Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Perfecting Serger/Overlocker Tension

We are ready for week 2 in our Relationship Rescue: You and Your Serger Series. Now that we have our machines all threaded, we get to do some actual serging today!




Why is tension adjustment important? A balanced stitch doesn't just look better, but it actually makes for a stronger seam. Once you get your tension right you won't have to reinforce a serged seam with the sewing machine.

So grab a scrap of mid-weight fabric (like quilting cotton), click the link below and I'll meet you by your machine!






This tutorial covers tension adjustments for the 3 or 4 thread overlock stitch.
Just as a reference, here is a picture with the serger's tension dials labeled. The serger I'm using is the Brother 1034D. The higher the number, the harder the tension disks will squeeze the thread and and the tighter the thread will be.
Labled Serger Tension Disks


I've threaded the machine with 4 different colors of thread:

Left Needle: Green
Right Needle: Red
Upper Looper: Black
Lower Looper: Sky Blue

Just like with our sewing machines, it's best to adjust tension using a similar weight fabric to our project fabric. This is a scrap of quilting cotton that I sent through the machine right side (pretty side) up.

If you are starting from scratch, start by setting all the tension dials at 4. 

Balanced Stitch

First, lets look at what we want. A balanced stitch is one where the looper threads (the black and blue threads in the picture) meet right at the edge of fabric and the needle threads do not pucker or gape.

Balanced Serger Tension




Needles
 
For 4 thread stitching you will need to adjust both needle thread tensions; in 3 thread stitching there is only one needle thread tension to adjust.
 
Tight Needle Tension: 

If the needle tension is too tight, the fabric will start to pucker and ripple. This is great for ruffles, but not for regular serging. If you see this, loosen the needle tension until the fabric doesn't bunch up.


Serger Needle Tension too tight

Loose Needle Tension:

If the needle tension is too loose, there will be loops on the back of the fabric.

Serger Needle Tension too loose

If you see this, tighten the needle thread tensions until the needle thread just barely shows on the wrong side of the fabric.

Loopers

The loopers are a bit tricky since they effect each other. If the looper threads aren't meeting at the very edge of the fabric, take note of which thread is being pulled to the incorrect side.

Remember-- the upper looper thread should be on top of the fabric, and the lower looper should be on the bottom of the fabric. 


If the upper looper thread is being pulled to the bottom of the fabric...

In these pictures, the black thread is being pulled to the bottom (wrong side of the fabric). The upper looper tension could be too loose or the lower looper tension could be too tight. Here you have to make a judgment call about which to adjust first.

Try looking at the thread-- in this picture the threads look pulled tight, so I would loosen the lower looper tension.

Serger Lower looper tension too tight

In this picture the threads look loose and gappy, so I'd tighten the upper looper tension.

Serger upper looper tension too loose
 


If the lower looper thread is being pulled to the top of the fabric... 

In this picture, the blue thread has been pulled to the top (right side) of the fabric. This means the upper looper tension could be too tight or the lower looper tension could be too loose.


Again, if the threads look loose and gappy, tighten the lower looper tension. If the threads look pulled taut loosen the upper looper tension.


Tricks and Tips:

1) If you aren't sure what's wrong, start by adjusting the needle tensions, and then work on the looper tensions.

2) Try using a slightly different color thread in one of your loopers so you can easily tell which looper thread is misbehaving. For example, 90% of the time I use cream colored thread in my needles and upper looper, and white in my lower looper. I can tell the difference when I'm trying to adjust the tension, but it's not noticeable on my finished project.

3) You can use the same scrap of fabric over and over when you are adjusting--simply position the fabric so the serger trims off the old serging.
 

Once you've figured out the settings for a balanced stitch you should just need to make minor adjustments to accommodate different types/thicknesses of fabric. For the most part I keep the 1034D's tension setting on all '4's' unless I'm sewing something very thick or stretchy.

If you have any questions or tips of your own, leave a comment below or use the contact form on the menu above. I'd love to hear from you!

Hope to see you back here next week for the next  serger 'Relationship Rescue' post!

72 comments:

  1. Cool! Ive also experienced this kind of problem when i first bought my serger. This is a very well illustrated tutorial. Very useful to all those beginners out there. One thing that i can also share is that, dont be intimidated by your serger. Play around n have fun while doing it. :)

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  2. Fiza, thank you for the comment! What a wonderful sentiment-- you are right, we should all remember to have fun experimenting with our sergers! (And sewing machines, for that matter!)

