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.

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79 thoughts on “How to Choose a Sewing Machine

  1. I just bought a new machine, and your comments are pretty spot-on. However, there are areas (like where I live) where the ONLY small shop that sells machines and will let you try them out sells Berninas. Out of my price range. So one option between the big discount stores and that is somewhere like Sears. You can’t try the machine out (at my Sears, anyway) but their customer service is good and you can return the machine within ninety days, and they have a service center you can take it to after that. I purchased the extended service plan, too, because my old Kenmore was mostly metal, and the new one I bought is mostly plastic, and I just have this feeling that the little plastic doohickeys are going to give me trouble.

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  2. Here’s my sewing machine buying story. Not really a tip other than “be lucky”.So I learned to sew from my Mom who has an Elna from the 1970s. It’s a sturdy old machine with lots of metal parts and these cool disks for different satin stitch patterns that I used to like playing with. The idea of buying a machine of my own was kind of intimidating because all new machines looked all breakable and plastic and computerized too! I was used to everything being obvious and manual… no menus or software to break. Then there was the fact that $100 couldn’t get much. So I put it out of my mind and figured I’d get a sewing machine “one day”.Then one day, I was cruising craigslist for no apparent reason and saw the words “Elna sewing machine”… imagine my surprise because I wasn’t even looking for a sewing machine at that point. But there it was, just like my Mom’s and only $100. They must have really wanted to get rid of it too because it also came in a sewing desk (you know the kind where it fold down inside when you’re not using it and folds open to create a long flat sewing surface). They even delivered it, and I tested it out on the front sidewalk, sewing on some old painting jeans. It turned out that it had belonged to the seller’s grandmother, but the seller didn’t sew and had no space for it. All the old lady’s sewing stuff was still jumbled in the drawers: thread and a million feet and the original receipt. There was even this little dolly-sized plastic green purse-shaped thing holding one of those plastic kerchiefs that older women use to cover their hairdos when it’s raining unexpectedly. For $100 I got a sewing machine, desk, sewing accessories, and a glimpse into someone’s life.

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  3. The one thing I wish I knew more about was motor size – I only ever use straight stitch, zigzag and one stretch stitch, but with three kids, I always needed to repair zippers on outdoor coats, patch blue jeans in inaccessible places, fix bookbags, etc. If I’d thought about it the last time I got a sewing machine, I would have looked for something with a larger motor — but just was/am not familiar with what is usually found on a home machine vs. an industrial machine…what people were offering, etc.

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  4. I think your comments are spot on, but there is one more thing to keep in mind — sorry folks, but brand really matters. Some companies make consistently good machines, some companies make crap. One of the tragedies of US manufacturing over the past 30 years, IMHO, is that Singer used to make great machines, and now they make crap. Kenmore also used to be good. Now, crap. The top of the line, I believe, are Bernina and Pfaff. You are better off buying a lower end B or P than a Brother with lots of stitches, because a good machine has good bobbin tension, makes consistent top stitches, has a good walking foot, and won’t make you crazy. I have a good computerized Bernina with knee lift, and the dual/better motor. Smooth as a kitten and purrs like one two, and sews beautifully. However, I have always had two machines, and I had a fire which destroyed my old bernina and my old back up mechanical (an old, and hence good, singer). I went to a local fabric shop and bought a used (like you said, purchased as an entry level machine then traded back in to the shop for an upgrade), entry level, mechanical not computerized, Husqvarna — another very good brand. Got it for $150, with 1 year warranty. While its not as much of a pure pleasure to sew with (not as quiet, a little vibration, only one motor speed) its a fine sturdy machine that sews very nicely and would be a good choice for a beginner.Ask other sewers about brands, if you are a newbie. I’ve heard good things about Janome, and some not so good.

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  5. It’s odd, as everyone (not just on this post) complains about the quality of Singer machines– I bought my Singer machine two years ago, from Wal-mart, and it has since served me rather well. It can sew through four layers of denim, I’ve have no problems sewing on zippers. the only problem I’ve noticed is difficulty sewing a very dense silk– which could just be that I don’t have any extra sharp needles right now. It’s good for an introductory machine. I know that I won’t be using it forever, as someday I’d like to get in to more complicated sewing like corsetry, but for what I do now (making skirts, dresses, blouses, etc.), it works perfectly, and has never had to serviced in the two & half years I’ve had it.

