Burying the Thread Chain While Overlocking

If you are using a serger or overlocker to construct or finish your sweater, at some point you’ll need to hide your thread ends. Fortunately there are several ways to deal with this.

First, if you’re doing another seam that intersects your thread chain, just leave the chain alone. It will automatically get cut off and secured as you serge the intersecting seam. Easy!
The knife (adjacent to the presser foot) will trim the intersecting thread chain as it trims the fabric. 

If you’re not intersecting that seam, you can use a needle or mini latch hook and simply pull the threads back through your stitches.
I'm one of those people whose thumb bends backward. Now you know. :-)

When working with an area such as the bottom of a finished edge sleeve cuff as in the pic at the top of this post, you can always resort to the needle or mini latch hook technique.

If you plan ahead, however, you can get a very quick and neat finish at the start of your seam. Here’s how:

  1. Start with a chain of stitches, at least 3 inches long, coming off your serger.
  2. Lift the presser foot up and slip your fabric underneath as usual.
  3. Let it feed through until the needle(s) enters the fabric.
  4. Lift the presser foot and pull the thread chain off the finger (the metal piece that looks like horizontal needles around which the thread chains are formed). Bring the chain around the outside of the foot  (The thread chain is now running towards you.) and in front of the blade.
  5. Lower the presser foot and continue to stitch.
The thread chain will get enclosed in the stitches and the knife will cut the chain off. Congratulations, you have “automatically” buried the chain at the start of your overlocking.

In my previous post I demonstrated how to keep the last inch of your overlock stitch from stretching out your fabric. This method of burying the thread chain before you start a seam can easily be combined with the method I showed in that post.

So how do you “automatically” bury the overlocker thread tail at the end of a seam?

  1. Stitch to the end of your seam, then stitch one or two stitches beyond your fabric. (I sometimes turn the handwheel manually for greater accuracy.)
  2. Pull the thread chain off the fingers. Flip the fabric toward you, so that the top of the fabric is on the bottom now and the bottom is up.
  3. Place fabric under the presser foot alongside the blade, not in front of it. (No need to trim the fabric anymore.)
  4. Stitch about an inch, then angle off the side of the fabric.
You now have an “automatically” buried chain at the end of your stitches. Practice these techniques for fun and efficient overlocking!

Interested in more sweater sewing techniques? Learn about my online course How to Cut and Sew a Sweater, soon to open again for registration.


Serging That Last Inch

In the garment industry, the machine with needles and loopers that sews, trims, and finishes the fabric edge with thread all at once is known as a Merrow machine or overlocker. In the carpet industry, the machine that finishes a carpet edge with threads, needle, and looper is called a serger. Home sewists, based in the US as I'm sure you know, use that term as well. Industrial or domestic, it's an interesting and useful tool.

Where does the name “Merrow machine” come from? It's named after its inventor. According to the Merrow Sewing Machine Company, the first Merrow Crochet Machine was invented in 1868 by Joseph Millard Merrow to finish the top edges of men’s socks knitted at Merrow Mills in Hartford, Connecticut. After a century and a half of developing various sewing machine technologies, the company is now run by the great-grandnephews of the founder. The history is fascinating, and you can read about it here.

Today, of course, there are several manufacturers of machines that do overlock stitching and trimming. We use both Merrow machines and industrial Juki overlockers in the course I teach at FIT. Honestly, I've grown a little too fond of the Juki. From my Instagram feed...

A serger isn’t mandatory for cutting and sewing sweater knit fabrics; there are other methods. Overlocking, however, is very efficient. It trims an edge then immediately stitches the fabric and finishes it with thread looped around the trimmed edge. Three tasks are completed with a single pass through the machine. Some say it’s not the prettiest edge on sweater knits, and they prefer a bound or covered finish on their seam allowances. I use whatever seems to work for the situation. I usually finish the insides of cardigans (where one might see the seams of an opened cardi) with bound or covered seam allowances. (#slowsewing... You won’t see this premium finish on commercially produced ready-to-wear cut and sew sweaters!) Pullovers are usually finished with a neatly overlocked edge.

My Roadmap for Improved Sweater Knit Seams guides you with most of the important tips for getting smooth seams when sewing sweater knits. A student in my How to Cut and Sew a Sweater course, however, encountered another issue that can sometimes come up. She was overlocking the edges of her fabric in preparation for washing it. While she was somewhat pleased because she had finally achieved a neat, non-rippling edge, the last inch or so continued to stretch out of shape.

