13 things you need to know about a serger (overlocker) 15


You read about a serger here and there and wonder “What is a serger and do I need one?” What about an overlocker? Are those two separate sewing machines? Or just different functions of the regular sewing machine? 

In this article, I am going to answer the questions I get asked most frequently about the serger sewing machine and how to use it in practice.

1. What is a serger/overlocker?

An overlocker/serger is a sewing machine that uses several thread cones, usually between three and five. The stitches are made with two needles and the rest of the threads go into the loopers.

In most cases, the overlocker has a serging knife. It is largely used in industrial sewing, especially with knit fabrics.

Here is an example of a serger seam on both sides of the fabric.

serer seam

The 5-thread sergers make an additional chain seam a bit in from the overlocker seam to provide more durability and cleaner seams on woven fabrics.

2. What is the difference between a serger and an overlocker machine?  

The serger cuts the edges of the fabric, trims, and over seams at the same time. When we say “overlocker”, we usually consider just the type of stitches. When we talk about a serger the focus is on the serging ability of this sewing machine. Some overlockers are made without a serging knife, but this is very rare.

Both names are used interchangeably. It seems that “serger” is preferred In North America and “overlocker” is widely used in Europe. Anyway, both names seem appropriate.

Therefore,

in this article, I am going to use both names to refer to the same type of sewing machine – the one that overlocks and cuts at the same time.

3. What is the difference between a serger and a regular sewing machine? 

A regular sewing machine (a lockstitch machine) uses just two threads to make the stitches. The first thread is in the needle and the second is in the bobbin. Together they create a stitch that locks in the fabric.

Most of the regular sewing machines come with а variety of derivatives, but the basic ones are zigzag and straight stitch. Usually, we use the zig-zag stitch for fabrics that stretch. The straight stitch is widely used in most sewing projects.

A serger doesn’t have a bobbin. It has a different number of loopers to create the seams.  It seals the edges of the cloth pieces or joins them together.

An overlock seam is very durable and versatile. It is the best choice for joining seams on knit fabrics, upholstery, etc. The way the threads combine in the serger seam makes it very durable and stretchy. That’s why it is widely preferred for knit fabrics.

4. What is a serger/overlocker used for?

The overlocker is used for a variety of sewing projects, mainly for cleaning the edges of the fabric on woven ones and joining the pieces together when working with knits. The seams made with the overlocker are very durable. They tolerate intensive stretching very well.

5. Can I learn to sew with a serger?

Learning to sew with a serger machine is a bit different than sewing on a regular straight stitch machine. It has specifics and requires some practice and extra caution due to the serging knife.

If you follow the manual and train a little, you will get used to the motion of the machine. The more you use it, the easier it gets.

On the right, that’s me using my serger. By the way, this is my favorite sewing machine. It was not like that in the beginning, though. My first attempts with it were on some T-shirts that we got stamped and were about to sell.

A couple of them ended up with some pretty odd side seams. They didn’t make it to the shop.

My advice is to practice a bit on scraps until you gain confidence in your skills. Then, try to sew two pieces of fabric together. Play with it until you get it – try to make some curves using the blade and then try not to make any curves :).

Try different speeds, and examine the density and elasticity of the stitches on different fabrics. Honestly, it’s not as complicated as it sounds.

Daniela from Sewing For A living sewing on a serger.

If you need to learn the basics of sewing with an overlocker, I would highly recommend this Beginner Serging class. Another great read on this topic is “The Complete Serger Handbook” by Chris James.

6. Can I sew without a serger?

You can absolutely sew without a serger. You can complete any sewing project without it and achieve very decent results.

But, I’m not going to lie – I can’t live without mine. It raises the level of sewing skills and results. It is like any other skill – good tools are half of the mastery.

7. How to use the overlocker machine?

When you get your new machine the very first thing you want to do is try it.

But,

 it seems so complicated! Threads are going up and down in all directions and you don’t have a clue what to do. Well, the best thing to do is to read the manual.

