Shopping for a sewing machine can quickly become an overwhelming undertaking. There are so many brands, features and price ranges. There are all those terms that describe the functions and features of the machine, but do you really know what all of that terminology means? Do you know the difference between a bobbin and a feed dog? If you don’t, you may end up with a machine that really doesn’t fit your needs.
Searching for and purchasing a sewing machine can be an adventurous experience that can open up hours of creativity, can decrease your clothing and home decorating costs or can be used to make some extra income. To get started into the world of sewing, you have to first identify the features you’ll need in your sewing machine. You have to decide which brand is best and how much you’re willing to spend to get the machine of your dreams.
To help you with this important decision, we’ve put together this guide to buying a sewing machine. When you begin your search for a sewing machine, first ask yourself the following questions:
- Who will be using the sewing machine?
- Is the main user a beginner or an experienced seamstress?
- What type of sewing projects will the machine be used for?
- How often will sewing be done?
- Will it need to be packed away after each use?
- Do you need space to store accessories and supplies?
- How much money are you willing to spend?
Once you have the answers to these questions in hand, you’re ready to start thinking about the type of machine you’ll be needing.
If the machine is intended for a beginner, you’ll need one with a range of basic stitches. An experienced sewer will want more advanced features. You’ll need to consider the long-term use of the machine, as well. If you are starting as a beginner, but you plan to improve your skills and move up to more advanced sewing projects, then you may need to consider a machine that offers more features than you may need at the beginning. But those features will be there when you’re ready for them.
Consider the types of projects that you’ll be doing with your sewing machine. Are you planning to do dressmaking and designing, or simply doing repairs and alterations? A basic machine with about 10 stitches to choose from should be adequate for this. You’ll want to make sure there’s a “buttonhole stitch” feature if you’re planning dressmaking. If you plan to sew sleeves and trouser legs, you’ll need the “free arms” feature. Will your machine be used for constructing home furnishings and upholstery? You’ll need to look for a machine that can handle heavier fabrics. Maybe you’re planning crafts such as embroidery or quilting. If this is your niche, you’ll want a machine with a wide range of stitch choices.
If you’re planning to so some sewing on an occasional basis only, it will not be cost effective for you to purchase a sewing machine with a lot of expensive attachments and a huge selection of stitch choices. If you’re planning to use the machine on a regular basis, especially if you’re planning daily sewing, you’ll want a sturdy machine with metal frame construction.
Storage and mobility
Will your sewing machine have a stationary sewing table to call home, or a rolling cart to house it? If that’s the case, the weight of the machine doesn’t necessarily have to be a factor in deciding which to purchase. If you’re planning to take the machine to classes, or it has to be stored away after each use, then the weight of the machine becomes a factor that must be considered.
Plan ahead as to where your machine will be stored. If you have a stationary sewing table, then storage space is not an issue. Most machines will come with a soft dust cover or a hard case to store your machine for safe and easy transportation and storing. You’ll still need to consider where you’ll store it: in a closet or beneath a cabinet. Many machine models come with a storage compartment in the bottom to help keep up with sewing supplies such as scissors, pins, needles, and extra bobbins and small attachments.
The cost of a sewing machine can range from a very low price, less than $100, to several thousands of dollars. How much you spend on your machine is up to you. Just be certain that you’re getting the features that will meet your sewing needs. Make certain there is a warranty attached to the purchase, either a specific warranty from the store or a general warranty from the manufacturer. Be sure you understand what is covered and what is not.
Three general types of sewing machines
There are multiple brands of sewing machines that are all competing for your attention and purchasing power. There are only three general types of sewing machines, however. Here’s a basic overview of each of the three types:
- Electronic sewing machines. This type of machine has a single motor that uses an electrical pulse to work the needle. The movement of the needle is coordinated with the material feeding mechanism. All of this is controlled by you with a foot pedal. This design means you have both hands free to guide the fabric. It allows you to control the speed at which you sew. There is generally a dial that lets you choose stitch types and length.
- Computerized sewing machines. These machines are easy for most to use and are suited to the skills of beginners as well as the experienced sewer. Many who begin with an electronic sewing machine will upgrade to a computerized one as their skills progress. Computerized sewing machines use several motors to control the different functions of the machine. Some of the functions at your control are maximum speed, the needle up/down function and automatic lock-off feature for closing the end of a stitch or pattern.
Precise control is possible with computerized sewing machines, making production of lots of different stitches easily doable by pressing a key or using a touch pad that is linked to an LCD screen. If connected to a PC, these machines may feature the ability to save past projects or download designs from the Internet through a PC connection.
