A Buyer's Guide to Your First Sewing Machine
Investing in a sewing machine can be an exciting yet daunting task. It's hard to know where to start with seemingly endless makes and models on the market. Finding the right sewing machine really depends on how you intend to use it, but before you give yourself a headache with all the possibilities out there, it's worth asking some basic questions.
10 Things to Consider Before Buying a Sewing Machine
1. What Can You Afford?
Everyone has a budget and recognising whether or not you can actually afford the machine that you want is the first step to choosing the one that's right for you. There is simply no point in looking at high-end machines if you have a limited budget. That way lies disaster. So decide on a budget and stick to it, recognising that there will always be a machine that offers so much more if you just spend just a little bit extra.
If you can only afford a £50 machine, then look around and see what quality second-hand machines are available, either at a dedicated retailer or on an auction site (but make sure any second-hand machine you buy has a warranty). Spending £50 on a plastic Hello Kitty sewing machine is probably not the best idea - no matter how adorable it may seem. A cheap plastic machine won't last and in all probability will put you off sewing. Buy the best you can afford!
2. How Many Stitches Do You Need?
Once you know your budget, you need to start thinking about what you really need. What you need and what looks exciting are two very different things! To sew successfully you only really need a straight stitch and a zigzag stitch. These two stitches will allow you to do just about everything you want to do on a sewing machine.
Everything else depends on how you intend to use the machine. My sewing machine has over 200 stitches and I sew every single day, but I very rarely use anything other than my straight stitch and and my zigzag stitch. The rest of the stitches look great, and are certainly fun, but will you use any of them on a regular basis? Are they really a deal breaker?
3. Can You Adjust the Stitch Length?
While you may just use straight stitch and zigzag stitch, being able to adjust both the width and the length of these stitches can be invaluable.
I set my machine to the longest length and machine baste any new designs I'm working on. I set the stitch to its shortest length when I'm sewing up my toy designs, to ensure small, tight stitches. And I constantly adjust the zigzag length and width for appliqué and finishing off edges.
While most machines offer variable stitch widths and lengths, some of the lower priced machines don't, so it's always worth checking.
The Janome 2032 is a good example of a low-cost machine that still offers variable stitches.
4. What Attachments Come With the Machine?
Having a selection of presser feet can make all the difference to your sewing day, so it's important to find out which attachments come as standard and which attachments are available to buy separately.
If you want to make clothing, then you should look for a machine that has a buttonhole foot, a zipper foot and a blind hem foot as standard attachments.
However, if you intend to make quilts, you will need a walking foot, a ¼" foot (the seam allowance for patchwork) and if you intend to freehand quilt (and you should, because it's so much fun!) then you'll want a freehand embroidery foot.
For basic sewing, a selection of different width feet can be invaluable when switching between seam allowance widths, as well as for the zigzag stitch.
If the machine you're thinking of buying doesn't come with the feet you'd like, make sure they are available to purchase separately and that they don't cost a fortune. It's also very useful to check how easily the feet can be changed. A lot of machines just have feet that clip on and off, which really does save a lot of time if you find yourself switching back and forth between feet (as I often do).
The Janome 220XT has snap-on feet at a very low price.
5. How Big Is the Motor?
This sounds like we're getting into the dry, serious stuff now, but the heavier the motor (and physically, the heavier the actual machine), the stronger the machine. A strong, heavy motor will make it easier to cope with frequent use and heavier fabrics, such as upholstery-weight fabrics and denims.
A machine that is predominantly plastic will not withstand the kind of use that a machine with metal parts can. Of course, if you know you're going to need to transport your machine frequently, even if it's just in and out of a cupboard, you need to decide if a heavy machine is impractical and whether you want to compromise with a machine that has a plastic body, but metal parts. But a good rule of thumb is that a really lightweight machine, is just that, a really lightweight machine.
The Singer 4411 is a great heavy weight machine. With a high speed motor and heavy-duty metal frame, the 4411 can sew through almost anything thrown at it.
6. What Make Is the Machine and Where Is It Being Sold?
Brand really does make a difference with sewing machines. All machines are not made equal and they don't all have the same parts inside. Back in the day, Singer made fantastic machines that lasted forever, but unfortunately these days, their machines are mainly made out of plastic, with smaller motors that just aren't built to last.
