If you’ve been sewing for a little while you’ll probably have come across the word ‘overlocker’. You may be wondering what exactly this machine does and whether you need one. While this nifty machine is not absolutely necessary to have in your sewing arsenal at the beginning, you may find that as your confidence grows, you’d like to achieve a more professional finish on your handmade garments.
If you’re looking to buy your first overlocker and want some advice on what features to look for and how much you should spend, we’ve gathered some useful hints and tips for buying an overlocker below to help.
What is an overlocker?
Also known as a serger in America, an overlocker is a specific type of sewing machine that is predominantly used to finish / neaten the raw edges of your fabric. The machine features a cutting blade which trims and finishes the raw edge of the fabric. The robust stitch that an overlocker creates also helps to prevent the fabric from fraying and in turn, prolongs the life of your clothes.
Many sewists have an overlocker in addition to their regular sewing machine to neaten the seams on their garments and create an overall more professional finish. There are also some fabrics, namely knit fabrics, that can be sewn up almost entirely on an overlocker machine.
There are different types of overlockers with different features but the majority have four spools that are threaded into the machine. Two threads pass through a pair of needles. The three right hand threads finish the raw edge of the fabric. The fourth left hand thread sews a standard straight stitch.
Do you need an overlocker?
It’s important to do a bit of research before buying an overlocker so you can get an idea of the different machines on offer and also which features you’re most likely to need for your projects.
If you’ve just started out on your sewing journey (exciting!) and are getting to grips with the basics of garment construction, it may be prudent to wait a little before investing in an overlocker. You can still finish the raw edges on your regular sewing machine with a zigzag stitch or pinking shears for instance. Plus, most modern sewing machines have an overlocker stitch and foot supplied.
However, if you have recently become increasingly frustrated at not being able to achieve a truly professional finish, despite achieving a great fit, you are probably ready to purchase an overlocker.
How much to spend on an overlocker?
Prices of overlockers can really vary. You can pick up machines for under £300 or splurge on ones in the thousands but it will really depend on the features and stitches you’ll need.
As a general rule of thumb, the more you pay the more features your machine will have. Most modern machines will have easy threading guides and a selection of stitches. Higher-end models are likely to include more intuitive features such automatic thread tension settings as well as extra utility and decorative stitches.
You’ll pay more as the number of threads goes up too, some machines have as many as 8. Most dressmakers will probably find that 4 is more than adequate for their needs. Although, the machines with as many as 8 threads do mean you have many more stitch combinations at your fingertips.
Ask yourself what you’ll need an overlocker for. If it’s occasional use on standard fabrics then you may find an entry-level overlocker perfectly adequate. The Janome 9300DX is a great entry level overlocker packed with useful features.
If you know that you will only be using the overlocker very intermittently, don’t have a lot of space, and really just need to finish your raw edges you can investigate a baby-lock or tiny serger; these are compact machines and can be more affordable in price, but often only have three threads.
Are you planning on starting a sewing business? You might therefore want to consider a machine that is designed for professional daily use rather than focusing on ‘fancy’ electronic features that may stretch your budget.
Features to look out for when buying an overlocker
When you purchase a new overlocker it takes a little patience when threading it up as it can be a little fiddly. Luckily, many machines come with colour coded thread guides and detailed diagrams to help. You can also find helpful video tutorials online to take you through step-by-step.
Higher-end models, such as baby lock machines, features a revolutionary Jet-Air threading system where you literally push a lever and the machine threads itself for you.
There are sneaky ‘tie-on’ methods for easy threading which may save time. You simply snip the current threads on your machine and tie the new threads on to avoid completely rethreading.
Similar to a sewing machine the free arm makes it much easier to work on small areas or sleeves for instance. It’s not essential but highly desirable.
Adjustable Differential Feed
The differential feed is there to help move your fabric through the machine. However, unlike the regular sewing machine, an overlocker features two feed dogs beneath the fabric that work independently. As such, they can be used to achieve different finishes including gathers, wavy, fluted or bunched edges, depending on your fabric type.
New, 4-thread overlockers should include an adjustable differential feed so it’s worth checking this before you buy.
The more control you have over tension the better your results will be. Although, it’s nice when this is all looked after for you automatically. Modern machines often have ‘lay in’ tension so the thread tension is controlled inside rather than on the outside with knobs which you will manually turn. Lay In tension models may still have dials that you need to turn and some overlockers will have fully automatic, self adjusting tension control for a really even stitch on all kinds of fabrics.
As expected, the more automated this is the more expensive. To achieve beautiful rolled hems, perfect for lightweight fabrics and evening wear, you can use tension controls to force the edge of the hem under as the overlocker finishes the edge to create a subtle and neat finish.
There are lots of helpful YouTube tutorials for achieving perfect tension on a basic overlocker.
Extra Feet, Accessories and Freebies
Don’t always be tempted by freebie accessories as these can be purchased later. Focus on the important features. Additional feet are useful and can be used for gathering, blind stitching, shirring, cording, attaching elastic and lots more but these are all available to buy separately.
Our parting advice is to make YouTube your friend, you will find countless tutorials from dressmakers for using your new overlocker.