Serging Savvy Series: Threading

This is the third installment of Serging Savvy Series here at 3 Hours Past.  I sat down with my good friend and machine expert Janet, a former coworker from Sewco Sewing and Patchwork here in south Brisbane.  The aim of this series is to inspect and define the functions of these useful machines to help you either make an informed purchase or get the best use out of your existing machine.

I am using my Husqvarna 905 (a great workhorse) overlocker, but most machines have similar functions and features, check your manual if you’re unsure.

We’ve tested the speed and efficiency of overlockers against two kinds of seam finishes on domestic sewing machines.  Then we took a close look at the differential feed feature.  See also Backstitching On a Serger/Overlocker.

Tonight I’m looking at threading and tension.  Threading an overlocker strikes fear in the hearts of stalwart sewists everywhere, but it need not be terrifying.  Take a deep breath, everything will be fine!

First I’ll walk through the threading process and describe how threading and tension work together.  Then I’ll show you how I fine-tuned the settings on my machine for a perfectly overlocked finish on a soft, drapey wool woven.

It’s possible to re-thread the machine by cutting the old threads, tying the new threads to the ends of the old, lifting the presser foot and gently pulling the old threads through.  This is effective, mostly, but I tend to simply re-thread my machine.  I find it’s less fiddly to just re-thread, and I take the time to dust the machine.

Many, if not most overlockers will thread in this order- upper looper, lower looper, left needle, right needle.  It’s vital to thread the machine in the order the manual tells you; otherwise the threads won’t work together as intended.

The thread guide above the top of the machine is the first “tension” point while threading.  Individual machines vary, but in general the thread should be looped through these thread guides.  It helps feed the thread into the machine more smoothly.

Heavier threads may not need to be looped.  Some specialty threads need extra tension control and can be placed in a paper cup behind the machine or even on the floor to allow the machine to feed the thread smoothly.  Usually, however, the thread should be looped through the thread guides for optimal performance.

My machine has two more thread guides to control the thread before it reaches the tension discs.  The first one helps keep bulky or specialty threads in place, the second is intended for regular thread.  I usually slip my threads through both.

This is ground zero for threading tension- the tension discs.  This is the place where machines differ greatly.  My machine has discs that open up when the presser foot is raised, and squeeze together when the foot is dropped.  It’s simple.  It’s easy to clean.

Some machines have spring dial tension on the front.  This is an older way of maintaining smooth tension, and it can be slightly more fiddly and tougher to master.  On either type of machine, the tension default should be marked.  If it isn’t, check the manual and mark it yourself for quick reference.

My upper looper “threading points” are marked by color on my machine.  Once the thread goes through the upper looper, I let it lie to the left and over the top of the foot.

The lower looper is threaded next, through the lower looper match points.  To the far left, under the presser foot and feed dogs, some machines must be half-disassembled in order to change the lower looper thread.   Mine has a tiny guide that snaps over to one side for simple threading.

When shopping for an overlocker, keep in mind that simplicity will cost money up front but save time/frustration in the long run.  It’s up to you, but personally I prefer a slightly more pricey, but simpler to operate machine.

Once the needles are threaded, it’s very easy to mangle the three, four, or five of them before finishing the threading.  Once I learned this threading habit, I quit making a mess of the threads before I had a chance to sew.  Guiding all four threads toward the back of the machine sets up optimal use.

Then I drop the presser foot and turn the handwheel several times towards me so the stitches begin to form on the stitch finger.  Viola!

I used scraps of wool “suiting” to test my stitch settings before working on the actual garment.  Learning which settings to adjust takes time, but it’s all fairly regular.  This is how I adjusted the thread settings for this particular fabric.

  • I chose to adjust the differential feed first to reduce bunching.  This is often the simplest fix to “tension” issues.  It helped, but not completely and the loops also looked loose.
  • Then I gently tightened both loopers (as they were equally loose) one “notch” tighter.
  • Finally, as a perfectionist I lengthened the stitches slightly.  The looper threads still looked loose, but they weren’t loose “in the fabric”.  Lengthening the stitch slightly helped the thread and the fabric work together more effectively.

