Do I Need a Serger: What to Know Before You Buy
In the sewing world, some people consider a serger machine (also known as an overlock machine) to be an essential piece of equipment. It is typically used for finishing raw edges and seams on woven fabric by creating a tightly bound edge that will not unravel or fray. Some fabrics, such as knit or stretchy fabrics are great for sewing with a serger because the serger makes a stretchy seam. If you are thinking about buying a serger and want to make sure you really need one, this article will help you figure out if you need a serger!
I remember how excited I was to get my first serger. I was sewing lots of kids clothes at the time and I was sure it would cut my workload in half and make everything easy. I was right, partly. It did make sewing clothes together faster, but it came with a learning curve that took a few weeks to get over. And even now when I find using my serger easy, I dislike changing the threads so I stick to my favorite settings as much as possible.
So in this blog post I will explain the purposes of a serger and help you decide if you really need one. I won’t go into the details of how to thread and use a serger, but I will discuss how it works with different types of fabric.
If you decide you want to buy a serger, check out my Best Sergers to Buy for the Money.
What does a Serger Machine Do?
A serger machine uses 3, 4, or 5 threads to sew a seam, trim off the raw edges, and finish the edges all at the same time. The most common type is the 3/4 serger which can sew with three or four threads and has a retractable knife. As far as I know, all sergers have an adjustable stitch length and width (to achieve the proper seam allowance, and differential feed (to move the top and bottom fabric layers together).
When you are sewing with woven (non-stretchy fabrics like in the photo above) a serger is helpful because it will finish the raw edges and prevent fraying. But it is not necessarily the most durable way to sew the seam, so the proper method is to sew the seams with a sewing machine first.
Note that I said that sewing the seams first is the proper method, I sometimes skip that step if I am sewing pj’s or I’m really in a rush. You can also make a serged seam more durable by pressing it to one side and topstitching the seam from the right side.
When you are sewing on knit fabrics (like the t-shirts and underwear above), the opposite is true. Having a serger machine is a must if you sew with stretch fabric often.
A Serged Seam will Stretch!
You don’t necessarily need to finish the raw edges of knit fabric (since they won’t fray), but sewing the seams with a serger is usually more durable than sewing them on your sewing machine because the serged seam stretches.
That means sergers are perfect for sewing t-shirts, leggings, stretchy pants and pajamas, and athletic wear in general.
We’ve all heard that familiar thread ‘pop’ when we stretch a t-shirt and a thread breaks. That is because the fabric stretched more than the seam did.
Is a Serger Good for Quilting and Sewing Projects Other Than Clothes?
Quite frankly, if you sew quilts you don’t need a serger. I know some people love their sergers so much that they use them for quilts too, but most quilters don’t want all that extra thread buildup making their quilt tops lumpy. It would be very difficult to accurately piece a quilt block with a serger and why bother? None of the seams will show anyway.
The same is generally true for sewing bags. Tote bags and purses are not usually sewn with knit fabrics so there is no need for a stretchy seam. On woven fabrics, serged seams are not as durable as straight stitched seams so why bother with the extra thread on the inside when it will be hidden by a lining? In that case you can stick to your trusty sewing machine.
Have you seen my favorite sewing machines to buy on Amazon for any budget?
The finished seam that I have been discussing is usually sewn with 3 or 4 threads on a serger (the 4-thread seam being the most durable). But I have to discuss one more common use for a serger, and that is finishing the edge of a single layer of fabric.
On the picture above, I finished the edges of the collar ruffle with a narrow rolled hem. This is an easy finish for lightweight woven and knit fabrics because the serger knife cuts off the extra fabric as you sew. You can also use decorative thread (especially soft woolly nylon thread) for a nice effect. The narrow rolled hem uses three threads, and is handy for a quick tablecloth too.
You can also use 3 or 4 threads to make a flat finished edge that you can turn to the inside and hem with a regular sewing machine.
