How to Choose a Sewing Machine

Okay, so lots of people commenting on the previous post (and in email) wanted to know how to choose a sewing machine. Or what model they should buy, specifically. I can't tell you what model to buy … in the same way I couldn't tell you what kind of car to buy, or what flavor of Life Savers you should like. You have to choose one that fits YOU. (Scary, I know.)

First off, remember that most of the choices ahead of you are good. Your life will not be ruined if you buy the "wrong" machine. No one will mock or scorn you for not optimizing your purchase to the utmost. Remember that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and with sewing machines (and with other things like digital cameras and so forth) the more time you spend reading about them the more high-end features will seem like necessities … and so your "dream machine" will get more and more expensive (and further and further out of reach).

These instructions are predicated on my assumption that you don't have a lot of money to spend on a machine. If you just won the lottery, have a rich uncle, or are independently wealthy, just buy whatever you see first. If it turns out wrong you can just go buy another one.

So. To buy a sewing machine, first you need to figure out whether you are an experienced machine user or not. If you have never used a sewing machine, then that answers the question: you are not. In that case, WHAT machine you buy is a lot less important than WHERE you buy it. You want to buy locally, from someone who offers classes, and who will guarantee the machine and offers a good warranty for repairs. (The exception to this rule: if you want to buy a machine from a friend who is upgrading her machine and promises she will teach you how to use it … and you believe her … go ahead and do it. Otherwise, buy from a local shop.)

Go to your local shop (if you're lucky enough to have one!) and tell 'em right off you're not buying that day, only looking. If you are a complete novice, tell them that. Ask to try out some machines. Better yet, if some place near you offers sewing classes, take one before even thinking about buying your own machine. You'll get comfortable with the classroom machine and will know what you like and dislike about it, and then you'll be able to articulate what you want in your own machine (automatic threading, a knee lift, whatever). Take notes. Tell them what you sew (dresses? handbags? quilts? fabric art? Someone who alters a lot of jeans needs a sturdier machine than someone who makes organza wall hangings, for instance.), ask for recommendations, try things out, write down model numbers, and tell them you'll be back. Ask if there are things that people usually ask that you're not asking. (This is a good question for buying just about anything. You'd be surprised how many people selling things don't answer the questions you should be asking. "Most people who come in to buy a howitzer ask about the kick. This one has quite a bit of a kick … this one over here is a little softer.")

If you're new to sewing, definitely try for a used machine from your local shop. Ask about their trade-in policy. Most shops will be happy (or SHOULD BE HAPPY) to sell you something a bit simpler and then have you trade it for something fancier later, rather than sell you something so intricate you'll never use it and never come back.

If you are an intermediate-level machine user (you've taken a couple of classes, made some skirts or tote bags), you probably know roughly what you like in a machine, and I recommend buying a used machine that was higher-end when it was new. Something with a good straight stitch and a good zigzag and maybe a buttonhole function, but not a lot of fancy embroidery stitches (unless embroidery stitches are your reason for sewing). Again, trying things out at a local shop is a good idea for you. You can also do the whole Craigslist/PennySaver/estate sale thing, too, if there's a good local repair shop you trust, because the price of a used machine plus a tuneup (my tuneups usually run $80) is cheap enough to be worth it. (Try to see if someone selling you a used machine will let you bring it back to them if the repair shop says it's not repairable. An estate sale won't let you do this, and if the machine is under $100 probably a Craigslist seller won't either. If the machine turns on and runs it is probably tune-uppable. If it won't run at all, makes horrible grinding noises, or smokes … not so much. Also, don't buy something that seems to be missing a lot of parts.) If you buy this kind of machine, you'll know when you've outgrown it — you'll start wanting to make things that need special presser feet or you'll start being picky about the quality of your topstitching. Then you can upgrade.

Beginning and intermediate machine users: do not buy machines that are:

— in a mass-market store like Walmart or Target. They are usually intended for small home alterations, not serious sewing. There are exceptions, but if you're not an experienced user you won't know if you have found an exception. Also, these model numbers change a lot so it's hard to find good reviews online … (if anyone knows different or has "good" models that are available at these places, please leave them in the comments)!

— are advertised as "special class machines" or "special buys". They're not and they aren't. They're usually low-end no-name models and won't come with classes or a good warranty.

