. Heide

    Thank you! I’m just preparing to start knitting a Ribby Cardi and it has a zippered closure. I was so very much dreading the zipper. You’ve given me hope… and great instructions. Thank you!

  32. Sara

    And for years I’ve thought that the buckling effect was just because my cardis didn’t fit quite right!

    I’m going to be starting a Ribby Cardi in the near future, so this post is definitely going to be bookmarked!

  33. farm-witch

    Man, oh man… are such a gift! I’m heading into zipper land in knitting (been sewing a while but have found, tragically, that the experience of sewing a straight fabric is little help here) and I think you just saved me MONTHS of therapy.

  34. gillian

    Your sweater looks great. You’ve left the zipper teeth showing, as a style element. Did you consider concealing it, the way it would often be in a sewn garment? And your explanations are first class.

  35. Gina

    Thanks for the zipper technique – I will be putting in a zipper for my hubby’s sweater soon and was a lil intimidated… this will help 🙂

  36. heidi

    Thank you so much for this tutorial! I have never attached a zipper because I’ve seen even my mom the master-knitter failing with it. But now I will give it a try.

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