A few years ago, when a good friend of mine noticed that I was doing a bit of sewing lately, he said I could “look after” an old overlock serger he has unused in storage. Not exactly sure what that is, but I heard it creates a good stitch for sewing knits. I thought it would be great to try it out. So what exactly does a serger do?
The domestic machine range
The three basic types of machines used for making clothing and accessories at home are the domestic sewing machine, the serger and the coverstitch machine. They produce four kinds of machine stitches.
I should note that there are also specialty machines such as embroidery, long arm quilting, industrial and heavy duty (for bags, leather, quilting, etc.) but the discussion here is referring to home sewing for mainly clothes.
1. Lock · stitches
A regular sewing machine creates this stitch. The thread from one or two spools is pushed through the fabric to connect with a bobbin thread coming up from the bottom to create the stitch. The twist locks it in. You need a seam ripper to remove the stitches by cutting them. Used in garment construction.
2. Serger · stitches
A serger creates this stitch. One or 2 top threads are intertwined with two bottom threads or loopers to create a net that crisscrosses over the edges of the fabric to seal the edge. Most sergers also cut the fabric just before laying down the stitches creating a nice clean finished edge. With usually 4 thread spools (2 on the top and 2 on the bottom) looping through each other, this is a very strong stitch yet flexible for knits. I would say an important upgrade for knitted clothing sewing, but great for all fabrics. Used for garment construction.
The terms Serger and Overlocker are used interchangeably. Technically speaking, an overlocker does not cut as it sews and a serger does, but that is not necessarily a distinction that is in common usage. Serger is the term most used in North America and Overlocker is the preferred term in the UK and Europe.
3. Cover ·stitches
A coverstitch machine creates this stitch. It is made with 3 or 4 threads with 2 or 3 needles on top of the fabric and a looper thread on the bottom. It creates a double or triple row of stitches on the top and nice finish hatch-like netting on the back. Used for a professional finish to hems, but does not sew separate pieces together. Is not used for garment construction.
4. Chain ·stitches
A coverstitch machine creates this stitch. It is a very simple stitch that unravels easily. If you knit, you will be familiar with this as the casting-on stitch. Honestly, I don’t really see a use for it, but some people do swear by it as a great basting stitch. Is not used for garment construction.
Types of Sewing Machines
If you want to get all four of these types of stitches, you will need at least three different machines:
- Home Sewing Machine
- Serger (over locker) machine
- Coverstitch machine
There are some ‘combo’ machines that can do both cover stitching and serge stitches, but I understand from many different online discussions that it involves stopping to switch and re-thread them, even when working on a single project, which can be very onerous and time-consuming.
1. Home Sewing Machine
So a sewing machine will cover nearly all your sewing needs, zig-zag stitches, decorative stitching, button holes, etc. If you have one machine, this is the one needed to meet nearly all sewing requirements. Most modern machines have a pretty good zig-zag stitch which is needed for the ubiquitous knits and knit blends. Until recently, I didn’t know there was any other kind of sewing machine for regular home use.
2. OverLock or Serger Machine
The next step is to add a serger machine to your line-up. This is not a stand-alone machine. You will still need a sewing machine for putting in zippers, button holes, top stitching – that kind of thing.
But a serger is wonderful for sturdy clothing construction. It provides a strong seam that you don’t need to press and yet the finish is neat and professional. Since I started using the serger, I love examining inside my finished garments. It looks so perfect without any raw edges. Sometimes I can do a complete garment using only the serger. You cannot do a regular hem on this machine and it is for edge sewing only. So, if you need to do something in the middle of a garment – like adding a pocket or top stitching, you still need a regular sewing machine.
Dreading the Threading
At first, I was horrified at the threading regime and almost gave up – many times. I started with an older serger with little online references so it was NOT for the faint of heart! It was so hard to get one area threaded that I finally took it in to get fixed since I thought maybe it was broken. Well, I walked in with it and the technician opened the front AND THEN REMOVED A SIDE PANEL exposing my problem area. I was shocked when I realized that I was trying to thread that last bit blind and all I had to do was remove the side panel to thread there. So many hours wasted! lol
With the newer machines and SO many online references and tutorials and support networks, threading a serger is merely a matter of practice.
Serging only has one drawback that I can see. It cuts! Which is great of course, but if you make a mistake there is no going back. It is possible to tediously unrip a serging seam, but you have lost the fabric that it cut off. As I improve my game, I now use my regular machine to sew the seam first and when I’m happy with the results, I go over it again with the serger to finish the seams.
By the way, you can turn the blade up and serge without cutting. For this method, you have to keep serging right along the edge of the fabric and the finish is not as smooth, but definitely works well.
3. Coverstitch Machine
Finally, if you have the first two machines, you might be looking to add a coverstitch. As mentioned, this is for hemming but can also create a chain stitch. The hem produced is identical to nearly every store-bought item in your closet – meaning perfection! The grid-like stitching created on the back places a neat little net across the raw edges producing a finished look to your turned up hems. On the top, it shows as double or triple parallel rows. Threading a coverstitch is laughably easy after mastering a serger!
This is only a brief overview of the home sewing machine landscape. The variations and capabilities of the multitude of machine within each category is vast. Each machine can be almost infinitely configured to work with so many different types and combinations of fabrics that will keep you occupied for years!
For me, the serger is absolutely wonderful and I have adored it since I got it. I think I enjoy sewing even more for having it. It is satisfying and a joy to use. The learning curve for threading can be steep, but, once you master it, it is so rewarding. I’m sure I have many more hours ahead of me of cursing and screaming at this machine, but it knows I love it really.