Easily Unravel and Tie off Your Serger Ends

Easily Unravel and Tie off Your Serger Ends

If you’re new to using a serger, also called an overlock depending where you live, one catch is that the thread tails can unravel once you’re done serging a seam. Unlike a sewing machine there is no backstitching to lock the stitches in place. Over time there have been numerous ways used to lock in these stitches which include serging over the ends, threading the tail into a needle so it can be weaved back through all the stitches, or simply trusting something like a liquid seam sealant to keep the ends in place. Over all the methods I’ve tried or read about, my absolute favorite one is simply unraveling the serger tails and tying the ends off. I figured I’d share this method with you, while using a three thread narrow stitch, in case you haven’t come across it yet.

This Pinterest-geared image is a collage of four images, my title, and my main URL. The first three images are side by side showing the serger tail, unraveled tail, and knotted end. The last image is in the lower part and shows a seam ripper, That Purple Thang, and a fine tipped lint brush.

I just wanted to start out by letting you know that these photos show a three thread narrow stitch rather than the more traditional four thread one. Ever since listening to the SewHere podcast about the three thread narrow overlock stitch I’ve been using it whenever serging knit fabric as it is more stable and thus offers more stretch to my garments. The difference between these two stitches is that one of the needles, and accompanying thread, is removed when going from a four thread stitch to a three thread one. In my case I use a three thread narrow which means I kept the needle closest to my serger blade in and removed the one furthest away. If I was sewing with a three thread wide stitch instead I would have then removed the needle closest to the blade and kept the one furthest away threaded. If you want to learn more about the mechanics of a three thread narrow stitch I found this post by Andrea Schewe. That said, since I untangle the stitch by pulling on one of the looper threads, which is consistent between the two types of stitches, I figured these accompanying photos would work regardless of which stitch you use. Also, according to Really Handmade, the four thread stitch “is the easiest thread chain to knot off” furthering my justification.

To unravel your serger tail all you need handy is something with a narrow tip, to get into the stitches, and something to cut the threads with once you’ve knotted the freed and loose ends. Ideally, I use the fine tipped end of the lint brush that came with my machine or That Purple Thang which is perfect for this. In a pinch, if both tools are currently lost, I grab my seam ripper to get into the stitches but then I need to be extremely careful not to accidentally cut my threads. If you don’t have these a sewing needle could also be used in a pinch. The seam ripper is further handy if you’ve misplaced your scissors and you need to trim the excess threads after knotting them in place.

The image shows three tools laid out over the wrong side of some fabric. The top one is my blue handled seam ripper, followed by my That Purple Thang, and then my lint brush that came with both my sewing machine and serger.
That Purple Thang is my absolute favorite tool to use when untangling my serger ends. If I can’t find it I turn to the fine tipped end on my lint brush and, failing that, finally my seam ripper.

First of all you’re going to need the end of a seam that isn’t going to be enclosed in another seam. For instance, normally there is no reason, unless you’re very thorough, to tie off the tail at either end of your shoulder seam as the ends will be trimmed and serged over when you’re finishing off your neckline with binding and adding a sleeve. So, if we continue the example of a top, you’ll want to use your serger on those seam ends and instead tie off the tails at the bottom of both side seams along with your final tail after serging around your neckline, armscye, and, potential, sleeve ensd.

Once the seam is serged and the tail end is cut free from the serger it’s time to lay the tail out and look at it. If there’s a knot already formed at the end of the tail you can trim it off so it’s easier to unravel the rest without needing to untangle the knot itself. Untangling the tail is similar to brushing hair as a longer tail might be easier to unravel in parts, starting closer to the end, than all at once when starting close to the fabric’s edge. To untangle the section I look for the two overlapping loops of thread along the edge. These are the loopers, hence their name, that loop around the fabric’s edge and are consistent between the three and four thread stitch types. It’s also these loopers that cause rolled hems when and if their tension doesn’t t match. I used a rolled hem on purpose with my napkins, coasters, and the hem on my Peppermint Swirl dresses. Anyway, once I found the entwined loops I use my fine tipped tool, in this case That Purple Thang, and poke it into the loop facing down towards the fabric. Once the tool is inside the loop I gently pull on it so the tail slowly unravels down to the end. If there’s a knot stopping it from completely unraveling it’s always better to pause rather than to just keep pulling. If that knot can’t be untangled easily and if it’s far enough away from the fabric that the ends won’t be too short you can just trim it off rather than spending tons of time unraveling it. Once that section is unraveled I then move closer to the fabric and unravel the next section. Just be careful not to unravel the tail right at the fabric’s edge because if it continues unraveling before you can tie it off then the seam will be affected.

