This question popped up in my Twitter feed yesterday (thanks @pansipotter999) and after talking her out of, then into one, I was reminded that I wanted to write a blog post on this subject. I did a lot of searches on this myself last year. So let’s talk about it, now that my wee beastie’s been here for the best part of a year. I sew for a hobby – if you sew for a living you’ll probably have different requirements to me. Kit wise I use a Singer 14SH754 overlocker and a Juki Exceed F300 sewing machine.
First off, an overlocker cannot replace a sewing machine. It cannot do a simple line of straight stitches, it can’t do buttonholes (not even badly) and it has no bobbins. It does, however neaten edges beautifully and can be used for sewing and neatening seams in one quick and noisy operation. The perceived wisdom is that an overlocker is great for sewing stretch fabrics. Well yes, it can be, but you may find, as I did, that the stretch stitches on your normal sewing machine are perfectly up to the job. Equally, many normal sewing machines have an overcast or overlock stitch. I didn’t have a lot of success with the one on mine (i.e. massive clunks and tangles, I’m sure it was operator error but I haven’t been tempted to try again now I have the Singer).
Next up – to get best use of an overlocker you ideally need to have it out, set up and accessible every time you sew. Otherwise you end up like me with your overlocker stashed away under your sewing table always having to lift it up and down depending on which machine the next sewing process requires.
Thread and set up. Before I had the wee beastie I would buy anywhere between 1 and 3 reels of Gutermann per project, wind a bobbin, and off I went. Using the overlocker means that I need to thread it with 3 or 4 threads, in addition to any threads needed on the Juki. I use Coats Moon reels that I order online. I have a set of colours ranging from neutrals through to pinks and blues through to navy and black. Ideally I keep a generic set of colours threaded on the overlocker at all times – they need to be ones that will work with most of my fabrics whilst being subtly different enough that I can tell them apart when troubleshooting. At the moment I’m working on a blue/ivory silk mix dress and have threaded with white, cream and palest pink. The thing that takes the time is threading so choose carefully to save time later.
Setting up. There is no way I can sugar-coat this one – threading an overlocker is definitely an acquired skill and you will need the manual/dvd/tweezers for your machine the first few times. It will take a while to do, as well. I believe there are such things as easy-thread air-assisted machines – they were out of my budget. You have 2 looper threads which go through the innards of the machine, and two needle threads which are straightforward in comparison. My Singer has (mostly) colour-coded thread guides and the only part that causes me trouble is one guide that has to be found by faith and touch, and even that gets easier once you know where it is. You can always thread an overlocker by just cutting the old threads and knotting on the old ones then pulling though. It’s worth learning to do it right though, sometimes re-threading from scratch is the best trouble-shooter there is. Once you’ve learned it’s there for good.
What’s it like to use? It is a gloriously mechanical piece of kit and a massive contrast to my Juki. The Juki purrs, this is whizzing metal and blades in a very Heath Robinson way. The Juki has all the innards tucked away, my Singers innards are fully displayed during threading and troubleshooting. I have found mine reassuringly difficult to break, despite a vast range of user error. I think the only thing that will stop play is overlocking over a pin. Thinking back, I have attempted overlocking with the presser foot up, with the needles not inserted, with all the right looper threads in all the wrong places, partly threaded, one guide missed in the threading…. There was never anything more to fix than a huge tangle. I have used it to neaten many seams on woven cottons and the silk/cotton gingham and to make four circle skirts for carnival out of a shiny Ebay polyester satin. There were several unexpected bonuses with using it for the skirts – neatly finished edges without miles of hemming, the ability to make fishing line hems without risking nylon line getting caught in my Juki and the sheer speed of the thing. I only used my Juki to attach the elastic to the waists, and I think I could have done that with the overlocker too. Oddly, I haven’t made anything stretch yet. It took a while to learn the best stitch to use and I still need to decide if I prefer to work with sharp or ball point needles. Plus, I am smitten with the stretch stitches on my Juki. I will use it for the next stretch project though, which will be a dress for Small Girl. I still sew woven seams on the Juki – I can measure the seam allowance better and it’s easier to unpick a simple straight stitch if anything goes wrong. Unpicking overlocking is interesting.
So, rounding up the cons – you need space, time, persistence and lots of thread. It’s not an intuitive machine to thread, and the time to set up will inevitably claw back much of the time you save in the making, at least in the early days. Mine is quite picky about needles, and John Lewis is the only place I’ve found that stocks the recommended needle. On the plus side though – you get beautifully neatened seams in a lot less time than it takes using any other method and without filling your main machine up with lint. It’s good for sewing knits, though I’ve yet to demonstrate that on a garment scale. It does have many other uses too – rolled hems, flatlocked seams, gathering via a differential feed….. all things I haven’t tried yet. So you probably don’t need one, especially if you have a sewing machine with a decent stretch stitch and overlock stitch. On the other hand, I didn’t pay over the odds for mine (£150 on special offer from Lidl). It’s definitely at the cheaper end of overlockers, but it works and has a guarantee and good phone support so I’m happy with it. I think that if you normally neaten seams, do any kind of “quick & dirty” sewing or work with knits, then an overlocker is definitely worth a try. It’s clearly not an essential (neither is my car, microwave or hair straighteners…) but useful just the same.