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How to Choose a Serger: Your Quick Guide to These Machines

Do you want to know how to choose a serger?

A serger, also called an overlocker, isn’t a replacement for your sewing machine.

Although there’s some overlap, they’re different tools for different types of sewing. They’re also quite distinct in appearance. And under the hood? There’s no comparison.

If you decide you need a serger, you need to know how to choose a serger that fits your needs, specifically.

So, how do you do that?

That’s what we’re here to find out.

How Is a Serger Different from a Sewing Machine?

There are several important differences between a serger and a sewing machine.

They both sew pieces of fabric together, true. However, a regular sewing machine connects the pieces with a single line of stitches.

A serger, on the other hand, sews one or more lines of stitches while simultaneously looping thread around the fabric edges to seal off the seam.

But the distinctions don’t end there.

Number of needles

Your regular sewing machine sews with one needle. Some machines can also use a twin needle to make parallel rows of stitching.

A serger, on the other hand, uses two, and sometimes three needles.

Many sergers use special serger needles. However, you can also find models that use regular sewing machine needles.

Thread

Your regular sewing machine uses a top thread on a spool and a bottom thread on a bobbin. 

By contrast, a serger uses between two and eight threads, depending on the machine and depending on the stitch. 

Furthermore, many serger owners prefer to use cone thread. You can, of course, use spool thread with a serger.

On the other hand, a serger uses so much thread that it’s often more cost-effective to buy it on massive cones.

Loopers

Instead of a bobbin, a serger has one or two loopers. Loopers cast loops of thread over the fabric edges, sealing them off.

Here’s how loopers work.

Differential feed

Sewing stretchy, knit, and ultra-lightweight fabrics is another job that a serger can handle with aplomb.

This comes down to the differential feed.

A regular sewing machine has one set of feed dogs. Feed dogs sit beneath the fabric and move it back through the machine. A serger, on the other hand, has two sets of feed dogs.

The differential feed mechanism allows you to set the speed of the feed dogs relative to one another. 

For many fabrics, it’s best if the feed dogs move at the same speed. However, there may be times when you want one set of feed dogs to move faster than the other.

Adjusting the differential feed can help you to avoid puckering while sewing stretch fabrics. You can also use it to create special effects like ruffles, gathers, pintucks, and lettuce edges.

Cutting knives 

A serger also has a cutting blade that trims the fabric edge while you sew. Some models have two blades that work together like scissors.

Do you still have questions? This quick intro can show you how all these parts fit together.

What Can You Do with a Serger?

A serger’s main job is overcasting. This means sewing one line of stitching, either straight stitching or sometimes a chain stitch, while simultaneously looping thread over the fabric edges to seal the seam.

The main function of overcast stitching is to create strong, flexible, professional-quality seams. But that’s not all you can do.

You can also use overcasting for:

  • Decorative edging
  • Special effects like ruffles and pintucks
  • Professional blind hems
  • Attaching elastic
  • And more

At the same time, a serger has some definite limitations. That is why we say it’s not a replacement for your sewing machine, but rather a companion.

Here are some things a serger cannot do:

  • Straight stitch
  • Zigzag stitch
  • Decorative stitching
  • Topstitching
  • Buttonholes
  • Attaching zippers
  • Sewing on a pocket
  • Monogramming and embroidery

Many people would also say that a serger isn’t the best choice for quilting, due to the bulky seams it creates.

However, some people do use their serger for piecing, and even for creative seam work. Check it out.

How to Choose a Serger

Now comes the important part: not just how to choose a serger, but how to choose a serger that ticks all of your boxes.

Price

Sergers don’t come cheaply.

A bargain basement model will run you about the same as a mid-range home sewing machine. And if you want a premium model, that could cost you a paycheck, or even more than one.

You might be tempted to go for the lowest priced serger you can find. There are, in fact, one or two budget models that consistently score highly with buyers.

But ultimately features are more important than the bottom line. And the available features can vary widely from machine to machine.

Even worse than spending more than you intended is spending that much and still not getting what you want.

So first and foremost, know what you need.

Number of threads

The most common type of home serger is a 2-3-4 serger. That is, a serger that can make two-thread, three-thread, and four-thread stitches.

Some sergers can do more than four threads. But a 2-3-4 serger can do the most common tasks that a home sewist requires.

Be careful, though. Some serging machines, particularly at the lower end of the price spectrum, only do three- and four-thread serging. Some may only do one of these.

This is fine if you’re going to be making primarily clothing and housewares. However, if you’re planning to work with lightweight fabrics or do decorative edgings, you’re going to want that delicate two-thread capability.

Ease of use

A serger is a complicated piece of equipment. It’s complicated to set up, and it’s complicated to operate.

As a result, manufacturers have come up with some workarounds that can make things easier.

Threading

Threading a serger can be the worst.