— themed with any kind of licensed character. The money they spent to license Barbie or Hello Kitty or whatever is money they didn't spend making the machine comparable to other machines at the same price.

If you are an experienced machine user, then you need to figure out your price range. Figure out your price range and then ONLY LOOK AT MACHINES IN THAT PRICE RANGE, unless you want to suffer wow-feature creep. Wow-feature creep is what happens when you see that the next machine up (that is $200 more) not only has automatic buttonholes, but also orders you new buttons from the internet every time you use one (for example) … wow! Now only a button-ordering machine will do … if you are tempted by wow-feature creep, can you make a list of FIVE projects you've ever made that special feature X would have helped you complete? Just one doesn't count. And a special wow-feature that requires ANOTHER purchase (like extra software, etc.) needs to have ten projects to justify it or it double doesn't count.

Once you have a firm grasp on your budget (you may have to wrassle with it a bit; I find it helps to point out to myself that I bought my first machine for $140 and used it for fifteen years; what does your price look like spread over fifteen years? A lot better, right?) sit down and make a list. What do you like about your current machine, and what don't you like? I liked that my old New Home was quiet, simple, and made nice stitches. I didn't like that the bobbin was complicated to load, and that it didn't make good buttonholes. So what I was looking for was a machine that did everything my New Home does AND made good automatic buttonholes and had a drop-in bobbin.

Then (and this is important) set yourself a time limit. Say "I'm going to research machines for [one hour, one day, one week, one month]" and then STOP. If you leave it open-ended you will never buy anything. Think "satisficing". To satisfice is "to decide on and pursue a course of action that will satisfy the minimum requirements necessary to achieve a particular goal" [OED]. Don't look for a perfect machine; look for a GOOD ENOUGH machine. (Don't forget to figure in things like back-orders and so forth; a machine that has 9 of your 10 important features may be the best option if the all-10
machine won't get to you for two months.)

When you've found the good-enough option, BUY IT. And don't let yourself go back and read reviews of OTHER machines after you've placed your order. (That way lies madness.) Instead, re-read good reviews of the machine you've picked out and wallow in your happy choice. Make plans of what you'll sew first, second, third … Clean up your sewing area for the new arrival. Buy some new machine needles (unless the dealer threw in a pack for free, which they should, honestly). And buy it from wherever you like (although the local store is still a great option for instant gratification, if for nothing else).

Once you have your new machine, don't be intimidated. This is not brain science, or even rocket surgery. Get some fabric scraps and some thread and sit down right now and work your way through the manual. Try every single thing it says your machine will do (this may take you a while). Don't put off trying something out just because you don't think you'll ever need it; once you see how easy something is you might find that the need magically appears. A sewing machine is not a terribly complicated device. Most microwave ovens are more complicated than a sewing machine! (I can never get my "defrost" setting to work right.) Don't stress about it. You can do it. Just jump right in and push all the buttons. If something doesn't work the way you think it should, better to know right away, too, while there's still a chance to return it. (If you find out in five months that the blind hemming foot has a crack in it, good luck returning it then.)

And that, my friends, is how you buy a sewing machine. (I've now bought two, I must be an expert, right?) Please feel free to leave other machine-buying tips in the comments …

Oh! And I almost forgot: Denise at The Blue Gardenia is having a BIG pattern sale! Buy 3 or more items, get 35% off! It runs through midnight (PST) TONIGHT.

0 thoughts on “How to Choose a Sewing Machine

  1. I guess that I’ll be the odd person out and say buy as much machine as you can afford. I totally agree that once you establish the amount you can pay, only look at machines in that range because it is easy to get sucked in. However, you do get what you pay for…I had a 2nd from top of the line Husqvarna and upgraded to a top of the line a couple of months ago and the performance improvement is apparent. I’m lucky to be in a place in life where I can afford a nice down payment and to carry a little debt on my machine and I wouldn’t recommend that others do the same unless you can really afford it. I guess what I’m saying is that spending several hundred extra today may save you from spending more in the future. Also, if you want to do decorative stuff the more advanced machines can’t be beat. Good luck everybody!

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  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m looking for a new and improved machine right now. Your advice is exactly what I needed to get me out of the research phase and into the trying and buying stage.

