If you look at the seams in store-bought clothes, you will notice that these seams have a thread casing neatly wrapping over the cut edge of the fabric. This extra-sturdy type of sewing comes from a serger instead of a traditional sewing machine! But what exactly is a serger sewing machine?
A serger uses looped overlock stitches made out of three, four, or five thread sources. Sergers cut off excess fabric from the fabric edge as they sew. They do not use a lockstitch with an upper and lower thread like a sewing machine, instead using a knitted thread structure to encase the seam.
In this article, you will find out how a serger works. You will learn key differences between a serger and a traditional sewing machine. Finally, you will find tips for how to use your serger!
- What is a Serger in Sewing?
- What Does a Serger Do?
- Serger vs Overlock Machine: What’s the Difference?
- Different Types of Sergers
- What’s the Difference Between a Serger and a Sewing Machine?
- Can You Use a Serger for Regular Sewing?
- Is it Worth Buying a Serger?
- How to Choose a Serger
- How Much Does a Serger Cost?
- Best Serger Brands
- Is There a Sewing Machine with a Built-In Serger?
- Best Serger Sewing Machine
- How to Use a Serger Sewing Machine
What is a Serger in Sewing?
A serger or overlock machine uses several thread sources to bind the edge of the fabric into a secure seam. Technically, a serger performs three key tasks while “sewing” a seam.
First, it uses a tiny razor blade to slice through any fabric that sticks out beyond the edge of the seam. Second, it uses one or two needles to pull threads through the material and hold the seam together. At the same time, it uses its looping thread pattern to encase the raw edge of the cut seam.
This gives you a very sturdy, elegantly finished seam in just seconds!
Most sergers use three or four spools of thread to create this encased seam. Professional or advanced models often use five spools of thread. In some rare cases, you can find models that hold up to eight spools of thread at a time!
This almost magical process lets you whip out certain types of sewing projects extra-fast because you do not have to sew the seam and then go back to finish the seam in a second step. It happens all at once when you use an overlock stitch.
How does a serger work? Like in a normal sewing machine, the needle (or needles) carry the thread from the top of the fabric to the bottom side of the fabric.
Then one or two loopers move back and forth. These loopers carry another thread that loops around the needle thread, forming a knitted or chain structure of threads around the edge of the material.
Instead of “sewing” in the sense of making stitches, an overlocker knits complex chains of thread through and around the edge of the material.
Most sergers offer three basic types of stitch.
- The most commonly used of these is the overlock stitch, which provides the thread casing around the edge of the seam. The four-thread overlock stitch requires four spools of thread and two needles and creates a strong, flexible seam and casing that works well on knit fabrics because it has extra stretch in its chain stitch structure.
- Some models also offer a flatlock stitch that uses two threads to make a seam that lies flat on both sides of the material.
- Most sergers can also make a rolled hem. This stitch forms a tiny thread casing around the edge of a rolled-over section of fabric, giving it a nice hemmed finish. It works well on sheer fabrics like silk or chiffon.
What Does a Serger Do?
A serger does a fantastic job sewing knit fabrics, encasing straight seams, and finishing the edges of lightweight fabrics. It does not “sew” in the same way as a traditional sewing machine, but it has many features your regular sewing machine doesn’t offer. This makes it ideal for certain types of projects.
So, what is a serger used for?
- Any project requiring finished straight seams. Remember that you cannot make certain types of seams like princess seams while using a serger. But if you want to sew the side seams of a skirt, your serger does the stitching and the finishing all in one go, saving you lots of time and effort!
- Any project using knit or stretch fabric. If you want to sew t-shirts, swimwear, or stretchy sweatpants, your serger is the way to go! The overlock stitch offers more flexibility in its structure than a regular sewing machine lockstitch, which works well on knit material.
- Providing professionally finished edges for sheer fabric like chiffon, lace, and silk. In some cases, you can also use the rolled hem feature on other fabrics like knits.
- Making ruffles or decorative items that need a quickly finished edge. That said, a serger does not feature topstitching for finished edges. You can find out more about this later in the article!
- Encasing elastic for garments.
Finally, another thing to know about most sergers is that they sew incredibly fast. They whip the looped threads back and forth at speeds of 1300 to 2200 stitches per minute! This speed means that using a serger can also help you complete sewing projects in much less time than the same project would take on a normal sewing machine.
Serger vs Overlock Machine: What’s the Difference?
There is no difference between a serger and an overlock machine because a serger is an overlock machine. In the United States, we call this machine a serger. In Europe, the same machine is called an overlocker.
But the two words mean the same thing. A serged seam or an overlock seam means a seam that holds fabric together and encases the raw edge with threads.
European brands like Bernina use the term overlock machines or overlockers, while American brands like Singer use the term sergers.
Different Types of Sergers
The biggest difference between most sergers is how many spools of thread they can hold.
