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What Is A Serger & What Can I Do With It?

What is a serger sewing machine? What does a serger do? Why do you need a serger? Find out the answers to these questions and more in this in-depth guide to serger sewing machines.

It might surprise you to learn how many different sewing machine brands and models are available now. In fact, it can be overwhelming to anyone new to sewing! 

In this article, we are exploring serger machines (also called overlockers or overlock machines). Knowing the difference between a serger machine and a regular sewing machine will be an essential first step to finding the machine you need. From there, it’s just a matter of learning the particulars between the different brands you’re considering.

Here’s what you need to know about sergers.

what is a serger tutorial

What Is A Serger Sewing Machine?

If you’ve ever wondered, “what is a serger?” then you’re in the right place! A simple search on the internet will pull up many different results on serger vs. sewing machine

Knowing the difference between these two types of machines is helpful – they aren’t the same, and one can’t replace the other. But in this post, I want to do a deeper dive into what you can do with a serger sewing machine.

Once you’re done reading this, I’m sure you’ll be ready to go out and buy one for yourself. But don’t do that until you learn which serger will be the best for your needs.

Okay, so what is a serger?

A serger is a unique-looking type of sewing machine that gives you very professional-looking stitches as it simultaneously combines three different tasks while you sew. It sews seams, trims off seam allowances, and finishes raw fabric edges. By combining these three functions, doing certain tasks with a serger will save you so much time!

Are sergers and sewing machines the same thing? Although these two machines have some overlap with their capabilities and many people believe they do the same job, no, they are not the same thing. 

A serger is essentially a specialty sewing machine that doesn’t have the wide range of stitching abilities that a modern sewing machine has. In addition, a serger uses an overlock stitch that basic sewing machines can’t create. In other words, they complement each other, but neither one can replace the other.

Here are several features that make the serger stand apart from standard sewing machines.

1. What Does A Serger Do?

As I mentioned above, sergers do three tasks at once. They:

  • Sew a seam (but they do it differently from a sewing machine)
  • Use built-in knives to cut off seam allowances as you stitch
  • Make overcasting to finish raw fabric edges
sew knits with a serger, it's the best to sew stretchy fabrics

As a result, serger stitches look very different from the stitches a regular sewing machine produces. In fact, this machine gives a home sewist a very professional-looking finish. And its efficient operation also saves time as you complete many different simple sewing tasks!

That may be their primary function and why sewists often have both a sewing machine and a serger. However, sergers can do much more than that. In addition to creating professional-quality seams, you can also use a serger for:

  • Sewing different types of hems including rolled hems
  • Gathering fabric with differential feed
  • Sewing knits and other stretchy fabrics (so that the material keeps its stretchiness)
  • Attaching elastic to clothing
  • Making decorative stitches 
  • Attaching zippers 
  • Making cover and chain stitches (NOTE: not all sergers can do this – only combination machines can)
  • Piecing fabric for a quilt or sewing quilt binding

Let’s take a closer look at all of these features in detail.

Sewing different types of hems including rolled hems

It’s very easy to sew blind hems for skirts, pants, and dresses by serger. All you need is a regular serger stitch – a 3 thread 1 needle overlock stitch. And there is even a special blind hem serger presser foot if you want to do it even better. I made this hem on my serger – see the image below (without the blind hem foot). 

✅ Related tutorial: How To Hem Knit Fabric

3 thread 1 needle overlock stitch for sewing hem

Rolled hems are a popular finish for many types of garments, and can be sewn not only on a sewing machine but also on a serger. It’s a narrow, folded hem that is less likely to fray and withstands a lot of wear. There are a few different ways to sew a rolled hem on a serger. Most modern sergers have a special rolled hem stitch to make this popular kind of hems. 

I often use my serger to make rolled hems – for example, this slip dress from knit fabric has the rolled hem, and the lining of this skirt with elastic waistband has the rolled hem too. 

rolled hem made serger
rolled hem on the lining

Gathering fabric with differential feed

Gathering fabric with differential feed on a serger is a great way to get gathers quickly and easily. This is a technique that can be used on a variety of fabrics, from lightweight voile to medium-weight cotton.

