To Serge or Not To Serge – Tips and Tricks When Using A Serger

To Serge or Not To Serge – Tips and Tricks When Using A Serger main article image
Posted on February 26, 2021 by Rita Hiller

You need a serger if you want to sew high quality garments that are durable and well finished. If you haven’t got one it’s something you should maybe consider and if you’ve got one somewhere hidden in a corner or still in the box, get it out, set it up and get serging.

Let’s first go over  the difference between an overlock, serger and coverlock:

An overlock does what the name suggests – overlocks the right-hand edge of the sewing with stitching that gives the edge a clean finish. The first overlocks didn’t trim as they sewed – modern overlocks and certainly those intended for domestic use, all trim as they sew. The simplest of these machines are for a maximum of 4 threads – lower looper, upper looper and two needle threads.

Serger has become the name used most often nowadays rather than calling it an overlock. Most of these machines have more functions than the earlier generation of serger/overlocks. Their basic function is the same but some have more dials, switches, automatic or easier threading and something that saves a lot of time and energy – automatic tension control. With the top range machines, you can use the overlock and coverstitch stitches in combination so they can be used for sewing and embellishment at the same time.

Coverlocks are either stand-alone machines or you can sew a coverstitch by adjusting a few things in your overlock – the so-called combi-machines. Many home sewers have them because it means one machine less to accommodate in the sewing room. Converting them is a fairly simple process in modern machines and not the horror it used to be when you had to make major changes to the tension as well as converting them. These machines are superb for embellishment, finishing, hemming and if you want to make professional looking garments out of jersey or stretch fabrics a must.

Buying a serger

If you’re planning on buying one, I would have said go and look at the various models on the market and try them out. Unfortunately, with Covid that’s not always an option right now. However, if you look online there’s a lot of information about the various machines and often videos which demonstrate how they work. It’s also a question of price.

I have a Baby Lock Gloria (Triumph in the US?) which does have all the bells and whistles. Why did I choose this machine? I’d had a previous Baby Lock model which never caused a minute’s trouble. Years ago, I’d had machines where I spent more time threading them and getting the tension right than actually sewing. The reason I bought this one was because it’s well lit, has speed controls and something that I find tremendously useful – a knee lift. Throw in the automatic threading and automatic tension control, which I believe is standard on all modern Baby Lock sergers and I’d say I’ve got a pretty optimal machine. It really is my work horse. Although, unless you really plan to make good use of it and go beyond a 3 or 4 thread straight serged stitch a machine like this is probably a bit extravagant.

I perhaps should add it’s quick and easy to convert it to the coverstitch function.

The question that still remains is – do I really need one? Couldn’t I do the same thing with a sewing machine? The simple answer is no, not at the same standard.

So, let’s have a look at a couple of things you can do with a serger

Fig.1 Seam and hem sewn with sewing machine

In fig.1 seam on a jersey skirt sewn with a sewing machine and the hem also sewn on the sewing machine using a blind stitch foot. Stretch fabrics on a sewing machine tend to ‘stretch’ if you’re not extremely careful because the presser foot pushes them as you go and it can lead to rippling. This isn’t something you need to worry about with a serger.

Fig. 2 Hem edged with the overlock and sewn with a coverstitch

If you look at fig. 2 it’s a hem edged with the serger and then sewn with a coverstitch. In fact, I made this skirt using only the serger.

Fig. 3 & 4 – the elastic waistband outside and inside.

The elastic waistband is sewn exclusively with a serger. It’s quick and easy and makes a very clean job of it.

I often use a serger to edge linings instead of hemming them as it makes them less bulky – as in the next picture – and it’s so fast.

Fig. 5 Lining edged on the serger

Time saver

If you make baby or children’s clothes a serger is almost a must. Modern jersey and stretch textiles are easier to sew on a serger than a sewing machine and you sew and finish in one go so it saves time – that thing that we never have enough of.