A model that uses between 2 and 4 spools of thread creates an overlock stitch with two threads encasing the edge. A model with 3 to 4 spools of thread will use at least three threads in its encasing seam, and a model with five or more spools of thread uses three of the threads for the casing and two for the seam line.
Most beginner sergers offer three to four spools, with four being the most common model. This means you can use two needles and two loopers at once. Generally, only advanced models use five or more spools of thread.
Another difference between beginner and advanced models is whether they require manual threading or offer automatic threading. Threading a serger takes a few minutes, even for someone who has used one for years. For a beginner, it can prove quite challenging!
Getting the needles threaded works a lot as it does on a regular sewing machine, but threading the loopers requires a complex thread path and often the help of a pair of tweezers and/or eyeglasses!
Very high-end models remove all that struggle by offering a self-threading function that uses jet air puffs to push the thread through tubes and set up both the loopers and the needle threads. This is as amazing as it sounds, but keep in mind that this kind of serger costs well over $1,000.
Finally, one really important thing you should keep in mind is that there is a giant difference between sergers and cover stitch machines. A serger helps construct a garment or item by stitching together professionally finished seams. You do not usually use a serger for outside elements like hems, except in the case of a rolled hem on sheer fabrics.
For that, you need something called a cover stitch machine. If you look at the lower hem on any ready-made t-shirt, you will see two lines of stitching on the outside and an overlock knitted pattern of threads on the inside. This is a coverstitch hem!
Sergers do not provide this kind of finishing hem. Remember, a serger cuts away extra fabric from a seam as it sews. Most hems have a folded edge instead of a cut edge.
Coverstitch machines operate more like a traditional sewing machine and have one looper instead of two. They perform finishing tasks like hemming and sewing on lace or ruffles.
What’s the Difference Between a Serger and a Sewing Machine?
The biggest difference between a serger and a sewing machine lies in how the machines use threads to bind fabric together. A traditional sewing machine uses a lockstitch to connect fabric together. A serger uses an overlock stitch with a knitted construction rather than a typical “stitch.”
Let’s break down the mechanics in simple terms to make sense of this. A sewing machine uses a double-thread stitch called a lockstitch.
To form this stitch, the needle carries the upper thread through the fabric. The shuttle hook then catches that thread and carries it in a circle around the bobbin or lower thread. As it circles, the upper thread catches on the lower thread.
The lower thread prevents the upper thread from lifting back up through the fabric as the needle rises, securing a stitch.
Sewing machines can make a straight stitch or other fancier stitches like zigzags or flower shapes, all using this lockstitch method. These machines have an upper thread that goes through the needle and a lower thread wrapped around a round bobbin that rotates inside the shuttle or bobbin casing.
Sergers do not have bobbins or lower threads; instead, they have something called “loopers.”
In an overlock stitch, the needle or needles start by carrying thread down through the fabric, like in a sewing machine. But after this, everything changes.
One looper carries thread from left to right below the needle, and another carries thread from right to left. All three (or more) threads hook on each other, forming a chain of linked threads.
You begin sewing on a serger by “chaining off” or creating a ring of these braid-like stitches like a tail behind the fabric. The chained stitches, formed out of loops of thread, are what allow the serger to wrap the thread over the cut edge of the fabric, securing it in an encased sleeve of thread.
Finally, another massive difference between sewing machines and sergers is that sergers slice away the excess fabric from the edge of the seam as they sew. This allows a perfect encased seam without lumps from a too-wide seam allowance.
Can You Use a Serger for Regular Sewing?
You can use a serger for many regular sewing projects, but it cannot complete all of the sewing tasks your regular sewing machine can handle.
Sergers work great for sewing projects requiring lots of straight seams. If you want to sew a pair of pants, for example, you can knock out the long inside seams and the waistband seam in no time on a serger.
But a serger does not offer most finishing elements.
You can’t perform most types of hems using a serger. You also can’t do topstitching, add zippers or buttonholes, or sew facings. Curved seams like princess seams or special seam finishings like Hong Kong seams also won’t work.
You can think of it this way; you could sew the inside parts of a pair of jeans on a serger, but you could not sew in the zipper, hem the jeans, or perform the topstitching down the ides of the seams using a serger.
Is it Worth Buying a Serger?
If you do a lot of sewing, it is worth buying a serger just for all the time you will save. You will not have to use a two-step process of sewing and then finishing the seams like you would on a normal sewing machine. Also, if you plan to start a home business selling handmade items, a serger provides professionally finished edges.
On the other hand, if you are new to sewing, you should start with a sewing machine. A regular sewing machine features more comprehensive capabilities than a serger, which offers a specialized sewing function.
You may find that you can sew some things entirely on a serger, but most of the time, you will need both a serger and a sewing machine to complete a project like a dress or a pair of pants.
Are sergers easy to use? Unfortunately, the answer to this question is a resounding “no.”
Once you overcome the learning curve, you will find that sergers are a super useful tool, but they are not easy to learn! The complex three or more thread system takes a lot of getting used to.
