Which sewing machine to get?
March 18, 2005 7:47 AM   Subscribe

I am utterly convinced that I need a sewing machine. But I have absolutely no idea where to begin.

I have recently begun knitting and have discovered a new passion for working with yarn and fabric and stuff. I have decided that I would like to get a sewing machine. Can you recommend a good sewing machine for a beginner, preferably one that I can grow with? I can see myself using it a lot, and learning to sew ever-more-complicated things on it pretty quickly, so I don't want one that I will outgrow in a year or so. Thank you!
posted by jennyjenny to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I own this. I found it lying around and managed to get started on it very quickly (20mins from 0 to sewing pretty decently,) using it mainly for clothing alteration/customisation. It has a decent variety of stitches so there is probably plenty of room for experimentation, and it seems to handle most everyday materials. I heard that some more basic sewing machines overheat and grind when you try and stitch fabric like heavy denim, but everything I have tried on this has been ok so far. Janome seem to make a decent variety of machines, but I am by no means an expert....as I say I found this lying around and gave it a go, and so far it has fit my needs perfectly.
posted by fire&wings at 8:00 AM on March 18, 2005

Mom got me this one about two years ago ... I haven't outgrown it yet, but I don't know what you mean by "ever more complicated."

My mother's machines are always broken, but mine is great. The one time it kept trying to put the needle through the bottom thread (and snapping the thread in the process), it was incredibly easy to take it apart, fix it, and put it back together.
posted by arabelladragon at 8:05 AM on March 18, 2005

Start by considering a used sewing machine. They're vastly cheaper than new sewing machines, and often better, and at least not worse, so much more worth the money. Plus, a used machine holds its resale value pretty well, so if you do get one and decide you want to trade up, you won't be out a lot of money.

Look for a machine that has metal, not plastic parts inside it if you don't plan to take it places. It'll last longer and work better.

Look for a machine that does a number of different stitches, but not necessarily one that's all computerized and fancy (they're nice, and fun, but they add a lot more to the price than they do to the functionality). You'll want straight, zig-zag and hemming stitches. You'll want button hole functions. You'll likely also want a machine that does stretch stitches in the future. Any machine that has more than 10 but less than 30 stitch patterns is probably reasonable for this.

Look for a machine that comes with a few alternate feet - zipper foot, for sure, and button holing foot. A walking foot and edge and top stitching feet are excellent; they probably won't be included, but if you can get a machine for which they're available, you'll be able to buy them in the future.

The most important thing is to *try* the sewing machine out. Try threading it. Try loading a new bobbin. Try sewing a few scraps of fabric. Get a feel for whether you like using it and the controls seem fairly intuitive. Sew through several layers of denim to see if it can handle it.

Ask around in your area for a shop that does good repairs, and look at the models they have available used, especially. It'll help to have a good relationship with a repair shop, and they'll be selling well refurbished machines rather than ones that need a lot of work.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:08 AM on March 18, 2005

Here's the deal with sewing machines... for the most part you'll never outgrow them if you get a decent one to start. I have like thirty five decorative stitches on mine, and never use them. Among my friends who have similar machines, they never use them.

You'll need a variable straight stitch, a zig zag stitch, and a broken zig zag stitch (for stretchy knits). A buttonhole feature is damn useful.

I had a 45 year old kenmore for ages that didn't even have all the features listed above. I did everything on it from seat cushions and window treatments to quilting to corsetry to a full-blown Italian Ren fest gown with it.

Kenmore can be nice since Sears will service the damn thing until the apocalypse (they still make parts for mine!). I have a Singer now, which is handy as it's the most common and everyplace under the sun sells accessories that work with it. I had a Brother, it struck me as being kind of cheaply made. Lots of plastic, very light, didn't seem too sturdy.

Go to a Joanne Etc store, they usually have a White sewing machine department. You might be able to try a few out and see what features and design styles you like before shelling out any cash.
posted by Kellydamnit at 8:08 AM on March 18, 2005

When buying a sewing machine (whether you're a novice or expert) its very worthwhile to buy a quality machine from an authorized dealer. Sewing machines are the kind of equipment where a significant investment early on will pay off in the long run because the machine will last longer, cause fewer headaches and be able to handle most projects.