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  3. When practicing with your serger's tension, if you thread the serger with the same color of thread as the color of the dial/pathway (use pink thread if the dial is pink, etc.), it's easy to know which thread is controlled by which dial...no color translation is necessary.

    Excellent tutorial, BTW!

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    1. Anonymous, that is a great tip-- It's easy to get the threads mixed up; especially when you first start working with a serger.

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  4. Thank you, a good tutorial. Now it's just getting to grips with threading the dreaded lower looper!

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  5. I have a question. I the tension tighter the higher the number?

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    1. Yes, that is correct! Just like a regular sewing machine; 0 is very loose, 9 is very tight. I hope that helps!

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  6. This is very useful - thanks! I will try this before my upcoming project (orange knit dress :-)).

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    1. Keren, you are welcome! An orange knit dress sounds divine!

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  7. Thanks a lot, i'd experienced a lot of trouble with those loopers not realising which was to be on top of the other, and gave up. Now, thanks to your brilliant easy to follow tutorial I know how.

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  8. Question for you...we have the same serger, for quilting cotton what do you set your tensions at?

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    1. Melody, I always start with a setting of 4 on all threads for a balanced stitch and tweak from there.

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  9. I seriously hope this helps me tomorrow. I got a serger for Christmas last year and messed with it for about a day and LOVED it, then I changed out the thread and had another frustrating day. I finally got everything worked out again and fell in love once more. I just changed it out again and am ready to SHOOT the horrible thing! All the tensions look too loose no matter how tight I make the tension or how many times I rethread from scratch. I am going to start over again tomorrow with this in front of me. :)

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    1. Arielle, I hope this helps you too! What kind of serger do you have? If the tensions look loose no matter what you do -- try double checking that the thread is for *sure* in the tension disks, and also check that your stitch finger is engaged. I hope this helps (for your serger's sake!).

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  10. I seriously hope this helps me tomorrow. I got a serger for Christmas last year and messed with it for about a day and LOVED it, then I changed out the thread and had another frustrating day. I finally got everything worked out again and fell in love once more. I just changed it out again and am ready to SHOOT the horrible thing! All the tensions look too loose no matter how tight I make the tension or how many times I rethread from scratch. I am going to start over again tomorrow with this in front of me. :)

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  11. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!!! not only have I needed this explained desperately for years now, you are using my EXACT same serger! THANK YOU!!!! LIFESAVER

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  12. How exactly do you adjust the needle tension on a serger? Your post was super helpful in figuring out that my issue is actually needle tension, not thread tension...but I went to adjust the needle tension and realized that I have no idea how to do it and the book that came with it is long gone! Any insight on how to do this would be greatly appreciated!

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    1. Renee,

      I'm just now seeing this. When I say needle tension, I mean the tension of the needle threads. On my machine, these are adjusted using the the same mechanism as the serger looper threads. I hope this helps!

      Palak

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  13. I just found your series on Pinterest - thank you so much!!! I just got a serger this weekend and am totally overwhelmed already. Your series is sooooo helpful! I didn't know you could do ruffles on a serger - I think my whole life is about to improve. :) Anyway, thank you!!!

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  14. Fantastic, thankyou... has helped incredibily with the issues i have been having.

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    1. So glad to see this was a help to you!

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  15. Thank-you so much!!! I have been so frustrated with my serger. So off to see if I can get it back to working correctly:)

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  16. hi just got a serger necchi 150 .
    is the upper looper suppose to meet left needle

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  17. got a necchi 150.i was tinkering with it and now
    i don't know the settings for the looper distance and have made a mistake in that have moved lower looper shaft,both loopers .
    please help

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    1. Anonymous! I wish I could help you-- it is tempting to tinker with our machines, but I try to stay clear of the timing. I'm not familiar with that machine, but I would check out this link on adjusting serger timing:

      http://bangerlm.blogspot.com/2007/01/do-it-yourself-serger-repair-how-to.html

      It looks like it could be just what you need.

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  18. Oh thank you so much! I just got my serger and last night I experimented with different stiches and settings and although it was fun, towards the end I did get a little frustrated because it was getting late and I coudn't concentrate anymore but I hadn't really gotten anywhere. Now it all seems much clearer. When I get back on my serger tonight I'll know exactly what to look for and how to fix it. Hopefully I'll be able to tackle my first Serger project.

