This is a question I am asked a lot by students. Sometimes even by students who have only just started sewing!
What is an overlocker?
If you don’t even know what an overlocker is, it’s a separate machine that sews with 3, 4 or 5 threads to join seams, neaten edges and cut off the excess fabric all in one go. It’s the neat professional looking finish you find inside ready made clothing. They’re sometimes referred to in American sewing patterns and books as “sergers”, I confess, I’ve no idea why!
An overlocker is a very versatile machine; as well as neatening edges, the construction of the stitch gives it stretch (useful when sewing knit fabrics like jersey), they’re very good at attaching elastic neatly and you can achieve a variety of “fancy edges” or hems. They can look quite daunting if you haven’t used one before and threading and balancing the tensions of each of the threads can be time consuming at the beginning. Here’s my lovely beast:
Questions to ask yourself before you rush out shopping…..!
So, if you’re thinking about an overlocker, my advice is to start by asking yourself a few questions:
- Why do you want an overlocker? Do you do lots of sewing or are you sewing lots of stretchy knitted fabrics? If you’re starting to do lots of sewing and have a dedicated sewing area set up, an overlocker might be helpful – they’re quick and give a neat professional finish. However, don’t assume that you can only sew stretch knit fabrics with an overlocker (see more about sewing knit fabric on your sewing machine here) – you can do a lot with a domestic sewing machine with the use of a ball point needle and a few “stretch” stitches like these on your machine (the ones on the right in orange),:
- Are you a confident sewer? Be honest! You don’t want to be making mistakes with an overlocker; the stitches can take an age to unpick and remember it cuts off the edge at the same time as sewing….no going back once something’s been cut off!
- Do you have at least £250+ to spend? This is the minimum you will need to spend to get a good quality overlocker from a reputable brand. Buying a cheap overlocker from somewhere like a supermarket will instantly put you off using one, I guarantee.
- Do you have the time and patience to invest in learning to use it? Remember, each thread has to be threaded individually and each thread has its own tension control – you have to balance the tensions across all the threads to get a nice stitch which is likely to change for each fabric you use.
If you’re still thinking about investing, the next questions will be; which brand to buy and where to buy?
Which brand of overlocker?
I’ve used a few overlockers, in my experience brands making the best ones are: Juki, Frister Rossmann, Husqvarna, Elna and Babylock. My first overlocker which lasted 20 years was an Elna and my current one is a Juki, who purrs! Babylock have the reputation as making some of the better overlockers, however, when I went shopping for my new overlocker I found it difficult to find a Babylock that had a straightforward manual threading system (vital, see why later!)
Where to buy an overlocker?
Where to buy an overlocker can be more tricky as they’re not sold in as many places as sewing machines and it’s very difficult to find a retailer which offers much choice; often they just have the one overlocker alongside a whole range of different sewing machines. Don’t buy it, you need to use a few first to see which you like best. You wouldn’t buy a car given a choice of one would you?! Go to a specialist retailer, ok you might have to travel a bit further, but if you want to buy an overlocker and enjoy using it, it will be worth the trip and you will always be able to go back to them for help. Not so with supermarket and online purchases.
Locally in Brighton I found the choices limited (but remember I do a lot of sewing and am not a beginner) and chose to have a day out at World of Sewing (I love that name!) in Tunbridge Wells. They had 8 different brands and several models all available to play with. The staff in there are very knowledgeable (they seemed to be sewing machine engineers that had worked in industry) and despite spending a long time in there using several machines I felt under no pressure to buy.
So, what to look for in an overlocker?
- Vital is a clearly labeled manual threading system, personally I would avoid fancy threading systems using things like hydraulic jets of air to “make threading easier” I think that’s just more to go wrong(!)
- a free arm for sleeves, and narrow tubes
- a nice smooth sound when being used
- and last but not least it MUST have a differential feed so you will be able to sew a wide variety of fabrics successfully.
There you go – that’s as much advice as I can give, now it’s up to you. Good luck, happy shopping and happy overlocking!!
ADDED 7/7/13 – if you end up deciding not to buy an overlocker, try and get an overcasting or overlock foot for your sewing machine to get a neater finish on seam allowances. See my post about them here: http://miyworkshop.co.uk/2013/07/07/neat-seams-your-secret-weapon/
Thank you very clear article.
Hi Wendy, I know it’s several years since you posted this but I’m wondering about some names not on your list of makers. I too have a Juki overlocker which is fab but my first was a Brother for reasons of price. The build quality is certainly cheaper and it’s noisier but it was also very beginner-friendly, easy to thread, reliable and produced great results on tricky ballroom fabrics. I’ve now added a Bernina coverstitch (made by Juki) which is just lovely and not at all temperamental unlike the other models I researched. Brother overlockers are well worth consideration for beginners on a budget and I’d say much better in comparison to their budget range sewing machines.
