I always hand-pick my zippers. I enjoy hand sewing, and I could never get good results inserting zippers by machine. I also like side zippers-- unlike with back zippers, you have none of this business of flailing around not being able to grab the zipper pull.
On the other hand, dress construction instructions would usually have me assemble the bodice, assemble the skirt, sew the skirt to the bodice, and then insert the zipper. That construction method never give me good results with side zippers, because it didn't give my hands enough room to work.
So, I've devised this alternative dress construction method which makes it easy to do a hand-picked side zipper. It has some flaws, which I'll point out below, so you probably shouldn't use it if you're not doing a hand-picked side zipper. On the other hand, if you want to do a hand-picked side zipper and haven't had good results before, give this a try. The basic philosophy is to assemble the dress front and dress back, sew up the side seam on the zipper side, insert the zipper, and then sew up the other side seam. That way, you're inserting the zipper at a stage where you have plenty of room to work.
Also, I'm not going to clutter up the instructions by telling you to press after every step, so I'm just going to make a blanket statement here. PRESS AFTER EVERY STEP. DO IT. JUST DO IT. I shouldn't even have to say this.
(1) Assemble the bodice front and bodice back
Assemble the bodice front and bodice back, and sew any darts. You might as well do the bodice front and back lining at this stage as well.
Assemble the skirt front and skirt back; do the same for the lining. Then, with wrong sides together, baste the skirt front to the skirt front lining, and the skirt back to the skirt back lining at the waist seams.
Sew the bodice front to the skirt front, and sew the bodice back to the skirt back. At this point, you should have two huge pieces, the dress front and the dress back.
Usually patterns tell you to use put the zipper in the left side seam, but I say, use the side seam of your non-dominant hand. If you're right handed, put it in the left side seam. If you're left handed, put it in the right side seam. You're making this dress for yourself, and you get to put the zipper wherever it's the most comfortable for you.
Figure out how long your zipper is, and make sure you baste the seam together for the part where you'll be inserting the zipper. Otherwise, you will have to unpick a lot of stitches and you will be deeply unhappy. I usually mark the place where I need to switch from stitching to basting with two pins close together.
(5) Pin the zipper on the seam
Press your zipper flat. Pin the zipper on the seam, making sure to keep the zipper centered on the seam.
I like to baste the zipper to hold it in place, then sew it in with tiny pickstitches. If I don't baste the zipper first, it's hard to do the tiny pickstitches because the pins keep poking me and the stiffness of the pins keeps the fabric and the zipper from bending. My basting consists of widely spaced pickstitches, so as long as I use thread in a matching color, there's no need to rip out the zipper basting later. When the zipper is in, rip out the basting that was used to hold the side seam together.
Just as in Step (4), you'll need to break the stitching across the waist seam to avoid snagging the skirt lining.
Baste the seam for the extent of the zipper, and then stitch the rest. As in the previous step, I use two pins close together to mark the switch between stitching and basting. You're probably going to have to wrangle the skirt lining some to get it untangled from the main dress fabric and so that the right sides are together.
Make sure you've pressed the skirt lining side seam open. Rip out the basting, pin skirt lining around the zipper opening, and hand-sew it in place.
Again, you'll probably have to wrangle the lining to get it free of the skirt fabric. You probably won't want to stitch the lining fabric all the way up to the shell fabric, so this will leave a little hole at the waist seam, but you can fix this with hand sewing if you want.
The skirt and lining turned out to be much heavier than the bodice could control on its own, so I added a grosgrain ribbon waist stay. I pinned 5/8" grosgrain ribbon to the waist seam, and stitched it down.
Join the bodice front lining to the bodice back lining at the side seams, basting where the bodice lining will lie over the zipper, and stitching otherwise.
Make sure you do a lot of thinking first to make sure you won't be sewing the straps to the bodice in the wrong direction.
Usually I'd wait until the end to stitch the straps on, so that I could check the length and the fit. This time, since I plan to tie the straps together at the shoulders, the length and fit don't matter, so I decided to include the straps at this stage.
With right sides together, pin the bodice lining to the bodice, and stitch.
Depending on a pattern, it might help to make little slits in the seam allowance to help it lay flat. People often recommend understitching the lining to help it lay flat, but I have trouble keeping the understitching from going all the places it shouldn't, so I usually tack the lining down with tiny pickstitches instead.
It usually takes me a lot of fiddling around to get the lining turned under just right at the waist seam, but once I've done that, the hand sewing is pretty straightforward.
And though I didn't mention it in the instructions, I added a couple of hanging loops to the waist stay so that I could hang up the dress by the skirt, and not have the bodice constantly bearing the weight of the skirt.
At this point, all of the major work is taken care of, so do whatever finishing work you still need to do. As for me, I used a circle skirt pattern, so I'm going to let the dress hang for a couple of days before I hem it. I also need to finish the waist stay.
Anyway, that's it for the tutorial! I hope it was useful, but if you have strong feelings one way or the other, or have suggestions for how the tutorial could be improved, please let me know in the comments! I'll post pictures of the finished dress at some point.