Student's photo, used with permission

Now this is not a big deal when prepping fabric, but it’s of concern when it happens at the bottom of a side seam, for example! When this type of stretching occurs only at the end of a seam, you know your differential feed settings are probably correct. The major part of the overlocked seam looks good and there's no reason to further reduce the pressure of the presser foot. The trailing stretch happens when the front part of the presser foot is no longer supported by the fabric as you reach the end of the seam. (See pic below.) The front of the presser foot at this point sits directly on the feed dogs, and the back of the foot sometimes grabs onto that last inch of fabric, stretching it out of shape. Because sweater knits usually have a greater crosswise stretch, this situation can appear worse when stitching crosswise, as in my student's example above. I'll be demonstrating with a lengthwise seam, because this problem can be more noticeable at the bottom of a side seam.

The last inch where the front of the presser foot sits directly on the feed dog.

So how do you fix that last bit?

Simple! To get rid of the pulled fabric at the end of the seam, (1) serge up to the last 3 inches or so and serge off to the side of the fabric. Then (2) flip the fabric over and start the seam from the other end. Overlap the stitches and serge off the side edge of the fabric again.

It’s just that easy and keeps that unsightly stretch from happening.

For more tips and techniques on cutting and sewing sweater knits, be sure to join the list. Info on O! Jolly! sweater knit fabric sales, too!


Another Sweater-in-Progress

Even when my progress is in fits and starts, I enjoy the process of revisiting an old technique and adapting it to another fabric. In a recent newsletter I included two links to previous posts about “taming bulky seam allowances” so, I suppose, that topic has been very much on my mind. It's a common issue when working with bulky sweater knits. One thing I always consider is the squish factor. (Not a technical term, my definition of squish factor is the ability of a fabric to be easily squished or flattened.) The squish factor is usually greater with bulky wool than with bulky cotton. A thick, bulky wool is often full of air. It can have the magic power to squish down really well. It will flatten nicely when sewn and stay flattened.

Cotton, however, is heavier. Lovely as a cotton knit is, there’s often a lot more actual fiber there, not just an appearance of loft. Certain cotton knits have what I consider to be a low squish factor. In other words, they don't squish down well. Finishing a seam allowance on fabrics with this much bulk and a low squish factor sometimes requires extra work, which I rediscovered with this project.

I've been working to complete a sweater in luxurious gray Cobblestone sweater knit fabric. The sweater began as a sample for a cut and sew presentation I made in April. For this sweater I decided to enclose the cut neckline with a double neckband. I’ve found that top stitching when enclosing a raw edge is often useful when there are thick layers. Because I enclosed the raw edge (pictured above), I steamed the seam allowance upward. If I had been using a simple binding at the neckline, I would've started without any seam allowance at all and wrapped the binding fabric closely around the neck edge. In this case, however, I’m making a crew neck with a 1.25” band. After sewing the seam, I sewed allowances together with a 3-step zigzag, in order to make the seam allowance flatter. My intention was for the zigzag to keep the seam allowance flat. I then trimmed the seam allowance close to the zigzag stitches. I now believe that grading the seam allowance (trimming the top layer of the seam allowance a little more than the bottom layer) before zigzagging might have been a better way to go. Don't get me wrong; I’m quite happy with the neatness of the neckline, but I know what I'll do next time.

Enclosing the seam allowance isn't necessary, as I demonstrated in my post Sewing a Finished Edge Rib Band to a Sweater Neckline. For that demo I used a relatively narrow, single band. A neatly finished seam allowance would be quite acceptable in that situation.

Here's the beautifully wide, single band treatment that Debbie Iles of Lily Sage & Co used with cornflower blue Cobblestone. Because it's a single band, there's not as much bulk at the seam.

In her blog post Debbie gives us a peek into her process as she develops her final look. Her finished dress pairs the Cobblestone sweater knit with a wonderful woven linen. Since I love discussing process, I really enjoyed following the documented steps Debbie takes in her project. Check it out. Debbie's final dress is gorgeous

Returning to my sweater-in-progress, I've used a band of self fabric for the sleeve finish. It turns out my sleeve seems a little long. I may be reworking it. Not sure yet.

The sweater's almost finished now. I’ll be sure to post pictures when it's done!