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Introduction to Sergers

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The Serger. Many who are new to sewing view this machine as mystical, and maybe slightly sinister. Judging by the name, you could confuse it for something (or someone) found in Marvel Comics. Even its other, more British name, gives it a wonderfully super-hero edge: The Overlocker. Sews by Day, Locks Seams by Night.

It’s true this machine can perform magic – at least watching one work gives you that impression. Don't be alarmed by the multiple thread spools or racing speed. With a few basic instructions, you'll be well on your way to learning how to use this versatile and fun machine. Plus, once you feel comfortable with a serger, you won't believe the time it saves in your sewing room!

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A serger, also called an overlocker, gives seams a professional quality finish and makes the fancy finishing stitches you find on the inside of store-bought garments. As you sew, the serger cuts off the edge of your fabric, then wraps thread around the cut edge so it won't fray. It adds a degree of polish and longevity to your projects you can't quite attain with a regular sewing machine.

Why So Many Threads?

Sergers come in many varieties and are capable of performing a wide range of tasks. A serger may use anywhere from two to five threads at a time to sew. Basic sergers are called '2,3,4 thread' models; that means they can perform a range of tasks using two, three or four threads. A 2-thread finish will make a very basic edge on a seam to keep it from ravelling. The 3- and 4-thread options create locked stitches on the edge of the fabric to create a clean, tight seam. On the high end of the spectrum, you'll find a 5-thread serger. This serger performs all of the above, plus some specialty stitches that require five threads. All of these sergers will use a knife blade on at least some of the stitches. This knife is located near the needle and cuts off the seam allowance as you sew, resulting in a perfectly clean edge.

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Did Someone Say "Looper"?

Sergers contain unique parts in the lower mechanism called "loopers". These loopers do just what they say – they loop the stitches together to lock them. On the top side of the fabric, a serger will lay down what looks like traditional stitches, but the back of the fabric shows the precisely formed knots created by the loopers. When threading your machine, thread goes through the 'lower looper' and the 'upper looper.' The manual that comes with your machine will instruct you on how to thread the loopers. Often machines contain special tricks or aids to help you with the threading of these parts.

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Other Options

Many sergers come with something called Differential Feed. This feature will open up more options in your serging. The differential feed controls how much of the fabric is fed per stitch. You can alter the feed to pull through more fabric per stitch to create a ruffle. This option will also allow you to create something called a "Lettuce Edge" which gives the serged edge of the fabric a slightly waved effect.


Some machines can also create what is called a Cover Stitch. This is a stitch that you will find on many t-shirts and sweatshirts. On the top it looks like two seams with stitches directly parallel to one another. This is a great option for creating decorative effects with your serger.

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You will also find many sergers offer a wide array of optional accessories. These accessories make certain tasks even easier. They are very similar to specialized sewing machine feet. Understanding these optional accessories and how they are used will open up new possibilities for using your serger.

Serger Pay-Off in Two Words: Rolled Hem

We've shown you how to make a basic napkin with a double turn hem. One thing a serger does very quickly and easily is a rolled hem. A rolled hem can be found on many purchased napkins. It looks like a very tight and narrow satin stitch on the edge of the fabric. While double-turned edges are very pretty, they are fairly labor intensive. Trust me on this: the second you master the rolled hem on your serger, you will spend the entire afternoon making napkins, and everyone you know will be receiving a set! It's so fast, so easy, and so instantly gratifying.


Once You Start ...There's No Stopping

I’ll admit this now, because it's a few years after the fact, but one Christmas, I made my mother four tablecloths to fit her new dining room table. I bought fabric wide enough to fit the table, cut it to the correct length, and simply serged all four edges. It took me about 30 minutes to complete them all. But she was so impressed when she opened the boxes of four ‘handmade’ tablecloths, I kind of played along with the selfless work I put into the gifts – for her sake! Of course, I was happy to make them for her – but I was even happier it didn’t take an entire weekend like she thought it had.

Of course, there are many many other things sergers do that will save you both time and energy in your sewing room. In fact, we've never met anyone who, once they took an afternoon to get comfortable, regretted their investment in a serger. As with any sewing machine purchase, shop for a trustworthy machine, and purchase from a trusted dealer. Lessons are very helpful, especially with a serger, so speak with your dealer about that option when you are shopping.

Buying Guide

To get you started in your shopping, we've put together a buying guide using machines from our friends at Janome. This guide will outline the range of sergers available, and explain some of the features and benefits of each, so you can weigh the options and choose the machine that is right for the types of jobs you want to do. All of the models in the Janome line contain differential feed, and those mentioned below have an adjustable cutting width. Additionally, most models have adjustable stitch length, and because they have a differential feed option, they can gather. They also all have a retractable knife so you can create decorative effects.

Janome Magnolia 7034D

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The Magnolia 7034D is a solid, entry-level serger. It performs a 3,4 thread overlock stitch, and has knob-type tension adjustment. This means the thread is wrapped around the knobs on the front of the machine, and these knobs control the tension. You'll find color-coded threading, which makes it easy to follow which thread needs to go where.

Janome 1110DX

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The 1110DX offers lay-in threading and tension adjustment, as opposed to the knob version. This lay-in threading method allows the thread to fit more snugly, giving greater dependability in threading.

