Beginners Guide to Overlockers

Beginners Guide to Overlockers

If you're into sewing it's worth finding out what an overlocker is and how it can make your sewing projects more enjoyable. Firstly it can help speed your sewing up and, let's face it, if you have the sewing bug this can only be a good thing since it will allow you to sew more and more projects in the time you have available. Secondly it will help you to achieve a more professional finish to your garments resulting in more of those amazed gasps of wonder from your non sewing buddies as they remark 'I can't believe you made that!' and that just never gets old does it?! Finally there are a whole range of clever tricks you can use an overlocker for other than neatening or finishing seams such as constructing garments in increasingly popular jersey and knit fabrics, creating fancy rolled hems and a whole load of other fancy stitch finishes to name but a few.

Sounds Great, How Does It Work?

In very simple terms the feed dogs move the fabric along whilst the blade cuts the edge of the fabric to create a clean edge and stitches are formed by knitting two, three or four threads together. Metal prongs keep the fabric nice and flat (providing the correct settings have been applied) giving an excellent, professional finish. The primary use is for finishing seams, but as mentioned above there are so many more uses for an overlocker.

In this article we'll talk you through the different parts of an overlocker and the basics of how to use one. In subsequent posts we'll share some of the clever tricks you can complete on an overlocker to take your sewing to the next level.

The Parts Of An Overlocker

The parts of an overlocker will vary depending on the brand and model you choose, but here are the basics.

The Thread Stands

No prizes for guessing - this is where you stand your rolls of thread! The number of threads will vary depending on the machine you choose, but the most widely available and commonly used versions have the option for four threads, which is enough to complete the tasks required by most home sewers. We recommend using good quality, lint free, specialist overlocking thread to provide you with the best stitch results. Cheap threads are available and can be tempting, but can result in fraying, breakage and poor stitch quality. Speciality threads can be used in the loopers for a decorative finish, but can sometimes be too heavy for the needles and you should refer to the manual received with your overlocker for advice specific to your machine. Different effects require you to use different numbers of threads, for example, a rolled hem requires three threads whilst a normal overlocking stitch requires four and you should check your manual for full details.

Overlocker Thread Stand

The Needles

Overlockers have two needles, although you don't always need to use both needles depending on the stitch you require (more on this later).  We recommend using overlocker needles and have a range available with detailed descriptions on which overlockers they are compatible with for quick and easy reference.

Some overlockers such as my Babylock Imagine come with a special tray that sits underneath the machine and catches any needles you may drop and can save a lot of time and stress trying to fish them out!

Overlocker Tray

The Loopers

The loopers create loops that run to the edges of the fabric and contain the raw edges preventing fraying and neatly finishing the edges. There are two loopers to thread.

Tension Settings

Some overlockers will require you to set the tension for the needles and loopers and will have a standard tension setting, which you can use as a starting point, however, you will need to adjust the tension to suit different fabrics. There will be advice in the manual for which settings suit which fabrics, but all fabrics behave differently so you should always test the stitches on scraps of fabric and adjust the tension until you're happy with it. Using a different coloured thread for each needle and each looper will help you to identify which stitches they are creating and therefore which tension needs to be adjusted.

Other overlockers don't require you to set the tension - amazing! My beloved Babylock Imagine is one such machine, but other brands also have machines with this feature, reflected in the price tag. If like me you're short on time and patience this can certainly be a worthwhile investment!

Stitch Width

As with the tension settings there will normally be a suggested standard stitch width setting (the M on my Babylock), but you should have a play around on a scrap of fabric to check which setting is most appropriate for the fabric and task at hand. If you are using two needles the stitch width settings will be adjusted for both as you turn the dial. If you are only using one needle there will usually be one set of numbers on the dial for the left needle and one for the right. On my Babylock the small numbers on the dial indicate the settings for the right needle and the larger numbers the left. This will vary on different machines and, yes, you guessed it - you should refer to your manual for full details.

Overlocker Stitch Width

Stitch Length

Once again there will usually be a suggested standard setting for stitch length and as above you will need to have a play around and test different settings on scraps of the fabric you will be using. Many overlockers will also have a rolled hem option (more on rolled hems in our clever tricks article) as shown in the picture below.

You can also vary the stitch length for a rolled hem, however, for most fabrics you would want to use stitch length 1 if you want a narrow decorative finish known as a satin stitch. This is also where you can introduce specialist or fancy threads such as a Gutermann sulky in the upper and lower loopers and this will also dictate which stitch length is most appropriate.

If you use a thicker thread you will need to use a longer stitch length because the thickness of the thread will leave less of a gap between stitches. If you find your stitches are bunching up the stitch length is probably too short so adjust it and keep experimenting until you are happy.

Overlocker Stitch Length

Stitch Selector

Some overlockers will have a stitch selector, which controls the thread delivery system. On my Babylock there are four settings to choose from depending on the type of stitch you want to use ranging from wide overlock stitches to rolled hems and narrow stitches.

Overlocker Stitch Selector

Knife Control

Most overlockers will give you the option to switch the blade off so that the edges of the fabric are not cut or trimmed as you overlock, for example when stitching on a fold.

Differential Feed

The differential feed is one of the most clever features on an overlocker and will help you to achieve great results and some really fancy finishes if you learn to use it properly.

There are two sets of feed dogs on your overlocker, which move the fabric through the machine. If your differential feed is set at the normal or standard setting (denoted by an N on my Babylock) the feed dogs will move the fabric through at the same speed.

If you adjust the differential feed down the front feed dogs will move more slowly than the back and will stretch the fabric as it works it's way through the machine, perfect for creating special effects such as a lettuce edge (more on this in our next post). Conversely if you move the differential feed up the front feed dogs will move faster than the back and will gather the fabric. This comes in really handy when working with knit and stretch fabrics since it will allow you to achieve a perfectly straight seam once you've got it right. As always test it out on your scraps until you are happy with the result.

Overlocker Differential Feed

Threading An Overlocker

Threading an overlocker is the part that most people don't like! As you can imagine it is a lot more complicated than threading a sewing machine with two needles and four threads to contend with. Many overlockers also have to be threaded in a particular order and it can take a lot of time, practice and bedtime reading of the manual for you to perfect it. Some good tips include writing numbers 1-4 on the top of the overlocker next to where the threads pass through for each needle and looper to denote the order you need to thread in. Also tweezers will be your new best friend and are handy for picking up threads in awkward places your fingers can't reach.

Overlocker Threading

There is one way to avoid all of this though, oh yes it's true! Babylock overlockers can be threaded in any order plus if one of the looper threads breaks you simply replace that thread rather than unthreading everything and starting again as is the case with other overlockers. Threading the loopers is also incredibly easy thanks to the jet air threading system exclusive to Babylock. Check out the video below to see for yourself how easy it is.

Which Overlocker Should I Choose?

Here at Sew Essential we sell a wide range of overlockers from the best manufacturers: Babylock, Husqvarna, Janome, Pfaff, Elna and Brother. We would always recommend choosing a recognised brand rather than a cheap version you might come across in a budget supermarket or high street store - put simply you get what you pay for. When you purchase a recognised brand from a specialist dealer you are not only purchasing the machine, but also the peace of mind you are buying from experts who will be able to offer you before and after sales advice plus it will be easy to purchase any spare parts and accessories you might need.

There are detailed descriptions on our website for each model of overlocker we stock, but if you would like to discuss your needs in detail with an expert please feel free to call us for a friendly chat. We simply love sharing our knowledge and experience to help our customers enhance their sewing experience because we love sewing too. Oh, and overlocking of course!

Have fun sewing!

Lucy & Angela

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