Sewing knits: Do I want a serger, an overlocker, or something else?
June 27, 2016 2:45 PM   Subscribe

Mefi Sewers: I want to start working with knits (altering off-the-rack t-shirts to better fit my body, as well as sewing fairly easy patterns from scratch). I had a disastrous first attempt with my sewing machine, where I sewed just as I do with woven fabrics and got a horrible wavy edge with weird bunching.

Some internet research has suggested that a serger is the way to go. Is this true? Is it significantly easier than with a sewing machine? If so, what should I be looking for when I shop for one? Is a serger the same as an overlocker? Any model recommendations (price is a big deal for me). I'm probably going to be using primarily lighter t-shirt-weight knits. I'm initially considering the Brother 1034D based on price and reviews, but I'm very persuadable.
posted by ClaireBear to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I encountered the same problem. However, I bought and watched "The Ultimate T-Shirt" course taught by Marcy & Katherine Tilton on There is another good instructional video on sewing a t-shirt without a serger at I've sewn about five t-shirts and have expanded into fancier knit tops. The first one didn't fit right, but after that I figured out the correct adjustments and adore the resulting products. There is no doubt that the serger makes the basic seams far easier, but it is not hard to use your regular sewing machine once you learn the techniques. (By the way: you can often get a good deal on purchasing a course from; they have sales about once a month.)
posted by apennington at 3:19 PM on June 27, 2016 [9 favorites]

I've sewn a couple of good t-shirts on my regular sewing machine. It is definitely possible. On the other hand if you know you mostly want to sew knits, a serger's not a bad idea. Are there any sewing machine stores, fabric shops, or stitch studios near you where you could take an intro serger and/or intro sewing with knits class?
posted by mskyle at 3:26 PM on June 27, 2016

Okay, so I don't think you need a serger....yet. What a serger does is sews and finishes a seam in one pass. It makes it looks more professional. But for knits, you actually don't need a serger because knits don't fray or unravel, it is purely cosmetic. A lot of home sewers use a regular machine in combination with a serger for knits, so the key here is to first figure out why you aren't getting a good seam on your regular machine, and then sew knits for awhile on it, and after you are happy with the results and doing a lot of sewing with knits, you then get a serger.

Start with why you aren't getting a good seam. Do you need to adjust your stitch length and/or tension? Do you need a needle specially for knits (you do)? How you are holding your fabric while sewing?
posted by nanook at 3:59 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Depends on your sewing machine. Basically, you need to be able to create a seam with some give, because knits stretch and your seams need to be able to do so as well.

My sewing machine has a faux overlocking foot/stitch and I can make some fairly decent t-shirt type stuff on it. I also use a ball-point needle for seams and a twin needle for finishing hems. If your machine doesn't have the faux overlock stitch but does have a zig-zag stitch, you may still be able to make it work.

If your machine only does a straight stitch, you will need to get either a zig-zag capable machine (and I suggest one that can do the faux overlock as well, it's terrific) or a serger.

Also, I suggest the Hey June! patterns if you're looking for patterns -- they work very nicely for me, and I've had issues with knit patterns from the Big 3 pattern-makers in the past.
posted by pie ninja at 4:02 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I tried the twin-needle thing for knits and I never really cared for it. My serger is my friend. However, do experiment with your regular machine (great tips here already) before you commit to a serger.

If you don't want the edges to be unfinished on your knit projects, a serger really is the easiest thing, once you get the hang of it.

This one is extremely user-friendly and probably everything you'd need especially at the outset.
posted by Medieval Maven at 4:30 PM on June 27, 2016

I use my serger to finish edges on wovens as well - I really like the clean finish.

I have a Brother Coverstitch and am happy with it, so if the serger is comparable, I'd say give it a try. Amazon has good return policy if you don't like the machine once you try it.
posted by hilaryjade at 4:50 PM on June 27, 2016

BUY GOOD NEEDLES whatever you do. Schmetz make the best in my book - their universal needle is truly universal. You don't necessarily need the stretch needle. Oh, and toss your needle when you are having the tear-your-hair-out sewing session. Amazing how a fresh needle fixes things.
posted by Sweet Dee Kat at 5:45 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to nth doing the zigzag stitch. I do knits all the time with just my regular sewing machine; ball-point needle, correct tension, zigzag. Good luck; knits are awesome.
posted by Melismata at 7:08 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Sergers definitely make sewing on knits more successful, because the structure of a serger stitch is intrinsically stretchy. They're also nice for wovens because you get a nice clean edge finish as you sew. However, because they trim off part of the seam allowance, they're a little bit scary at first since mistakes may be impossible to fix. It took me quite a while to make friends with my serger, but now I use it for almost all seams.

I suggest that you go to your local sewing machine dealer and see if they have any refurbished sergers for you to try. I got lucky with a used Pfaff Hobbylock 788, which has turned out to be an excellent machine despite the silly name. In contrast, the top-of-the-line Babylock Evolution was a total bust for me since it can't handle the tight curves in some of my sewing patterns. So try out a few machines in person and see how they feel. (Bring some typical fabric with you; dealers always provide rock-solid fabrics that make all machines look great.) Often, a refurbished old machine is a better deal than a new machine at the same price, since many older machines have solid aluminum frames versus plastic. Good luck and have fun!
posted by Quietgal at 9:23 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

A serger (=overlocker) will change your sewing life for the better. Yes a regular sewing machine can sew knits, but it's not as good at them. Also, I don't know how you finish your seams usually, but serged ones just look more professional in my opinion.

I don't think the specific brand is super important for a serger (less so than with a sewing machine), but it's good advice from Quietgal to try a few out. They're all notorious for being difficult to thread. Don't let that put you off, and don't be afraid to take it in to a shop if you need help the first time.

I'd also suggest putting aside half a day to learn all the neat stuff a serger can do - lots of places run classes, otherwise there are classes on Craftsy or even just on Youtube. It can do a lot more than just sewing knits and making tidy hems.
posted by superfish at 12:48 AM on June 28, 2016

I sew a lot and was intimidated by knits for a long time. My serger has eliminated that fear, so if that's what you need to get over the "knit-hump", by all means do it. I strongly encourage you to spend a bit more for a better machine- my first, cheaper one was a huge pain in the ass , the next step up (Brother) was so much and my aunt's hand-me-down Bernina is a dream!

in addition to the excellent advice upthread, the puckering may be a result of your fabric, too. Thin floppy knits are more prone to puckering than thicker, more stable knit fabrics. IMO, most of the knits you can buy at chain brick and mortar stores are terrible (which is a shame for new sewists).
posted by sarajane at 3:52 AM on June 28, 2016

I would echo Sweet Dee Kat about the needles. I sew knits on a regular sewing machine, partly because I don't have space for two machines. However, if you use a sharp needle designed for woven fabric on a knit (instead of a ball point one) bad things will happen. That is likely the reason you got a wavy edge and weird bunching. Given the cost difference between some new needles and a serger, I think it's worth trying out some new ball point needles before you take the plunge.
posted by pangolin party at 6:36 AM on June 28, 2016

If you're going to be doing a good amount of sewing with knits, get a serger. I have the Brother 1034D, it's super easy to use, and I've never had an issue with it. The price was totally reasonable. Once you have a serger, sewing with knits becomes way easier - even easier than sewing with woven fabrics, in my opinion.
posted by violetish at 9:50 AM on June 28, 2016

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