Sew (with) what?
June 7, 2010 5:53 PM   Subscribe

What sewing machine should I buy? I'm looking for easy and good value for my money.

I'm getting my first sewing machine. Could someone who knows these things tell me how to pick a good one? I want something straightforward, sturdy and newbie friendly. I see several machines on the market, but I'm not sure how to figure out, among the knobs, dials and computer controlled stitch patterns, what sort of model is best for my needs.

I am a newbie, with some minor skill hand sewing, who will mostly hem drapes and make PJs for her teddybear. Maybe there will be pirate flag making, and moderate tailoring.
posted by Phalene to Shopping (22 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Pfaff or Singer. Only. I still use a Pfaff from, i think, 1910 and according to the shop I get needles from what it can sew through is limited (within reason, I assume) by your motor.

Okay, I understand Brother makes some of those fancy ones with computers that can stitch your name and shit, but come on.
posted by cmoj at 6:10 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are you willing to consider a used machine? You can frequently pick up a fairly recent model for pretty cheap -- good value for money. And if you're really looking for straightforward and sturdy, you might consider looking even further back to a semi-vintage model. A straight stitch, a zig zag, and a stretch stitch will do 95% of what you want a sewing machine for. You can find one on craigslist and take it to the sewing machine shop to be looked over and reconditioned, if necessary. If you spend $100-150 on one now and find you love it, you can always add (sewers never replaces sewing machines, they just add to the collection) a newer, more expensive one with heavy-duty bells and whistles.

The computers and fancy stitches mean more to be confused by, more things to break, and more expensive repairs. They can be great if you really use those functions, but don't think you have to buy new to get a good, reliable machine. I don't know if you're familiar with Pattern Review, but there are a lot of people who know a lot about the various sewing machines available, both old and new.

Things to consider: unusual machines may make it harder to find bobbins or presser feet. Some years were better than others with various brands of machines, so don't jump on, say, a Singer if you don't know that that particular model and year were good ones. If you buy used, don't commit until it's running and you can do some sample stitching. If you buy new, make sure you get warranty coverage.
posted by katemonster at 6:13 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

All you really need to start out is a machine that can do straight stitch and a zigzag. You can get a cheap plastic machine at a big box store for about $100 (in the US, not sure about prices in Canada), and use it for a while to see if you like sewing. If so, you'll have a better idea what features you want when it's time to upgrade.

Better yet, go to a sewing machine store and see if they have any old refurbished machines. Stuff from the 1960s and maybe the 1970s (and earlier) tended to be made of metal and much more rugged. High-quality machines from that era are very good indeed and are often available cheaply from dealers because they don't have the fancy blinkenlights that everybody wants. (There are some modern features that I wouldn't want to live without, but a lot of the bells and whistles are really pretty silly.)

Another nice thing about buying from a dealer, as opposed to a big box store, is that you can test-drive the machines before you decide. And they often throw in a few sewing lessons too, if that appeals to you.
posted by Quietgal at 6:23 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you are serious and you really want to sew then, Janome has a good entry level machine. What I really suggest is that you go to a sewing shop, not Joanne's, but something like a Sew and Vac shop, where they sell and repair sewing machines. You'll be able to sit down and and try out a couple of different machines and see which you like.

If you are still getting into sewing then I would suggest buying a used Singer, an all metal model from the 50s. Learn whether you really are going to use it a lot, what you like and don't like about it, then go to the Sew and Vac shop and buy a new one.
posted by sulaine at 6:36 PM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Okay, just got off the phone with my mother who currently owns about 4 or 5 machines. Her take:
1) There's a really good basic Janome that's available for around $200 and gets lots of good reviews. All of her machines are Janomes and she doesn't have a bad word to say about them.
2) Older machines, though solid, can be fiddly and difficult because they don't have automatic tension and so forth. So for someone new to sewing she suggests a newer machine, although recent-model used can be a great value.
3) Beware of some of the major-chain retailer machines and research your model carefully if you buy new. For instance, Walmart sells machines that look just like the ones of the same brand that are sold at sewing machine stores, but are substantially lower in quality.
4) Sewing machine stores will let you try machines out, and may also have lower-price used machines that they've taken in trade.
posted by katemonster at 6:36 PM on June 7, 2010

I have the (a?) $200 Janome purchased this year, and I really like it. No blinkenlights, solid construction, a basic array of stitches, and it goes through multiple layers of denim much more ably than the somewhat out-of-condition 1960s-era Singer I grew up on. Downside is it has this gothic print stuff all over it thanks to some kind of collaboration with an internet DIY site. But this I can live with.
posted by heyforfour at 6:53 PM on June 7, 2010

All brands will have different levels of machine, so you should be able to find a good beginner one from any of them. Also, even the cheaper brands (only if you're buying new) will do for less strenuous sewing projects on an infrequent basis.
I second the plan to get a decent second-hand machine to get used to. As mentioned, Singer and Pfaff are always good. Janome's kinda cheap, but not bad if you think you'll upgrade in a few years (as opposed to a solid and more expensive Singer that you'd keep forever).
I'm less familiar with them from personal use, but the quilting shop I work at has mostly Husqvarna's and I really like them.
Newer Kenmores (last 10 years) are similar to Janome, but older ones are pretty solid. My mom has had one for 40 years and even though some of the knobs have popped off and the casing is broken it still sews beautifully.
I don't think you should get too excited about automatic features (tension etc) until you've had experience with how they actually work and why each thing is important. You start out with the machine doing the fine tuning for you and you'll be surprisingly useless if you should get a more manual machine.

