Whats Different Between an Overlocker and Sewing Machine?

Most people who venture into the world of sewing often don’t know the difference between an overlocker (also called a serger) and a typical sewing machine. The danger of not knowing how to differentiate these two units is that you can end up buying the wrong piece of sewing equipment. Therefore, it’s important to educate yourself lest you make a costly mistake.

If you’re a novice sewer and don’t know much about tools used in the sewing craft, it’s possible to take a cursory glance at a sewing machine and overlocker and not know that these are two machines meant for completely different purposes. After all, both of them share a very similar construction. However, there are a few differences, and this guide will delve into that to help you make an informed choice on which type of machine to buy.

Differences between a Sewing Machine and an Overlocker

Before highlighting the differences between a sewing machine and an overlocker, it’s necessary to define what each of these machines do. Basically, an overlocker is a special type of sewing machine. Sometimes it is called a serger. A typical overlocker is designed to join the edges of one or two pieces of cloth with an overcast/overlock stitch and cut off the seam allowance as it sews. Simply put, a serger can sew, overcast, and trim excess seam allowance all in one pass. The overcast it creates locks around the seam to ensure that fabric edges won’t unravel. While its function is more specialized, an overlocker can really speed things up and produces a neat, professional-looking finish.

Some ordinary sewing machines come with an overlock stitch function that makes it possible to perform hemming and edging tasks. However, the stitch will lack that stretchiness and strength, which you can only get from a multi-thread overlocker. What’s more, an ordinary sewing machine cannot sew, overcast, and trim all in one-step.

That being said, sewing machines have a wider variety of functions that you won’t find in sergers. For instance, these machines generally have more decorative stitch functions plus they come with presser feet and attachments to sew zippers, create buttonholes, quilt and do much more.

Here’s a quick rundown of the differences between an overlocker and sewing machine:

  • As aforementioned, a serger binds fabric layers together and cuts excess seam allowance simultaneously. With an ordinary sewing machine, you would have to cut your project first then sew because there is no built in blade to trim the excess fabric that sits right before the needles.
  • Unlike a sewing machine, an overlocker can use anywhere between three and five cones of thread all at once. The multiple threads are used to create various types of overlock stitches. Basic sewing machines only use one thread, although there are some models with dual needle systems that utilize two threads.
  • Another major difference between typical sewing machines and sergers is speed. The latter units can sew about twice as fast as most home sewing machines. Consequently, an overlocker can produce professional results in about half the time it would take you to complete the same project with a normal sewing machine.
  • In terms of structural differences, an overlocker usually has a telescopic needle bar where multiple threads pass through after leaving the cones. This distinct bar lies horizontally above the neck of an overlocker, and it is visibly lacking in a typical sewing machine. Additionally, sewing machines generally have a shorter neck than that of overlockers.
  • Sewing machines are flexible in that you can turn your fabric and sew either it on the left or right side of the needles. With an overlocker, you can only serge on the left side of the needles.

Now that you know the main differences between a sewing machine and an overlocker, perhaps you’re wondering which of the two units to buy. Well, the truth is that sergers and sewing machines complement each other, and when both are used, you’ll realize that they make an excellent team. There will come times where you’ll really having an overlocker around, and situations where a sewing machine is simply indispensable. Let’s have a look at when you would need either of these machines.

serger v sewingWhen to Use an Overlocker over a Sewing Machine

If you work on numerous garment construction projects, then it’s wise to invest in an overlocker because of the speed factor. You will work more efficiently with a serger than when using an ordinary sewing unit to complete hemming, seaming or edging tasks. To demonstrate just how fast a serger can be, think about what is involved in hemming pants with an ordinary sewing machine.

First, you would have to trim the bottom part with a rotary blade or scissors to remove extra fabric. The next step is to zig zag the bottom to prevent fabric from unraveling. You would then fold over the seam allowance, iron and fold the seam allowance again. Finally, the hem would be sewn with a straight stitch on a dual needle system sewing machine.

On a serger, that same process could be completed in few steps. All you have to do is serge the bottom of the pants, fold over once and overcast the hem.

When to Use a Sewing Machine over an Overlocker

An ordinary sewing machine is simply indispensable if you want to insert zippers, make buttonholes, quilt, topstitch, and create decorative stitches. A serger can perform none of these functions. However, there are some sewing machines that come with the ability to overcast fabric edges. Investing in such machines would be ideal if you cannot afford a serger or there isn’t enough space for an additional sewing unit.

You’ll find that sewing machines which overcast tend to use an additional presser foot attachment that turns them into sergers or they may have this feature built in. It’s important to do your research beforehand because the various models with this function differ in design. Keep in mind that while this may be a cheaper alternative, the overlock produced by a dual needle system sewing machine cannot match that of a serger when it comes to stitch quality.

The Bottom Line

Although the cost of buying an overlocker in addition to owning a standard sewing machine can be prohibitive, having both of these sewing machines is well worth the investment, especially if you do a lot of sewing.