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A serger, or "overlock," is similar to a sewing machine in some ways, but its main advantage over sewing machines is its ability to make piecing fabric together much simpler and quicker. A serger can reach speeds of about 1600 stitches per minute and up, while typical sewing machines average about 1000 stitches per minute. While a serger is fast and convenient for superficial stitching and hemming, it is not recommended for more intricate sewing functions.
Generally, a serger is used beside a sewing machine, not in place of one. Unless you only plan to do the most basic stitching, you will like need one of each. However, if you do a lot of straight seams and hems, such as making tablecloths, curtains, basic clothing or other simple pieces, a serger will come in very handy.
If you sew professionally, a serger will likely pay for itself after just a few completed projects. A serger can perform a variety of functions, from rolled hems to adding cording and attaching lace, beads, sequins and other trims or embellishments. The thread length and width can usually be quickly and easily adjusted for different weights and textures of both thread and material.
As with most tools, a serger may come with many different features and accessories. As the functionality increases, so does the price. Unless you sew professionally, you probably don't need a serger with detailed options. It is best to avoid spending the extra money for features you are not likely to use.
Some of the things you should look into before making a choice are ease of use, simplicity or difficulty of threading the machine, simplicity of cleaning and maintenance, and the quality of the stitching on different textures of fabric. Other items worth considering are the number of threads that can be used at one time, the maximum number of stitches per minute, and your overall comfort with using the serger. You may decide to take a class from a nearby dealer before purchasing a serger to see if it is right for you.