If you’re interested in sewing, then you may have considered purchasing a serger. Also known as an overlock machine, sergers are not the same thing as sewing machines.
There is probably some confusion for first time buyers of sewing machine sergers. What is the difference between a serger and a sewing machine? And if they are different things, then what exactly does a serger do?
Sergers produce clean and durable seams which you can use to finish off your sewing products. If you plan to sell or promote your sewing products, then you’ll definitely need a serger.
The stitches exude an air of professionalism and many of the serger stitches that your home serger can produce will be the same as the types of seams you will have noticed in your commercial level clothing.
In this guide, we will include information about what sergers are and how they are different from sewing machines. With this information in hand, hopefully it will be easier for you to make the decision as to which machine you require.
What Is A Serger
A serger is a specialized sewing machine. They’re different from sewing machines because they can use a differing number of needles and threads. We all know that sewing machines use a needle and thread to stitch two pieces of fabric together. Sergers work in a similar way to sewing machines but with a slight difference.
Let’s see what sergers can do.
What Does A Serger Do
A serger prevents your fabric from fraying at the edges. It uses a number of threads to do this, usually either 3, 4 or 5 depending on the type of stitch you want to make and the machine you have.
Serger sewing is a lot faster and easier than using a sewing machine. The serger sews the seam, trims off the extra fabric and finishes the edges. This makes the seams more durable since the serged seam stretches but the seams from a sewing machine doesn’t stretch.
This is especially useful when you are sewing with non-stretchy fabrics. The serger tidies up the raw edges and prevents the fabric from fraying.
History Of A Serger
Overlock stitching was invented in 1881 by the Merrow Machine Company. Merrow and his son were experimenting with different types of stitches.They designed a machine that used loopers. These loopers make thread loops which allow the needle to pass through the loops. This method of stitching is similar to crocheting.
In 1905, there was a lawsuit between the Merrow Machine Company and Willcox & Gibbs. The rights to develop overlocking machines were given to the Merrow Machine Company. From there, the industrial serger was born. Industrial sergers were used to sew over the edges of fabrics, thus preventing fraying.
These industrial sergers were large serger machines unsuitable for home use. So, in 1964, some engineers at a Japanese industrial company redesigned the industrial serger into a smaller serger machine so that people can use them at home when doing their own sewing.
When the plans for the redesigned industrial serger was presented to the company, it was rejected. However, these engineers decided to quit their jobs at the company and formed a new company called the Juki Corporation. The Juki Corporation then went on to build the ideal serger machine.
Tacony saw the potential in the Juki Corporation’s serger and made the Baby Lock. This household serger was introduced to the United States by the Tacony Corporation.
The Difference Between Sewing Machine And Serger
Given that both sewing machines and sergers can both sew fabrics together, it doesn’t make sense to have two different names and designs for these two machines.
Besides both machines possessing the ability to sew, that’s about where the similarity ends. The important thing to remember is that you can work with only a sewing machine but you cannot complete all your sewing needs with a serger. This is because sergers are unable to do things such as adding zips or topstitching. You’ll need a sewing machine for that.
It is possible to use a sewing machine with a serger combined. That way, you get the best of both worlds. Below are some other differences between sewing machines vs sergers.
The biggest difference is that the serger cuts the fabric during the sewing process using a blade that sits just before the needle. On a sewing machine, the fabric will need to be cut first before you can start sewing.
Number Of Threads
The most common type of serger is the 3/4 serger. This machine can sew with 3 or 4 threads. Most sergers use 2 needles for sewing. The 3 or 4 threads are used to make the locked stitch. This can be compared to a sewing machine which uses only 1 thread and needle (or 2 if you are using a double needle).
The serger works a lot faster than a sewing machine. Most sergers can perform over 1500 stitches per minute!
Which Way You Can Work From
On a serger, you can only serge on the left hand side of the needle. With a sewing machine, you can sew on the left or the right hand side of the fabric. This difference is really important for some projects such as when you are sewing something with a long neck.
How To Use A Serger
Using a serger may seem difficult at first. But as with anything else, practice does make perfect. These simple instructions should help you to gain more confidence when working with your serger.
Threading your serger may seem like a total nightmare due to all the extra threads running around everywhere. It’s similar to threading a sewing machine. First off, most new sergers are pre-threaded. So, this first section will guide you through removing the threads.
