As you may or may not know, I began my sewing life in theatrical costuming. I learned to sew in my university costume shop, and worked for several years in a professional shop after I had my degree. For National Serger Month, I thought I’d tell you a bit about how we used sergers in the theatrical world.
We always had a serger or two in any shop — but we never used them for seaming. In fact, I never stitched a single seam with a serger until I started working for Sew News last year. If you consider the way theatrical costuming works, not sewing with a serger makes perfect sense.
Almost all costumes are constructed from basic measurements only. In many cases, we would cast actors from out of town, which made it impossible to bring them in before rehearsals started. Even for local actors, it was not usually not viable to have them in for fittings before we went into rehearsal, so we worked from measurements. And as you know, measurements don’t always accurately reflect an individual body’s shapes and quirks — which meant the costumes usually needed fairly extensive alterations.
Because of the short construction timeline and often large numbers of costumes needed for a theatrical production, muslins are rarely used in theater sewing. The piece that’s fitted is the piece that will eventually go onstage, and this is where we get back to why we didn’t sew with our sergers — we needed to be able to adjust the seams. While we tried to err large rather than small, it was important to retain the seam allowance in case something needed to be let out. And if you’ve ever had to rip out a serged seam, you’ll know why we didn’t want our seams finished together — ever.
Nevertheless, our sergers still got plenty of use. Of course we used the rolled-hem setting to finish the edges of lightweight and sheer fabrics, but the main thing we used them for was finishing fabric edges, thus extending the life of the garment.
Theatrical costumes need to be able to take a lot of wear and tear. The actors are generally moving vigorously for extended periods of time, putting strain on the garments. In addition, they’re doing it under hot stage lights, so the clothes get quite sweaty and need to be laundered often, some of them between every performance (up to eight times a week). Even clothes that must be dry-cleaned are sent out weekly for cleaning. Because of time constraints, hand-washing is usually not possible, especially on a large scale, so costumes that can take repeated machine-washing are a must.
The costumes need to be able to stand up to all of this without falling apart at the seams — and I use that idiom intentionally. To make sure that seam allowances didn’t unravel, almost every item we made had each edge of each piece serged after cutting but before construction began. This ensured that no edge ever raveled in wearing or in the wash.
I still do this to this day. There are some exceptions — if I’m working on something sheer, for example, I’ll usually choose French seam and double-fold hems instead. I will also sometimes skip the step when working on knits. However, for any woven fabric thicker than gauze, I’ll serge all the edges before I ever start. If instructed to trim a seam allowance that won’t be fully enclosed, I’ll do it on the serger, using the blade to trim and ensuring the edge is finished.
Here are a few tips for serging a cut pattern:
- The loopers are the important element in this process. The straight stitching on the serged edge itself won’t take much strain. Because of this, you can safely use a 3-thread overlock stitch, though if you prefer 4-thread, there’s no reason not to use it.
- When marking your fabric, make sure to mark your notches out a little past where the left-most needle will stitch (often 1/4” from the edge; I usually make my notches 3/8” long) so you won’t have to search for them in the loops.
- Make sure to test your settings on a fabric scrap before serging.
- Even when your settings are good, the stitches usually end up tugging on the fabric a little. To minimize this, try to stitch the same direction on parallel seams. For example, stitch the waist and then down the side seam of a skirt, then flip the fabric and stitch down the other side seam across the bottom. If preferred and the fabric is sturdy, you can just stitch all the way around, which is faster.
- I like to keep my blade engaged to trim any stray threads as I go, but if you aren’t confident in your serging abilities, disengage the blade to ensure you don’t trim anything off the seam allowance.
- Only trim the thread tails off at the end. After you stitch off an edge, stitch a small tail, then pull the fabric around, place it under the foot, and begin stitching along the next edge from the same corner. There will be a small loop left behind at the corner. Once you’ve serged the entire piece, go back and cut off all the loops and tails.
- When serging inward curves, tug gently on the fabric so the curve straightens out as it feeds into the machine. This makes it easier to get a good edge, and it will regain its shape once it’s out of the machine.
- For very tight inward curves and corners, try out the same technique, but disengage the blade in case something slips. If you absolutely can’t get it positioned correctly in the machine, don’t worry about it. It’s okay to leave a little piece — especially a difficult-to-reach piece — unserged.
- You may find your pieces don’t lay completely flat after they’ve been serged. Try running the edge between your fingers to redistribute the fabric. Then press the pieces flat on the appropriate setting. Keep in mind that if you used heat-removable markings, you’ll need to re-mark after pressing.
- Be mindful of how the pattern goes together. If a fabric is not likely to unravel while being handled during construction, you can leave edges that will be completely enclosed unserged. It’s also not necessary to serge the edges of bias tape or other binding strips.
- If using interfacing, attach it to the pieces before serging the edges. Not only is it neater and more stable, but it gives additional security to the interfacing by stitching it to the fabric at the edges.