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  6. Thank you for a really wonderful post. I’m often asked about this topoc but have no idea how to answer it. I worked in a costume shop with nothing but Berninas nearly 20 years ago and was really spoiled. So I saved until I could get one of my own, which I love dearly.

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  7. I thought Janome actually made Kenmore machines now. My (Sears-brand) Kenmore looks a lot like the photos I see of some Janomes.As for the machine itself, it does great unless I ask too much of it. Unfortunately, as a quilter, I seem to be asking too much of it on a fairly regular basis lately. I’m thinking about gifting it to a family member and upgrading. General advice I’d give is, if one feature or stitch is really important to you, don’t compromise on that. For example, I wish I had better quilting stitches. So going back to the start, if I’d been able to spend an extra hundred dollars to get a different variety of stitches, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

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  8. I love the old metal machines.My mother got her Singer Touch-N-Sew as a high school graduation gift in 1966 (it was the new 1967 model) and that thing is indestructible. She took it in for professional servicing after using it for 25 years and the man commented that she obviously didn’t use it much–it had almost no wear. She uses it all the time! She’s made tents with it! I’ve always got my eye out at garage sales and thrift stores for a second one for myself because, since I’m not interested in embroidery or fancy stitches (although hers does buttonholes and has some simple decorative settings), there’s really nothing else I’d rather have. Mom has never even considered getting a newer machine. She got a big custom sewing table built for the old Singer a few years ago and is happy as a clam.She’s also got a 1950’s Singer Featherweight and my grandmother’s 1936 Singer (complete with art deco cabinet), and they sew great.I have an early 1970’s Nelco, a defunct Taiwanese brand, with all-metal parts, but I like the bobbin set-up of Mom’s Singer better. Still, I imagine the Nelco will be a good machine, too, if I ever have room at my own place to sew anything and can stop running over to my parents’ every time I need a sewing machine.

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  9. Erin, I read your blog regularly and am always entertained and amused. Keep it up. On a side note, I can darn a sock, and that’s about it. Does anyone have any suggestions on what would be the best route to learning how to sew. I enjoy learning .

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    • Hey Joseph,
      I just found this blog today so I’m sure you’ve already found an answer to your question of where you could learn to sew. I suggest taking lessons from a local sewing shop, because they take more time to make sure you understand what your doing and answer any questions you have. I have also learned and have now taken a couple sewing classes at a store called Jo Ann fabrics its good for basic learning and they ALWAYS have a coupon for half off their classes. Its a good place to start if your on a tight budget, but then I suggest taking at least one class at a local shop to make sure your getting taught everything you should know
      Good luck, jane

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  10. Very, very well said.I’d like to emphasize what you said about buying an older high-end machine. You get so much more bang for the buck, and if the sewing machine store is reselling it they’ll probably stand behind it if something serious goes wrong. Unlike cars, well-made sewing machines can last 50 years and more with only minor repairs.If you do buy used, take a good look at the set of presser feet included. Presser feet can be a big expense, esp. for foreign machines like the Bernina; if you have a choice between two similar machines, get the one with more presser feet, if you’re going to be doing fancy sewing (zippers, quilting, pintucks, ruffling).IF (big if) you can do without a zigzag stitch, seriously consider the Singer Featherweight (the original, not the terrible recent reissue.) It is a workhorse; machines from the 1930s are still purring along and making their owners very, very happy. Quilters adore them. They can cost $400-600 if you buy them from a dealer, but if you see one in a yard sale, BUY IT. http://planetpatchwork.com/fweight.htmI have made it clear to my mother that hers, on which I learned to sew (40s vintage; she bought it used in the 1950s), and which she is still happily using, is one of two things that I specifically want left to me in the will. God send I don’t get it for a very long time.

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  11. I bought a used Brother sewing machine in 1978, as an 18 year old bride, for $40. It’s still purring along, although I bought another Brother in 1990 which would blind hem. The second one bit the dust 2 years ago, and I’m now using a Singer. My 3 girls learned on my original Brother, and I’ve bought each of them good used, all metal machines (Janome & Singer) from a local store. I also bought myself a serger from that same store, and the lady there was wonderful. She actually talked my husband into buying me the serger, when I didn’t even know anything about them, and it’s done about a million miles of seams in the last decade. She showed me how to use it, invited me in for free classes, etc. Joseph would be well served to go find a lady like our little city’s Jan who runs sewing classes (he’d also likely find, as my sons have, that they LOVE to teach men anything)!