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  3. I have a Bernina 1230 that I’ve had for about 15 years. I love it and to my joy I discovered that a shank adapter allows me to use the attachments – including buttonholer – from my mother’s WWII era Singer. The buttonholes this attachment makes are far superior to those made by the built-in Bernina mechanism because you can change the width of the hole itself, not just the width of the stitches.Other manufacturers’ shank adapters might allow the same and it’s easy to find old attachments on eBay. This might help save some money.

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  4. I guess I’m the odd man out, because I have a 20+ year old bottom-end Brother (Mom got it at Costco, I think) that still sews what I need, and a 40s-era Singer-clone that is my little turquoise workhorse. I’d love a Viking Designer SE and will get one, one of these days.A lot of it is taking care of what you’ve got, and regular tune-ups have saved my old machines, and my old serger.

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  5. I tried buying older, all-metal machines from garage sales and thrift stores. They seemed fine at first but turned out to have issues that were expensive or impossible to fix. [Thankfully most thrift stores have a 3-day return warranty on sewing machines!]I decided to wait until my local sewing shop had a sale and bought a new machine that came with sewing classes and a good warranty. It’s easier to thread and use and isn’t missing anything.

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  6. This is one topic that most women find as interesting as child birth! I also think sewing machines are like cars. Your first becomes the best one ever. I learned to sew on 70’s era Kenmore. I tried a few others over the years, but recently when it was time for a new machine, I found a 70’s era Kenmore on Craigslist and we couldn’t be happier!

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  7. Fabulous topic, and great advice, Erin. I learned to sew on a Singer ‘portable’: a heavy green monster my mother bought in 1958, still has, and even uses on occasion, though I refuse to do so because it won’t hold its stitch length. I have suggested for years that she donate it to the Smithsonian, but I doubt she could afford the shipping costs. I was given a Featherweight by my whole family when I graduated from high school–what do you think they had in mind???–and used it for 30 years, then bought a Bernina 1260 which I love. It’s the last metal Bernina and was a store demo/classroom model. It’s been great and I plan to keep it as long as I continue to sew. (Translation : as long as I live and/or can sew.) I also have a Janome Gem Gold 660 which I bought w/ a quilting kit, including a walking foot, so that I have a lightweight machine to take to classes or to family sewing marathons. Or to my mother’s house to do her mending. (My niece has my Featherweight and I needed more features for classes.)I like the Gem Gold, but it is kind of slow.saidee

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  8. Stopping in briefly to wish Erin and all a very Happy New Year, and to point out that my beloved Singer, on which I have made many an intricate item, and which I have sworn at for decades:* was made the year I was born: 1957;* was purchased third-hand when I was in high school;* cost the grand sum of $45 at the time (it’s cost me more than that to tune it, and worth every penny);* is still in use and will always own my heart, even though it doesn’t make buttonholes;* is a Singer 306W, for those who are curious and/or desperate enough to throw their hands in the air and say: Gimme one of THOSE!So. It’s not all about how new, how much, or what the MACHINE can do. Grandma’s machine, if it’s still working, may be exactly what you want to start on…. Although, can anyone tell me why the greatest number of buttonhole styles are found on machines specifically designed for either embroidery or quilting??? Because I ALWAYS button my quilts onto my bed … as opposed to, say, jackets or coats….

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  9. Spot on comments! I also think that less is more when it comes to sewing machines. I do simple sewing, so there’s no need for me to have a fancy machine. I use my machine several times a year–not constantly, but frequently. Therefore it spends a lot of time in its box. IMO, the fewer bells and whistles that can break during that time (and won’t get used anyway), the better.

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  10. Hello, found site by accident…after, go figure, days and hours looking on the net for information on how to buy a first embroidery/sewing machine? Still, no answer even though I know my price range, etc. Long story short have a Bernina 830, and won’t give it up…would like to embroider (auto) for my 18 grandchildren..Recently, quit work for awhile. Please, help me someone? No more “it depends on your needs PLEASE! Thanks Mona… I raised six sons and know how to sew.