It’s a mistake to change more than one setting at a time, or to change it dramatically.  It doesn’t take much time to stitch a few samples and compare the results, and it helps build an intuitive understanding of the process.  I think of it as “fingertip knowledge.”

It’s tough to learn how to troubleshoot, but understanding that the stitch quality is controlled by both the tension discs/knobs and the threading points as well as learning to adjust the tension gradually is the first step to greater success and a cleaner finish when working with an overlocker.

I have a Serging Savvy Series post in the works about the blade and also rolled hem functions, and a post solely on savvy buying including- yes, a worksheet.  If I can, I will also make a coverhem machine post.  Am I missing a vital topic?  Let me know.

What are your serger threading woes? Are you a confident thread-changer, or a knot-and-pull-through type?

Frosting Fortnight

Meanwhile, I’m turning my blogging attention to Frosting Fortnight topics.  Mari’s blog has been cooking with posts on actual food as clothes (it’s not just for Lady Gaga), Goldilocks dressing, and a look at Laura Mae’s dreamy and exquisite vintage wardrobe.  Check it out!  I’ll be picking up my end of Frosting Fortnight with posts on wearing quilting cotton well as well as tips for mending, blending, and ending wardrobe orphans.  I’ve been dyeing and scrapping and re-fashioning and mending like it’s 1944!


  1. Shudder, the dreaded thread change. Halts my garments consistently. I haven’t even read this yet, but it looks very helpful and when I am ready to FOCUS I will study this post – thank you!!

  2. Thanks for the very detailed post! I’m not worried about threading now, and just as you, when the thread breaks or I want to change colour, I usually don’t bother with knots and simply unthread it all. Where I need to make an effort is for changing the settings, I’m usually too impatient and change more than one at a time…
    The fact that the tension disks open when you place the presser foot in the upper position is interesting. On mine it doesn’t work that way and it took me some time to realise that my thread looked properly inserted between both disks when it wasn’t. That’s why I could never get the proper tension even when the knobs were turned to the maximum!

    • Oh good. :)

      I think perhaps the discs on mine open up when the foot is lifted to help eliminate that kind of issue? It makes sense anyway. Thanks for the tip- if the tension doesn’t seem right, then check it’s between the discs.. Absolutely…

  3. All this just makes me love my self-threading, self-tension-adjusting Babylock Imagine serger so so so much more haha. Sure, it was expensive – but considering how much frustration-free threading and serging I’ve coaxed out of it in the past 5+ years, I’d say it was worth every penny :)

    Although, I will say at someone who has owned a plain jane serger – don’t get in the habit of tying the threads! The more you practice threading the machine from scratch, the better and faster you will be at it. I’ve known people who depended on the tie & pull to change threads, and when they eventually broke a thread & had to start over, they had no idea what they were doing since they’d never really learned.

    • Yes! Babylock are THE BEST, not just for the air threading… the stitch quality, the automatic tensions, the purring sound it makes while it’s working. Oh yes. One day I’ll have one of those! And I’d agree with you, Babylock *is* worth every penny. Every single one.

      I second your advice. For sure.

  4. Great post – I would love to also see examples on lighter weight fabrics – but after seeing this – I’ll do my own tests to see what works. Thanks for a great post!

    • Yes- that’s the idea! :) It’s really, really not possible for me to test swatch and adjust tensions for every fabric, I’d be fiddling with my machine for weeks on end… hehe. And thanks!

  5. I don’t have a serger, so this post isn’t really useful for me (yet!). However, I just wanted to say that your pictures are really clear, bright, and (appears to be) easy to follow. Nice job!

  6. I usually use the tie and pull simply because I can never find my tweezers when I need to thread the machine, and it gets threaded through some extremely inaccessible places, particularly when one has shaky hands and keep knocking the thread back out as soon as its threaded through. Took me over an hour to thread ONE thread last time, because naturally, it was the most inaccessible one that snapped while the machine was going. Sigh. One day, I’ll trade in my 80s beast for something easier to thread. One day.

    • Ah… I have a long, fine pair of tweezers I keep next to the machine, but that’s just what works for me in my setup. Saves me time looking for them!