To gather fabric with differential feed on a serger, first adjust the differential feed dial to the desired setting. Then, place the fabric under the presser foot and make a regular 3 thread 1 needle overlock stitch. The fabric will be drawn up under the presser foot as it is sewn, creating a gathered effect.

Also, adjust the stitch length to create the desired amount of gathers. A shorter stitch length will create more gathers, while a longer stitch length will create fewer gathers.

Give it a try today and see how easy it is.

gathering fabric by serger

Sewing knits and other stretchy fabrics

Sewing knits and other stretchy fabrics on a serger so that the material keeps its stretchiness is a great way to make comfortable clothing.  While a regular sewing machine can be used to sew knits, a serger sewing machine is specifically designed to do this type of stitching. 

The benefits of using a serger for stretch fabrics are that the seams are stronger, there’s less chance of the seams popping, the stitches will not unravel and you can finish a project fast. Use a 4-thread 2 needle serger stitch for sewing stretch fabrics. 

4 thread 2 needles overlock stitch

✅ Related tutorial: How to sew knit fabric | 23 expert tips for beginners

Attaching elastic to clothing

It’s quite simple and quick to attach elastic to clothes using a serger. Use a 4 thread 2 needle serger stitch. 

I have a step-by-step video tutorial on how to sew a skirt with an elastic waistband so you can see how it’s done. 

Making decorative stitches

Modern sergers can even make decorative stitches. 

For example, a wave stitch is available on high-end Baby Lock sergers, which is a very pretty stitch. I used three different colors of thread and quilted cotton fabric to make this interesting design.

wave stitch by Baby Lock serger

A lettuce hem is another example of decorative finish you can make by serger. 

lettuce hem by serger

Attaching zippers

You can attach regular zippers (but not invisible zippers) by serger. I just serge along both sides of the zipper, catching the fabric in the serger stitches.

sewing a zipper on a serger

Making cover and chain stitches

Cover and chain stitches are used for sewing knit fabric. 

A coverstitch is a common stitch for knit hems, and it can also be used to create decorative effects. The serger combo machine (with coverstitch) produces a neat, stretchy hem. Here is an example. 

cover stitch by serger machine

A chain stitch is made of a series of looped stitches together. The chain stitch can be used on its own, or it can be combined with other types of stitches to create more complex designs.

chain stitch example

Piecing fabric for a quilt or sewing quilt binding

A serger can be used for quilting projects as well. Some quilters like that the serger stitch width can be exactly 1/4 inch and it’s very also fast to sew by serger.

I like to bind quilts by serger and I even have a tutorial on how to bind a quilt by serger, so check it out.

How to sew a quilt binding - a video sewing tutorial

2. What Can A Serger Not Do?

After reading this, it may seem like a serger can do it all. Perhaps you’re even wondering whether you could just have a serger instead of a sewing machine.

Unfortunately, sergers are primarily used to join seams and prevent fabric edges from fraying. While they can do some decorative stitching, they can’t do some critical everyday tasks that sewists perform, such as sewing buttonholes, topstitching, quilting, etc. 

That’s why many sewists choose to purchase and use both a sewing machine and a serger. 

3. What Is A Serger vs. An Overlock Machine

Sewists often use these terms interchangeably. It’s easy to assume they refer to different machines, however, sergers and overlockers are the same things. Sergers use an overlocking stitch, which is where the term “overlocker” comes from. But in America we use mostly the word “serger” and in Europe “overlocker” iis more popular. 

4. Serger Uses Several Spools Of Thread At Once

The most noticeable difference between sergers and sewing machines is that sergers use multiple spools of thread simultaneously. Different machine models will use between 2 and 6 spools as they sew.