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  19. My lower looper thread is always loose and loopy. Every time I try to tinker with it, it begins to break. I've threaded it again and again (in the right order) but it keeps knotting up and snapping. Any ideas? According to google this is a fairly common problem, but I've yet to find a good solution.... I have a Janome 3434D if that helps.

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  20. My lower looper tension must be off, even after rethreading a thousand times (in the right order even) the thread knots up and snaps. I have a Janome 3434D if that helps.

    Its gotten to the point where I LOATHE my serger, even though I used to love using it.

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    1. Rebecca, I also have the same problem with only the lower looper, my machine is a Pfaff. I have found one bit of advice which seems to help, but it's not a long term solution--that is increasing the tension of the thread at the input point of the thread--before it goes into the threading disks. Not sure if this makes sense, but I've actually held the thread with a finger against the machine before it goes through its first entry point to give it more resistance, before it goes into tension disk. I've actually serged with one finger there. It really helps--but frustrating that I have to do that.

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    2. Did you ever figure out what was wrong? I'm having the exact same problem now, and this is my livelihood that's at stake...

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  21. I've saved this to my desktop. Thank you for sharing it with the sewing world. I have read and re read the manual and Brother couldn't explain it as well and clear as you did! I'm about to sew dance wear and this will make my experience headache free ;o)

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  22. I thought I commented, but it disappeared. If it's on here twice just delete one. :) Thanks so much for this tutorial. I've been fighting with my serger for a week! After looking at your pictures I was able to tweak my settings, and I fixed that serger. I am a happy mama. Thanks!!

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  23. My right needle thread leaves loops about every 2 inches. I used the colored thread and spent hours trying to get it right. Any suggestions?

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  24. Wow after all I have read, I finally understand what is the upper looper and the lower looper! Thank you for this great illustration!

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  25. THANK YOU!!!! This is exactly what I needed. For some reason I never "got" any of the other instructions I've read. :)

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  26. What number iis the tension be set at on my serger?

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  27. I just got my serger (the same one as you) and am trying to make a swaddle blanket out of jersey. From what I can tell everything is threaded correctly, so I'm assuming my problems are coming with the tension. For some reason the loopers aren't meeting anywhere near the edge of the fabric - they're meeting far to the right of the fabric. I've tried adjusting all of the tensions at one time or another, but the thread just ends up breaking! I'm getting so frustrated and I'm not sure what to do! Do you have any suggestions?

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    1. I'm not going to be that helpful to you, but I've noticed that when I serge using a knit fabric that it's a whole other game to try and master. I'm trying to figure it out myself. Have you learned anything since you made the above comment?

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    2. I serge with solely stretch knit fabrics, there are many factors that have to be taken into account when using such materials. Try adjusting your stitch length as well as the tension on the needles that pierce the fabric, too tight and the fabric will bunch, too loose and you get no stitch. Sometimes my serger won't stitch unless the fabric is in the machine as well, you also need to change the settings depending on how thick/how stretchy the fabric is and how you want the edge to look. the speed of your machine could change it as well. Some machines will only serge stretch fabric if going fast, others slow, can you change the speed? My stich settings are right around .9mm and that works great for all the stretch fabric I use. Have you looked at how close your cutting blade is to the edge of the machine as well? you can adjust it by opening up the side, try getting it as close as possible. I hope this helps!

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  28. I have just got a toyota overlocker differential SL 3455DS it suddenly stop stitching correctly I do not have a manual and do not understand about the tension can any one help

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  29. Thank you so much for this. You've made it look easy. I have an old serger that I haven't used for years and the tension is way out. I've since bought a new serger, but would still like to get the tension right on the old one. I'm hoping your tutorial will help me get it right. I hope you don't mind but I'm pinning this and the whole series. I'd love you to share this tutorial and the others in the series, at our ongoing linky that's just for Sewing Tips and Techniques

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  30. This is a great tutorial!

    However, doesn't solve my issue....... Maybe you can help??
    After changing colors of thread (in the correct order TWICE!!!)
    My top loops are no longer going all the way below the needle stitch. Where your orange thread is going through the black loops on the front, my orange thread is BELOW the rest of the stitches. I have tweaked every tension setting and re-threaded what seems like a thousand times to absolutely no avail. I've never had a problem with this machine until now.
    Any thoughts?