So it's not just about buying the name you recognise. I always look at where the machine is being sold. If I'm in a department store, I'll be most likely to find brands like Singer, Brother and Janome. These are all very successful brands, but they are more likely to be lightweight, hobby machines (Janome is the exception to this rule, as they've managed to produce both low-end hobby machines and high-end professional machines).
On the other hand, if you're looking in a dedicated retailer, you're much more likely to find brands such as Bernina, Pfaff, Huqsvarna and Juki. These are all high-end machines that start off much pricier, but are aimed at and used by frequent stitchers. These machines tend to be the ones mentioned by professional makers. And they don't tend to be available in the big department stores.
It's always better to buy at the low-end of a good brand rather than the high-end of an average hobby brand. And if it's got a cartoon character on it, chances are it's not going to be the best machine!
7. How Noisy Is The Machine?
This is something that very few people think about when looking at machines, but once you're actually sewing it can really affect how and when you use it.
If you're like most people and only have time to sew in the evening, (after work or when the kids are in bed), it can be a shock to get your lovely new machine home and discover that it sounds like a pneumatic drill and is keeping everyone in your household - plus the neighbours - awake.
If you're worried about the amount of noise you're making when you sew, you are far less likely to use the machine. So it pays to take your time when you're choosing your machine, and research quieter machines.
Just keep in mind that if you're testing the machine in a sewing shop, the ambient nose levels are likely to be quite high, so it can be really hard to judge just how quiet your machine really is.
The Janome DC2013 is known for being a quiet machine.
8. Mechanical Versus Computerised?
Most of the high-end machines on the market are now fully computerised, with touch screens and programmable stitch sequences. But they come at a price, and if budget is an issue then the question of whether to buy a mechanical machine or a computerised machine needs to be asked.
Modern mechanical machines tend to be lighter (even if they have a strong motor) because they have less parts, so they are easier to carry around, making them a good choice if you don't have a dedicated sewing area or you take it to classes. They are also easier to maintain, with covers that can be removed so that the motor can be oiled. Servicing is often cheaper as a result.
Mechanical machines may not appear to be as much fun as their computerised counterparts, but they can still handle the basic sewing tasks. And older, good quality mechanical machines can be fantastic starter machines, because they are easy to master and tend to be heavyweight, so they can handle the kind of abuse you may inflict on them while learning how to sew. Even the really good brands can be found at affordable prices, because they have been superseded by the computerised models.
However, most of the good new machines are computerised or electronic, meaning that the machines have stronger motors and extra power, so they don't struggle with heavyweight fabrics and constant use. Computerised machines also tend to have superior stitch lines, with more evenly spaced and therefore stronger, stitches.
Whether you choose a fully computerised machine or an electronic one (a hybrid between mechanical and computerised, with a mixture of mechanical parts and a computer screen for selecting stitches, etc), you'll have a lot more sewing options.
Computerised machines can be programmed, so that specific stitch sequences can be remembered, and they offer huge selections of decorative and embroidery stitches as well as automatic tie-offs, and thread cutting.
Which you buy really does depend on your budget, but if you're going for a mechanical machine, it's best to buy an older, high-end model, rather than a cheap, plastic model. It will last longer and even if it only offers the basics, it will withstand a lot more use.
9. How Often Will You Use Your Machine?
This is one of those questions that you need to answer honestly. And you need to know what you're asking. Everyone that sews wishes they had more time for it than they do. The reality is that most people can only sew after work or at weekends. So the question is not ‘how often would you like to use it' but ‘how often will you use it'.
If you recognise that you're the sort of sewer that will probably only get the machine out every few months, to hem clothes or make some new cushions, then a high-end, all-singing, all-dancing machine may not be the best investment. But a good quality electronic machine may enhance your sewing experience and encourage you to start sewing more often.
If you know that you've been bitten by the sewing bug and that the only thing standing between you and daily sewing is the lack of a good machine, then buying the best you can afford gives you plenty of scope for growth.
If money is an issue, recognising your own sewing expectations is essential. If you rarely sew now, a new, expensive machine that requires a lot of learning is not necessarily going to make you sew more. But a solid mechanical machine that covers all the basics and only requires threading and plugging in will seem less daunting.