Every manufacturer has а different organization of the parts, the direction and the sequence of threading, and the mechanisms of regulating the thickness and width of stitches (tension).

Many sergers need oiling before first use. You most probably would need to make some adjustments to tension and differential feed (if your serger supports feed options).

Apart from that, sewing with a serger is pretty straightforward. The user manual is going to help you with all of that.

8. Can a serger replace the regular sewing machine?

A serger cannot replace a regular sewing machine because most sewing projects require straight stitches.

A serger is used mainly for joining seams and for preventing the fabrics from fraying. Therefore, if you need to sew hems, curtains, replace zippers, etc., a serger would not be of any use.

On woven fabrics, if you join two details together only with a serger, the whole seam might fray together with the edges of the fabric. Or if it doesn’t, the seam might look a bit wonky on the face side.

That’s why an additional straight stitch is added (a five-thread overlocker will do both).

A regular straight stitch is the basis. Any other type of sewing machine is building up on your skills and equipment. You can do a lot with the regular machine, without any other equipment.

But, 

If you sew a lot and more professionally or, if you sew many knits, you should consider adding a serger machine to your sewing equipment.

Serger or a regular sewing machine

9. What types of overlockers/sergers are there?

Overlockers differ mainly on the number of threads they use to make the loops. The most commonly used overlockers are the ones with four or five threads. 

The ones with five threads create an additional straight stitch to the typical serer seam, which makes them widely used in woven fabric apparel.

Overlockers can also be industrial and for domestic use. If you choose carefully, a domestic one can do just fine for most projects.

When you choose which one to buy, you should consider how much the pressing food is lifted, is the corpse of the machine stable so it doesn’t move around while you sew, is it easy to maintain and repair, etc.

And most importantly, the amount of work and the purpose you need it for.

Industrial or regular serger - which one to buy.

10. Do I need to own a serger? 

Well, it depends on your preferences.

 A serger makes sewing easier, but you can manage to finish most sewing projects without one. It adds durability to seams and gives the manufactured look on the inside. It saves me a lot of time and that’s why it is a must for me. I work with knits daily and the overlocker is my best friend.

Anyway, buying an overlocker is not such a big investment as it used to be. You can get a good one for somewhere around $200.

11. Should I pick a domestic or an industrial serger?

If you sew at home, or even make some alterations and small numbers of garments for sale, an at-home serger is more than enough. You can make any project from start to finish and get great, professional results.

Industrial sergers are heavy-duty machines that can easily deal with many layers of thick fabric and different types of materials like sequins, upholstery, and many layers of denim. 

If you are about to use the machine heavily, on different projects and with different materials, I would suggest you buy an industrial one. Honestly, industrial sergers are significantly better.

But, 

they are a big investment which you might not need to make.

Industrial serger machines come with fewer options for types of seams (like rolled hem and specialty stitch functions) and need additional gadgets to produce different types of seams. This can easily add up to the investment.

Another thing you might want to take into consideration is that they require more space. They come with a separate stand and pedals.

If you are more of a home sewist and use the serger for garments and crafts, a domestic serger might be a better idea.

12. How to thread a serger?

A big frustration about sergers is threading. Don’t be intimidated, it is unpleasant for everyone, including me.

It seems that it is some kind of a rule for threading a serger to be complicated. But like anything in life, with some practice, you are going to get it.

Unfortunately, there is no one universal way to thread a serger. To learn how to do it, you need to refer to the user manual or look for tutorials on YouTube that are exactly for the brand and model serger that you have.

QUICK TIP

You don’t need to rethread the serger any time you change color. There is a quick and easy way to do it that works on each and every serger. Watch the video below to see how.

13. Which is the best serger sewing machine to buy?

I’ve been using different sergers for years now. For the most part, there are a couple of things I find important when picking up a good one.