Trimmings and bit catcher

So, you’ve made the decision, got your serger and are ready to sew. Another accessory I’d always advise is a solution for catching the trimmed bits and threads. Sergers certainly produce more bits and threads than a sewing machine and it’s advisable to have something that catches them instead of having an almighty mess when you’ve finished. My Baby Lock is standing on the plastic base with bit catcher from the previous model but it does the same job – I think it’s a bit smaller – but that’s all. It came with a plastic bag which you had to remove from the frame and then fiddle it back in once you’d emptied it.

TIP 1: Instead of this, I devised this method of doing it with a zipper bag – the type you get at a grocery store. I simply slit the bottom – fixed that in the frame holder at the top – and to empty it I simply pop a bin under the bag, unzip it and empty it. Zip it up and I’m ready to go again. I’ve been using the same bag for the last couple of years.

TIP 2: If you send parcels you always need to protect the goods from transport damage. You can use your serging remnants either in plastic bags or quickly serged fabric bags from other remnants – they don’t need to look beautiful – and use those as protection and also to reduce the amount of plastic bubble wrap being used. They are reusable many, many times which is also good for the environment.

Now you want to start serging

Threading – the one issue with some machines that defied people and led to machines landing unused in the corner or sold. Usually if you buy a new machine it arrives threaded with a length of thread in each looper and the needles. The idea is you tie your thread on to these threads and gently pull it through so you don’t have to worry about threading. You just have to cut the knots when you get near the needles and thread the needles manually.

TIP 3: Always have a pair of really good tweezers near your serger. Not short ones that don’t grip too well – unfortunately the type that often come with the machine – but longer ones capable of grabbing and holding a fine thread.

Basic accessories for the serger

Serger needles are so much easier to thread with a pair of tweezers. Once you get used to it you won’t thread any machine needles without them again.

Maybe trying the machine out using this ‘pull through’ method is OK but I’d recommend everyone to sit down and learn how to thread your serger. Nowadays they all come with threading plans and with a bit of time and sometimes patience it’s possible to work it out and learn how to do it once and for all. Saves a lot of time and frustration later!

TIP 4: Thread the serger in the color scheme in the threading plan whilst you’re learning how to thread it. It’s easier to see if something isn’t quite right when you sew – exactly which thread is causing the problem.

So, your machine is threaded and ready to go.

TIP 5: One issue many sewers have with their sewing machines and sergers is the foot control sliding away. You need to be able to sit comfortably with your foot on the foot control. My foot controls slide no more. I got a couple of those silicone pads you can get to put on your car dashboard to hold your mobile/cell phone and fixed those onto the bottom of my foot controls. They don’t cost much but they’re worth every penny!

Which stitch?

My machine is generally set up for a 4 thread overlock stitch. It’s the stitch I use most. I prefer it for edging seams as well as sewing stretch and jersey fabrics. Some people prefer to use a 3 thread overlock to edge seams but I prefer the look of 4. If you sew a 3 thread overlock you have the option of a wider stitch using the left needle or a narrower stitch using only the right needle. Whichever stitch you use I think they all beat a zigzagged edge sewn on the sewing machine. Try them all out and see which you prefer. Whilst you’re practicing don’t sew too quickly. Once you feel confident with the machine, you’ll be able to whizz down a seam or edge with the best of us. One thing sergers are is fast. Remember once it’s trimmed/cut it’s cut!

TIP 6: Always check that only the edge you want to trim is under the foot or heading for the knife. Sometimes with bulky or slippery fabric it’s very easy for something that shouldn’t to get in the way of the blade. I don’t believe there’s a sewer anywhere that hasn’t had this happen at some time. You can rip it open and do it again if you sew it wrongly but you have a problem if you’ve cut it where it’s not supposed to be cut.

The seam looks good, the tension is right – if it isn’t automatic anyway – you can start being a bit more adventurous. You can’t get a good serger stitch if the machine isn’t threaded properly with each thread in all its tension wheels.

