First of all, there is no difference between overlock and serger, they are exactly the same thing. Overlocker is the British English term and serger is the American English term.
Overlockers/sergers are commonly used for finishing seams to stop the fabric from fraying and to create a neat finish.
Did you know: Overlockers were invented in 1881 for industry use. They are commonly used in the industry for finishing seams and joining panels together. They're used a lot when sewing activewear and other stretchy fabrics including knits, lycra and jersey.
What is an overlocker/serger and what can they do?
1. They are great for creating a nice finish on woven fabric seams and edges, giving them more strength and stopping them from fraying. This will make your clothes last longer.
2. You can use them to finish seams on stretch fabrics. This allows the fabric to retain its natural stretch. You could sew most of your t-shirt on the overlocker/serger which makes it a super quick project.
3. You can create rolled hems. This is an easy way to finish stretch or woven hems and if you pull the fabric whilst sewing this can create a nice lettuce hem finish (let us know if you'd like us to create a tutorial for a rolled hem).
A quick method for changing your overlocker/serger thread:
One scary and annoying task of the overlocker/serger is threading. It can be quite daunting to thread this beast of a machine. But don't fear it, with practice (and patience) it gets easier. Keep in mind to always thread from right to left.
A quick method to change your threads without unthreading the machine:
Snip the threads that are currently on the machine. Snip it near to the thread cone so it's still all threaded up and gives you a bit more room to handle.
Simply knot the new and old thread together on the ends so it's now a continuous thread
Either gently pull through your old threads from the machine foot area until your new threads appear and snip off the excess - your new thread should now be threaded through correctly.
Or, already use the foot controller and some scrap fabric to run your first stitches, often use the hand-wheel so your knotted threads don't break.
If one of the threads on the left (through the needles) breaks, don't worry these you can simply thread by hand without starting from scratch.
TIP: Always test your machine on a scrap piece of fabric after changing the thread to make sure everything is working ok.
5 top tips when you're overlocker/serger isn't working:
Make sure your overlocker is threaded properly - It's always good to double-check this if you are having trouble. Make sure the thread guide bar is raised - if you forget to extend this up then your machine won't stitch properly.
Check your tension - For most fabrics, you'll want all your tensions set to 4 (just like your sewing machine) however, if you're using a really thin or thick fabric, you may want to change them slightly. Always test on some of the scrap fabrics that are leftover.
The thicker your fabric the lighter you want your presser foot pressure to be - adjust accordingly on your machine.
Make sure that you are using the right thread - meaning the cones. Try to avoid using your regular thread spools. Otherwise, it can change your tension. The spool are coned shaped so that the machine can take the thread off easily. Regular sewing machine thread spools are straight and this can be make a huge difference (trust me! Been there, done that!)
Don't cut your threads off too close to the needles when you have just overlocked/serged something. This Can unravel on your garment and also unthread your needles. Instead, run out a few centimetres/inches of thread before you sew and after you sew. If another seam is intersecting, cut your threads afterwards. If not, then thread the excess thread tail into a large hand sewing or embroidery needle, and thread it through the overlocking stitch or into the seam for about 2-3 inches (4-5cm)
Overlockers/Sergers that we Recommend and What to Look for When Buying One
What to look for when buying an overlocker:
Domestic overlockers/sergers pretty much do the same. So, the main thing you want to think about is whether to get a 3 thread or a 4 thread machine.
We recommend 4 threads because you can change it to 3 threads so 2 birds with one stone. 3 or 4 threads are commonly used to finish seams. 4 threads are often used for thicker fabrics and knit fabrics because it's strong and also flexible.
Read reviews - you can find out lots from reviews about a product and even things you didn't think about that can be super handy to know.
Ask your fellow sewists. Especially if you have friends who already have overlockers. Ask them if you can try it to see whether it's the overlocker for you.
Check if it has a disengaging knife - this really comes in handy when sewing seams together or for when you don't want your overlocker/serger to trim any excess fabric off. Trust me, having this option is going to save you many tears!
Some overlockers don't have a rolled hem option - If this is important to you we recommend that you check it has a rolled hem setting to create a lettuce hem.
2 Overlockers that we recommend:
1. Maria's overlocker - Brother 2504D
I have had my overlocker for over 4 years now and I love it! I therefore added the same overlocker models for our dressmaking classes.
It's a Brother machine which is a decent make and I've had no problems with it at all. I mostly use it to finish my seams neatly and sometimes brave to sew t-shirts on it (as long as the seam allowance is under 3/8" or 1cm - so I don't have to trim off too much and it allows more room for error). I find this overlocker particularly easy to thread. I love that Brother, even for their sewing machines, number the thread guide making it a breeze to thread.
2. A Bernina overlocker
We also recommend a Bernina overlocker if you are looking for a good quality investment machine.
They are a little pricier but a Bernina is a very good make of sewing machine so they'll be a little quieter, smoother and sturdier. They often come with additional features, like an air threader - with a click of a button your machine is threaded - witchcraft!
You can purchase the Bernina Overlocker Machine at Classic Quilts.
When is a good time to purchase your first overlocker?
I only bought my first overlocker, two years after I started sewing and I didn't need one at the time to be very honest. Because there are many other methods to give your projects a beautiful finish before investing in another machine.
Check out our blog post about 7 seam finishes and when to use them.
Truth be told, I never liked the zig zag stitch as a seam finish. Sewing a lot with linen, which has quite a loose weave, the zig zag stitch made the fraying worse. I colour-blocked a shift dress with rayon fabrics and zig zag stitched all edged, and the dress fell apart after the first wash. As it is mentioned in the blog post, not all seam finishes work for every fabric.
Before buying the overlocker, I used french seams and bias bond seams a lot. Both are rather time consuming. When we moved back to Dubai, we stayed in a serviced apartment for the first months, and I didn't have the time to bind all my seams, so this is when I decided to purchase my first overlocker/serger and loved it ever since.