Many sewing enthusiasts can get by — successfully — without benefit of a serger. But once you try sewing with a serger, you’ll never want to go back. What’s so special about sergers? Find out what all the hype is and everything you can do with a serger.
What is a serger?
Sergers are sewing machines that use multiple spools of thread to create complex stitches.
While it can seem intimidating, the most common stitches require three spools of thread. And if you think about it, that’s just one more than a sewing machine!
All sergers today are equipped with both utility and decorative stitches. A little experimentation will help you determine which stitches belong in your sewing arsenal.
Why use a serger?
Sergers are FAST. With a serger you can quickly repair torn seams, make a pair of PJs for a growing-too-fast child, or whip up a quick gift for any occasion.
A serger’s basic stitches tend to be sturdier and stretchier than regular sewing machine stitches, making your garments and accessories more durable.
Finally, sergers come equipped with a blade that can slice of excess fabric as you stitch. This means you can get perfect hems with no extra cutting required.
Three variables offer endless options to help your serger serve its purpose. By adjusting the cutting width, differential feed and thread tension, you can achieve many different types of stitches.
The cutting width adjustment affects the amount of fabric within the seam.
If you want more fabric within a seam or rolled hem, change the cutting width to a higher number. For example, if you are trying to create a rolled hem and your fabric is really ravelly or quite thick, increasing the cutting width might help.
For fine delicate fabrics, you might need to reduce this setting to get a nice rolled edge. If there is extra fabric bunching up under your overlock stitching, try reducing the cutting width.
Serger have two sets of feed dogs with a differential feed system. The front feed dogs push the fabric under the presser foot, and the back feed dogs push the fabric out of the serger.
Usually for a medium weight fabric setting, setting the differential feed on “N” or 1 causes the fabric feed uniformly through the serger. Moving the setting to a higher number causes the fabric to gather, and moving it to a lower number will cause it to stretch out a little.
So how can you use this to your advantage? Try increasing the differential feed (turn the dial to a higher number) when you want to ease something in, such as a sleeve cap into the armscye or the hem of a flared skirt. Try decreasing the differential (turn the dial to a lower number) if you are sewing on a lightweight fabric that is puckering.
Thread tension settings are the source of many serger stitching woes.
First, start by using the recommended settings for your serger and the stitch you plan to use. If that doesn’t produce the result you want, try threading your machine with a different color thread in each placement so you can more easily identify which thread is creating the problem.
Once you identify which thread is causing the problem, adjust the tension setting by a smaller amount and test again. Continue until the stitch quality is appropriate for the intended stitch. For 3- and 4-thread overlock stitches, you want a balanced stitch with both looper threads visible and “connected” along the cut edges.
Must-have serger functions
I love the way a 3-thread overlock stitch quickly neatens and finishes seam allowances on woven and knit fabrics. Using this seam finishing means you never have to use pinking shears to finish seams.
Serger overlock stitches have built-in elasticity that make them a natural fit with knit fabrics. Most of the time I use the 3-thread overlock for seaming, too.
Gathering is a quick and easy way to add a ruffle to garments or home decor items. The best method for gathering is to increase the differential feed— meaning turn to a higher number — and this will help push more fabric under the gathering presser foot as you serge.
Ready-to-wear garments are all hemmed with a coverstitch machine, and since I like my garments to look as RTW as possible, the coverstitch function on my serger gets a workout. Not all sergers have a built-in coverstitch, but if yours does, give it a try!
More useful serger functions
This stitch is awesome for quick hems on children’s clothes and for whipping up napkins.
I love the look of this decorative topstitch, especially with denim or topstitching thread. I used it on a cotton skirt and plan to use it on my next pair of jeans. Yes, this is the stitch that if you pull the wrong thread, it completely pulls out!
The elasticator foot only handles ¼” elastic, so while it’s useful, it is also somewhat limited. It’s great for quick half-slips, though!
Over the years, I’ve made a few pairs of running tights where I didn’t want a seam edge on the inside to cause any rubbing, where this stitch comes in handy.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2013 and was updated in February 2018.