Process, Handmade

Build a Better T-Shirt, Pt. III: Machine-Sewn

Sergers (also known as overlock machines) trim and finish knit fabrics using mechanics that simultaneously trim the fabric and enclose the trimmed seam allowance with thread.  The result saves the sewer time by allowing her to not have to bind the seam separately, while still giving the seam a clean look.  Another advantage of this finish is that it allows stretch in the seam, which is crucial to the functioning of a knit garment (imagine a t-shirt or turtleneck which does not stretch at the sides or bottom or neck).  Sewing knit fabrics with sergers also allows for flexible and comfortable fits, which is what people demand of late (consider how different a button-down shirt feels from a t-shirt, and how rarely people are willing to take time to iron shirts, and then you understand why sergers seem to have become the standard equipment used to make and/or finish garments.  

I was uncomfortable learning to use the serger when I was working on my apparel technologies diploma, but I bought one anyway, because the cost of the serger was not that much greater than the cost of the lab time at school, with the added benefit of unlimited practice time at my house, and hopefully future years of use.  Since then, the serger has lived with me in four subsequent homes and been physically moved across the country multiple times, while getting relatively little use. It is a heavy piece of equipment, requiring its own table and thus sucking up space in our home.  I have considered selling it more than once, but each time I have backed off, thinking it makes more sense to hang on to it to see if I can instead improve my attitude towards it.

Here are some reasons that I avoid it: 

  • the fabric is trimmed at the edge as you sew, which means you can easily ruin a garment if you sew it wrong and it gets cut in the wrong place
  • this particular seam finish is difficult to undo because there are multiple threads encasing the seam allowance
  • my particular machine has no instruction manual that I can find, anywhere (I bought it second-hand), which means it is hard to figure out which needles and thread are best to use for different garments...the wrong needle or thread can ruin a garment, or at best, make it nearly impossible to sew correctly, while finding the correct needle, thread, and tension requires more time than it takes to assemble an actual garment
  • it is heavy and clunky and requires significant time and brain power to thread
  • it cannot finish the visible edges of the garment, only the internal ones...a coverstitch machine (another heavy, expensive, one-trick pony machine) used in tandem with the overlock is required to make a knit garment resemble a professionally created one

As I write this list, it seems silly...these are probably not reasons to avoid a perfectly good piece of handy, time-saving equipment.  Additionally, even if the overlock is not conducive to the kind of quality sewing that I enjoy doing, it has still proven useful for quick household sewing tasks, like making fabric bags for parties and assembling toddler clothing.  In short, I will probably hang on to it for a bit longer, or at least until the next (inevitable) move.

This fall, after I spent weeks hand-sewing my first couple long-sleeve t-shirts, I used the same pattern with the overlock machine to assemble the following t-shirts:

Here is what the seams look like using the overlock machine:

Here are some pictures of the hand-finishing I did at the neck and seams, in order to improve the look of the shirt, and the improve the strength of the seams and edges:

In summary, it was satisfying to be able to make a few shirts quickly as winter set in and my need for long sleeves became pressing.  I did become nicely re-aquainted with the serger.  However, my favorite version of the shirts, especially since I have been wearing (and washing) them now through the fall, remains the second one (see Pt. II of the Better T-Shirt series).  The seams are beautiful both inside and out, and they are also more comfortable since they lack the lumpy, overlock-finished seam ridge inside the shirt.  Additionally, the shirt is made from a softer, heftier french terry instead of a plain jersey knit, rendering it cozy for the cooler months and also substantial in a satisfying, non-opaque way.  

I have not yet built a perfect t-shirt, but I have learned a lot and made progress, in addition to supplying myself with several good long-sleeve layers for winter.