      You might be surprised how expensive a new machine isn’t. If the machine gets in the way of the sewing, maybe it’s worth thinking about how to re-invest in your time. If you know what I mean. Lots of shops have great sales around Christmas, as well as afterwards…. Just sayin’. ;) Sounds like your machine gives you heaps.

  7. Urgh, threading my serger is something I need to master.
    I can do the tie and pull thru technique but a few times my thread kept snapping and I had a lot of trouble threading the one that goes “under”.
    gahh nightmare.

  8. Hmmm…I knot and sew, except for the needles. Then I clip the knot and manually thread through the eye. I, too, have an 90s beast that I inherited. I don’t mind threading as much now that we’ve come to terms with each other. That and reminding myself that nothing beats free. ; )

    When the day comes that we have to part ways, though, I certainly wouldn’t mind something fancier. (And I really hope I didn’t jinx my serger mojo by putting that in print!)

  9. Ah the dreaded lower looper. Strikes fear into the most hardened sewer! It’s true though…once you’ve cracked threading the darn thing, you’ve won half the battle.

  10. This was an interesting post as I definitely have a love/hate relationship with my overlocker. It is 20 odd years old so I will blame the age of the machine, not the user ;). I am just wondering about the direction of threading. I have always threaded from right to left (on 2 different machines) by the instructions. But maybe your way works for a better result or its just a different machine? I am really looking forward to receiving my Tiramisu so I can change my needles and thread in it and then probably swear a little too!

  11. I’ve a singer overlocker – looks pretty similar set up to yours, must have a look and see if the tension discs open with presser foot… i can thread grand,had it for 8ish years i think and still haven’t gotten round to threading it up with 4 different colours and sitting down with a heap of scraps and really getting to grips with the different settings for different weights and stitches etc, one of these days!

  12. Thank you for these serger posts. It came at such a great time – I just bought mine (my first ever) yesterday! I must admit, it makes me a little nervous to set it up!

  13. Thanks for this clear post. I use a 25-year-old White serger, and the knot and pull thru system if I can. It works well if you loosen all the tensions to the max, then pull very gently. I agree with you on learning to thread; it’s not that big a deal for a machine that helps do so many tasks so well.

    I am teaching sewing in a local college crafts center, and have been invited to buy a serger for our new quarters. Can you recommend one that will be sturdy for classroom use by a variety of people, some not so gentle? Any advice is welcome as I am new at teaching sewing.

  14. My lower looper keeps breaking or not joining in. The machine I am using is a Hobbylock (15+yrs old). It was given to me so I am trying to “make it work” Any suggestions on what I am doing wrong?

    • Ok- the first order of business is to find out exactly what make and model you have. You say Hobbylock- does it have any other model number that you can see? Once we find that, we can try to find a manual. I know a few places online to look for free manual downloads… Or- miraculously, do you have the manual? We need to be sure you’re threading the loopers and needles in the right order for your machine. They are very particular about the order of threading.

      I’m also wondering if you’ve had a service on the machine? They need them just the same as cars, but are often neglected. I have seen some pretty gunked up old machines that barely worked until a skilled tech serviced them and they ran as good as new. Let me know about the model number and we’ll see what we can do. :)

    • It is a 786 and I have the manual. I have rethreaded it more times then I’ve ever wanted to. And it was in for service ~2 years ago and hasn’t been used since. The only thing I can think to try is changing the needles. The threads don’t even knot. Needless to say I’m frustrated. Thanks for the help!

      • Oh excellent!

        Machines that have been stored for years at a time need servicing. Moisture and dust accumulate in the moving parts and can cause problems.

        Do change the needles, try ballpoints. Some machines freak out when sharps are put into them and won’t sew and won’t loop.

        The other thing- have you tried the failsafe threading I documented above? It keeps everything tidy.

        I wish I could sit down next to you and run my hands over the machine and look at what you’re doing, it’s a bit frustrating for me because I’m pretty sure I could sort you out in no time. Do you have a reputable independent machine dealer you might be able to take this to for a little bit of troubleshooting advice? They may charge a small fee for a simple threading lesson, but it’s worth it for the future ease of sewing and peace of mind.

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