Image shows a tail coming from a three thread narrow seam. The end appears to have a knot.
Start out by taking a look at the tail coming from your serger seam. In this case I have a knot at the end. I decided it would be much simpler just to cut the knot off rather than to try to untangle it since it’s far enough away from the seam that there’s still enough thread to have the room to tie it tight.
Image shows the same tail as above but this one is shorter with all the threads ending at the same spot.
This is what the same serger tail looked like after trimming the knot off. This will be much simpler to untangle.
Image shows the same thread tail a bit closer than before. The tip of That Purple Thang is right above the loop I'm going to expand.
If you look closely at the thread tail you can see the loopers along the entire tail, for us at the top, as each loop is connected to the other one. Any one of these connected set of loops should work. What you want is to find one of the loops that is pointed back towards the seam. My That Purple Thang is poised above the loop that I’m about to poke into.
Image shows the same thread tail as before but this time it's half as short. There are three threads coming from the end of the tail.
After putting the tip of That Purple Thang into the loop I pulled slightly and the entire rest of the thread tail unraveled.
Image shows the thread tail completely unraveled although the seam on the fabric is still intact. The one loosened thread is going across the photo while the upper two are going up off the photo.
Just keep pulling at the inter-connected loops until you get the thread untangled all the way up to the fabric. Be careful not to untangle it too much though as I’ve had the end of a seam start opening up a couple times.
Image shows a long tail with a thread being pulled out by the tip of a lint brush. A knot might be forming as the tail is pulled in but not unraveling.
Word of warning: If you start unraveling a longer tail right next to the fabric it can break the thread and/or cause a knot somewhere in the tail. It’s simpler to do this in parts than all at once… although sometimes you luck out.

Now that the tail is unraveled there are three individual threads visible coming from the seam’s end. Two of these are long, they’re the two looper threads, and one, the single needle thread, is short. If you’re unraveling a four thread stitch you’d be left with two short threads, from the needles, along with these two longer looper threads. At this point, I’ve been separating the two long tails from the short one and tying it together three or four times so it doesn’t come undone. I’ve had a time or two where the seam unravels during this process so putting the short thread with one of the longer ones might instead be better. Once the knot is in place the thread ends can be trimmed; however, don’t trim too close to the knot or it can still unravel and the threads would be too short to easily tie it once again. I haven’t used it that much but at this point you could always dab a bit of liquid seam sealant, like Fray Check, if you want to be sure that the seam end is truly secure.

Image shows the two long thread tails going up and off the photo while the shorter one is pointed down more. At the base, against the seam and fabric, there's a small knot keeping it all together.
I normally put the looper threads (top) together since the needle thread (bottom) is so much shorter. I then tie them together two or more times to create a secure knot. A couple times I’ve had my seam unravel a bit while tying it so you could always adjust this process to instead put the needle thread with one of the loopers before tying them together.
Image shows the same corner of fabric but this time there is only a slight knot and no thread tail as it was trimmed too short.
After securing the knot I trimmed the excess threads. This time I cut the threads too short so the knot is already starting to come apart. Since the threads are too short to tie it up again I next serged over the corner, locking these stitches in place, and then tied off either end of the new seam’s tails. I’ve also heard of people using Fray Check either in addition to the knot or instead of the knot.

And with that your serger tail is tied off and secure. Now you just need to repeat this with the other serger tails left in your garment. I truly hope your day is going well and this was able to help you out. Feel free to share any questions or comments below.

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