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  12. My story is about luck too. My husband went to the grocery store to get some important supply when we had a newborn. He stopped at a thrift store, where they had a Bernina 830 for $100. He hesitated for a second, because he wasn’t supposed to be stopping anywhere, he was supposed to be coming straight home! Then he bought it, and it’s an amazing machine.I just got a Hello Kitty machine from Target for my six year old. It’s the “green” one. It’s made by Janome, and honestly, once I switched the plastic bobbins for metal, it sews really well. It feels like a real machine. I don’t know how it would work for an adult, but it seems like a great starter machine for a kid, with good features and not too expensive. All the reviews on Target.com are good also.

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  13. All great advice… and the diversity of comments just sharpens the point of finding the one that is right for you.I want to underline the part about trying everything in the manual. I, an experienced sewer already, signed up for the features class offered by my local shop after I purchased my new machine. Over a period of many Saturdays I tested out stitches and feet that I never heard of before and loved every minute of it. You are never so experienced that you can’t learn something new. : )p.s. I am a Bernina devotee..

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  14. have the green hello kitty machine, and it was terrible until i got it a tune-up at the sewing machine store. at first they told me it was a “toy” and it wasn’t designed to sew miles of denim together. it has been a workhorse ever since, even sewing through to quilt/sew multiple layers of felt(!). it was a gift, what can you do?

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  15. I love reading the Secret Lives of Dresses (they’re how I discovered your blog, actually, through a link.) And I love seeing the stuff you’re making and are inspired by.But I really really love your matter-of-fact, here’s how to get through it posts about choosing clothes/styles and the like. They are fabulous! Thank you!

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  16. Great suggestions. My suggestion is that when you are checking out the machines at the dealers, be sure to read through the owner’s manual: are the instructions clear? are there illustrations? I know that when I sew, I’m sewing alone late at night and I have to refer to the owners manual for help (tips on threading, bobbin winding, etc). Make sure the manual makes sense to you.

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  17. I took a class at my local fabric store to learn how to sew. I used a Pfaff Hobby 1042 and after the class I purchased the same model. Is there a machine that is better for me? Probably. Is there one that didn’t cost most of a month’s rent? Probably. I love this machine and it is easy to use; I mostly sew straight lines or use it to applique-I’m a quilter, mostly. I am itching for a longarm programmable machine, but I don’t think that’s in my near financial future. Here’s my question-I have never changed the needle. When should I do so? How often should I do so? I wonder if my fear of changing the needle is making my (sewing) life unnessecarily hard.

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  18. My lucky break came this November. My Singer was giving me a hard time- 3 times in the shop in the past year for timing problems. I think it just plain ole wasn’t capable of going 900 miles an hour like I wanted it to- the thing was maybe 20 years old but of the not made as well genre. Anyhoo, the shop where I get my repairs done happened to have some old workhorse models that had been brought in for repairs then never picked up. Per the contracts, after a year, they are free to sell the machine. I got a nice older Singer workhorse with a better threading system than what I had. The machine does more and is consistently better than my other SInger ever was. The shop owner contracted to fix any problems I have over the next year(!) should anything happen.Check out repair shops to see if they have any ready for sale. You might be able to get better for less than you ever dreamed (my “new” machine was only $45).

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  19. Melanie,You should change the needle after every project (although I sometimes forget and use one for two or three dresses in a row). If you noticed skipped stitches, broken thread, bigger than usual holes in your fabric where the needle goes in … you definitely need a new one!Go ahead and get out your manual and swap in a new needle. It’s not hard! Just make sure you have it going in the right way — my machines all want the flat part of the needle to the back and the round to the front. Some machines won’t even let the needle fit the wrong way …

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  20. I love my Pfaff 2140 – it is amazing. But just to illustrate that other machines can be good, I needed a machine in 2002. My husband had just been laid off from his job after 9/11 and money was tight. I bought a plain White machine for $200 with just a few stitches and it has served me well since. When my husband was happily employed again he bought me the Pfaff with EVERYTHING as a surprise gift for our 25th anniversary. I love it to pieces, but you can be happy with any machine that is easy to use and reliable. He bought me a serger for Christmas and now I have to learn to use that. It will be fun, but shhh, if I had to, I could get by just fine with my simple White Machine that I bought online for $200.