Easy threading is a major aspect of this serger. It contains a lower looper thread guide, so you can easily thread the sometimes hard-to-reach looper. The thread paths of the various loopers and needles are also clearly marked on the front of the machine, which is perfect for a beginner. The 1110DX also includes an easy rolled hem conversion, which allows you to move from standard sewing to a rolled hem quickly – a conversion that may require quite a few adjustments with other models.

Janome 1200D


The 1200D is a 2,3,4,5 thread serger. Along with all the standard serger features mentioned above (plus some not mentioned), this machine offers a cover stitch and a top cover stitch. These are high-end options, which guarantee amazing results. A 5-thread serger will do a chain stitch, which is a popular finishing/hemming stitch in professionally made drapes. A cover stitch is a very versatile stitch that can be used for hemming, gathering, or embellishment.

The 1200D also offers automatic tension – a truly amazing and useful feature for any level sewer. It has an easy to understand stitch selection guide, and based on your chosen stitch, the machine will adjust the tension for perfect results every time.

The 1200D, along with its slightly less-featured sister machine, the 1100D, also have a tremendous feature for home dec sewing: the blanket stitch. You can use this stitch for hemming and finishing the edges of throws and other blankets. Along with the wide array of other features on this model, the blanket stitch is a real treat.

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Janome Jem Gold Plus Trim and Stitch

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The marriage of a solid sewing machine with light serging function, this is Janome’s hybrid machine. Built on the body of one of Janome’s most popular models, the Jem Gold Plus Trim and Stitch delivers precise and consistent sewing results, plus it offers the capability of edge trimming and finishing with a built in and retractable serging system. You can switch between regular sewing and the serging function with ease.

This is a wonderful model for the sewer who is concerned with space. It gives you the best of both worlds in one easy-to-store sewing machine. One word of truth: if you are looking for a serger to tackle really tough jobs, this may not be the perfect match for you. But if you’re interested in using a serger for simple tasks this may be all you need.


Comments (18)

Tejas Nair said:
Tejas Nair's picture

I was doing some basic research on sergers and found this post. Wonderfully written, informative, and a delight to read.

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@Tejas Nair - Thank you. We're glad to hear you found it helpful!

A Price said:
A Price's picture

Thanks for this great info! Ive been sewing for a long time and have never owned a serger. My husband asked me what I want for Christmas and I gave him my usual reply-"I don't know..." But then I came up with this idea 

DawnDMG said:
DawnDMG's picture

Hi, I am thinking of buying a serger - which is better the Janome Juno S1234DX or Janome 8002D...or should I say which is the higher lever of serger? Thank you

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ DawnDMG - The Juno S1234DX is not sold here in the US, so I'm afraid we are not directly familiar with it. We really wouldn't be able to do much more than what you are doing now, which is comparing listed features from the online sites. If possible, our first recommendation is always to shop through a local dealer so you can "test drive" the models to see which one you really like best. 

Rachel Johnson said:
Rachel Johnson 's picture

hi I just bought a Janome 644D at a thrift store for $100 and was wondering if that's a good deal.  I have never used a serger before and was thinking about getting one when I seen it. Thanks

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Rachel Johnson - there's really no way to tell if you got a good deal without knowing the condition of the machine. We're not big advocates of buying used machines at thrift stores and/or garage sales, because of just that: it's tough to gauge the machine's condition. It's best to bring it to a local dealer to get it checked out, which does have a cost attached to it so can often cancel out the original "good deal." But without having an expert take a close look, it's hard to know when a challenge you encounter with it is "user error" or a machine issue. If you have a local Janome dealer, I would recomment having him/her take a look and do any needed service.

LiliS said:
LiliS's picture

Hi I was wondering how I managed to get really small rolled hem, I have a Janome 990D. Thanks

Nirtak said:
Nirtak's picture

I am at my wit's end.

The left needle on my Brother 1034D skips stitches when serging multiple (more than 2) layers. The right needle works whatever I do, no matter how many layers, how long and wide the stitch, how fast or slow-nothing upsets that one.

What I have tried:

changed the tensions

put in new needles (90/14 Schmetz)

changed the pressure foot tension

changed stitch length and width

I loosened the left needle tension, and it almost stopped skipping stitches, but the seam isn't strong, since the left needle tension is too loose.

The company told me to have it serviced, but it is out of warranty.

Any ideas?

Thank you so much

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture

@ Nirtak - the exclusive sewing machine sponsor for Sew4Home is Janome. We do not have experience with the Brother sergers and so cannot help you. A dealer would be your best option. 

BabsBlue said:
BabsBlue's picture

I'm considering getting a serger.  This information is very helpful, thank you

Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
Congrats C. Carpenter ... you will LOVE your new serger. smilies/cheesy.gif
C. Carpenter said:
C. Carpenter's picture
I've been sewing for almost 40 years and have never used a serger! (Those 4 and 5 spools are a bit intimidating. ) I just bought my first serger and will be taking time this weekend to try to figure things out. Your article was quite informative. Thank you so much. Wish me luck!
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home said:
Liz Johnson.Editor.Sew4Home's picture
Thanks, mjay - we've gotten a lot of positive feedback on the site, on Facebook and on Twitter on our first article about serging. We'll certainly be working on getting more information and perhaps a project or two into the mix for next year.