How to Use a Serger: Tips from BurdaStyle

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A serger (sometimes referred to as an overlock or overlocker) finishes fabric raw edges and trims them at the same time. These functions can be used to sew seams, or simply as a finishing option for seam allowances or hem edges. Sergers are also used for sewing knits since they allow the seam to stretch without any thread breakage. The machine is fast and efficient, and it gives the inside of a garment a professional finished look.
Here’s an overview of the serger and some key details that will help you make the most of using one.

Step 1

These are common parts of a serger—yours may be slightly different depending on the brand and the features it offers. The number of needles (and threads) may vary—some sergers use only one needle, others two; some machines offer various needle configurations for novelty stitch formations.
There are several stitch configurations available on a serger, but the most common are 3-thread and 4-thread for seaming.

Step 2

Threading the serger takes time initially, but with patience and practice, you’ll gain confidence and be able to do it
faster and easier each time. Here are some tips to help:
• Raise the presser foot before threading to allow the threads to pass easily through the tension disks.
• Thread the serger with one thread cone at a time starting on the right of the machine and working left.
• Follow the threading path on the diagram in your manual or inside the serger looper cover.
• Make sure the telescopic thread guide is fully extended.
• Pass the thread through all thread guides and then through the eye of the looper or needle from front to back.
• Make sure the thread is pulled firmly into the corresponding tension disk.
• As you finish with each thread, make sure to place the tail between the presser foot and the throat plate and extend it toward the back of the machine.
• Lower the presser foot and press the foot pedal to test the stitching.
For everything above, double-check the manual in case the specifications of your particular model are different. And if any threads come out of the needle or looper eye, rethread it from scratch—remove every thread from the serger, and thread it again, starting with the thread cone on the right.

Step 3

Getting the perfect tension is probably the most challenging part of working with a serger. In general, the machine should have standard tension settings as a recommended starting point, and the goal is for the stitch to have no loose threads, no puckering, and the upper and lower looper threads should connect exactly at the raw edge.
The easiest way to test serger tension is to use a different thread color in each needle and loop so you can readily see which one might need adjustment.
Do a stitching test by running a swatch of your project fabric through
the serger. If your thread tension isn’t perfect, first check that the serger is threaded properly. Then, evaluate the sample serge and adjust the corresponding tension dial: increase the number to increase thread tension, decrease the number to decrease thread tension. Run another swatch of fabric through, and adjust the tension dials as needed until the serged seam is just right.
• Adjust only one tension disk dial at a time.
• Change your tension dial by only one number or marking at a time.
Serger tension can be finicky and it isn’t the same as on your conventional machine. You may need to adjust your tension when working with different fabrics, when you change threads, or when you alter the stitch configuration. Consider keeping a swatch book of fabric samples and record the tension settings on various fabric and thread combinations. But always do a test before you start your project!

Step 4

When serging a seam, line up the fabric edge with the seam guide on
the needle plate—this will allow the needle(s) to stitch along the actual seamline. It also allows the knife to trim the fabric edge as it overcasts it, making a neater finish.

Step 5

Because a serger uses so many threads, and because it’s also constantly cutting fabric, a lot of dust can accumulate inside the serger. It’s important to cover the serger when it’s not in use, and clean it regularly. Use a small serger vacuum, a brush, or a square of fleece fabric to keep the inside area dust free. And clean the tension disks by sliding a folded piece of cotton fabric or lining between the disks.

Step 6

When a serger has two separate sets of feed dogs, it has what’s called differential feed. Differential feed allows you to control how fast fabric is pulled through the machine, allowing it to be stretched or eased. The back set of feed dogs maintains a consistent speed, and you can adjust the front set to go faster or slower. By adjusting the serger’s differential feed, you can accommodate the varying stretchiness of different fabrics.

Step 7

This article is excerpted with permission from "BurdaStyle Modern Sewing: Wardrobe Essentials" by BurdaStyle (Interweave/F+W).

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