- These are a type of finishing machines. They are used for hems and finishing seams but can also have options for decorative stitching. An overlooker can sew the seam, finish the edge and remove the excess fabric in one step. They are good for sewing knitted fabrics such as jersey. It can be useful if you sew frequently.
There are many key terms that are specific to the art of sewing and sewing machines. You won’t be able to get what you need in a sewing machine if you don’t understand the “jargon” that describes it and the attachments or enhancements that it uses.
To help with that, we’ve put together this glossary of most-used terms:
- Auto thread tension: If the machine you choose offers this feature, it means that the machine will automatically calculate the amount of thread tension needed to effectively sew the fabric you’re using. There is generally an override function on this if you wish to set the tension yourself.
- Bobbin: This is the term for a small spool for holding thread. It may be made of plastic or metal. It is necessary for the machine to make a stitch. The needle thread comes down from the top and the bobbin thread comes up from underneath. These two threads interlock to make a stitch. The thread you’re planning to use has to be wound onto the bobbin before you can sew with it. Most machines will have a feature that does this. Once the thread is wound on the bobbin, it is placed into a bobbin case and put into its place beneath the needle plate.
- Bobbin case: Once you’ve wound thread onto a bobbin, you next fit the bobbin into the bobbin case. The loaded bobbin case will fit into a slot beneath the plate under the needle. If the machine you purchase is a top loading machine, the bobbin case will be put into its slot in the arm of the machine.
- Buttonholes: Most machines will automatically sew buttonholes for you, using a 1-step or 4-step process. The more steps required, the more complicated the process will be. Most of the more advanced machines will give you an option of different styles of buttonholes.
- Feed dogs: These are the teeth that grip the material and guide it through the machine. They are the zigzag little teeth that move when the needle is in motion. As the needle makes the stitches, the feed dogs slide the fabric, keeping it moving in the proper direction under the presser foot. The feed dogs can be lowered, termed “drop feed dog,” to allow you to do freehand work, such as embroidery or darning, if you want.
- Free arm: This is a cylinder-shaped platform on the bed of the machine. By using the free arm, you can sew items such as sleeves or pants legs. To access the free arm usually requires detaching a portion of the base of the machine. This leaves the arm accessible to slide the sleeve or pant leg onto the arm for stitching.
- Integrated dual feed: This feature is important if you’re sewing two pieces of fabric together, such as quilting. This feature keeps both fabrics moving in a smooth, equal manner.
- Integrated needle threader: This attachment will help you get your needle threaded properly.
- Knee lifter: This is a lever that you can press with your knee. It allows you to raise the presser foot while keeping your hands on your work. This feature is especially useful for quilting, sewing around angles or applique.
- Lock stitch facility: This features automatically closes sewing sequences so there is no unraveling with wear or use. This makes certain all stitches and stitch patterns are securely locked off when a sewing sequence is finished. This is done by reversing the stitch for a very short stretch.
- Needle plate: This is the part of the machine that fits over the top of the feed dogs in the bed of the machine. A hole in the plate allows the needle to pass through. Needle plates will usually have a ruler-like guide on one side for use as a guide in measuring seam allowance and keeping it uniform.
- Needle up/down function: With this feature, you can program the needle position so that it always finishes in the up or down position. You’ll need this function when sewing seams that pivot around corners.
- Presser foot: The presser foot keeps the fabric in place against the feed dogs as you sew. This keeps the fabric from moving in unwanted directions while you’re stitching. There will be a level that allows you to lift and lower the presser foot. Different jobs require different types of presser foot. Types of jobs that need specialized presser feet are quilting, patchwork stitching, darning, putting in zippers, embroidery and binding.
- Stitch selector: On basic machines, a simple turn of a dial will usually allow you to select the type of stitch you wish to use. On a computerized machine, there may be a keypad or touch pad for selecting a specific type of stitch.
- Thread cutter: This is a handy feature that may or may not be built into the machine. The thread cutter does exactly what it says: it cuts the thread after you’re done sewing.
- Twin needle functionality: With twin needle capability, the parallel rows of needles allows you to place parallel rows of stitches if you need a stronger seam or want a more decorative finish.
Accessories vs Attachments
Most sewing machines will come with an assortment of different accessories and attachments as standard equipment. But what exactly is the difference between an accessory and an attachment?
We’ll try to answer that question for you.
