Never did I ever think a serger stitch would be the source of such joy, satisfaction…..and contention.
Zede has used the 3 thread narrow overlock (hereafter known as 3TN) for activewear, swimwear, underwear, or anything stretchy ever since she’s owned a serger- let’s say about 25 years– and Zede taught me to do the same since I was very young. We’ve spent years teaching people about how sergers work and how to use them effectively to create garments, but recently we’ve encountered a new phenomenon.
In this day and age- the early decades of the second millennium, CE- sewists on the internet are sometimes incredulous, resistant, or outright pissed off when we suggest using the 3TN for seaming stretchy fabrics. At first this baffled us, and it took us several months to figure out what the heck was going on.
While we are indeed certified sewing snobs, we’re also reflective teachers who constantly re-evaluate what we know. Zede has been sewing and making for a long time- long enough to know that things change. The techniques of 20 or 30 years ago might not work on the fabrics of today. But as you might have guessed, even though Zede is 65 years old, she’s super hip to new stuff. Shoot, she hosts a weekly podcast and does Aerial Arts 3-5 times per week. I’m trying to say that the woman is on top of most things- and we’ve found that the 3TN is still relevant, still useful, and still the best option for most activewear.
We made this video of Zede talking about the 3 Thread Narrow, and following the video is a further exploration of why the stitch is so controversial.
4 Thread Default
When people buy sergers from a big box store, they are threaded and set for a 4-thread overlock. This stitch is valid and useful for many things- but there’s more to your serger than the 4 thread stitch.
While the 4 thread overlock is the most stable of the overlock stitches, we actually don’t want a “stable” stitch for things like leggings and swimwear that require a lot of stretching. Note: “stable” is different than “secure”. The 3TN, when executed properly is secure. It doesn’t unravel randomly, it isn’t inherently harder to use than the 4 thread, and it’s not solely for finishing woven fabrics. The 3TN allows for the most stretch when seaming knits. We want this! We want our leggings and underwear fabrics to stretch as much as we please without the stitches popping- that’s why we don’t construct them with a straight stitch on a sewing machine. The less stable the stitch, the more stretch you get.
Self Taught Stitchers
Sewing of all types, especially garment sewing, has seen a resurgence in recent years, and many sewists are self-taught. This is amazing, and I love it, but I sometimes find there’s a generational “knowledge gap”.
What’s that mean? At the risk of sounding like a 28 year old fogey, I think that the online sewing world doesn’t have as many experienced voices as we need. There are YouTube videos and blogs galore from people who started sewing 2 years ago. That is fabulous and sharing a learning journey is valuable, but experience with a variety of garments, fitting different bodies, and using various techniques/machines is also valuable. Like I said at the beginning of this article, we are always learning and reflecting as well, and we won’t stop- but Zede definitely has something to offer that a less-experienced stitcher does not.
I think some people literally do not know that the 3TN exists at all (or any other serger stitch for that matter), and maybe I can’t blame them. I don’t know of a new, hip, on trend serging book. I know of several with fabulous 1980’s photography that have relevant, useful info, but they aren’t the sexiest publications (now I know what to pitch to my publisher).
Many Sergers are Hard to Thread
Alright, let’s pretend someone hears about the 3TN and decided to try it- lots of people have! They proceed to remove their left needle and stitch. Well, the 3TN is a different stitch than the default 4 thread their serger came with, and a surprising amount of people do not check their owner’s manual to see if different tensions or other settings are required to get a good stitch.
What’s a good stitch? It’s one that holds up when you stretch your seam apart or along the seam line. It’s one that doesn’t unravel- no seam you make should immediately unravel. If all 3 thread narrow overlock seams immediately unraveled, then the sewing industry wouldn’t call it a stitch. It’s not inherently bad, stop thinking that.
Problems People Have with the 3TN
I’ll separate these problems into two camps: Threading/Settings issues and Handling Issues
Firstly, you must thread and set your serger from a 3 Thread Narrow Overlock Stitch (I spelled it out there, because your serger manual isn’t hip to our #3TN hashtag). You must remove the left needle, thread in the proper order for your machine, and set the tensions, stitch width, and stitch length to the recommended settings in your manual. We use self-tensioning, self-threading Baby Locks, and we follow the Quick Reference Threading Guide. I get an awesome stitch every time. Do not keep the same settings as your 4 thread stitch. If you tried to construct a knit garment with a 3TN and your garment subsequently fell apart, you didn’t have the settings on your machine correct.
Handling stretchy fabrics is difficult for the new sewist, and using a serger can be difficult too. The problems we see with the 3TN is that people’s stitches will “fall off” the seam or they’ll have trouble with seam intersections. This can have to do with the quality of your serger and how good you are at “showing it who’s boss”.
If the blade on your serger is not sharp or the motor on your serger is not strong, the blade will push the bulk of your seam intersection the the left and cause it to go outside the range of your right needle. When serging, you should be constantly guiding your fabric toward the blade and removing drag by supporting the weight of your project. I think people are sometimes more successful with a 4 thread, because it can cover for this error. We do not recommend going back and reinforcing seams with a sewing machine, as is sometimes suggested online. However, if that’s your cup of tea- go ahead!
Solutions to 3TN Issues
Show that fabric who’s boss. Recognize the space-time gap between the serger cutting your fabric and the fabric actually being stitched. Constantly guide your fabric toward the needle and blade, and don’t allow the weight of your project to drag your fabric away from the stitch.
If you have trouble going over seam intersections, your serger may not have a very strong motor. That’s ok, let’s work with what we’ve got! You can clip away the seam allowance at a seam intersection (see the video above) so that the blade doesn’t have to cut through all of those layers. A four-way intersection can ask your machine to cut through 4-6 layers of fabric. This takes away any drag that a weak motor or dull blade could exert upon your fabric.
Thread properly. This seems like a no-brainer, but if a serger is intimidating to a sewist, then they may never have truly threaded it before. Get to know your machine, thread with your foot up (and in the correct order if you have a threading order), and use the proper settings for your machine.
Have fun and ask questions in The Self Sewn Wardrobe Group…and share this blog post 😉