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  11. Mother of six sons, 18 grandchildren and one great…Know how to sew…have spent multiple hours searching for embroidery machine and I do know my price range. Own a Bernina 830… Need help, I really want to try new embroidery machine…don’t know how to pick..please help…not commited to a right or wrong suggestion PLEASE. Thanks Mona

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  12. Right after they were married, 36 years ago, my dad bought my mom a Pfaff 1222. It was the top of the line then and the 1222 series was the last line of all-metal sewing machines that Pfaff made. When we started having major tension problems last year, we went on ebay in search of another. Why the same model? Well, it does everything I need it to do, and it still is running well after 36 years. I have fond memories of that old Pfaff. I learned to sew on it. Our local shop told us that it couldn’t be fixed. Ha! I took it home, cleaned and oiled it myself, and found out that their so-called “cracked” drive belt was cracks in the sticker, not the belt. Turns out that the problem was the bobbin case, which I obtained a new one on ebay for $25.’Course, this was after we’d gotten a 1222E. :) The 1222 still belongs to my mom, but the 1222E is now mine. Sews beautifully, though as with the 1222, the tension can be a little touchy. What can I say? After so many years working with it, I’m intimately familiar with its quirks. I wouldn’t trade for a new model on a bet. It sews a good many embroidery stitches, straight, zig-zag, a few other misc. stitches, can darn socks, blind hem, quilt… This is both of them BTW. In most cases, I think, the older metal models are much, much better than the newer, plastic ones

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  13. If you are a beginner (like me) its worthwhile considering what sewing machine makes things:a) Easy to use; Single-step button hole, automatic threader, free arm, suggested stitch length width for each style, enough feet included to perform all stitch functions it offers. b) Easy to make your garmet stitches look good under a novices hands; Extra presser feet to enable a quick, clean proffesional looking seam (make sure they offer narrow wide hemmer feet, and ideally a Lap Seam foot) In my comparison of sewing machines of Bernina, Janome Brother. Bernina came out in front. Considering both points a) b) above, Bernina Bernette 66 won (heaps of feet including 7 hemmer feet). Janome Sew525s came second (2 hemmer feet available), and Brother PS55 last (it has only sells a 2mm narrow hemmer foot)

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  14. Thank you so muuuuch for this post! I found it on google while searching “good sewing machines”, haha, go figure!I really liked your insight and linked this post to my own blog, hope you do not mind me sharing your helpful post. ;]Alexis

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  15. While Singer has been been bought and sold a number of times, with wide variances in quality from year to year and model to model, Singer is now part and parcel of the group that owns Husqvarna-Viking, White, and Pfaff. I am uncertain if any of their really low-end models such as you will find in Wal-Mart are up to par, but the ones in JoAnn Fabrics sewing centers are sold along with the Vikings by the same people, so they have something to offer customers who cant budget for a Viking, but want something decent. A friend who works there tells me the Singers are a good value in a quality, modestly priced machine

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  16. To Grams: It is possible to spend 10K on a TOL sewing/embroidery machine after you figure in the software, etc. One thing sew-ers seem to overlook is that while that fancy new machine is embroidering, you cant do any garment sewing or mending on it. The Happy Voyager is a stand alone embroidery-only machine that will let you load six colors of thread simultaneously and walk away, allowing you to sew on another machine.How big are the designs you wish to embroider? Stand alone embroidery machines start at 400.00. If you have no desire to do the mega huge designs that all the manufacturers are touting, but cant you crank out enough clothes, bibs and blankies with horses, dogs,dinosaurs and dollies on them, you could be money ahead to buy two are three stand alone embroidery machines that have a maximum stitching design area of 4 x 4If you want to venture off of the pre-programmed designs in the machine, YOUR COMPUTER SKILLS BECOME AN ESSENTIAL FACTOR IN YOUR SATISFACTION AFTER THE PURCHASE OF THE MACHINE. If you have no computer skills and are unwilling to learn, then forget about machine embroidery, you will only frustrate yourself every time you see it there sitting idle. Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones.If you are going to proceed with the purchase of a hight end machine, Husqvarna-Viking would be my recommendation. They are the most user friendly, (and I have tried them all,) and they have the largest dealer and service network of any sewing machine brand in the country, including Bernina and Pfaff. Their user satisfaction is rated very high, and usually any unresolved complaints can be placed on the dealer. I do not work for ANY sewing machine brand, remember I did suggest looking at other options to a TOL sewing/embroidery machine first. Good luck.

