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What is an overlocker/serger and what can they do?

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

First of all, let's just address the difference between overlockers and sergers. There is no difference between them, they're exactly the same thing. Overlocker is the English term and serger is the American term.

Overlockers/sergers are most commonly used for hemming and finishing seems to reduce any fraying and to create a neat finish.

Did you know: Overlockers were invented in 1881 for industry use. They're commonly used in 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. To help you get better acquainted with your overlocker/serger, or your overlocker to be, I've created some tutorials for you below:


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 easily finish seams on stretch fabrics whilst allowing the fabric to retain its natural stretch.

3. This is one of my faves! You can create rolled hems. This is an easy way to finish stretch or woven hems and if pull the fabric whilst sewing this can create a nice lettuce hem finish (scroll down for the full tutorial on this).

To see a full overview as to how overlockers/sergers work and what they do check out my video below where I also show you how I've used them in my recent sewing projects.


How to quickly and easily change the threads on an overlocker/serger - my cheat method

Follow this step by step video tutorial to quickly and easily thread your overlocker/serger. Even if your machine is slightly different to mine this method can be used on most overlockers/sergers.

A quick method for changing your overlocker/serger thread:

*This method is best used for the two threads on the right because the two threads on the left will be feeding through the needle eyes and the knot where you've tied the old thread and new thread together, usually get stuck. The two left threads are super easy to thread anyway so don't worry*

  1. Snip the threads currently on the machine (snip it near to the thread cone so it's still all threaded up, just no longer attached to the cone itself)

  2. Simply knot the new and old thread together on the ends so it's now a continuous thread

  3. 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

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 for when your overlocker/serger isn't working

When you've fallen out with your overlocker/serger these tips will help you rekindle your friendship and finish your new dress together! From tension to foot pressure, I've got you covered.

5 top tips when you're overlocker/serger isn't working:

  1. Make sure your overlocker is threaded properly - It's always good to double-check this if you're having trouble. Make sure the thread guide bar is raised - if you forget to extend this up then your machine won't stitch properly.

  2. Check your tension - For most fabrics, you'll want all your tensions set to 4 however, if you're using a really thin or thick fabric, you may want to change them slightly. Head to your instruction booklet as they're great for different tension ideas for different fabrics.

  3. The thicker your fabric the lighter you want your pressure to be - adjust pressure accordingly on your machine.

  4. Make sure all your settings are set correctly for what you want to achieve.

  5. Don't cut your threads off too near the needles when you've just sewn something. This will make it unravel on your garment. Instead, run out a few centimetres/a couple of inches of the thread before you sew and after you sew.


How to create a decorative lettuce rolled hem with an overlocker/serger

You're absolutely going to want to try this. It's super quick, super fun and the perfect way to add a beautiful subtle feature to your stretch make. Click here to see how I've used a lettuce hem on one of my makes.

A quick method to create a decorative rolled lettuce hem:

  1. Remove your stitch finger if the machine has one.

  2. Snip off the far left thread making it into a 3 thread overlocker & remove the left-hand needle

  3. Change your settings to a rolled hem setting (this is usually an 'R' on the machine dials)

  4. Make your stitch width narrow by adjusting the width dial and adjust the tension dials too (I'd recommend making the first 2 slightly tighter than your default tension and the end one a 7/8 - have a play with this for different fabrics)

  5. Pop your fabric under, start overlocking a couple of stitches then pull your fabric creating some tension - the tighter you pull the bigger the wave.


3 Overlockers/Sergers that we Recommend and What to Look for When Buying One

What to look for when buying an overlocker:

In actual fact, all domestic overlockers/sergers pretty much do the same. So, the main thing you want to think about is whether to get a 3 thread vs a 4 thread.

  • We recommend 4 threads because you can change it to 3 threads so 2 birds 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.

  • Check to see if there are up to date video tutorials on YouTube of that overlocker or it comes with a good instruction booklet. There's nothing worse than getting a new machine or piece of technology, going to google something about it and there aren't any tutorials or you're met with articles from the stone age.

  • 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. It allows you to create those beautiful lettuce hems in the tutorial above.

3 Overlockers that we recommend:

1. Sarah's overlocker - Brother 3034

I've had my overlocker for over 10 years now and I love it! I managed to find it as a bargain when I was a student on eBay.

It's a Brother machine which is a decent make and I've had no problems with it at all. However, be careful if you're buying secondhand as it could cost you more in servicing it or getting it fixed which can sometimes cost more than the machine itself. Do your research and contact the buyer beforehand with any questions. I was lucky that this was not used, so if you can find one as an unwanted gift then that's ideal!

Tip: A lot of overlockers being sold on eBay are collection only - check this before you purchase just in case it's at the other end of the country or you can ask them if you can arrange your own collection through but make sure you check you're happy with the cost of sending it first.

2. Sophie's overlocker - Janome 9300DX

I chose a Janome overlocker because I really enjoy using the Janome sewing machines too and have for many years. This overlocker had great reviews, was in my price range and I wanted the option to have 4 threads as well as 3 and a rolled hem setting.

It's also simple to use and rethread.

3. A Bernina overlocker

We also recommend a Bernina overlocker if you're looking for a good quality investment machine.

They're a little pricier but a Bernina is a very good make of sewing machine so they'll be a little quieter, smoother and sturdier (more like an industrial overlocker).


For more great tips, tutorials on pattern cutting and sewing, come and join me over on Instagram @thesewingretreat.

Happy creating,

Sarah xxx

P.S. If you want to start creating your own sewing patterns, download my FREE eBook here. It's the perfect beginner's guide to get you started. You'll learn about the grainline and why it's so important, discover the differences between stretch and woven fabrics, learn how to annotate your sewing patterns and so much more.



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