In the last Sew 101 post we talked about all of the basic things you need to start sewing, the real necessities, because sometimes what the store or a magazine tells you you need really are not the things you really need. I wanted to take a more in depth look, however, into one of the of the biggest “basic” purchases you have to make when you want to start sewing, the machine itself. Picking a sewing machine, especially when you have never or rarely used one before, is daunting, overwhelming, and endlessly frustrating for a lot of people (me included!). But it doesn’t have to be if you know what you should be looking for.
There are many different brands of sewing machines, the most common two, at least in the lower price points, and the easiest to get a hold of being Brother and Singer, but there is also Janome and Bernina, Kenmore, and Babylock, among others, and they range greatly in price, features, functions, and even quality which are all things that should factor into picking the machine that is right for you. Some people are very brand loyal when it comes to sewing machines and wont even look a machine that inst “their brand”. But you wont hear me tell you one brand is better than the other here because I truly believe that buying anything simply because it is from the brand you like is a silly way to make major purchases.
Instead you should look for quality, ease of use, and functions that match the type of sewing you want to do.
So let’s start with quality. This tends to be a “you get what you pay for” type conversation but it doesn’t always have to be. There is something to be said for the idea because in basic truth it is true the more expensive brands tend to need less maintenance and last longer, but there are different quality levels within all of the sewing machine price points as well. So get the best quality you can afford, no matter what the price point you have in mind.
The easiest way to tell quality is to actually use the machine you are interested in looking at purchasing and that usually means purchasing at a dealership and not a big box store. If you are able, try to put the cords in the machine to see how tightly they fit and if they stay put when the machine is in use, see how tightly the needle holder can be, if it is a computerized machine play with the display a bit so make sure the whole thing lights up like it should. Then, if you are at all able, sew some basic rows and stitches on the machine. Bring some scraps of fabric with you to use and test out the different stitches the machines offer and play with the dial or computer settings if you can.
If you are unable to purchase from a sewing machine dealer and need to go the big box store route, do your research and look for the same type of things. Go the the store and look at any display models if they have them. Note the brands, models, price points, etc. and then go home and look at as many reviews for each machine you can find. Give bonus points to reviews that state they have had the machine for a longer time. YouTube is a great place to look for video reviews too so you can see the machine in use if you cant try it out yourself.
The next thing to look into with a sewing machine you are considering buying is the features/functions/stitches and what you need depends on the type of sewing you want to be doing. Many machines now a days offer 30+ stitches and all sorts of bells and whistles but if you dont actually need those things all they are really ding is taking up space.
I have a machine with 27 stitches,mostly decorative ones. Know how many I use regularly? Three. The straight stitch, zig zag, and a stretch stitch. That’s it.
Pretty much all machines will have those basic three but before you go buying the machine with the most fancy stitches, be honest with yourself if you will really use them. If quilting and home decor sewing (like pillow covers and stocking) is what you plan on doing most then the basics are all you really need. If you want to do apparel sewing look for an automatic button hole feature and maybe an additional stretch stitch option. I promise you really dont NEED all those pretty, fancy decorative stitches.
Instead look for a good range of adjustments for those stitches when it comes to length and width. That will be much more helpful in the long run and make your life much easier, especially if you are apparel sewing.
Other nice features to have are a large throat space (the amount of room in between where the main part of the machine on the left is and where the needle is), the ability to lower the feed dogs to free motion sew (especially for quilters!), a good, bright light by the needle, a good assortment of extra interchangeable feet (regular 1/4, walking, and zipper feet are what I would consider necessary for all sewists), and a place to put a second spool of thread when using a twin/double needle.
Choosing what sewing machine to buy is a highly personal decision and one that can take a lot of time and research. But when its all said and done, the right machine can make sewing so much more enjoyable and save you a lot of frustration down the road.