Here is a list of what to look for when buying a serger sewing machine:

  1. Pick a serger that comes with 4 or 5 threads. It can easily be set to make a three-thread seam. But a 3-thread serger can’t produce a 4 or 5-thread seam. I personally prefer 4-thread sergers.
  2. If you buy the serger online (like Amazon) make sure that the motor comes in the same voltage that is used where you live. You can face troubles with this even if you use a voltage adaptor.
  3. Before you buy any serger machine, make sure that there is an authorized dealership of that brand where you live that is going to service the machine.
  4.  It is a machine and just like a car for example, it is going to need to be serviced at some point. Save yourself the headache and make sure to check before buying.
  5. Pick a sturdy machine, preferably one with a metal corpse or generally heavier. In my experience, machines with more metal parts tend to break less and are more stable when you use them.

I am currently using a 4-thread industrial Yamata that I love. It has a quiet motor and works like a charm. 

Best serger reviews

But we’re moving to live somewhere else, so I need to pick a new one.  I’m spending more time at home lately, sewing mainly for myself and my family.

That’s why I am looking for a good domestic one so that it takes less space and is easy to transport.

I’ve been researching the best serger reviews all over and also taking into consideration my own experience. Here is what I’ve found. I’m adding my two cents as well. 

Serger machine reviews

JUKI MO654DE Serger

Pros:

  • automatic rolled hem
  • sews light to heavy-weight fabric
  • powerful knife system
  • quiet and fast

Cons:

  • no scraps catcher

This Juki serger machine is the one I seem to like most. I’ve used other Juki machines in the past and Juki is a powerhorse.

People who purchased this serger say it’s sturdy and stable. They also review it as quiet and fast.

What I find most appealing is the serging knife capacity. Customers say it easily goes through many layers of fabric and jeans seams.

Other customers say it’s hard to thread. Honestly, this doesn’t bother me since all the sergers are weird to thread. There are videos on YouTube dedicated especially to this Juki serger that can help you with that in addition to the users manual.

What I find to be a con is the lack of a scraps catcher. This is something I’ll have to make or buy in addition as I can’t imagine using a serger without one.

Brother 1034DX Serger

Pros:

  • affordable
  • easy to thread
  • appropriate for most sewing projects

Cons:

  • loud and shaky
  • not for heavy use

This is a newer model of the popular Brother 1034D.  Both Brother 1034D and Brother 1034DX are budget machines that are appropriate for beginners and sewists who don’t serge very often.

It’s not a heavy-duty machine that is intended for large volumes of sewing like Etsy shop or sewing for clients.

People who purchased this serger say it’s fast and makes nice stitches. It is also easy to thread and overall beginners-friendly.

Other customers say it’s loud and the parts it’s made of are cheap. It’s not the case if you have to replace parts though – they often cost as much as ⅓ the machine.

Although this is Amazon’s best-selling serger with a lot of positive reviews I don’t think it’s the one that is the best match for me. It is not that often that you buy a serger and I would go for one of better quality.

JUKI MO644D Portable Serger

Pros:

  • powerful knife system
  • sturdy and steady
  • quiet and fast

Cons:

  • no scraps catcher

Another Juki serger with many positive reviews by customers. This machine has parts that are made to last.

It has similar functionalities as the JUKI MO654DE except this one is made to sew light to medium-weight fabrics. Very easy to clean, oil, and thread.

Although it is considered a portable machine, it is stable and durable and also cheaper than the MO654DE. Very good quality for the price.

But, I don’t know why Juki makes their at-home sergers without a scraps catcher. It’s something I would most certainly state as a con.

Singer Professional 5 14T968DC Serger

Pros:

  • 5-thread serger
  • adjustable stitch length
  • optional free arm
  • 4 build-in rolled hems
  • self-adjusting tension

Cons:

  • complicated to thread
  • bad user manual quality

This is an upgraded serger by Singer. It is a 5-thread professional serger that can make many different seams, including flatlock.

 The Singer professional serger comes with many accessories like screwdrivers, a spare cutting knife, and a dust cover.

People who purchased it say it’s stable, quiet, and produces professional results. It is a great buy to upgrade your sewing skills and machine equipment.

It’s an affordable, professional-class machine that is a great alternative to much more expensive industrial sergers.