A great sewing machine will not turn you in to a great stitcher, but it really can make sewing much more of a pleasure. Just remember that great doesn't necessarily mean 200 stitches, automatic tie-off and automatic cutters! It means a machine that you can sit and sew at without being overwhelmed or frustrated, whether it's once a day, once a month or just once a year.
10. What Are Your Sewing Expectations?
This is another question that will help you to recognise if your desire for that amazing, expensive machine is based on wishful thinking or a genuine need. It's also designed to find out whether you're holding yourself back due to lack of confidence in learning something new.
If the thought of learning how to use a new machine fills you with excitement, then a machine with lots of options and exciting possibilities is the one for you. But if the thought of all those buttons and programs makes you break out in a cold sweat,then there's a chance that the huge instruction manual and all those symbols and patterns may put you off using your new machine.
Equally, if your ambition is to make heirloom quality quilts, then buying a machine that only has basic attachments will hinder you from achieving your goal and will most likely leave you feeling frustrated.
And if you want to get to the point where you can make your own clothes, then spending money on a machine that has variable stitch lengths, overlocking stitches and the ability to switch to a twin needle will be a good investment.
My Top Sewing Machine Picks
Best Low-Priced Machine for Beginners
If you're looking for a great, all-round starter machine at a low price, then look no further than the Janome 2212. With 12 stitch selections and four step button-holes, variable stitch length and easy snap-on feet, the 2212 is the perfect machine for the beginner.
At only 16lbs, it's a lightweight machine that's perfect for transporting to clubs and classes and when you're ready to move on to a bigger machine, it's substantial enough to keep as a spare.
- Free arm
- Drop feed dog
- Snap on presser feet
- Zipper foot
- Zig zag foot
- Button sewing foot
Another great low-price machine for beginners is the Pfaff 1050s.
Best Mid-Priced Machine for Dressmaking
With the Janome HD3000, you're starting to move into slightly more of an investment machine. Simple to use, it's packed with features that make it the perfect machine for dressmaking.
The increase in budget is reflected in the fact that the HD3000 is a heavy-duty sewing machine. It has 18 built-in stitches, including an overlocking stitch and a seven piece feed dog, allowing for precise stitching with various thicknesses of fabrics. This machine is well priced and looks great.
- Auto one step buttonholes
- Variable stitch width and length
- Drop feed for freehand embroidery or quilting
- Top loading bobbin
- Zipper foot
- Satin foot
- Blind hem foot
Also recommended for dressmaking is the Janome DKS30.
Best Low-Priced Computerised Machine
The Singer 7258 gives you a fully computerised machine, with 100 pre-programmed stitches as well as an LCD screen that allows you to see stitch length and width, plus stitch choice, all at a comparatively low price. Light enough to transport, the machine sports metal parts and a motor that allows you to sew heavier fabrics and multiple layers with ease.
The 7258 has all the features necessary for dressmaking, home furnishings, freehand embroidery and quilting and offers the benefits of a drop feed, speed limiter, needle up/down and variable stitch width and length. As an entry level computerised machine it's built to last and unlikely to disappoint.
- 6 styles of one step buttonhole
- Free arm
- Stop/Start button
- Twin needle facility
- Snap-on feet
- 10 presser feet included
You might also like to check out the Janome CXL301 for another low-cost computerised machine.
Best Low-Priced Machine For Quilting
The Singer 7469Q is a fantastic introduction to the Singer range of sewing machines. Combining its sturdiness and reliability with an impressive selection of stitches and accessories, this machine is perfect for learning all forms of sewing, especially quilting.
Although the 7469Q is a great all-round sewing machine, that will happily sew clothing, home accessories and anything else that springs to mind, and it is particularly good as a beginner's quilting machine. The Free Motion capability, walking foot, darning foot and the ability to lower the feed dogs all combine to make this a wonderful machine for learning to quilt.
- 98 stitches
- Variable stitch width and length
- Snap-on and off feet
- Zipper foot
- Blind hem foot
- Seam guide
- Buttonhole foot
Another great low-priced machine for quilting is the Husqvarna Viking E20.
The fact is, there's no easy answer to which is the best machine for you, but by recognising who you are as a sewer, how much you can afford to spend, and what your sewing desires really are, you can narrow the choices down and find a machine that will give you years of sewing fun. Good luck!
Are you buying your first sewing machine? Or do you have a sewing machine you love? Let us know if you have any questions or comments in the space below.