Friday, April 8, 2011

Making a Sweater Coat Part 6 Starting to Sew on a Serger

Last summer I got my very first overlock (serger) sewing machine, a Babylock 8-thread, which sews a bazillion different combinations of overlock and cover stitches.  It’s quite a different beast from a regular sewing machine, and I’m still learning how to use it properly.  Fortunately, I have a big box of scraps to practice and experiment.

I’ve learned that the different stitches on a serger essentially give you different ways of finishing a seam or hem of a garment.  On my 8-thread machine, I can pick super wide stitches that are so complicated as to be more decorative than functional.  Alternately, I can pick super skinny rolled hems made with just two threads, which finish the smallest possible edge of a cut piece of fabric.  And of course, there’s several medium choices in between. 

Since I’m thinking of making the seams a design element on the outside of the coat, I start with a 3-thread overlock-narrow hem because I think it should be the strongest of the seams with a very narrow hem.   I run a few samples.  I mess around with the dual feed so the fabric won’t stretch as it passes under the pressure foot.  I click up from Neutral by one click, two clicks, all the way up to 2.0!  The seams are still super stretchy.  Apparently, the dual feed system doesn’t work as well with super thick felted wool sweaters which makes sense if you think about it.  I leave it all the way up and decide not to mess with the dual feed adjustment lever any more. 

My fabrics are super thick, and when they go under the pressure foot, they’re super smashed in there.  With my regular machine, I can adjust the pressure of my presser foot to accommodate thicker fabrics, but not so with an overlock.  An overlock has to smash the fabrics to get them through the cutter.

I make my stitch length super short, just a few clicks above 1.  The close the stitches are, the more the seams want to stretch, and I don’t want rippled seams.  I’m pretty sure the fabrics are too thick for rippled seams to work.

I look at my samples and don’t love the results.  The seams seem spindly, they are not pronounced enough to be a design element.  They also don’t look super sturdy, like I want for a run-around-and-play-in-me coat. See the right side of the photo below.
So I add Metroflock thread into the upper looper to fill in the stitches (left side of photo above).  Metroflock is “fluffy” thread.  It’s the puffy polyfillament thread they use on underwear.  You know, when your underwear starts to fall apart, the thread around the elastic unravels, and it’s that puffy thread. Well puffy thread fills in the space between stitches.  Metroflock is good for making narrow rolled hems look like nice solid lines.  With the Metroflock threaded through one of my loopers, the seam fills in nicely, that is, nicely on one side of the seam.  I need another spool of Metroflock for my other looper if I want both sides to look nice.

I convert my serger to do a 3-thread overlock rolled hem.  The seams are much puffier because the Metroflock is covering more of the seam with the rolled hem than it did with 3-thread overlock-narrow hem. Good to note since these two stitches are almost identical in terms of how the machine is set up, and I don’t have to rethread a single thread or move any needles to move between these two stitches.  With sergers, it’s not usually so easy to switch stitches.

I’m doubting my desire to put the seams on the outside.  On my practice bits, I’m not getting clean consistent results.  See the green and aqua seam on the right above; it’s messy, yet the side without seams looks neat.  I stretched my crazy patch, I pulled really hard on the seams and I poked the corners with my fingernail to see how much the abuse the corners would take.  

I didn’t actually poke a hole, but I gave a corner a good ruffing up, which did manage to permanently ruff up the fabric inside the seam and now it’s wonky.   
Hmm. I don’t want the seams to be the weakest part of this coat.  The fabric is STRONG and I want strong seams.

If I keep the seams on the inside, I can use a wider seam with more threads, which will make the coat more durable.  I’m going to try a wider stitch.  I try the 5-thread safety stitch, which is a combination of a 2-thread chain stitch plus a 3-thread overlock.  It’s the seams that run up most pant legs.  My machine can do this stitch in three widths, the narrowest is 3/8”, and I use that one.   
It’s noticeably much wider than then 3-thread stitches and feels super secure.  Now the seams are bulky, and when I sew over them, I have to push them a bit to get them under the presser foot and through the feed dogs.  I also have to check that the cutting blade catches and cuts when I cross over seams.  If the cutter misses and doesn’t reach up and over the fabric to cut it, and I keep sewing, I will almost certainly jam the machine in a nasty way.  This is very bad:
This is what it looks like after I pulled the fabric back down below the cutter:
I realize that when sewing with thick fabric over seams, I MUST keep my eye on the cutter. Oh, and I still have my dual feed compressing all the way (2.0), and the seams are still plenty stretchy.

I decide to use the wider, secure seams and put them on the inside of the coat.  That means I’ll need a lining.  I figure that I will need at least 2 and 3/8 yards of 60 inch wide fabric for the lining, something stretchy, like cotton lycra knit would be nice.

I don’t have 5 spools of thread that match.  I buy 2 spools of charcoal gray for the chain stitch, and use 3 spools of black for the overlock. With a lining, nobody will see the seams anyways, so it's not that important.

My patches of felt are all cut, and the machine is set up.  I am so close to sewing my real coat patches I can smell it. 

I start with the back panel, arranging all of the pieces on my table into their proper places for one side of the back.
Then I unpair them to make the whole back, but I leave the paper patches there just to keep everything in order.  I try to place everything knit side up (as opposed to purl), but some of the fabrics are so fuzzy and felted I can’t tell the difference.
I sew one side of the back at a time so I don’t accidentally switch pieces.  I pin the patches, right sides together, matching talyor’s tacks and edges.  I sew a patch… ooh, cr@p!  I get a messy seam because I forgot to put down the presser foot.  I have to rip out the messy threads and redo.  I resew the seam correctly and it’s fine.  I pick up and sew one or two seams at a time, leaving my patches of fabric mostly laying flat so I don’t get confused before everything is sew together. 
The skinny lime green patches are tricky and I accidentally catch the seam allowance on one side into the seam on the opposite side (this is easy to do because the patch is skinny.)  So, I cut the stitches and resew to get it right.  Problem solved. I find that turning it upside down, so I could see the problem seam, helped me do it right the second time.  In general, if something doesn’t work well the first time, it’s often useful to flip the work over and try sewing from the other side, which also requires that you start at the other end.  I’m happy I‘m using a wide 5/8” seam allowance because it’s giving me room to fix errors, and I’m making plenty of those.  With such thick fabric, it’s easy for the seam to shift by 1/8” or 1/4” when you use pins. 
I’m figuring some things out about my serger.  (A) If I clip the leading corners to make the leading ends the same shape, it’s easier to feed the fabric into the machine.  Cutting perpendicular to the seam is best, but sometimes I just cut the top edges even, and that works well enough. 
(B) If I pin the top layer a little (1/8” or so) forward of the bottom layer, then this compensates for the shift of the bottom layer moving forward when it gets pulled forward by the feed dogs. (C) I just realized that I should have been pressing my seams as I go.  I have been sewing so much faux fur and other synthetics, I forgot about pressing.  Wool presses wonderfully, so I press the back and vow to press as I go until I finish the coat.

See Part 7 in which I sew together the sleeves and front panels of the coat.


  1. Looks good so far.

    It is enlightening to share your process. I think one of the best things we can do as artists is experiment to figure out what works and use the scissors liberally.

  2. I was taught that the iron is as important as the sewing machine in this process! I think Grandma was right. This is so fun to watch. Great job!

  3. KJ, I'm certainly experimenting and learning a lot as I go, especially when I make errors or don't know what I'm doing.

    Sally, it's going a bit better now that I'm pressing after each seam. Wool responds very well to lots of steam.

    Thank you both for your comments. Just a few more posts left and it'll be done! I think three more might do it.


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