If you think the gauntlet of thread guides and tension disks in your regular sewing machine is a pain, wait until you see the inside of your serger.

Not only do you have to thread two (or sometimes more) needles. You also have those pesky loopers.

Sometimes it literally takes a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers just to get started.

Fortunately, most sergers have a color-coded threading diagram that makes threading a little easier. Some manufacturers make helpful videos, as well.

What’s really cool, though, is a self-threading serger.

Self-threading sergers use air pressure and highly targeted tubes to thread your loopers with a press of a button.

Unfortunately, at this time, you’ll only find this feature on high-end premium models.

But if you can afford it, a self-threading serger can save you a lot of aggravation.

Check out one model of self-threading serger in action.

Stitch width adjustment

A regular sewing machine allows you to adjust the stitch length and width by hand.

If you have a mechanical sewing machine, you’ll use knobs and dials to make these adjustments. A computerized sewing machine has pre-set functions that you access with a touch screen or the push of a button.

A serger typically has a stitch length knob like a sewing machine. However, on a serger, two things determine the width of your stitches: the stitch finger and the cutting blade.

Some sergers come with several stitch fingers. To adjust the stitch width, you change out the stitch finger or remove it altogether. This is another crawl-into-your-machine-with-a-screwdriver job.

Other sergers have a selection dial or lever that moves the stitch finger into different positions.

Likewise the cutting blade. With some models, you may have to remove the cutting blade for certain kinds of work, for example, to make a rolled hem.

Other models have a knob that simply lifts the blade out of the way.

If you want to simply sew and not monkey around inside your machine, these are two features that should be on your list.

Differential feed range

As we said, the differential feed mechanism adjusts the speed of the feed dogs with relation to one another.

The difference between the speed of each of the sets of feed dogs may be smaller or it may be greater.

You can also think of this difference in terms of stretch and compression. The more difference there is between the speed of each set of feed dogs, the more the machine will stretch the fabric during sewing.

Likewise, less difference means the machine will compress the fabric during sewing.

Most home sergers have a differential feed range of between 0.7 and 2.0 (where 1.0 is neutral). Some may have a greater range, however. For example, the range may be from 0.5 to 2.25.

A greater differential feed range means more possible degrees of stretch and compression. And this can mean more control over stitching and special effects.

Free arm

Many regular sewing machines come with a free arm. That is, you can slide off part of the base of the machine to reveal a smaller, circular working surface.

This is essential for working small, circular pieces of a project. For example, shirt cuffs, collars, waistbands, and trouser legs.

Some sergers also come with a free arm.

Although a lot of the work that you’ll do with a serger involves long, straight rows of stitching, there may be circumstances when you might want to do free arm work.

These may include:

  • Decorative edging on sleeves
  • Attaching collars
  • Blind trouser hems
  • And more

If you’re going to be using your serger for garment construction, then a free arm might well be an important feature to consider.

Trim trap

A serger trims fabric edges while it sews. This can create quite a bit of waste.

A trim trap catches that waste and keeps it out of your way.

Some sergers have a built-in trim trap. With others, you have the option to buy it separately. Be careful, though. That little bit of plastic can come with a surprisingly hefty price tag.

Alternately, you can make your own waste catcher. In fact, this is a lot of people’s first project with their serger!

Accessories

Sergers often come with accessories packs filled with tools and notions. Some are more useful than others, however.

Here are a few that you need.

Serger tweezers

Unless you have a self-threading serger you’ll need to thread your loopers by hand. Some of the thread guides can be very difficult to get to.

A long pair of tweezers can make easy work of this task, however.

You don’t need special tweezers, of course. Your bathroom tweezers will work fine.

Still, it’s a nice touch when a manufacturer includes this essential tool.

Serger needles

It’s very handy if your serger can borrow needles from your regular sewing machine. But this isn’t the case with all models.

If your serger requires special needles, hopefully, the manufacturer will include a few extras with purchase.

Hex wrench and/or screwdriver

If you need to remove cutting blades or switch out stitch fingers, then you will probably need either a hex wrench or a screwdriver to do this.

Make sure that your serger’s accessories pack comes with the tools you need to adjust your machine.

Cone adapters

The hole of a thread spool is smaller than the hole of a thread cone. This means that a thread cone can rattle around on your spool pin. And this can affect your stitching.

Cone adapters slip over the thread spool and hold your thread cones steady.

Cone adapters are cheap and easy to come by. But it’s nice if you don’t have to go out and buy them.

Do You Know How to Choose a Serger?

It’s not enough to know how to choose a serger. You have to know how to choose a serger that will do the best job for you.

What are your dealbreaker features? And how do you think you’ll use your serger?

Do you have a favorite serger model? Or perhaps you have some advice for readers looking to buy their first serger.

We’d love to hear about it!