Serging forward
May 17, 2012 4:38 AM   Subscribe

I used an overlocker (serger) for the first time yesterday, and I was impressed. I'd like to get one when I am in a position to have a proper sewing space (hopefully in the next year), but can I survive without one for dressmaking well enough? And what should I be looking for in a first machine?

When I got my sewing machine, the advice I saw at the time said that £200 is the right price point - more than that means features a beginner won't need, and less than that means a less sturdy/reliable machine. I got a Janome non-electronic machine for about £180 which was perfect. But I have no idea when it comes to overlockers. So:

- how much should I be looking to spend?

- what features should I look for (I'll probably be mainly using dressweight/quilting weight cotton, and I'd like to try knit fabrics) and are they as scary to thread/maintain as they look?

- what are some good, reliable models?

- if I make clothing in the meantime without using one, will it be a bad idea? I don't want to not use my machine until I have the room to get the overlocker as well, but the extra security on the seams and the better finishing on the edges made me think a finished piece will last longer. Can you make your own clothing to a good, durable standard without needing an overlocker?
posted by mippy to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You absolutely do not need a serger for dressmaking. You can finish seams in a variety of ways. In fact, using a technique (like french seams or faux french seams) other than a serged seam is more "dressmake-y".

If you do want to sew with knits, a serger makes complete sense and makes sewing knits an easier job, in my opinion. Sewing with knits is a lot of fun and not as difficult as some may believe. I have made t-shirts, nightgowns, and knit pants.

I have a four thread Janome serger. I bought it off Ebay several years ago. I remember doing a lot of research but can't remember why I chose this particular model. It's a great serger and easy to use. I paid around 400-500 US dollars. I did a lot of research on and read a lot of reviews there and other places on the internet.

My serger came with a video that gives an overview on the serger and how to thread the serger. If you can buy one with a DVD that would be a plus. My particular model is not difficult to threadbut I like the fact that I have a video to show me how because I use it infrequently and I can't remember five minutes ago.

Happy sewing.
posted by Fairchild at 4:56 AM on May 17, 2012

I haven't used a serger in years, but have a basic singer model, I think. The thing I remember is that they can be incredibly difficult to thread. Do you have a place you can go to try out different types of sergers, and see if you can thread them?

Many people make clothing without a serger - sergers are great for finishing seams, but there are a lot of options for seam finishes, as Fairchild said. You can also zigzag over the edge of the fabric to create a sort of finished edge.
posted by needlegrrl at 5:39 AM on May 17, 2012

They are really hard to thread - I'm a fan of babylock - a bit more pricey, but they do have an automatic threading system and all metal parts inside, so you'll never need to buy another one.
posted by ashtabula to opelika at 5:47 AM on May 17, 2012

My mom has a serger and a sewing machine, but I have just a sewing machine from the '60s. I can make practically anything she makes. Sure, she can finish off seams faster and neater than me, but there's little that I can't do. Sewing machines have been around for a couple hundred years, and sergers were only available for popular use, what, twenty years ago?

Knits are easier and seams on knits do come out sturdier than with a sewing machine. So I don't use a lot of knits. But they're totally doable if you want to.

Frankly, I think the key to getting the most use out of whatever setup you have is to have your space organized and sufficient to tackle your projects. The reason that I don't do much sewing right now is because I don't have the space! So set up your sewing station and dive in!
posted by Liesl at 6:18 AM on May 17, 2012

Yes, we had some trouble at the workshop I was at yesterday when it kept unthreading! That was what made me wonder whether, as a beginner, it would be a frustrating experience. I did like the ease of serging the hem edge, though. (I have done french seams on a straight line, on the inside of a skirt hem, before, but not on a bodice.)
posted by mippy at 6:32 AM on May 17, 2012

I have this serger:

Brother 1034D

Sometimes you just want to finish something, and a serger can make a simple seam finish - just like a Ready To Wear garment - really fast. It can also prevent losing your entire damn garment to raveling (hey, that's never happened to me early on in my sewing career, no, not ever).

This one is affordable, generally well-reviewed on (where the smartest sewing people on the internet live) and it threads really easily as long as you take a modicum of care in doing so. It should not come unthreaded unless you don't run off a long enough chain at the end or unless the thread breaks due to poor tension or some other reason.