Happy sewing!
posted by Miss Mitz at 7:08 PM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I agree with sulaine that you should buy a Singer from the '50s (or earlier). I have my grandmother's Singer 66-16 from 1946 as my only sewing machine, and I haven't seriously considered buying another one. In the past 25 years, the only repairs it has needed are a new belt and a new ring for the bobbin winder. Also, it takes low-shank feet, which are still readily available (a number of the 66 series models take weird, back-clamp feet), and I can still use the awesome vintage attachments (ruffler, deep hem foot, buttonholer).

I've gone through couture sewing and patternmaking classes with mine, and installed a zipper on a suede couch cushion with it the other day.

Machines like mine seem to go for $100 or so with shipping on Ebay (which makes sense, they're basically blocks of solid iron), but ask your friends and family members--someone you know has, or has inherited, a sewing machine that would be perfect for learning to sew, and they'll probably let you have it (and its manual and attachments) for very cheap or free.
posted by Lycaste at 7:12 PM on June 7, 2010

I've got a wonderful little Kenmore sewing machine. It's small enough that it has a handle and could be considered portable, but has a good number of straightforward features and easily works on many layers of denim as well as very fragile fabrics. I bought it at Sears for something like $150. The guy at Sears was surprisingly knowledgeable about sewing machines, although I did come in with some research and opinions. He definitely did not give me a hard sell. The nice thing is that I basically have a lifetime maintenance deal just by buying it there; if anything goes wrong I can bring it to any Sears store anywhere in the country and get it fixed. Not that I've needed this.

People who are suggesting you find a vintage Singer are correct, however. If you think you might get more into sewing and aren't looking for anything lightweight like I was, this is a good route to take. I have sewing-savvy friends who would die before trading in their vintage Singer.
posted by Mizu at 7:21 PM on June 7, 2010

I love my Kenmore Stylist 86 (vintage machine). I found on the street, oiled it, bought a new belt from Sears (they purchased Kenmore & maintain a parts catalog), a new pedal from a local sewing shop, and I've been happily patching my pants ever since.

The bobbin case was fiddly at first, but I watched a video on youtube & was good to go. I imagine there are more intuitive machines, but I like that it's built like a Mack truck (really), and was free. I've since seen them at yardsales for $50.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 7:22 PM on June 7, 2010

I agree with those above who advise an older, used machine. My dad collects older sewing machines as a hobby/retirement business. He regularly picks up working machines for under $50 from auctions and Ebay. Sewing machines can be expensive to ship, but he has had good luck searching for auctions with buyers in his local area so that he can pick up rather than ship. Many times, these older machines still have their manuals, extra accessories, and other odds and ends, especially if you get one with a cabinet, in which case you may end up with a whole trove of sewing supplies circa the last decade the owner was an active sewer. Another good idea would be to put out the word that you are looking for a used machine. If you tell your friends and family, I wouldn't be surprised if, as you were trolling auctions and yard sales, the aunt or neighbor of one of your friends or relatives would offer up a machine from their attic.
posted by TrarNoir at 7:32 PM on June 7, 2010

I looked but didn't see this mentioned, so I will come out and say it directly: do not buy a brand-new Singer machine. They are not the same as the old Singers.
posted by cabingirl at 7:35 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I taught myself how to sew last year (with some help from threadbanger) on a Janome JS-1022 (But the one I have is the limited edition, which has a 1-step button hole feature). It is incredibly easy to sew with, thanks to it's strong motor... it handles just about everything I throw at it, from clothes, to quilts, to heavy outdoor sunbrella upholstery for my boat.
posted by kaudio at 7:52 PM on June 7, 2010

I have an Elna from 1970. It's built like a tank and it was a considerable improvement over a Brother of similar vintage that I had been using before.

The problem with cheap new machines is that they have terrible thread tension systems compared to older models (or Berninas, Pfaffs, etc.) You will give up in frustration when a cheap machine makes crappy stitches that are always too tight or too lose, but you will want to keep sewing on a machine that works.
posted by slow graffiti at 7:54 PM on June 7, 2010

I recently had to buy a new machine and I got one of the Brother "Project Runway" co-branded models ... they are entry level machines that do a LOT, intended for beginning sewers but with a surprising amount of capability for the price. I am delighted with it. They also receive excellent marks in Consumer Reports, FWIW.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:21 PM on June 7, 2010

I have my mother's National sewing machine from the 1940s. As far as I know it still works fine. I've been looking for someone who would use it to take it off my hands. It's a bit cumbersome, built into a wooden cabinet, but it's quite a nice thing.