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  21. Thanks Erin!Every project?!! I have been sewing with the same needle since Christmas 2004. Huh. I have not noticed any skipped stitches or anything like that. Occasionally I will get a snarl at the beginning of the seam, but I always chalked that up to the bobbin. I bet there will be a great difference when I finally do make the swap.

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  22. Erin…and Sharon, great advice on buying machines. I have a Bernina that I got back in ’91(?) that has given me NO trouble, and a Singer Featherweight from my mother in law(she got it in ’52). I have 5 daughters, there will be a fight over the Singer when I’m gone. I found a ’77 Singer Golden Touch and Sew for a dd last year at a local shop, and it is a great machine. For those who are experienced at sewing, you might be able to find something on ebay, if you already know what you want(if something bad ever happens to my Bernina, I will buy the same model there).

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  23. Great column! It is so much more important to know your own needs than to know everything about every machine out there.I bought a Bernina 850 when I was 19 (29 years ago)which cost about double the price of my first car the same year. My friends thought I was a profligate spender. But I knew what I needed. I still use the machine constantly. I’ve had 7 cars! And the warranty on my Bernina won’t be up till next July. At 19, I had already been sewing for 11 years, mostly on my Mom’s Pfaff. I had already made hundreds of costumes for school musicals and all my own clothes. Last year I bought another Bernina of the same model and age, from a work-friend who thought she would use it but actually did not. It’s like having a clone of my first love! Can’t go wrong.

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  24. Thank you for posting this. I’m very carefully not looking at anything sewing-related in my daily life, but it’s good to know that when I cave, I have some resources.

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  25. Congrats on the new machine, Erin!My two cents to add is that if you do upgrade to a newer machine from one of those old metal workhorses with limited features, keep the old machine around if you have the space. My mom’s 1950’s Kenmore only goes forward and back, no zigzag, but it will sew through leather no problem and happily eats up miles of straight seams at high speed. The old school machines are more like today’s light industrial. anna

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  26. You give very sound advice! But I will say that when I bought my machine earlier this year (it was not really my first, that first one was bought from a friend and used a very short time before I replaced it) – I chose a low end machine that had all the features I wanted (I was beginning to quilt). After a bit of online research I bought a Brother that cost only about $200 and although it’s the type of machine you might find at a chain store, that machine has so far made 2 beautiful quilts and several clothing items. And I didn’t try out it first. So, you never know. If I continue to quilt for many years I will certainly invest in a workhorse. But I think it’s fine to go mainstream brand for a first machine.

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  27. I have to weigh in with allison and canine diamond on the subject of older, all-metal machines.I have the viking that my parents bought new in 1969. It was an $800 machine in 1969, but my mother used it day-in and day-out for twenty-five years, taught about fifteen girls to sew on it as a 4-h leader, and then generously let me have it when she upgraded in about 1995; I don’t do the volume of sewing she did, but I’ve used it pretty steadily for the last twelve years. It’s never had anything but a tune-up, and it’s only really needed tune-ups after major moves. twice I’ve seen similar machines, once at a yard sale and once at a goodwill; once in a carry case with all the cams; the other time, like allison’s Elna, in a sewing machine table with all feet, cams, /and/ the instruction book. The one in the table was about $150; the other was less than $100.Other people have recommended the singer featherlight, but there were many machines made from the 50s to the 70s that are GREAT machines. Unless you’re desperate to embroider, there’s not much you can’t do with just a straight stich and a zig-zag, and with one of these older machines, you can straight stitch and zig-zag into FOREVER.Like Erin says, stay away from loud grinding noises and smoke, but if you find an operational machine that is all metal and one of the big brands – Viking, Singer, New Home, etc. – and it runs, you might want to snatch it up. I’d watch estate and yard sales for these, because there’s a whole generation of women who bought one of these in the 50s or 60s and used it until arthritis took their hands or dementia took their minds, and kept the machine with all its parts in her house under a dust cover next to a stack of mending all this time. And many of those women’s children are getting rid of these machines as their mothers pass or go to nursing homes.Every time I’ve seen one, I want to rescue it and bring it home and love it–I have a part of my brain that produces “secret lives of sewing machines” entries unbiddin . . . Of course, again, part of the “advice” here is “be lucky,” but I’ve seen enough of these that I know they’re out there.Oh, and one last thing–you can often find old manuals either as .pdfs or on ebay.