As a pro tip, you should find a Youtube video that demonstrates how to thread your serger. Watch this every time you thread the serger for at least a week. After that, you will feel more confident in your ability to quickly set up the serger as you start a new project.
How to Choose a Serger
The main things to consider as you choose a serger are its functionality, its automated features, its durability, and its cost.
Not all sergers offer the same level of functionality. Beginner or economy models often have fewer threads and feature three or four types of stitches. They often require complete rethreading if you want to switch from an overlock stitch to a rolled hemstitch.
If you sew once in a while as a hobby, you may find that a good-quality, basic serger works just fine for your needs.
More advanced models offer additional features like complex stitches that use five or more threads. They also often allow you to easily switch from one kind of stitch to another.
If you sew a lot and use many different types of fabric like knits regularly, you may want to consider getting a more advanced model with these special features.
If you sew professionally, you may want to buy an automated model with self-threading features. These sergers cost a lot more and would be a big investment, but they will save you time if you sew every day.
Another key factor to consider is the durability of the serger, or how long it will last as you sew on it regularly.
This mostly depends on the quality of the design and the type of material used inside the machine. Cheaper models typically use more plastic and fewer metal parts inside the machine. They also may have parts that do not fit together super precisely.
Brands like Brother have a great reputation for using a streamlined design and decent materials. Singer models, unfortunately, have a pretty bad reputation for using cheap parts and motors that do not last long, at least in their economic models.
Finally, you will also want to think about how much you can afford to pay for a serger, as you will see in the next section!
How Much Does a Serger Cost?
Beginner sergers often cost as little as $200, but advanced, automatic sergers can cost more than $2,000.
Basic sergers that cost between $200 and $500 usually have three to four threads and offer three or four different stitch options. Some have a handy little waste bin to catch the scraps of fabric the knives cut away.
Some of these models have great reputations and others contain too much plastic and cheap motors.
Midgrade models often cost close to $1,000. They hold more threads, often ranging from five to eight spools.
These models give you most of the functionality you need for professional sewing. They usually have very durable parts and long-lasting motors intended for professional use.
The most expensive sergers cost over $1,000 but offer automated features like a self-threading mechanism. Luxury brands like Bernina offer computerized, super-advanced models that cost as much as $8,000.
Best Serger Brands
Some of the best serger brands on the market today include Brother, Juki, Singer, and Bernina.
Brother and Juki offer the most popular economy models or beginner-level sergers. They have a great reputation for offering a simple design and durable parts.
Many popular brands, including Singer, Janome, and Bernina, offer advanced or professional-grade sergers that cost a lot more but offer the features necessary for a professional sewer.
One of the best ways to get the inside scoop on serger models is to join an online sewing forum. Hobby sewers and professional seamstresses share all kinds of useful tips and reviews on these forums!
Is There a Sewing Machine with a Built-In Serger?
The short answer is that no, there is not a sewing machine with a built-in serger. Singer offered the computerized SE 1000 model with sewing, serging, and embroidery features for a while. But this model got such bad reviews that the company has taken it off the market.
The fact of the matter is that sewing machines and sergers operate in totally different ways. It’s like the difference between using a needle and thread to stitch a seam and using two knitting needles to loop threads together. This makes it very difficult to combine the functions of both types of sewing!
Best Serger Sewing Machine
The best serger sewing machines give you the functionality you need and fit your cost bracket. Check out the best beginner, Singer, and advanced models here!
How to Use a Serger Sewing Machine
Learning how to use a serger sewing machine will take a little practice. Your serger will come with an owner’s manual that guides you through how to use it, but here are the basic steps for sewing an overlock seam using any serger model.
- Turn off the machine before you thread it. It is tempting to leave it turned on because it gives you more light, but don’t do it! Sergers sew very fast and have powerful motors, and you do not want your fingers near sharp needles and knives in motion.
- Follow the thread guides to thread the needle/needles and loopers. You will need to thread each of the threads in a certain order. Typically, you thread the loopers first.
- Turn on the machine and then chain off to get started. To do this, hold the tails of the threads to the left of the needle and then put your foot on the pedal to run the machine. A long chain of threads will quickly form in your hand.
- Rais the presser foot to insert the fabric. Make sure the chained-off thread lies behind the fabric, so you do not sew it into the seam.
- Start sewing! As you sew, you will see scraps of excess fabric sliced away and the chain stitches will wrap around the cut edge of the fabric.
- To finish the seam, sew straight off the edge of the seam and chain off again for an inch or two.
A serger is a kind of sewing machine that uses looped threads to bind and encase the edge of a seam. It operates with three to five threads and a looped or knitted thread structure that works very differently from the lockstitch in a traditional sewing machine. Sergers allow for quick sewing and finishing of seams at the same time.
Servers provide speedy sewing of straight seams and rolled hems and work great on knit fabrics. They cannot perform all the functions of a regular sewing machine, such as sewing in zippers, buttonholes, or hemming most fabrics, though.