TIP 7: If you have a machine where you need to alter the tension manually it’s a good idea to keep a record of how you set your tension dials for different fabrics and functions, once you’ve worked it out. This will save you a lot of time in the future.

Place mat and napkin edged on a serger

Edging with ribbon or cord etc.

I often use the serger to edge baby clothes, cloths, bibs, napkins, tablecloths and whatever else simply by using a ribbon, piping, cord or braid with the serger. You have to position the fabric under the foot– feed the ribbon into the smaller of the 2 slits on the foot – with the help of those tweezers again – the wider slit on the left is for the coverstitch – and make sure your ribbon, cord, braid or whatever is on top of the fabric and the fabric is lined up with the edge of the foot, as shown


Sewn with contrasting thread so you can see how it sews

Lower your presser foot and now you can sew. Gently hold the ribbon to ensure it doesn’t get twisted or move away to the side. It’s quick and easy and, depending on the threads you use, extremely effective. It also looks good if you use 2 or 3 strands of wool to edge scarves or other garments.

Neat edging with 2 needle threads (white) and the lurex thread + wool


Who enjoys gathering with their sewing machine? I certainly don’t. With a serger it’s quick and easy.

Increase your differential feed to its highest number – mine is 2.

Increase your stitch length to the longest – mine is 4

Sew along the raw edge – it will probably start gathering a bit as you go, depending on the weight of the fabric.

Then, pull the 2 needle threads out of the chain at the beginning – don’t pull the looper threads as they tend to knot – and gently pull the needle threads until the gathering is as tight as you want it. Once you get the hang of this you’ll never go back to gathering on a sewing machine.

Organza sewn with a narrow stitch width and gathered by pulling the needle threads (black)

TIP 8: Practice a couple of times using different colored threads in the needles so you recognize them easily when you use them to gather.

Thin straps or ties


Folded – right sides together

Folded fabric with ‘tail on the left 

Pulling ‘tail’ through

Finished strap

Another time saving use of the serger is when you want to make narrow straps for a top or ties for baby clothes etc.

Using a 4 thread serging stitch sew a ‘tail’ a bit longer than the strap length.

Fold your fabric right sides together round the ‘tail’ which you’ve pulled to the front of the machine.

Carefully sew your strap together, keeping the ‘tail ‘on the left inside the fold, making sure you don’t catch it in the stitching.

Gently pull on the tail – you may need to poke the top end in a bit to get it started – don’t pull too hard until you get it going – and slowly but surely – you’ll have a well sewn strap or tie without the hassle of having to try and turn it using sticks, pencils or whatever else. After you’ve done this a couple of times, you’ll even manage spaghetti straps. It’s possible to do this in a similar way with a sewing machine by attaching a piece of strong thread, ribbon or fine cord to the top end before you sew it together – but – it’s so much faster and easier and pretty fool proof with the serger. The more you do the easier it gets!

TIP 9: Keep those ‘tails’. When you make lined garments, they’re useful for loosely attaching the skirt lining to the garment so it can’t roll up or move far from where it’s supposed to be – as in high end garments!

Ready to start serging?

I hope some will be inspired to take a closer look at their serger and maybe start using it a bit more. Don’t forget a serger can only sew straight lines. Even the most basic sewing machines for domestic use have a zig-zag stitch. The serger doesn’t have the versatility and pattern variations of a sewing machine. I always like top stitching with a bold triple thread stitch which a serger simply can’t do. Decorative stitching on children’s clothes is simple with a sewing machine and modern machines have a large variety of stitches to choose from.

The serger is mainly for edging – one way or another. It can also be used to embellish edges, join fabric and there are a number of accessories available that enhance its functions but the stitching on a serger can only be varied by the number and type of threads you use, adjusting the tension or by using attachments. Modern sewing machines have a large variety of stitches and functions, not to mention presser feet, that make your life easier so, useful as the serger is, it’s still an enhancement to the sewing machine and not really a replacement for one, unless you only intend to sew knit and stretch fabrics.

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To Serge or Not To Serge – Tips and Tricks When Using A Serger

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