More serger fun today! After I unpacked my new machine, I decided to invest a decent amount of time in learning how to use it properly. I had never used a serger before (except for a quick and ill-fated attempt a few years ago), and I was legitimately concerned about breaking one of the very many moving parts that I had just invested so much money in. So, I took a methodical approach and worked my way through the entire user manual, page by page, until I had explored all the capabilities of the machine. How delightfully nerdy!
I decided to share my samples in a Sew Skillfully post, because (a) I haven’t done one in a while, and (b) I learned a TON of new skills during this process. My eyes have really been opened to the inner workings of a serger and all the wonderful things it can do, yay! I hope you enjoy reading about my exploration into foreign territory here. I certainly enjoyed the journey!
Warning: this is a LONG post. Grab a cuppa or just skim for techniques you find interesting. 🙂
As I mentioned last time, I found the manual to be pretty detailed and easy to follow, and I appreciated the color-coded threading illustrations (which you can see above). The skills were arranged in a logical order from basic to advanced – perfect for following along from cover to cover. If you buy a serger and have limited serger experience, I’d definitely recommend this method. It was time-consuming but extremely effective!
All right, let’s dive into the stitches!
I started off with a 4-thread overlock, which uses 2 needle threads and 2 looper threads. I think (?) this is the standard stitch, since it was how my machine was threaded right out of the box.
The first thing I played around with was stitch length and width. The upper sample in the photo above shows stitch lengths from 1mm to 4 mm, and the middle sample shows stitch widths from 5.5 mm to 7.5 mm. As you can see, there is a pretty dramatic difference in stitch lengths! The difference in widths wasn’t very obvious, especially since these were all sewn using both needles. When you remove the left needle and only sew with the right needle, you can get much thinner widths. I’ll show some examples below.
In the bottom sample, I practiced sewing with the blade turned off, which causes the edge of the fabric to roll up into the stitching, depending on where you line up the fabric edge on the machine guides. Ideally you’d align the fabric edge with the knife edge in this case, so no roll would form, and the stitches would wrap perfectly around the raw edge with no cutting necessary. Lesson learned.
Next up: differential feed. True confession: I had no idea what differential feed was until I started playing with the lever! People talk about it all the time, but never really explain what it is. For the official record, differential feed refers to the serger’s ability to adjust the rate of the front (before the needle) and back (after the needle) sets of feed dogs independently. When the front moves faster than the back, the result is gathering. When the back moves faster than the front, the result is a stretched out edge. There you go! 🙂
Seriously, who knew sergers had 2 independent sets of feed dogs anyway?? Clearly I was out of the loop!
The photo above shows two samples using a differential feed above 1.0 (or “N” for normal), which causes gathering. Numbers less than 1.0 cause stretching. Apparently you can pull the needle threads (not the looper threads) and gather the fabric even more than the differential feed will produce, although I haven’t actually tried that yet. So cool though!
3-Thread Overlock (including rolled edge)
To switch from a 4-thread overlock (which I was still using for the differential feed experiment), you remove the right needle to maintain a wide stitch, or remove the left needle to achieve a narrow stitch. I thought this meant just removing the thread associated with that needle, but you have to actually physically remove the needle itself. This involves a screwdriver, a funky-looking “needle insertion tool,” and a lot of hand-eye coordination. It takes practice.
But alas, you can see the tasty fruits of my labor above. The wide or narrow 3-thread overlock will be useful for finishing edges, as the extra security of the 4th thread isn’t really needed like it would be in a seam.
To make the narrow hem or rolled edge, you can leave the machine threaded for a narrow 3-thread overlock and simply change a few settings on the various dials. So easy! Based on my samples, the main difference I notice between the two stitches is that the fabric rolls up a bit inside the rolled edge (not surprising, right?) but lays flat in the narrow hem. I suspect the 2 different finishes would result in a different drape and stiffness depending on your fabric choice.
OMG, this was the most confusing one. Can you tell?
I probably spent a solid 2 hours trying to figure out how to set this up properly, including the total FAIL pictured above, and perhaps one more. Ahem. 🙂 It turns out that the needle thread has to be fed through one of the looper guides, which I didn’t think was allowed, but there you have it. Apparently sergers don’t play by anyone’s rules. There’s a looper thread in the same guide simultaneously, and I was surprised I didn’t get a huge knot or something from the 2 threads co-mingling.
The finished flatlock is just that – two pieces of fabric joined together flat, with no seam allowance sticking out. You sew the seam right sides together, open up the fabrics, and tug on them to flatten out the seam. And you have to REALLY give it a good, solid tug (or ten). Now’s the time to let out all that bottled-up stress from a long day at work.
I’m not sure which side to use as the right side – the side with the loops contained between two rows of stitching (on the left in the photo above), or the side with the horizontal lines (on the right). Anyone know?
The 2-thread flatlock is similar to the 3-thread flatlock, but now you’re only using the lower looper instead of both loopers. The other big difference is that you have to engage the “subsidiary looper” on the serger for all 2-thread stitches. This little widget is permanently attached to the end of the upper looper, and you swing it into position when needed. I still haven’t figured out exactly what it does, especially because the upper looper doesn’t even have any thread in it for 2-thread stitches. It’s a head-scratcher!