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  31. Congratulations for your site! Great lay-out, professional but friendly also. I’m new in the serger world. I’m waiting for my 1034 to come any day now, and I can wait to put into practice what you say. I hope it would be easy as you present them.

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  32. I have the same serger.. I'm serging around the edges of a single layer of organic cotton knit so it's very thin and slightly stretchy.. My loopers don't seem to be pulling to one side or the other.. They just both seem loose and don't meet at the end of the fabric :/. Suggestions?

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  33. I have the same machine. I am trying to serge around the edges of a single layer of organic cotton knit, so it is very thin and slightly stretchy.. My loopers don't seem to be pulling to one side, they just are both loose and baggy, not meeting at the end of the fabric. Suggestions?

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  34. I jsut got GIVEN! a serger from a friend in exchange for making her a costume cause she never uses it....I KNOW RIGHT. I had no idea. Thankyou so much for this post helped me sooo much.

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  35. I am at my wit's end.
    The left needle on my Brother 1034D skips stitches when serging multiple (more than 2) layers. The right needle works whatever I do, no matter how many layers, how long and wide the stitch, how fast or slow-nothing upsets that one.

    What I have tried:
    changed the tensions
    put in new needles (90/14 Schmetz)
    changed the pressure foot tension
    changed stitch length and width
    I loosened the left needle tension, and it almost stopped skipping stitches, but the seam isn't strong, since the left needle tension is too loose.
    The company told me to have it serviced, but it is out of warranty.
    Any ideas?
    Thank you so much

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  36. Thank you so much for your excellent explanation of adjusting the tension on the serger. My kids gave me the machine last Mother's Day and I have been afraid to mess with turning those knobs. Now its actually kind of fun.
    Thanks again.

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  37. thank you so much for this !! i spent numourous days on end trying to set my tension (Glove m-34 so much older machine than this!)

    worked a treat :) the pics make it so much easier to compare to my own stitches, only downside is the pics dont show when or if the needle threads are far too lose. that was the only struggle i had working out :)

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  38. great tutorial i have no manual with my overlocker this clears up a lot .my only problem is that everything is off on the machine and once i've fixed the loopers the fabric is all wavy .when i try to adjust the needles tension it screws up the looper again going round in circles .

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    1. Does your serger have a differential feed? You might just need to adjust that...I Just play around with that until it isn't wavy anymore.

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  39. Hi! Great series. I can't seem to find any answers to the problem I am having - so I thought maybe you could help. I am doing a 4 thread overlock on a huskylock s25 (automatic tensions) and even though everything is set for a regular stitch, the fabric is being rolled to the back. Any clues?

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    1. I am fairly new to serging (was given my grandmothers old serger). But when I had it serviced they asked if I knew I was using a rolled hem plate. I had no idea but it made since (my fabric rolled up right at the end of the fabric and didn't lay flat and pretty). They were able to order the regular plate for my machine and now all is good in the world! :) So I would definitely check out which plate you are using (find out at a local,sewing store if you aren't familiar) and go from there! Hope that helps!

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    2. Try making sure you are using a regular plate and not a rolled hem plate! :)

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  40. Palak,

    I'm a certified sewing machine and serger repairman. I'd like to congratulate you on the fine work you've done in putting together these two tutorials for the serger. As you might well guess, I run into many brands of machines. Many times they are "dumped off" with no books or documentation of any type. With hundreds of machine models, manufacturers and users, it can get a little challenging. However, basic understanding of the principle of operations goes a long way in problem resolution. Your practical and logical approach is outstanding. I'd like to make a few additions to your tutorials.

    After the user successfully threads their serger, clip the thread at the bolt, pull the thread toward the needles and remove. Rethread the machine, I know it sounds crazy, but do it 4,5-? times until you get comfortable with it. That manual gets buried and if you have to depend upon it, the serger gets put in the closet.

    The color matched thread is excellent for initially adjusting tension. Tension is essentially dependent on thread material (cotton, polyester, etc.). So, if you are going to be using a certain thread for that special project, buy a small spool of each in your "tension adjusting colors. Once you have that balanced stitch, swap out the small spools to your larger ones. Remember to use the same brand, type, and weight thread for both. Remember also that you can knot the large spool thread to the already threaded adjusting colors and pull through the loopers. You willl of course need to simply rethread the needle(s).