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  28. Thank you, Erin! I needed that, I think I will have to start at my shop, I’m just so intimidated. I’m ready for a grown-up machine with fancy stitches and feet, to take me through the next 30 years or so.My only disagreement is with your advice to newbies – old machines from garage sales and CL are harder to thread, are sticky, have motor issues, have tension problems, don’t come with manuals, etc., etc. I don’t argue that there are gems out there, they are just hard to recognize if you’ve never sewn before. When my mom and I taught sewing in 4-H people would “donate” old machines, and after someone put in the $100 or so to fix it up, they were still hard to use, and many kids never made it past that (when a 12 year old runs over her finger because the machine went too fast, its hard to get her back). Eventually we just sold them off and gave the money back to the club, and worked with our local shop to acquire newer machines. A brand-new machine from walmart or overstock.com will cost you less than $100 (i.e., less than a tune up or any repair would cost you), and get you through your beginner years without you losing your sanity, setting your house on fire, or requiring stitches on things other than your garments.

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  29. I have to agree with the above comments- if you can get your hands on an old powerhorse machine, do!I have two machines- both “inherited” so to speak. My aunt gave me her Singer Rocketeer, the Singer 503. It can handle denim and just about anything. I had some trouble with silky fabrics, but again that was more a needle issue than a machine issue- it does everything basic VERY well, and just won’t die.I also have a Singer Athena from 1975 or so- my Mom bought it new, and I still have it in the original cabinet. It makes the best buttonholes of any machine I’ve used, and although it requires more maintenance than the Rocketeer it is amazing and delicious to use- and has a decent variety of stitches. I haven’t played with it much yet, but the Athena is getting me back into sewing. Why spend lots of money on a “new” machine when my two old ones run beautifully and do everything I need (for now)? Feature creep gets me every time I look at getting a new machine, so I’ll stick with what I have until my alteration skills are a lot better.When sourcing machines, don’t forget to ask family. Your aunt or cousin might be hanging on to an old machine after upgrading, but would be willing to part with it for a beginner or someone looking to improve their skills. And I’ve seen some great working machines (Athenas in particular) going for very reasonable prices.

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  30. This is what my sewing machine repairman told me, the best machines are made in Brazil, then Japan, followed by Taiwan. He said never buy any one (regardless of brand) made in China -Unless it says “assembled in China with parts made in Japan.” He said machines sold in Sears, Wal Mart, and Target (and even Big Box Fabric Stores) are the low end version of the brand Machine. He said whatever brand you buy – buy from an authorized dealer. He came to fix my costly Brother, and told me it wasn’t worth fixing (even though he did) He fixed a 30 year old Voque Stitch for me too and only charged for fixing the Voque stitch. The problem with my Brother is the little take up that pulls the bobbin thread up is made of aluminum and it gets bent. I sew a dress and have to take my machine abart, take pliers, bend the piece back in place (it’s guess, try, adjust, sew). I have been nursing it along for about 8 months. My husband promises me a new machine for my birhtday (he bought the first -researched it himself) He’s been looking at Juki – he found them becaue he was looking at industrail Toyota sewing machines, which would require their own building, let alone sewing room. I hope this helps.

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  31. Over the years I’ve sewn, about 45 now, I’ve used many different machines. I’ve never been lucky enough to have a commercial model but have had several home machines that worked like one! There was everything from an old Singer Featherweight from the 30’s (I better inherit that one some day!) that I learned on to a very high end computer machine from when they first started showing up in stores (I hated it thoroughly!) to a medium price dressmaker that did a lot of sewing. I’ve had several other basic machines of different kinds and all worked fairly well. The ones that worked the best were all metal, they just hold up better when you sew many different fabrics all the time and can take the abuse many of us unknowingly dish out! I’m using a machine now that I picked up in a thrift store and had tuned up. It’s a low end Singer, all metal, does a few Zig-Zag stitches, and it lets me use the buttonhole attachment from the 1930 Singer to make buttonholes because I like the way they look. This machine will sew through 3 or 4 thicknesses of denim as easily as a lightweight cotton, so it’s fine for me. It has a sturdy motor and all metal gears. My dream, though, is to find a Singer 500A from the 60’s some day. My grandmother had one with all the cams and that machine would absolutely sew anything! I used it for many years after she died until it finally wore out. I really loved that machine.