Anyway, this type of seam doesn’t seem nearly as strong as the 3-thread version, so I think I’d be hesitant to use it for anything other than topstitching or decoration. Here I’ve used the horizontal lines on the right side of the fabric, with the “loopy” side on the back.
2-Thread Flatlock (Blanket and Ladder Stitches)
Another confusing one. Get this: for these stitches, you use the lower looper as usual, but the needle thread goes through BOTH the upper looper tube and the regular needle guides. So complicated! Setting it up properly requires tweezers and a lot of patience. Baby Lock, why do you do this to me?
I didn’t get an accurate sample of the blanket stitch because you’re supposed to use water-soluble stabilizer as the top fabric, and I didn’t have any. Oh well! Apparently the threads you see in the seam above will wrap around the edge like a hand-sewn blanket stitch once the top piece of fabric (stabilizer) is removed. Cool! I’ll have to give this a proper try sometime.
The ladder stitch (on the thin strip of fabric above) is essentially the same as the blanket stitch, only sewn in the middle of the fabric instead of along the edge. You have to fold the fabric just right to get the desired effect. As you can see, it took me 3 tries to get it right. The top 2 attempts still maintain a fold when the seam is opened, but the 3rd attempt (on the bottom) lies flat. Where would I use this stitch – any ideas?
Here’s a look at the back of the ladder stitch. My successful attempt (with no fold), is on the left. It looks similar to a standard 2-thread overlock.
2-Thread Overlock (Blind Hem)
Easy to set up, but very tricky to sew just right! If you’re reading this and can successfully use a serger to sew a blind hem, I want to hear from you. 🙂
The set up is the same as a 2-thread overlock, but the key is folding the fabric properly and aligning the fold so that the needle just catches a thread or two when serging. Much easier said than done! You can see above that I caught about 1/8 inch of the fold, which shows way too much thread on the right side of the fabric.
Blind hemming is a pretty useful feature of the machine, so I want to play around with it until I can consistently do it properly. Apparently you can purchase a specialty blind hem foot to guide the fabric into the machine perfectly. For now though, I’ll still be hand sewing my hems. The catch stitch and I are old friends. 🙂
All right, let’s switch back to a 4-thread overlock to practice a few serging techniques…
On a serger, how do you know where to align the edge of the fabric to get an accurate 5/8 inch seam allowance?
I played around with this A LOT (see all my samples above?), and I still don’t know the answer. On my Bernina, the throat plate has markings in 1/8 inch increments outward from the needle, which is awesome. On the Imagine, there are a few guidelines, but I found them to be really tricky to use. Essentially, the 5/8 inch guidelines are located beyond where the fabric gets cut, so it’s impossible to align the fabric edge with the guideline. UGH!
To make a long story short, I made the following observations:
- Following the instructions in the user manual for an accurate 5/8 inch seam allowance (i.e., using the impossible-to-use guidelines mentioned above) didn’t work. Period. Am I misunderstanding the instructions?
- Aligning the fabric edge with the edge of the throat plate seems to give a pretty accurate 3/8 inch SA. Since I was satisfied with the level of accuracy here, I suppose I should cut out all my pattern pieces with 3/8 inch SAs if I’m going to use the serger. Is this typically what people do?
Do you have any advice here? I was really struggling with this, and the OCD part of my brain was getting really annoyed with the unpredictable SA width.
The final portion of the user manual covers some basic serging techniques, including:
- Securing the beginning and end of a seam
- Serging around curves
- Inserting narrow tape into the serged seam
- Serging around outside and inside corners
All of these were pretty straightforward, thankfully!
To secure the beginning of a seam, you sew a few stitches, lift presser foot, pull the thread chain (that’s hanging off the beginning of your seam) to the front, and serge over it. To secure the end of a seam, you serge the entire seam, and then flip the fabric around and serge for an inch or so back over the seam. You can see examples of both of these in my top sample, above.
Serging around an outside curve wasn’t bad at all. Just aim the fabric edge toward the blade, as opposed to the needles.
To insert a narrow tape, use the dedicated slit in the presser foot (cool!) to simply feed it in while serging. For this example, I used black 1/4 inch polyester twill tape. I had to trim the width of the tape, so apparently the presser foot can only accept really narrow tapes (about 3/16 inch or less).
To serge around an outside corner, simply sew to the edge of the corner and turn the fabric to start serging down the other side. It helps to pull up a little slack in the needle threads to help you turn the fabric around. As you can see above, you wind up serging over the tip of the corner twice.
Serging around an inside corner is a little more tricky, and I’m not convinced that the recommended method secures the corner adequately. You clip the corner and pull the fabric edge straight, serging across the corner in a straight line. This requires folding the fabric into a little pleat to get the edge to lie flat, and you have to be really careful not to serge over the pleat. In my 1st attempt (on the right), I caught the pleat in the seam – oops. The sample doesn’t lie flat in that area. In the 2nd attempt (on the left), I managed to get it right.
If any of you actually made it to the end of this post, I offer you my sincere congratulations. 🙂
While I’m fairly confident in operating the serger now, I still need to figure out how to use it on real garment projects. How do I serge a circular seam? What kind of seams are appropriate for the serger, and which really need to be done on a regular sewing machine (e.g., topstitching)? I have a bunch of jersey slated for Renfrews but have been holding off until I get the serger under control. I’m getting there!
If you have any favorite tips on serging — general or related to specialized techniques — feel free to share them below!