Saturday, March 8, 2014

So, How's It Going with that Serger?

It's taken me quite a while to get up the nerve to write about my not-so-new-anymore serger. The thing is that the machine is still rawther scary. Here's why: it's incredibly fast and mistakes are difficult if not impossible to fix. I feel like I'm riding a very excited race horse who doesn't respond well to my commands. It has a tendency to throw me off.

BUT, when I do get a particular part of it nailed down, it does wonders. Because it's fast, things get sewn much more quickly. Because it's a serger, it makes super duper strong seams. Because it's a serger, it cuts the fabric in a nice straight line for me, as long as I can put it through evenly while the thing is roaring to the finish line. And because it's a serger, it can do several things my conventional sewing machine just can't.

So let's look at the thing.

Here it is with all the doors open.
OK, so first off, here are some major differences between a serger and a conventional sewing machine. 1. A serger has multiple threads. Mine can be using as many as 4 at a time. 2. A serger has a knife which cuts the fabric as it enters the sewing area. Right in the top middle of this picture is a flat metal piece pointing downwards with a black screw at the top of it. That is the upper blade. You can't see the lower one in this top photo. the two together work like scissors. In the bottom photo you can see the top blade pointing down in the top left side of the picture, and the bottom blade, also a long flat metal piece and covered with lint, is on the far bottom left of the photo, pointing to about one o'clock.

Don't be concerned about the dust!  Because it cuts the fabric it gets linty immediately.
I clean it after every couple of projects, but it's never perfect.
Yes, the machine actually cuts the fabric before it sews it. There are lots of 1/4 inch or so wide strips of fabric in my trash can. This is one reason why mistakes are so dangerous. You can't go back and glue the cut fabric back on. If you swerve very slightly or stop paying attention for a fraction of a second or look at another part of the machine while feeding the fabric, you will make it cut the wrong width off and you will end up with wonky bits instead of nice straight lines. The fact that it isn't easy to make the machine go at a leisurely pace means you really, really, have to pay attention. And by "you" I mean "me."

So, next up. Those threads. In the picture above you can see all four of them, actually, looking at points like they're all tangled up. They are not. Two of the threads make straight stitches with needles just like a sewing machine. Two of them are called "loopers" because they loop around the fabric on that cut edge the machine makes to secure the fabric and prevent fraying.

Each thread follows a special path and must be inserted in a special order. You can see that my machine has colored dots to tell you where to put each thread. Some machines actually thread themselves for you with different technologies. I didn't buy one of those because a) they cost twice as much, and b) I was pretty sure I could figure out the threading myself and wasn't going to be changing threads too often, and c) my experience with my conventional sewing machine led me to want a solid, "just bloody sew gosh darn it" (yes, in real life I use other words when annoyed at my sewing machine) serger, not a serger with gimmicks. This does mean that when I need to thread the machine I must locate my reading glasses and the tweezers and the directions and get to work. The tweezers actually come with the machine. The glasses don't, though. It only takes five minutes but I am not adept at it yet. I should probably also avoid caffeine so my hands don't shake. :) The hardest part for me is threading the two needles. They are right next to each other and it's just hard to reach in back to pull the thread through.

Now, below is a photo of a lovely four-thread seam--or two of them, actually. These are going to be snack sacks. On the piece with the nylon on top you can easily see that there are two sets of straight stitches running parallel to the edge of the fabric. That is the edge that was cut with the knife. Then there are these loopy threads that curve over the edge and get sewn down by the straight stitches. Those are the loopers. In the photo with the colored dots above the two threads you see are the two loopers. 

This is what makes serger seams so strong--there are several threads going both along and over the edge of a seam. If you have a look at a tee shirt or the cuff of some pants you will see two sets of stitches running parallel to the edge of the garment and then, if you turn it over and look inside, you'll see those loops running between the two straight stitches. That is the same idea, though my machine can't actually make those kinds of seams (you need what's called an "coverstitcher" which requires at least five threads.) You don't have to sew with four threads all the time. You can sew with three of them--one needle and two loopers--or even just two of them. In the photo below you can see a "rolled hem" seam, made with three threads. See how completely different it looks from the seams above?

To make this seam I've adjusted three things, in addition to taking out one of the needles. First, I enabled the fabric to roll a teeny weeny bit onto itself after it is cut and before it is sewn. There is a sliding knob that allows that. Second, I turned another knob to adjust how wide the stitch would be. Third, I adjusted what is called the tension of the threads. In the first photo of this post you can see four knobs with numbers on them. Those adjust how tightly each thread is held by the machine as the fabric goes through it. If I tighten one of the loopers way up, the loop will loop all the way on one side of the fabric, securing that teeny folded edge in place. See how the edge of the green napkin above is rolled to the back side of the fabric? The whole effect, on these napkins anyway, is something very neat and once again very strong. You can't do either of the seams I've shown here with a regular machine, though of course a serger can't do everything a regular machine can either. For many projects I use both machines at different points. 

For instance, a seger is great with knits--those are the fabrics that make teeshirts and and other stretchy or somewhat stretchy clothes. I made HG a pair leggings in no time at all with the serger, whereas when I used to make them with my sewing machine they took longer and the seams were never really strong enough--they kept splitting since the stitches are not well designed for stretching with the fabric. At least not for the amount of stretching HG does with her clothes. When I made these leggings I serged the seams but I made the waistband casing for the elastic with the regular machine. It is possible to do that with the serger but I don't know how yet.

You are looking at the front of the leggings, inside out.
The main thing I'm struggling with now, if you haven't already figured it out, is the speed this thing has. The foot pedal, which works like your car accelerator to make the machine go, just doesn't really do slow, at least I have a very hard time getting it to go slowly. I have taken to working in my socks so I can feel better what I'm doing, but I'm still bad at making curves. I can do straight lines very well now, but my curves are not ready for prime time. I was hoping to be able to toss out a whole lot of snack sacks for my shop, but the tops of those are one nice big curve, and the first time I tried it I completely ruined it 'cause I thought it would be easy, so I need a lot more practice. I should have taken a photo of the ruined snack sack before I threw it out. It was pretty awful. You would have laughed. I did not.

So that's the basics, and it was still a long post. I'd love to hear from you about anything else you'd like to know about the serger. If you ask, I will write it! 


  1. Thank you for this post. I was gifted a serger and the scary contraption sits in a corner staring at me. Your post has given me the curiosity to take off its cover and give it a look for a short distance. Heck, I might even touch it.

  2. My experience so far is that just touching it does minimal damage to you or the machine. But actually using it takes real gusto! Seriously, though, the issue for me is that it seems to take quite a while to learn to do anything with it. If you're up for the time and have good frustration tolerance, go for it!

  3. I think this post convinced me not to buy a serger ever. I don't think my nerves could stand it!

    1. Skye, two months later it is much less scary. I can even get it to go at the speeds I want. I've made a bunch of things with it that I am very happy with! It has taken me patience and persistence but I feel like I know the machine much better now. Maybe I should write another update....