Although Singer ProFinish is a professional serger and better than many at-home ones, it’s not an industrial machine. Consider the amount and type of work/materials you are going to use when making up your mind.

Some customers experience problems with the self-adjusting tension feature. They also find it difficult to thread. I think this is related to the instructions in the manual not being clear enough.

Overall, that is a great serger sewing machine that doesn’t ask for a very big investment (as industrial sergers) but will do the job if you sew for an Etsy shop or you have a small sewing business.

Brother ST4031HD Serger

Pros:

  • Metal frame: a strong, reliable serger built to tackle heavy-duty projects.
  • 1,300 Stitches per minute.
  • High performance: a high-durability blade made from extra hard carbon steel.
  • Comes with accessories.

Cons:

  • Replacement parts may be hard to find.

Customers say this serger is beginner-friendly because it is easy to thread and maintain. It comes with additional feet and functions that you can use to complete miscellaneous sewing projects. 

Some owners find it hard to get replacement parts, especially compared to other machines.

Overall, it is a good heavy-duty serger that is easy to use.

Compared to the Brother 1034DX, this one is faster, more stable, and durable, and better equipped to work with heavy-weight fabrics.

Perhaps you have all those questions answered and you’ve bought the perfect serger sewing machine. There is one more question that is going to arise inevitably.

Here it is:

How to unpick serger stitches?  (the bonus question answered)

There is nothing more frustrating than having to unpick tons of serger seams if something goes wrong with your sewing project. All those looper and needle threads that overlock together make it a nightmare to unpick the seam.

Here is how I’ve been thought to do it some years ago when I started my sewing adventure.

Serger and overlocker troubleshooting

The most common trouble sergers costs are usually related to threading, setting tension, adjusting the knife, etc.

Although there is a lot you can find in the user manual related to these issues, I would recommend the Serger Solutions: Troubleshooting Techniques course on Craftsy to save you a lot of hassle and give you some additional ideas.

Well, that pretty much sums up all I have to say about serger and overlocker machines. Do you have any questions that I didn’t answer in this post? Ask them in the comments below, I would love to hear from you.

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More sewing tutorials:

  1. What is a coverstitch machine and how to use it
  2. Best Sewing Machine For Beginners And How To Pick The One For You
  3. Types of zippers – what you need to know
  4. Free online sewing classes for beginners
  5. Learning How To Sew (and why you should)

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15 thoughts on “13 things you need to know about a serger (overlocker)

  • Katie Wiens

    I thank you for this article. I have several different sewing machines and one serger. I haven’t used the serger for much as yet but I want to. How do you use it to get the seams that you see in active wear or leggings? I haven’t been able to figure that out since they lay flat and the serger binds the two pieces of material without being flat. Is there other feet? Or is there a trick I’m not aware of?

  • Oneida Davis

    I do a variety of crafts that some times require a sewing machine or mend something. I need to sew on a few patches and I was hoping a serger would allow me to make drool rags for a new grandson. So just connecting a towel edge to a printed cotton fabric. I think I could just Serge the edges instead of sewining inside out then turning it back outside and top stitching. Would a serger / overclock work for both things. I would not want to cut the patches material just make a tight stitch around a patch that’s an iron on but we know they don’t stay ironed on. Considering 1034D heavy duty $65.00 & singer profinish 14CG754 $98.00. I don’t think I’ll use a serger that often but either one is a reasonable price for me to consider. Any hints on what would be just enough or a little extra in case I want/need more options? THANK YOU

  • Alison Mellor

    Hello Daniela
    Thank you for your informative post.
    I am starting an alterations business from home and was considering buying a serger (or overlocker as we call it in the UK), to get a more professional finish.
    I’m not sure whether to have a domestic or an industrial one. There will only be me using it
    What would I be able to use it for when doing alterations and which would you recommend?
    I would be really grateful for any information.
    Thanks
    Alison