    Keep your machine clean. You can buy a little air compressor for $50 to $70 at places like Harbor Freight, Sears, Lowes, on sale. In the long run its cheaper than "canned air", and can be used in other places around the house.

    Probably more than my two cents worth, but again, outstanding job on your part.

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  41. Yeah.The information about the tension and stitch help me a lot.You know ,the serger is an complex device that is so troublesome to the newbie like me.And it is alway so different to adjust the differnet tension .Thank you for a explaining the tensions so clearly to me.

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  42. Hi, your instructions are wonderfully clear and helpful - thank you so much for the effort you have obviously put into these tutorials, they have helped me when even the instruction book for my Janome EzyLock couldn't. I'm almost glad I had troubles with my overlocker, because they led me to your site, and I now have a much better understanding of the machine and what it can do. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  43. Thanks for this! I have started sewing knits with my serger and got my tensions all wonky and couldn't get them back -- going to try this!

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  44. Hi! I just opened my brother 1034d and have it threaded, everything looks great except my looper thread loops aren't meeting with the edge of fabric, they are on outer edge. Am I not feeding it in a straight line or is it something that needs to be adjusted ? thank you for this tutorial, I am a true beginner and this is very helpful!!

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  45. Another thank you. Great information. Thank you so much for all your hard work!

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  46. I got my serger last year and have used it a little. I'm still a little confused about all the adjustments. This has helped a lot. You explain the settings very well. Thanks for making it more understandable. My next challenge is working with stretch fabric. I have so many things I want to make my Grand Daughter.

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  47. So, so helpful! That you so much!

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  48. I really hope you can help me. I am making a doll for my daughter, so I took the right needle out not needing it for this project. Everything was working perfect, until half way through making the doll. Every looks the way it should, string are in place correctly, making a chain, but NOT attaching to the material? Have you any idea what the problem could possibly be?!! I really hope you can help.

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    1. Karina, needle changes can be so annoying! Most of the time, it's that the needle isn't inserted properly or pushed all the way up. The needles will be uneven -- if you look closely at the title picture in this post: http://www.makeithandmade.com/2012/08/threading-your-serger-or-overlocker.html, you'll see that the needles are ever so slightly uneven. HTH!

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  49. This is a great tutorial - getting the stitches balanced is certainly tricky when you are starting out. Having had my Elna serger for about about six months now, one thing I can definitely attest to is learning how to thread your serger properly. Persistent tension problems might simply be because you've missed a part of the threading path on one of the loopers and the thread just isn't tight enough for the stitch to form properly.

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  50. Thank you so much for a really easy to understand tutorial, I too have a Toyota 4 thread with diff feed and have found the manual so hard to comprehend resulting in me using the machine far less than it deserves in the 5 years I've owned it, with your great illustrations there will be nothing to stop me from today on xxx

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  51. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  52. I have an Janome 634D that I bought used and it's given me nothing but trouble. The lower looper threads are being pulled to the top of the fabric, as you described, but no amount of adjusting the tension will fix it. I've tried dialing down the upper looper tension and turning up the lower looper tension, but neither seems to make it better (or worse, actually, which is weird too). Is there anything else that might cause that problem? Thank you for your help!

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  53. Thanks for helpful tutorial. I just bought my first overlock machine, it's an older model, a QuantumLock 5 by Singer, and I decided to master one stitch at a time beginning w 3 thread flatlock. The upper looper seems fine but the needle thread won't make a V on under side, it's more like straight stitch and the lower looper makes an S shape below rather than a straight line at edge. This would indicate that my looper is too loose but nothing changes from 1-9 tension and I have re-threaded several times. Additionally if I change needle tension it doesn't seem to make a difference. Any ideas how to correct?

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  54. Oh my goodness! I can't believe what an excellent tutorial you have put together here. The fact that you took the time to take all the pictures, crop them and present them in such a professional manner shows what a wonderful teacher you are.

    If your students don't remember anything else about this tutorial, it should be the tip about using different colors of thread when learning how to adjust the tensions of their machine. It just makes it so much easier to understand what you're seeing when you're new to serging/overlocking.

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  55. Thank you sooooo much! This was so much more helpful than any other post I'd read! I've finally got the tensions right and I'm ready to sew, thanks to you! :D

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  56. Your tutorials are awesome!! I am so glad I found your blog! Great pictures and awesome explanations! I used to dread using my serger, but now I can't wait to use it. Thanks so much! :)

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