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  32. I bought my first sewing machine only a year and a half ago. I got the Janome Sew Mini for $40 on sale from Hancocks – I had never sewn a STITCH and really couldn’t justify spending $100 and up on something that, for all I knew, I would only use for mending. My tiny cheap machine has actually served me rather well despite its limitations – I have skirts and dresses pretty much coming out of my ears at this point.Honestly, the reason I don’t have a ‘nicer’ machine by now is my budget. I’m *supposed* to be saving for a serger and at some point a machine that actually does buttonholes… BUT then I would have to stop buying fabric, and the store near me just got in a bunch of Alexander Henry. Honestly, what would YOU do?(p.s. Cindyb, I get dibs on the Singer. I will fight to the death.)

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  33. AND … if you’re in Chicago, shop at Complete Sewing Machine on Lawrence. Good guys who’ll take excellent care of you and your machine. Goldblatt’s, over in Wicker Park, is run by a meanyhead who makes fun of customers. Boo!

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  34. I too am a Bernina gal. I have a 1090S that is 12 yrs old (no crazy LCD screen), and just got a 950 Industrial from the hubby for Christmas 2 yrs ago. I had the needle bar replaced so both machines use the same presser feet and needles now! That makes a big difference. The great thing about the Berninas is the automatic stitch tension – once you have balanced tension all the time you can’t go back!! I instantly became a better sewer with the bernina cuz it just sews straighter. and the classes to learn about the machine were great.The biggest tips for any machine:*learn how to match stitch with thread and fabric *change the needle with every garment*learn how to clean and oil (also with every garment) even just blowing out the lint under the plate and in the bobbin area with canned air is HUGE. I have friends that complain about their machines not working right – then i go look under their plate and there’s practically a felted hat underneath! so no wonder the feed dogs weren’t moving the fabric forward, etc.

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  35. When I was in college, a relative gave me a Brother machine as a gift. It didn’t last too long because the inside parts bent out of shape. Ten years ago, my husband bought us a used Elna that was older than me for not much change from a local store. The guy even threw in extra doo-dads and a free tune-up later. That machine has made many garments, quilts, baby hooded towels, camping equipment, dive gear, etc. (my husband sews, too.) So I am all for the older workhorses with all metal parts, if you are just looking for something with simple stitches. My grandma is still sewing on her Singer from the 50’s, and she makes all her own clothes, always has. As with any machine, you have to maintain it. When I was growing up, I got in the habit of dusting out the machine and changing the needle before each project, and my mom would oil it every month or so. Now, it is second nature and has saved time, money, and exasperation later. I treat my machine nice and it serves me well!

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  36. Can I add my praises of old metal machines to the list? I’ve got my grandmother’s old MeisterWerke machine (bought by Viking, so it’s got a viking sticker over the MW) and it’s my first love. It’s not perfect – I’m sure it was a bottom-of-the-line version – it’s impossible to kill and when a problem comes up it’s something I can fix myself, nine times out of ten. Someday I hope to supplement it with a machine that can do nice buttonholes, decorative stitches, and has adjustable foot pressure but even then this machine will be my first one to go to. My friend let me borrow her Designer I for a while (good friend!) and neat as it was to play with I still prefer my cheap little metal machine! Anyway, GREAT advice to sewing machine buyers and a happy new year!

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  37. Great advice! I get a bit tired of all the questions that get posted on a well-known sewing forum by people agonizing endlessly about whether to buy this machine or that one – they are usually nearly identical except for some piddling detail. Just buy a machine and sew already!Toby Wollin: you don’t need a stronger motor, just the right needle and presser foot. I’ve made outdoor wear on my Janome DE5018, a mid-range mechanical, and had no problem sewing in the zippers.There are a lot of good machines out there. Janome, Babylock, Juki, some of the Brothers…it isn’t necessary to blow over a thousand on a high-end thing made by elves in Bavaria. (I have a Pfaff, but I don’t think it’s really any better than the Janome, apart from the built-in walking foot.) Most of them are made in the same factory anyway, and if the outer shell is plastic, well you don’t actually sew with the outer shell anyway.Rhoda in Calgary

