Tips for Buying an Overlocker

Tips and advice for choosing the right overlocker.

What to look for when buying an overlocker

In this post we’ll be looking at the important features that your new overlocker should have.  Don’t spend any money without doing a little research, what seems like a bargain may turn out to be a very frustrating white elephant!

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Brother 1034D – An Entry level Overlocker perfect for beginners

What is an overlocker?

An overlocker is a specific type of sewing machine that finishes the edges of fabric to prevent it from fraying.  If you turn any shop bought t-shirt inside out you will see that the seams have been neatened with an overlocker. In America overlockers are know as sergers.

An overlocker is not necessarily a replacement for a sewing machine. In most cases it’s an additional machine needed for creating a professional finish but on the right garments and fabrics you can sew at least 80% of the construction on one of these machines.

The majority of overlockers have four spools that are threaded into the machine, with two threads passing 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 so if you wish to join two pieces of fabric together a robust seam will be created with the raw edges finished and bound together – Perfect for sewing jersey projects.


Three spool models feature a single needle and will finish a raw edge of a fabric but will not create a secure seam.

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Showing various seams and edges that can be achieved with an overlocker – image credit

Do you need an overlocker?

Before you start researching which overlocker to invest in, it’s prudent to make an honest assessment of whether you are ready for this (very exciting looking) new sewing machine.   

 

If you are still at the stage where you have yet to try, or you often struggle with basic garment construction and pattern reading you may not be ready.  

 

Whilst an overlocker will add a professional finish to your garments, it is not a magical machine!  You need to learn basic sewing and garment construction techniques to achieve a professional finish.  

 

Most modern sewing machines have an overlocker stitch and foot supplied.  Many patterns suggest pinking shears or zig zag stitch if you don’t have an overlocker but it’s worth having a look to see if your machine has this stitch and sewing machine foot included.  Gretchen Hirsch  has a post which explains exactly how the overlocker stitch on a sewing machine works.  

 

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.


Love Sewing Editor Amy describes how having an overlocker has taken her dressmaking to the next level.

“Having an overlocker in my sewing arsenal, has made my garments last longer, look more professional and I can sew robust jersey projects with absolute ease. I absolutely recommend a four thread overlocker; although the cost is slightly higher, you get access to many more settings such as rolled hems and the ability to make ruffles easily.”   Amy Thomas Editor of Love Sewing

 

Amy has a great post looking at the pros and cons of upgrading to a full size overlocker from her Singer Tiny Serger.

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You can achieve a really professional finish to your dressmaking with an overlocker.

 

How much to spend on an Overlocker?

 

You can pick up an overlocker new for less than £200, however the old adage is true, you get what you pay for, so do look carefully at the features you may be missing out on before grabbing what looks like a bargain.

What do you need your overlocker for? If it’s occasional use and standard fabrics then you may find an entry-level overlocker perfectly adequate.  Are you planning on starting a sewing business, you might want to consider a machine that is designed for professional daily use rather than focusing on ‘fancy’ electronic features that may stretch your budget. 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.

The more you pay the more features your machine will have; for example, all will have easy threading guides, mid-range machine will feature cutting blades to trim the raw edge before stitching and computerised settings for tension in various stitch settings, and higher end models will include a built in coverstitch hem. Professional models are manufactured for use every day, so they will be solidly constructed and should last a lifetime for a dressmaker’s personal use.

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 more options as you become more proficient.

You won’t find that many new 3 thread overlockers as the price has come down and most 4 thread overlockers can be used as 3 (or sometimes 2 thread in more expensive models) as it’s not always necessary to use all 4 threads.  

 

Buying 2nd Hand

A second hand overlocker may seem like a bargain but you need to be sure that it is in good working order and that you can find the manual for threading it.  It would best to pay a little more and buy a reconditioned machine from a sewing machine specialist rather than take a chance on auction sites. It’s very easy for the timing to get thrown out if a machine is badly treated. An overlocker needs to work perfectly in sync to ensure the 3 or 4 threads are stitched together correctly to create a strong chain stitch.

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The Janome 9300DX is a  great entry level overlocker packed with useful features.

Features to look out for in your new Overlocker

Threading System

How easy is it to thread?   It takes time and a little patience to thread an Overlocker, you are going to have to learn how and many will have video tutorials and detailed diagrams to help you. Some models will say they have easy to thread systems, however it doesn’t usually mean you just sit back and let it thread itself.

You will pay more for models with ‘Jet Air’ stream threading systems that literally blow the threads where they need to go.  

There are sneaky ‘tie-on’ methods for easy threading which may save time. You simply snip the threads and tie the new threads on to avoid completely rethreading.  

If buying second hand you might be able to download the manual to help you with threading, check to see it’s available before you buy!

Free Arm

The free arm allows you to work on tubes and small areas like cuffs and collars more easily – especially important if you intend making kids clothing.  It’s not essential but highly desirable.

Adjustable Differential Feed

A brand new full size (4-thread) overlocker should definitely have an adjustable differential feed, be sure to check on second hand models.  Basically this means the two feed dogs beneath the fabric work independently.  They can be adjusted to avoid or achieve wavy, fluted or bunched edges depending on your fabric type. Or alternatively you can intentionally play with the feed to create gathering or ruffles with neatly finished edges all in one action. We wouldn’t buy an overlocker without an adjustable differential feed!

Tension Control

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 eveningwear, 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 you tube tutorials for achieving perfect tension on a basic overlocker.

Extra Feet, Accessories and Freebies

Don’t be tempted by gimmicky 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 later.


Our parting advice is to make You Tube your friend, you will find countless hands on tutorials from amateur and expert dressmakers for using your new overlocker.  Nothing is impossible you just need a good understanding of fabric, a great deal of practise and lots of coffee and patience.

Do let us know what type of overlocker you have and how you find sewing with it. Post any questions you have on models you have your eye on on our Facebook page.

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