We live in the same city. If you'd like to have a look at it, please email me at this username at gmail dot com.
posted by zadcat at 8:25 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

My vote goes for buying the Rolls-Royce of yesteryear. I wasted a lot of money on cheap plastic entry-level sewing machines that made sewing seem pointlessly difficult and not at all enjoyable before I clued up and shelled out for an all-metal, Swiss-made Bernina from the 1970s. Which I now love like a member of my family.

My machine does straight stitch, zigzag and buttonholes, which covers 99% of the things you will ever need a sewing machine to do -- but it does them flawlessly, unlike the made-in-Asia plastic models I bought (for the record, Singer, Frister and Rossman and Brother). The tension hardly ever needs adjusting, it doesn't have inexplicably moody days and it hasn't made me cry once.

Test drive whatever machine you're considering to make sure it stitches a really straight straight stitch. This is rarer than it sounds, as a lot of sewing machines turn out a "straight seam" that looks more like this:


than like this:


and slanted topstitching will affect the perceived quality of the stuff you make.

Good luck and happy sewing!
posted by stuck on an island at 12:59 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was in the same position as you about four years ago. I walked into Target and with basically no research selected a very basic Brother machine. I doubt it cost me more than $150 and it has served me very, very well and is still going strong. I make all my curtains, I make pillows, I sew my kid's clothes and costumes. I do basic clothing repairs. I've even sewn a "fighting sash" (at his request) so I'm pretty sure it could handle a pirate flag, too.
posted by BlahLaLa at 7:48 AM on June 8, 2010

I honestly think it is best to avoid focusing on brands/makes and instead focus on what your sewing goals are now and in the next few years as you grow as a seamstress. A very basic machine from any big box retailer--any brand--can satisfy modest goals of hemming and straight stitch seaming in garments. If, however, you think you may find yourself, after your beginning goals have been met, interested in sewing garments from knits, making garments with buttonholes, doing free motion quilting or sewing a lot of upholstery weight fabric, you will find yourself outgrowing that big box retailer sewing machine. If you don't think you will become interested in demanding more from a sewing machine, I would just pick up the cheapest new machine I could find. I recommend new machines because they come with a manual, can be returned if there's a malfunction, and are less likely to have the idiosyncrasies of used/older models.

My first machine 15 years ago was a very powerful 40's Necchi I got for $10. It sucked. Dealing with it's stupidness really put a dent in my growth as a seamstress. I thought I just wasn't very good at sewing. It took years for me to get another vintage machine, which worked well enough and fostered my development. But I wanted to be able to sew buttonholes, dammit! I got a new Singer, which was actually a really good machine, despite the poor reputation given to new Singers. I outgrew it because I wanted to sew leather and free motion quilt. I now use two machines: a new top of the line Pfaff that is really a truly, truly fantastic machine and a vintage Singer 15-91 (truly the best sewing machine ever manufactured!!) that will sew through 8 layers of leather without pause.
posted by hecho de la basura at 11:24 AM on June 8, 2010

I greatly recommend taking a sewing class at someplace like Joanns. It is cheap and you will get hands on experience that will take you far. Also you will have an opportunity to talk to someone in person that has experience. There are so many different options out there and much of the differences is personal taste.

I personally think that Brother is a solid company that provides some good cheap machines. My first machine was one of those plastic ones from Walmart for 85 dollars about 10 years ago. Although I know have three other machines, I use that cheap machine for all of my light jobs because of it's low maintenance.

Another thing to consider is what materials you want to work with. If you plan on hemming jeans and working primarily with jerzee materials you want to make sure you get a machine that can handle that.
posted by trishthedish at 11:42 AM on June 17, 2010

Response by poster: My new sewing machine has a ton more features than I intended, but it was cheap gift, and I've already used it to mend things. It's a "Euro-Pro", chosen by the party who bought it for me as a birthday gift because they make good vacuums. I imagine this'll be a good enough machine to learn on, and this thread helped me steer the gift buyer from getting a $300 bells and whistles version, instead of a $100 refurbished unit.
posted by Phalene at 5:57 PM on June 18, 2010

I'm with BlahLaLa - I have a very inexpensive Brother machine which works great for me. I think mine was purchased at Target and around $100 or so. I'm not an advanced seamstress, but it works great for everything I need: hemming jeans, sewing curtains, skirts, etc. I even sewed 2 full-size couch slipcovers (heavy cotton duck fabric) on it and it never skipped a beat.

I've sewed on plenty of old machines and while they're great, I love some of the newer features like easy-to-load bobbins (it's still in a little cabinet, but it pops in and out easily) and super easy threading.

If you plan to increase your skill-set and want a machine that will be able to handle heavy-duty stuff down the road, you might consider a better model of machine. But if you just want something inexpensive that handles the basics, I have nothing but nice things to say about my little Brother.
posted by giddygirlie at 12:58 PM on June 22, 2010

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