In the picture above, I finished a t-shirt by serging the edge with a flat 4 thread stitch. Then I pressed the serged edge to the inside and used a double needle on my regular sewing machine to stitch the hem. The double needle hem is stretchy (like the serged stitch) so this hem will be durable, and it looks a lot like store-bought hems that were sewn with a cover stitch machine (another sewing machine entirely). Note: my 5-thread serger can sew a coverstitch hem, but getting the special tool out and threading the 5th cone of thread is such a pain, I decided to buy a separate coverstitch machine.
I’ve only discussed a few different stitches because those are the ones I use the most. If you are wondering whether or not you really need a serger, I hope this has helped.
Disclosure: some of my posts contain affiliate links. If you purchase something through one of those links I may receive a small commission, so thank you for supporting SewCanShe when you shop! All of the opinions are my own and I only suggest products that I actually use. 🙂
Just got my first serger just a few weeks ago and I am over the moon about it! I must say that I sew a lot of clothes for my little girl so it is perfect! My favorite part is the rolled hem 🙂
I love the rolled hem too. So glad you are having fun with yours!
I have had my 4 thread serger for about 25 years and I LOVE it!!! I used to sew all mine and my children’s clothes and I used a lot of knit fabrics which I sewed on my sewing machine, in those days (!) you used either a narrow zigzag, or gently stretched the fabric in back and in front while sewing with a straight stitch and then you used a slightly longer zigzag right beside your straight stitch!!!! So every garment was sewn twice!!! LOL!
Now I just whizz them through my serger:) I sew a lot for Charity and my serger is my best friend for finishing edges on flannel receiving blankets–it makes the most perfect size edge for easy turning and then topstitching the edges. I use it for sewing bibs, burp cloths, baby washcloths, etc.
I couldn’t get along without my sewing machine though as I like to turn and finish my work with a topstitch, and sew dresses, pants, shirts, shorts and stuffed animals.
One secret for threading, if you don’t have one that is self-threading, is ALWAYS thread the upper looper, or orangey one FIRST!!! It will work perfectly every time. 🙂
Great tip! Thanks for sharing. 🙂
I have been sewing for over 50 years and have sewn all my own clothing and never needed a serger. I bought one a few years ago and got rid of it. The only exception is with stretchy… very stretchy fabric but with the new sewing machines, they have feet available for practically any use.
I would love to have one. People tell me how great they are but could never afford it because of living on a fixed income. What a Merry, Merry, Christmas this would be for me.
I would love to have a server and need to take a class if I get one.
Thanks for this article. I have been eyeing a serger as lots of people rave about it. But I don’t plan on my making clothes so I think I will just stick to my sewing machine.
A serger to me is a necessity. I sew a lot of knits but also clothing. Anything that frays should be serged first! That’s my motto. That much less headache. I usually will serge all the edges of the clothing and then stitch them together like normal. Another advantage of serging your edges is it gives you an automatic edge to go by. So say 1/4" edge. It will help you iron and turn under hems so much easier by having it as a guideline.
I bought a second hand serger a couple of weeks ago. I thought it would be better to see the usage and need of it with a second hand before investing in a new one. I really like using it, it makes the finishes much more professional and I really gain some time, before I had to zig zag all my borders and now the serger does that properly.
Thanks for the article, I discovered how to do the "coverstich stitch" using a double needle (I didn’t thought of that!).
So happy for you! I use an old second hand serger too. I call it ‘the beast’ but it works so well I don’t think I’ll splurge on a newer one. 🙂
I bought the same class on Craftsy and I agree, it’s great. I have 2 to 4 thread serger and I’m really happy that I now could sew knits easier.