Removing The Threads
- Remove the thread by cutting all the spools.
- Lift the foot pedal.
- Remove the thread from the left and right needle first. They won’t completely come out, so you will need to pull on the chain. This will break the overlock. Then continue pulling on the threads.
- Pull the thread out of the upper and lower loopers.
Adding The Threads For A Standard 4 Thread Machine
- Always make sure the machine is turned off. Then lower the pedal and move the needles into the highest position.
- Place all your spools on the back of the serger and thread it through the top holder. You are now ready to start.
- ALWAYS start with the upper looper. Pull the thread through the thread guide – this will hold the thread in place.
- Slide the thread into the tension disc by threading it through while pushing the tension release button.
- Follow the guide on your machine as to how to thread the upper looper. Afterwards, thread it through the needle hole.
- When threading the lower looper, follow the instructions on the machine. The next part for threading the lower looper is slightly different for the upper looper.
- Pull out the lever for the lower looper.
- Snake your thread through the hook at the back then thread it through the needle hole, meanwhile ensuring that the lower looper thread is behind the upper looper needle.
- Push the lever back into place.
Left And Right Needle
- Threading the left and right needle is the same as for a sewing machine.
- Follow the channels and thread through the corresponding needle holes.
Adjusting The Tension
The tension in your thread is important because having the correct tension will make the seam stronger. The tension can be adjusted by rotating the dials on the top of the serger which correspond to each of the threads used by the serger.
The greater the number displayed on the dial, the harder the thread will be squeezed by the tension discs. This will result in a tighter thread.
When checking the tension of the threads, do some test stitches and look for balanced stitches. Balanced stitches have the looper threads sitting on the edge of the fabric. The needle threads do not cause the fabric to pucker either.
Signs That The Tension Is Too Loose
- The looper thread is not being pulled enough. You will be able to see loops on the back of the fabric as it will not be sitting on the edge of the fabric.
Signs That The Tension Is Too Tight
- Sections of the fabric will bunch up.
- Your looper threads are being pulled to one side.
Of course, we’re not going to continue serging forever… once you reach the end of the fabric, you’ll need to stop. Here’s a step by step guide for how to stop serging. The method is slightly different depending on whether you want to stop at the edge of the fabric or in the middle so we have included a little information about both.
Stopping At An Edge
- Keep serging after you have reached the end of the fabric. You will now have a chain.
- Cut off the chain from the serger.
Stopping In The Middle Of The Fabric
- Keep serging until the needle reaches the point on the fabric where you want to stop.
- Pull the fabric to the left.
- Then continue serging until you have a chain, similar to how you would stop at an edge.
Now that you’ve got a chain of thread, you’ll need to lock the stitch otherwise it will come undone. On a sewing machine, this is easily accomplished by using the backward button to sew over your stitch. With a serger, it’s slightly different once again and you have several different methods to choose from.
- Serge backwards over the chain (as you would with a sewing machine)
- Thread the overhanging chain back into the serger stitches.
- Knot the stitch. Cut the chain about half a centimeter from the edge of the fabric and pull on the strings. Two strings will come out but the other two will form a knot.
If you’re still worried about fraying, you can use Fray Check. It’s like a special type of glue which holds it all together.
Types Of Serger Stitches
Sergers offer many different options for the serger stitch you can use for your project. The type of serger stitch will depend on how many serger threads your machine has.
The serger stitches are great for creating a tight seam that is durable.
The 1-thread serger stitch is also known as the “butt seam”. The edges of the fabric are joined together by a zig zag stitch. This type of stitch is not very durable and is typically used when you want to join seams where you won’t be placing any stress.
A good example of when you would use a 1 thread serger stitch is when sewing lingerie.
There are two different styles you can use with 2 threads. You can choose a 2-thread flatlock or a 2-thread roll hem.
The 2-thread flatlock provides a flat and thin edge on your product. While it is not a good option for finishing seams, it is commonly used in stretchy clothing or athletic clothing.
The 2-thread rolled hem is typically used for very narrow seams. It adds a nice decorative touch, and you’ll typically find this type of serger stitch on the edges of your table cloth.
Good for stretchy knitted items or woven fabrics. The 3-thread only uses one needle so the stitch is not as durable as a 4-thread overlock, thus it is recommended for use when you will not be putting much stress on your finished product. You can also use the 3-thread overlock to make a blind hem.
