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 months to get over. And even now when I find using my serger easy, I hate changing the threads and I leave the settings alone 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.
A serger 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.
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.
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. 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.
But what about quilting and other types of sewing?
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? Stick to your trusty sewing machine, my dear.
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. 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.
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 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 coverstitch machine (another beast 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 find it a lot easier to simply hop over to my sewing machine to finish the hem..
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.
Are you are looking for a detailed information on threading, adjusting, and sewing with your serger, and using it to it's fullest capacity? Then let me recommend the first Craftsy course I ever bought...
Beginner Serging with Amy Alan is a kick-butt class. That girl can thread a serger faster than I thread my sewing machine, and she shares all of her tricks. There's lots of free information available online too if you google 'using a serger,' but I still found this class to be invaluable.
So to answer the question 'Do I need a Serger?' my answer is yes, you probably do if you love to sew clothes. But if you mostly sew quilts, tote bags, and other items with enclosed seams, then you probably do not. Do you have an opinion on the 'Do I really need a serger debate'? Do you have one and use it all the time or does it gather dust in the closet? Tell us in the comments!