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  17. I have had one of the Wal-Mart Brother machines that you suggest people avoid for almost 15 years. Ive had it tuned up a couple times (the snobby Brother shop wouldnt even look at it) and it keeps on trucking. I recently discovered the joys of specialized feet that turn the 6 stitches I use into something special. I should upgrade, but I love this machine.

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  18. I learned to sew on a Singer portable: a heavy green monster my mother bought in 1958, still has, and even uses on occasion, though I refuse to do so because it wont hold its stitch length. I have suggested for years that she donate it to the Smithsonian, but I doubt she could afford the shipping costs. I was given a Featherweight by my whole family when I graduated from high school–what do you think they had in mind???–and used it for 30 years, then bought a Bernina 1260 which I love. Its the last metal Bernina and was a store demo/classroom model. Its been great and I plan to keep it as long as I continue to sew. (Translation : as long as I live and/or can sew.) I also have a Janome Gem Gold 660 which I bought w/ a quilting kit, including a walking foot, so that I have a lightweight machine to take to classes or to family sewing marathons. Or to my mothers house to do her mending. (My niece has my Featherweight for sewing Costumes and I needed more features for classes.)I like the Gem Gold, but it is kind of slowhttp://thekidscostumes.com/

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  19. I know Im two years late to the party here, but I wanted to tell you this is an awesome post! Not just for buying a sewing machine, but for buying almost anything. Great job!I just started sewing four weeks ago and now have four machines. Not quite as crazy as it sounds; two I inherited (a Singer from the 20s and a National from the 30s), and one is a gorgeous 1920s Singer treadle I bought for next to nothing because I wanted a treadle machine. The fourth I just got, because I wanted a modern machine. Its a Pfaff 360 from 1962 that I got for $25 from craigslist and tuned up myself (as I did the others), and it works perfectly!

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  20. Erin,

    This is the absolutely BEST article on buying a sewing machine I have read yet! I am a seasoned seamstress and am looking for a new machine and found your article to be encouraging and to the point! Bravo for your common sense!

    Stephanie

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  21. Recently retired. Sewed a little in my teens . Have my Mom’s old Singer, but overwhelmed with how to use it. Looking at Singer Talent and Singer Stylist . Any recommendations of one over the other?Thanks, Susan

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  22. I Am recently retired. Sewed a little in my teens . Have my Mom’s old Singer, but overwhelmed with how to use it. Looking at Singer Talent and Singer Stylist . Any recommendations of one over the other?

    Thanks, Susan

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  23. All these years later, I am wondering if this lost was written for me! I’ve narrowed my field down to three-ish models, each in a different price range. I am always looking for the perfect thing, and afraid of choosing the “wrong” one. Thank you for your common sense guidance, advice, and warnings!

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  24. All these years later, I am wondering if this post was written for me! I’ve narrowed my field down to three-ish models, each in a different price range. I am always looking for the perfect thing, and afraid of choosing the “wrong” one. Thank you for your common sense guidance, advice, and warnings!

    Like

  25. I love vintage machines. I learned to sew on old Kenmores and an older Viking. One of the Kenmores was very fussy. It never quite fit. My grandmother’s straight stitch Kenmore was my favorite machine. It was simple but always functioned as it was asked to. The Viking drove me crazy. It was an early computerized model and I sewed too fast for it. Finding a machine is like trying on shoes. Many styles, lots will fit but only a few will be comfortable over time.

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  26. I have a two Brother sewing machines.a Morse .and a treadle Singer . But I don’t care what anyones say I love my Brother machines. I have had one for over 6 years and the other for 4 years. And I they sew wonderfull. .I hear about BabyLock, Bernina and Janome .But there are too much for my income. Even just the plain no frills ones cost too much. And I want a sewing machine with lots of stiches ,not just zigzag and straight stitch. Because I make doll clothes and like to use the fancy stitches. The Morse sewing machine is a nice machine but its too heavy to lift . The treadle needs work done on it .I started sewing when I was a kid . Because I liked to make doll clothes.I was never good at making me clothes.So I make my own curtains ,quilts and doll clothes. Im not a beginner at sewing Walmart does have nice sewing machines. That’s were mine came from

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