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  38. Another thing about the old metal machines is that you could do so much of the maintenance yourself. Years ago when my Mom upgraded she gave me her old blue metal Singer. I could take it completely apart, clean it and put it back together. Now I have a Bernina 801 Sport and for it I can only do minimal dusting, etc. Her tuneups cost $70. It’s a simple model with 7 stitches (they don’t make this model anymore) but it does everything I’ve needed for the past 10 or so years, and has even gone on vacation with me. (Well, it was raining…)I also have a very old Singer that had been manual, but someone tried to attach an electric motor to it. My Dad was in the Air Force and on one assignment some of our things had to be left in storage. When we arrived at our next house and our things were brought back to us, this sewing machine was there instead of my Mom’s Kenmore! No clue where that was, or who this one belonged to. So now after all these years I’m wondering if it’s worth restoring. Probably not worth it financialy but it might be very satisfying to sew with.Dawn

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  39. I spent DAYS researching sewing machines on the internet, and finally ended up with a machine from Sears because they were open at 7:00 on Saturday night, and I wanted to get a machine immediately and end my agony of indecision. I particularly appreciate the advice to stop researching once you commit to a machine. When you get your machine, just start sewing!So far it’s been working great. I love that I can adjust the speed – hare for me on straight seams, turtle for my daughter learning to sew. I also enjoy the fact that it doesn’t wobble like my old, bent, 3-footed machine. Really, after that machine I probably would have liked anything!

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  40. Holy Batman, Robin! This blog is incredible! I do enjoy it very much indeed.I recently upgraded sewing machines, sort of. I had been using a friend’s spiffy 1950’s Bel-Air. What a green metal beauty! Of course, it only sews a straight stitch, forwards and backwards. She told me it is unbreakable, and she wasn’t kidding!My mother “lent” me her Husqvarna to use in the borrowed machine’s absence. Like she is ever getting it back. Ha! She must know I plan to keep it for a while, since she didn’t give me her Bernina. Smart woman.The Husqvarna is an amazing switch, I can lift it with one arm, plug it in, push a button and POOF! Flowers! Buttonholes! Zigzag, even! It has a front- load bobbin! And a manual! I haven’t used the new machine enough to tell how well it will work for me, but I have good feelings about it. It has served my mom well since the mid-90’s, and it shall be well-loved for years to come!

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  41. Have to agree with Diane about Berninas–the automatic thread tension is the best! My Bernina is about 15 years old now. Bought it when I knew I was serious about sewing.The only comment I’d add to Diane’s great advice is be sure to match the right needle size to the fabric. I’d used ball points etc. where appropriate, but getting the needle size right really improved results for me.Great post, Erin 🙂

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  42. I started with a mid range Brother, which was “ok”, until I moved up to the Viking Designer SE. My god, that machine is AWESOME! It does everything and sews through any fabric like butter with perfect stitches.

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  43. I was given a Singer “Fashionmate” when I got married – it wasn’t new then, but rather a vintage machine that a missionary/friend-of-the-family used while on furlough here in the US. I loved that machine and used it until it died, 11 years later. (It would have been repairable, but the gear that broke cost over $100 – *when* it was available! )I mourned when I had to give it up. Thankfully I found a vintage Necchi on Craigslist for only $20. The only problem I have had with it was getting used to the different stitch lengths!I tell my husband that someday he’ll have to buy me a big expensive machine – but I’m extremely happy with the one I have now!

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  44. oh Laura, I too have a Singer Fashionmate! My dad gave it to my mom in the early 1970s. I’ve gotten it cleaned/repaired once by an old Mennonite out in the country after my city sewing machine shop told me it was unfixable! BUT I really struggle with getting the tension right and it’s very temperamental. When it finally wears out, I will have to plunge in and buy a new machine. I hope I will remember to refer back to this excellent post and experienced comments.

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  45. I love my Brother, but what I really want is a rebuilt industrial straight stitch machine. Then I can sew like the wind. It will have to go in the basement, because I don’t want to put that much weight stress on my floors, but it would be loverly to have that kind of speed and power in my arsenal.