Thanks for your comment Marnie and som really useful additions! I’ve never used a Brother overlocker, hence why I didn’t include them and I would have been very influenced by the poor quality of their cheaper end sewing machines, so it’s good to know their overlockers are better quality! I’ve also got a Bernina coverstitch machine now, dreamy!!
I bought my sewing machine from World of sewing branch at Pratts Bottom. They give really good service and like you found, I was able to try the machines with no pressure to buy. Also when I had a problem with my new machine, this was sorted out quickly and without fuss. Would definitely recommend this shop.
Glad to hear you also had a good experience Debbie! Hope you keep your overlocker busy.
I am hoping you can help me?
I am rather short so therefore often need trousers, dresses and skirts taking up. I am pretty useless with a needle and thread so am thinking about getting an overlocker as it is rather expensive to take them to the dry cleaners. I used a sewing machine many years ago. I need advice……please .
thanking you in anticipation
Hi Julia, if you want to start shortening your clothes yourself by machine rather than using a needle and thread you don’t have to get an overlocker. Sure an overlocker will give you a really neat edge around the bottom of the garment once you’ve cut off the excess fabric, but it sounds like you haven’t used a sewing machine for a long time, in which case an overlocker might not be for you as they’re quite different to sewing machines. I recommend getting a decent sewing machine (which is easy to get for the price of the cheapest good quality overlocker) – have a read of my guide to which sewing machine to buy here: https://wendyward.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/which-sewing-machine-should-i-buy/ and get an overcasting or overlock foot to neaten the edges of your fabric (find out more here: https://wendyward.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/neat-seams-your-secret-weapon/).
Hope that helps!
Thank you for your reply I will be taking your advice, you have been very helpful
Glad to hear it Julia, you’re very welcome :o)
Hello Wendy. I am wanting to get an overlocker. I have used one before but before i spend lot i want to get a cheaper one to see how much I’m going to use it. I love my sewing machine and love sewing and I’m hoping to start making more clothes for my little ones, among other things. Is there a cheaper brand overlocker i can go for for my first one? Thank you.
Hi Naomi, in my experience you really do get what you pay for with overlockers (and sewing machines!). A cheap overlocker will put you off overlockers for life I guarantee. If you’re looking to spend a bit less I’d look for one of the reputable brands I mention in my post on places like Ebay, Gumtree or Friday Ads. You might get lucky and find someone selling one that they bought in haste and then left in the box and pick up a bargain!! I managed to find one of my Juki overlockers that way. Good luck, I hope you find one. Wendy
Hi Wendy. Thank you. Ive decided to go for a new machine that has an overlocking stitch on, its a frister-rossmann. Thanks for your help. Naomi
Hi Naomi, sounds like a good compromise. There’s not much worse than a rubbish overlocker for making you hate your sewing…..! I hope you and your new machine will be good friends and you’ll be keeping it busy ;o) Wendy
I have had zero issues with the air threading for my Babylock overlocker, and had immense issues with the manual threading of my Viking before it. I knew quite well how to thread the machine, but sometimes I had to thread and rethread multiple times to get the tension right on all threads. I think a good manual system can work well, for sure, but I am sad to see you reject air threading out of hand without more evidence than “more to go wrong.” I use mine heavily and never have a problem.
Thanks for your comment Rebecca and I’m pleased to hear you’re having a good time with the air threading on your Babylock!
As with most things in life, everything on my blog is my opinion which people are welcome to agree or disagree with (which is good as it encourages healthy discussion like this!) and may have had completely different experiences themselves. After 24 years of using overlockers and having owned 3, this is simply the conclusion I’ve arrived at. I haven’t rejected air threading “out of hand” I had an enjoyable afternoon at World of Sewing in Tunbridge Wells when I was in the market for a new overlocker and spent much of that time chatting with their super knowledgeable staff (most of whom are ex factory technicians) and playing around with an air threading overlocker. I did like how quickly it threaded when it worked…. :o( even the display model didn’t work every time so inevitably this put me off!! I’m super happy with the manual Juki MO644D I chose and have since invested in the next model up too which is another manual machine.
Maybe I was just unlucky in having a go on a “Friday afternoon” model that afternoon and you had a “Friday afternoon Viking?! Anyway, the good thing is we’re both working on machines we love, let’s hope they give us plenty of years of good service.
Great blog by the way.