I am looking to buy a smaller sewing machine for my daughter to take with her to college. She is very small, 4’9" and has to have almost everything hemmed! She took sewing lessons years ago and I thought it would be nice for her to have a small machine to hem on, (since we just took a load of clothes to the seamstress for way too much money). Do you think she would need a serger or a regular machine? Any specific machine recommendations would be helpful-
Thank u … U really helped me a lot 💕💕💕 I don’t thing I need a serger now.. If ever I decide to buy .. I will get another basic sewing machine as a back up really.. Thanks again
It gathers dust; for me it was a mistake. I just cannot even begin to learn to use it. 🙁
Thank you for your honest opinion. I was really thinking that I needed a serger. I think about all the clothes my mum made me without any of the gadgets, although fun, that I use today. The clothes my mum made for us were fine and durable. If need be I’ll use my trusty zig zag stitch where needed.
Yes changing threads is a bug bear and I usually go with an off white, but on dark fabric I use black , be great if you could just swap them like a sewing machine..
I finally hauled my serger (never used) out of storage and got it threaded. I have a feeling that I’m another person who should have passed on buying one, but I will try to find a few projects that I can use it on (did my first garment sewing in many years this spring). Thanks for your informative post!
I was going to go out and buy one this morning but after reading this post, I’m going to pass. I can’t see many opportunities where I will use a serger and I’d rather invest in a good embroidery machine.
I love my serger but I made a big investment and bought an air threader so I don’t have any trouble changing threads. If I was just starting out using a serger I would buy a Brother 1034D serger. They are nice and easy to learn to use.
I’ll probably take the plunge and get the Brother 1034DX being sold on Amazon for 220$. So far there are 6,000 reviews, most of them positive, and great instructions and tips in the comments. I want my garments to "look better" on the inside without spending time on French or Hong Kong seams for basic woven garments like sheath dresses, denim jackets, and pencil skirts. I sew knits on my regular machine but am really curious about having a serger for knits. Thanks for the great write-up, your basic intro to sergers is really helpful. This will be my first serger, and I’ll definitely check out the class on Craftsy, I bought the "all-in" deal on Craftsy so I can watch anything for a year. 🙂
I’m a quilter and have always thought I might need a serger. I’ve always thought I’ve lived all these year without one why do I need one. Most of my quilting friends that have them never use them.
What lands in my lap today, from a friend cleaning out her garage, a serger! If I can learn to thread the darn thing I might try it on some projects and see how it goes.
What sort of stitch would you use to join two pieces of stretch fabric together with a sewing machine, when you don’t want the seam to show much? I thought I needed a serger/overlocker for that.
I never knew the value of a serger until I started doing sweater coats- then I fell in LOVE.
I got my first sewing machine when I was 8 years old. All it did was a straight stitch! I had made very simple doll clothes by hand up to that point.
55 years later I have a much more complicated sewing machine and the Brother serger. I sew tops and craft items. I agree that if you don’t sew clothing, you don’t really need a serger. When I sew clothing I hop back and forth between the two machines. I do find that the serger is very useful for making t-shirt quilts, since they are knitted. That baby flies through all those seams. The seams are much sturdier than the ones I used to sew on my sewing machine. I’ve had to repair seams that my son popped from stretching in his quilt, which is tedious to do after a quilt is sewn.
So yes, skip the serger if you don’t sew any clothing!
My first serger came when my son was a baby and I was making little overall suits for him with corduroy. I used it until he was out of the "mama made clothes" stage. When I decided to pursue sewing more elaborate clothes for me, I became so frustrated at "stand on your head" threading for the serger that I started looking for an "air thread" type serger. I decided what I wanted and called and emailed dealers to say that on a given date, I was going to buy a ____ and gave them the model number. I was shocked to find over $1000 difference in the bid prices. I went with a dealer who wasn’t the lowest, but was closer to my home and offered service. I have never regretted the purchase. The machine is great, does all I need, and I forget how easy it is to thread from use to use. I do sew a lot of knits, but have used it for rolled hems for napkins for our dinner group, table cloths, belt loops and baby gifts. If you can afford it and justify the use, go for it!
I have wondered for a long time how to do a better hem on T-shirts. I was never formally taught how to sew, just figured it out as I go, so it hadn’t occurred to me that hems like store-bought clothes have take a whole other machine. From the sound of it, a serger is exactly what I am looking for!