    • Daniela Post author

      Hi Alison,
      I was thinking of adding to this post lately but haven’t got a chance yet. I am going through the process of picking up an overlocker myself and honestly, there is a lot to consider. You see, I’ve been using industrial overlockers for a long time now. And when I try to use a domestic one it’s just not the same. They are not that stable, the blades seem kind of “softer” if I can say so, the motors are not that powerful. But, they are significantly cheaper.
      On the other side, I have many friends that sew and they are more than happy with their domestic overlockers.
      What I intend to do is to buy a second-hand industrial one. Used industrial sergers cost close to new domestic ones where I live, so it’s a bargain for me.
      I use the serger for altering anything knit fabric, as well as many other things. When starting our alteration business, we expected that there would be mostly hems, zippers and things of that nature to fix. The truth is, your clients will most probably bring things that require a creative approach and the serger is a must.
      It also depends on the amount of work you are going to have. If you are going to exploit it heavily, industrial one would be a better option. But, there is also maintenance to consider no matter which one you choose.
      It’s pretty much one-time investment, so think in perspective. Although I am biased to industrial overlockers, I believe a domestic one can do the job as well.
      P.S. We call the surger overlocker here, too (in Bulgaria).
      I know the struggle to pick up a good one. Hope this helps a bit.

  • Sandra

    I’ve been thinking about buying a serger for a while but I can’t make up my mind which one to choose. What should I look for?

    • Daniela Post author

      Well, it’s hard to tell which one is the absolute best, because they actually have quite similar functionalities and ways to operate. Some would go for something that is easier to thread, but this is not my main concern. After all, they all are somehow weird to thread, no matter industrial or domestic one.
      I would always go for a 4 or 5 thread serger because the seam it produces is wider and more durable. Also, search which one has maintenance service where you live, because it’s a machine and as it happens you might need to take care of yours eventually.
      I am actually working on a post with pros and cons compartment, but my quick recommendations would be the Brother 1034D, Brother Designio Series DZ1234 Serger or JUKI MO644D
      I would also go for a second-hand industrial one on eBay if you have the space and if you are planning to exploit it heavy (that is what I did).

  • Marta

    Hmm, I guess I still have Grandma’s sewing machine somewhere in the basement… I have always dreams of learning how to use it, but had no idea where to start from and didn’t manage to figure out myself. It doesn’t seem so difficult the way you explain it though. I have several things that need fixing, so I may actually try…

    • Daniela

      Hey Marta,

      It is really not difficult, but it is a skill that requires patience and practice. Give it a try, it is a rewarding process.

      Greetings!

  • Vic

    Thanks Daniella fr this post, who knew there was so much more to sewing machinery! The over-locker looks like one complicated piece of kit! I enjoy making things from time to time, but i’m afraid I am still a needle and thread kind of girl – probably why I only do it from time to time! I have just made myself 2 draft excluders and it’s taken 2 days – mainly because the sewing was so time consuming. I imagine you be able to create quite a few in that amount of time!

    • Daniela

      Hey Vic,

      As they say “Every master was once a disaster”. The overlocker seems complicated at first, but as any piece of machinery it is created to ease your life, not to make it harder. 🙂 Once you get used to it, it does make sewing easier. Anyway, most at home sewers do just fine without having one.

      Thanks for stopping by,

      Daniela

  • Bryan

    I never knew sewing machines could be so complicated. I have seen my wife’s mother using hew sewing machine and it looked easy. My wife likes to try new things, so maybe I could get her a regular machine and if she gets into it, get hew a more advanced one like the sergers. Thanks for the information. It has been very helpful.!

    • Daniela

      Hey Bryan,

      Sewing machines are not complicated, they just require some consistent practice and learning. An overlocker is not exactly an advanced sewing machine, it just operates differently and delivers other results.

      Thank you for stopping by,

      Daniela

  • Neil

    I remember my sowing machine experiences back in the days at school when my teacher used to say I was like a racing car driver because I was too quick on the pedal, HA HA!

    However, being too fast lead to many mistakes, but it was fun though!

    WOW… the overlocker sowing machine surely does look complex, but I suppose it becomes easier to use the more you practice.

    This is a very insightful article, and you have answered my questions on this machine 🙂

    Thanks!
    Neil