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  46. It’s hard to add anything to what’s already been said — but I will add my two cents. I sewed first on my grandmother’s REALLY old singer — not a featherweight but a bigger version — and then my mom’s 196? Singer, not the drop-in bobbin kind. My first year of college, my mom got me a Pfaff 262 for Christmas, and I LOVED it. She was really smart in that she found an older high-end machine that was made with metal, not plastic. I still have that machine. I think it’s just preference as to what brand you choose — I stuck with Pfaff because I loved the needle threader. My mom upgraded to a Bernina, and I now have in addition to my Pfaff 7550 (I had the 7570 and didn’t effectively use the embroidery, so I downgraded) her Bernette that she used at her vacation condo. If you’re just starting out, definitely go with the basic high-end older machines. They run forever, they’re completely dependable, and everything you need to learn about sewing you’ll learn on them. When you get proficient as a sewer, then is the time to upgrade to the newer, fancier do-it-all models. Ultimately, great sewing comes from the structure of the garment and the trimmings, not the embroidery or the fancy stitches. Those things just make it easier and are more novelties than anything else. A good heavy machine with a straight and zigzag stitch are really all you need.And I’m still using my Singer 14U12 serger, which is one of the first that came out commercially in stores. Another great little machine, does just what I need and nothing fancy. I also love my Elna Pro4DE serger, although right now it’s out of commission with a broken needle plate (one is on the way).One last tidbit: Singer bought Pfaff in recent years. Not sure if that has affected quality, and actually I think it hasn’t — but for what it’s worth, they do own Pfaff.

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  47. great advice!thanks. I don’t do a ton of sewing..i do home projects and repairs etc…but have always had handmedown machines older than myself. I was wandering through a bigbox store one day an bought the base model brother just because the price was incredible. and i have been so happy with it 5 years later! it has no programming, no auto functions, just manual controls. for someone like me, it works really well. if i ‘sewed’ as a regular activity, i would probably want a machine that sped things up for me. but i find the base model of a good brand works well for the casual user.

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  48. This is a brilliant description of how to buy anything complex. I blogged about it here.(Still using my entry level $200 Sears Singer after 10 years.)

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  49. I grew up sewing on everyone’s hand me down machines, so when I got a new Kenmore as a gift about 8 years ago I was pretty happy. However, I wasn’t sewing much at all. When I did start sewing a lot, the Kenmore bit the dust, but I was able to get it fixed to give it to my mom who doesn’t sew much. I bought myself a solid metal Janome at a dealer and it has done well for all the sewing it has done in 2 years. It has done a LOT. My hubby got me a Janome serger for Christmas, so I need to figure out how to work it yet. First step would be getting it out of the box… 😉

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  50. Lots of great comments, just one additional regarding cost. The idea of buying a GOOD new machine for $200 or less is rather silly. Most of the work horse Singers, Kenmore, Pfaff and so on cost dearly when they were new. I have original receipts for a Singer purchased in 1946 in Duluth, MN for a very grand $135.00. Considering their salary was $2200/year, it was a heavy investment, and purchased on a time payment plan for $10/month. Put that into today’s terms and don’t think ‘life was so much easier and things didn’t cost as much’. They did cost. Life was only different, not easier. I have had the privilege of sewing on a variety of machines, Kenmore, Singer, Pfaff, Elna, Husqvarna, Janome, Brother, Bernina, White, New Home, Baby Lock, Necchi, to name a few. Depending on their age, all of them have good qualities. The current low end machines of most brands are made of aluminum parts and plastic, neither which make for long term usage. So I’m not going to recommend any particular brand. Erin and others have provided good common sense questions and direction regarding your needs and capabilities. Many of you have commented on the work horse capabilities of older machines. I am going to suggest you consider how much your parents or ‘old ladies’ really put into their machine new and translate that to our salaries/costs of today. A machine that costs $800-2,500 is not unreasonable considering the quality/price would correspond to what our parents/grandparents paid. Personally, I paid $8,500 for my top of the line machine including additional feet and software for embroidery (which I do more than I thought) and a laptop just for sewing. I do not regret one penny spent since you can’t put a price on the joy, the eagerness, the anticipation of a project and the accomplishment of same. I would rather make payments on a sewing machine than on a credit card for clothing that’s worth zip and will be tossed within a year. We need to stop looking at a sewing machine as a luxury or a hobby and look at it in the same manner our mothers/grandmothers did — a necessary money-saving, time-saving contribution to our family budget and lifestyle.

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