The 4-thread overlock is the most common stitch and possibly the one you will use most often. It is usually used to finish seams on clothes as it is strong and durable.
The 5-thread overlock stitch is a safety stitch used to make an even stronger seam than one made from either 3 or 4 threads. It is typically done by combining the 3 thread overlock stitch with a chain stitch.
Formation Of Serger Stitches
Despite all the needles and threads getting in the way, the formation of a serger stitch is not overly complicated.
- The needle enters the fabric and the thread forms a loop at the back of the needle.
- The lower looper moves from left to right, with the tip of the lower looper passing behind the needle and through the loop of thread that was formed in Step 1.
- As the lower looper moves, it pulls the lower thread through the needle thread.
- While the lower looper is moving from left to right, the upper looper moves in the opposite direction and the tip picks up the lower looper and needle threads.
- The lower looper now moves back to the left, while the upper looper holds the lower looper and needle threads in place as it also continues moving left.
- The needle travels downwards again and passes behind the upper looper, securing the stitch in place and preparing for the next cycle of stitches.
Here are some of our favorites serger manufacturers.
Brother has a range of serger machines, most of which are of the 4-thread variety. Brother sergers are a good place to start learning how to serge. Their machines contain support resources so as your skill at serging increases, your Brother serger machine can grow with you.
Singer is a well-known manufacturer of sewing machines. The familiarity of the brand will give confidence to beginners of serging after having begun sewing with a Singer sewing machine. Singer sergers are all easy to use and they even manufacture 5-thread sergers for those of you who are looking to create durable safety stitches.
Juki always tries to stay ahead of their competition by providing their sergers with as many features as they can possibly pack into a tiny machine. They still make their lightweight industrial sergers, which contain so many different stitches and features, it’s amazing how the serger functions.
From self-threading sergers to safety switches, Juki have taken the original industrial serger and modernized it to suit the average household.
With 50 years of experience, Baby Lock continues to drive their sergers with innovative features. They try their best to make their sergers easy to use, so that you can now use your serger for much more than just finishing seams.
The Baby Lock also features the self-threading features that Juki boasts but something else unique to Baby Lock is the Automatic Thread Delivery System. No tension dials are required on a Baby Lock serger as your machine can now automatically adjust the tension to produce a balanced stitch on any fabric.
Practical Tips For Beginners And How To Avoid Common Mistakes
All beginners make mistakes, but it’s these mistakes that help us learn. Rather than re-inventing the wheel, here are some common mistakes beginners make. Learn from the mistakes of others and save yourself the frustration and confusion.
We’ve also included some useful tips to help you get started.
Always Do A Tension Test
Before you begin any project, always perform a quick tension test. After finding the best settings for a balanced stitch, you shouldn’t need to change these settings much. The only adjustments you may make will be to accommodate the different types and thickness of fabrics you’re working with.
Sergers are really fast – significantly faster than your sewing machine. The best way to deal with your fast serger is to just practice serging with scrap fabric. Once you’re no longer intimidated by the speed, you’ll be serging like a professional.
Take Pins Out Before Serging
With your sewing machine, it’s okay if sew over a couple of pins. But because of the speed of the serger, sewing over a pin can be extremely dangerous. Also, cutting pins with the serger blade will dull and damage the blade. So you need to make sure you take the pins out before they reach the blade.
Since sergers work so fast, you’ll need good quality thread. Cheap threads will snap way too easily. If your upper or lower looper thread breaks, it’s a good idea to rethread both of them, just in case.
Use Tweezers (And YouTube!)
If you’re having trouble threading your serger, use a pair of tweezers to help guide the thread through the tricky spots. If you’re still stuck, YouTube is a great friend. Chances are, someone else will have encountered the same problem as you.
Serging is not for the faint of heart. Although it may be difficult to get started learning how to serge, once you understand the mechanics, you’ll be surprised at how fast you’re completing all those projects you’ve had piled up.
Not to mention the clean and professional seams are sure to impress anyone – before long, people will start thinking all your handmade projects are designer label items!
If you’ve decided you want to buy a serger, make sure to check out our serger buying guide. It’ll contain helpful information for what to look out for when buying a serger. We’ve even included our top picks for the best sergers under $300.