Serger thread is finer than the thread you would use for a regular sewing machine to allow you to sew at higher speeds and prevent creating bulky seams. Serger thread is sold on cones, and you can find it in polyester and nylon.

Why do sergers use multiple spools of thread? That’s how the machine creates that serger-specific overlock stitch that quickly leaves a clean and professional fabric edge. 

Baby Lock serger has 8 threads

5. Sergers Don’t Use Bobbins

One factor that distinguishes sergers from other sewing machines is the fact that they don’t use bobbins.

Sewing machines usually make stitches with only two threads (one in the needle and one in the bobbin) to create a lockstitch. Sergers, on the other hand, use looper threads instead of bobbins. 

The loopers are metal rods inside the machine (under the presser foot) that hold your threads and position them during stitching. This setup allows you to use multiple threads and larger spools of thread. That’s how you get that effective overlock stitch and faster sewing.

serger has looper instead of bobbins

6. Sergers Can Use 2 Or 3 Needles At Once

Another factor that makes sergers special is that they use multiple needles. Many machines use the same needles as regular sewing machines, but there are certain models that use serger-specific needles. Check your user manual to make sure you use the right needles for your machine.

Most sergers for home sewists use two needles, but there are a few that use three needles at once. The machines that have three needles are combination serger/coverstitch machines. 

Not sure how sergers and coverstitch machines differ from each other? Check out the differences between coverstitch and serger machines.

serger needles

7. Sergers Have Knives To Cut Seam Allowances

One thing that really sets sergers apart from other types of sewing machines is the knives that are parts of the machine. The knives (2 of them, upper and lower knife) cut your fabric as you sew and are essential for creating clean overlocked edges on your fabric.

Most serger models allow you to choose whether you want the upper knife engaged or disengaged. That’s helpful since there are definitely times when you’ll want to sew without cutting fabric (ex: using a flatlock stitch).

8. What Is A Serger’s Sewing Speed?

If you were to check out the stitching speeds of different sewing machines, you would find that they all vary from each other slightly and range somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 stitches per minute.

However, sergers stand apart from other machines because they stitch much faster, averaging between 1,300 and 2,200 stitches per minute. Talk about a time-saver! 

9. Is it hard to use a serger machine?

Is a serger harder to use than a regular home sewing machine? Many sewists (especially those who aren’t familiar with overlocks) have this idea that a serger is harder to use. That idea probably comes from how complex the machines look with their spools of thread and extra buttons.

Baby Lock serger in my sewing room

So, are they really harder to use? No, they aren’t. But there is a learning curve as you start using them because they work differently than regular sewing machines. And since most sewists learn how to use sewing machines first, adapting to the differences can be confusing and challenging at first.

For example, threading sergers tends to trip people up at first. While the process is more complicated than it is on a normal sewing machine, it’s very possible to do. Just keep your user manual out for a while so you can refer to it as you get comfortable with the process!

10. Serger Price

Ok, so now that you know more details about overlock machines, the next question is likely to be, “how much do sergers cost?” Thankfully, there is a range of options! 

You can find a good basic model ranging from around $200 – $500 or so, which is a great option for the typical home sewist.

And as with nearly anything you buy, the more money you spend, the more options your machine will have. So, if you need a machine with all the bells and whistles, you could potentially spend up to about $5000 for a high-end machine (like Baby Lock Triumph).  But most sewists won’t need to do that.

To help you find the best fit for you, read my article on how to find the best serger machines.

I hope this post has helped you answer “what is a serger” by giving you more in-depth information on what this specialty sewing machine can (and can’t) do. Can a serger replace your sewing machine? No, but it will make a terrific complement that will help you expand your sewing abilities and improve your skills.

Did you find this tutorial helpful? If so, save this pin (see below) on your sewing board so you can come to this tutorial later when you are need this information on what is a serger, and follow me on Pinterest for more tips, tutorials, and inspiration!

what is a serger - a guide for modern sewers

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George Bernstein

Wednesday 9th of March 2022

Thank you, Olga. I continue to learn so much from you!

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