For a beginner, it's the right price point, IMHO, and if you don't like it or don't use it, I cannot imagine you'd have a hard time unloading it on Craig's List or similar for a reasonable price. A Babylock, while super nice, is going to be expensive. I looked at them, but I felt like this one was a better investment for me. Then again, I have an 80's Pfaff that I love, and several other vintage machines that I pay upkeep on, so I might be crazy.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:44 AM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

They are really easy. And they're great to use with knit fabrics. But I would start with just the sewing machine for a while until you see how much you actually sew; I've been thinking about getting a serger for a long time but I also haven't sewn anything in a long time.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:34 AM on May 17, 2012

I have a 5-thread Huskylock, similar to this but my model is a few years older. I like to sew knits, and it was important for me to have a 5-thread for the finishing topstitch for cuffs and hems. It takes some time to thread properly and has to be changed for different stitches, but I don't think it is difficult. There's a good threading diagram in the manual and a basic one on the machine. If you are not sewing knits, though, I'm not sure why you would need one. It's nice for instantly finished seams as long as you're certain things are perfectly fitted and won't need adjustment- it's not hard to unpick a serged seam, but there's little or no seam allowance to play with once you've done so. However, you can finish seams on your sewing machine with a zig-zag stitch. For cottons and poplins I use my regular machine because it's really more suitable for making adjustments to non-stretch fabrics and threading is more straightforward. There are some things you just can't do very well (or at all) with a serger, like collars with interfacing or buttonholes, &c. If you really want a serger, think about what it is exactly that you want it for. I returned my first 4-thread because it lacked the topstitch, so investigate the capabilities of the serger and learn what the different stitches are for. I think it is worth spending quite a bit of money on such a complex machine, Huskylock is a good, well-known maker. In contrast, the sewing machine I use most was only 300 dollars, because I only need the basics and a sewing machine is a fairly simple instrument.
So I guess my advice is: figure out exactly what you want a serger for, read reviews of the various machines that perform those functions, and spend money on a good brand even if you need to save for a longer time.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:00 AM on May 17, 2012

are they as scary to thread/maintain as they look?

Yes. It takes a few minutes to re-thread a serger even once you've done it a few times.

Can you make your own clothing to a good, durable standard without needing an overlocker?

Oh heck yes. You don't *need* an overlock machine at all, so long as you have a sewing machine with a zig-zag stitch. It just automates one really common operation, allowing you to make clothes more quickly.
posted by Mars Saxman at 10:02 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just upgraded my serger from a POS cheapo Simplicity to the Brother 1034D that Medieval Maven linked to. Both bought from ebay. I tell you, the difference between them is astounding. The Simplicity gave me so many fits that I used to joke, it was easier to sew french seams than use the damned serger. Yes, sergers are fiddly to thread and if you have a bad one even more so, but if you know that going into it, you'll do just fine.

You do not need a serger for garment sewing, however it is a very nice luxury to have. You need one even less for knits, as knits generally don't unravel, but again, it does leave a very nice seam finish.

TL;DNR: Don't buy the cheapest serger - you'll be very very sorry.
posted by sarajane at 12:13 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

You don't need a serger for dressmaking at all. That said, I love my serger and use it all the time! It also makes knits way easier, which I sew alot of. I have a Babylock 450, which is an older model, but I love it. I haven't found that serger a pain to thread, so I can't speak on that. (Also for threading, if it's not sewing right, just take everything out and re-do it. That's the best way I've found to fix things when nothing else works.)

Some features might be ease of threading, rolled hem, or coverstitch. I never thought I'd use a rolled hem when I bought it 5 years ago, but one day I tried it and now use it all the time, so I'm glad I have that feature. Nthing the don't get a cheap serger, it'll just make you cry. I was a little scared to drop so much on a machine, but am still thrilled with it.
posted by Attackpanda at 7:35 PM on May 17, 2012

I sewed for five years before I bought my first serger, and while it's possible to do without it, it will make everything look much nicer and professional on the inside. Very, very expensive clothing often does not feature serging; it will usually be finished in some other way, whether it be by installing a lining, or by using a french seam or hong kong finish. However, serging is generally faster and nicer for most things, especially in situations where a more couture finish would be difficult. It will also make your knitwear much more resilient and safe to stretch.

I originally came into this thread to recommend the $200 Brother 1034D, although it seems it's already been mentioned above. It's really telling when something as finicky as a serger has that many highranking reviews on amazon (as well as the rest of the internet). I've had mine for two years, and I absolutely love it. It's much better than the white I had (which broke within the month), as well as the janome and singer sergers I've borrowed from my friends over the years. I really recommend staying away from singer and white machines, and although the janome/pfaff/babylock machines are nice, a beginning to intermediate level sewer should be just fine with the 1034D. The only thing I wish it had that it doesn't do is a coverstitch/chain stitch, but that's something that tends to be only found on really high end sergers...and if you feel the need for it later, you're probably better off getting a dedicated coverstitch machine anyway. (Switching between overlock and coverstitching mode is usually a bit of a pain on a serger.)

I've been sewing for seven years and am perfectly content with my $150 Kenmore and $200 serger; quality equipment counts up to a certain point, but after that, the quality of the final garment becomes much more about the person doing the sewing rather than the machine it's been sewn on.
posted by Estraven at 11:12 PM on May 17, 2012

You can get along happily (and stylishly garbed) for years on a standard sewing machine, without a serger. That said, they are nifty. I want one, but have told myself that until I've made 20 t-shirts on the standard machine, I can't even start researching sergers.
posted by Lexica at 7:42 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

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