Accessories: These are additional tools or extra items that you’ll need to keep close at hand in your sewing basket. They are not things that you’ll need every time you sew, but you don’t want to be without them when they are needed. Some examples are:
- Instruction manual: it is highly recommended that you keep your machine’s instruction manual close at hand should a problem arise.
- Seam guide: this tool helps you keep your seams straight. One imperative in sewing, no matter what type you are doing, is maintaining straight seams.
- Cleaning and repair kit: if you are a frequent sewer, you’ll need to make certain you get your machine tuned up and serviced at least once a year. In the meantime, you need to make it a regular habit to lubricate various parts of your sewing machine with special sewing machine oil. Follow your instruction manual on what to oil and be sure to use the smallest drop that will do the job. The oil must be specifically for sewing machines to avoid damage to the delicate workings of your machine. Once you place the oil, let it sit for a full day before using the machine. This will allow the oil to seep into all the moving parts. Place a cloth or paper towel under the presser foot to catch any drops there. Check screws periodically and tighten them if needed. The tools in the repair kit will have the tiny heads needed to fit the screws in your machine. Wipe the machine down before you use it.
Attachments: Tools or specialized gadgets that you actually attach to the machine are attachments. The best examples, and the most confusing parts for most people, are the many different types of presser feet attachments that can be obtained. Here’s a few of the most widely used attachments and their functions:
- Zipper foot: this may sometimes be called an adjustable cording foot. You cannot attach zippers without one of these attachments, unless you know how to do it by hand. There are two different models of zipper feet. One slides over the top of the zipper, and is the easiest to use. The other grips the zipper from the side to stabilize it for sewing.
- Buttonholer: this attachment can be a major help in your sewing or a major problem, depending on which type you have. Look for a buttonholer that will allow you to see your work as you go along, and that slides back and forth easily over the buttonhole placement.
- Ruffler: this attachment does exactly what the name sounds like: it lets you make ruffles. Many of these attachments will also let you make a nice, neat pleat as well.
- Hemmer: one of the most tedious jobs in sewing is hemming. This attachment folds over the raw edge of the fabric to create a perfect hem. It takes some practice to get the hang of using this attachment, but it is time well spent once mastered.
- Binder: this attachment is used when a seam needs to be finished with a binding tape. Attach the binder to the machine and it will fold the binding tape over for you and sew it in place.
- Edge stitcher: this extremely versatile attachment lets you topstitch for decorative effect along the edge of your fabric. You can make small tuck and sew lace together with this attachment. Attaching bias tape becomes an easy task with an edge stitcher.
- Walking foot: this attachment is an absolute must if you are planning to sew multiple layers of fabric in place when you’re straight sewing or quilting. This attachment works by keeping the upper layer of the fabric moving on the top while the feed dogs coordinate to prevent the bottom layers from bunching up or sliding out of place. If you’re getting a machine specifically for quilting, make sure it includes a walking foot as standard equipment.
Presser feet: specialty feet that are worth purchasing
Having a collection of different presser feet can be a measure of how serious you are about your sewing. These accessories for your sewing machine can help make difficult sewing jobs much easier if you don’t mind taking a few minutes to swap out one foot for another. Some of these may come as standard with certain machines, depending on the manufacturer. Check with the seller to find out which feet are included with the machine you’re thinking of purchasing.
Here are a few of the more desirable presser feet that can be purchased as an accessory for most machines:
- Overlock foot: this foot will make the seam edges on knits and woven fabrics nice and neat. If you don’t have a serger, this is an inexpensive alternative.
- Pintuck: this foot adds a nice touch to baby garments and fine lingerie. The pintucks come in different sizes that will create various size tucks on your fabric with your double needle machine.
- Edgestitch: this handy accessory allows you to add perfectly straight topstitching to your sewing.
- Open toe embroidery: if you like to do free-motion embroidery on your sewing jobs, this foot is indispensable. It allows you to see where you’re going as you sew.
- Jeans: denim and other heavy fabrics are difficult to work with if you don’t have the right accessory. A jeans presser foot will help you make neat, straight seams in this specialty fabrics.
- Nonstick foot: if you are planning to sew with leather or faux leather, the Teflon, or nonstick, foot will prevent the leather or other fabric from sticking on the surface while you’re stitching.
- Straight stitch foot: using the straight stitch foot gives you better control of the fabric when you’re sewing with short stitches on fine cotton.
The bottom line is to find what you need, what you want and what you can afford. Your sewing skills will be only as good as your sewing machine. Take your time, find the best sewing machine that’s right for you, and then get sewing!