Personally, I own a Husqvarna Viking (the Lily 555 model if you're curious), and I absolutely love it. The machine has been able to handle everything from clothing to home dec to quilting. I'm biased towards Vikings, but Pfaff and Bernina also make quality machines. Under no circumstances should you buy a machine from a big box store like Walmart, Target or Sears and even some of the cheap fabric stores like JoAnns and Hancocks.

You'll pay more buying a good machine from a dealer, but you should get reliable service and support for your machine that you wouldn't get buying elsewhere. A good dealer should also provide you with free instruction on the use of your machine, which can be really helpful in getting the most out of all the features your machine has. Additionally, a quality machine will typically have something like a 20 year warranty, and when the machine needs service (it will, like anything mechanical), your dealer should be able to provide that.

The other great thing about a authorized dealer, is that they often have used machines for sale at a significant discount. I purchased my Viking for ~$1000, compared with its orignal $1900 price tag. Many dealers offer trade-in programs for people that want to upgrade machines, and that's typically why dealers will stock used and new machines.

If the $1000 price tag scares you, keep in mind I bought a more sophisticated machine that many first-timers do. For a quality entry-level machine, I'd expect to pay $700-900 new or $400-600 used. While the lower prices big retailers may be tempting, you probably wouldn't be getting a machine you'd like a year from now. I've seen people return $200-300 machines to places like walmart because the needle would break going through a baby quilt.

I could probably go on for a while, but if you have any specific questions, feel free to email me. Also, a good source for specific machine review is Pattern Review.
posted by dicaxpuella at 8:35 AM on March 18, 2005

My local sewing teacher offers this advice:

"If you're thinking of purchasing a new sewing machine I highly recommend that you AVOID the new model Singer, Brother and White machines. They just don't make 'em like they used to and they're not worth the money at any cost. If you're looking for a new machine at a reasonably affordable price I recommend the Sears Kenmore model 16221 or 15516 which are my tried and trusty student rental machines."

I have a nice, solid, basic Janome Travelmate 4612 -- it's worked very well so far, and I use it for clothing, accessories, and home dec stuff. I second the people who say that all the fancy stitches are completely unnecessary. I've only ever used straight, zigzag, hemming, and buttonhole. Of course, you might like the fancy stitches and want to be able to do computerized embroidery (if so I have no idea what to tell you).

If you're interested in quilting, there are some features you should consider: a nice big space to the right of the foot so you can stuff more fabric into it and sew ever-larger quilts; and ability to set the maximum stitching speed, so if you machine-quilt you can press the foot all the way down but have a nice, slow, even speed. (These are two things I wish my machine had.) You also need to be able to drop the feed dogs so you can do free-motion stitching.
posted by kmel at 9:24 AM on March 18, 2005 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: kmel: I wish your sewing teacher lived in Brooklyn! I get the feeling from looking at her site that I would like her very much. (Rockets!)
posted by jennyjenny at 10:05 AM on March 18, 2005

Flat mode sewing machine. Very cool.
posted by scazza at 10:09 AM on March 18, 2005

I second the try-before-you-buy approach. If your local dealer will let you, have the salesperson show you what it can do, then ask for the manual and sit down on your own and wind a bobbin, and load it up and get it ready to go.

What sold me on this machine was that it had no problems with denim, suede, satin, fleece, twill, etc.

I bought an Elna 2005 about a decade ago. It's a terrific basic machine, and except for a little tune-up two years back, it runs well. I have made with it: several shirts, hallowe'en costumes, fleece pullovers, curtains, 3 kites, a prototype hot air balloon (used a serger for the big one), a couple vests, a half dozen hand puppets, and a cat bed. My spouse doesn't use her Singer anymore. She uses my Elna.

Whatever you decide, I'd be inclined to buy all the reasonable accessories you can afford, especially oddball feet. You'd hope that your manufacturer will be making that particular foot for years until you try to find it. Get a half dozen bobbin reels, a box of pins, an assortment of sewing machine needles, and a good pair of fabric scissors. Also, go to a sporting goods store and get a fishing tackle box to hold your gear - it will be way cheaper than anything they sell at the sewing machine store or a crafts store and will do the same job.

Oh, and get yourself a copy of this book. Funny title, but it will help get you through your first project.

Here are two free tips when you get going:
1. You don't have to cut out the pieces from a pattern precisely. Rough cut them, then pin them down to your fabric, then cut them out carefully. Nice time saver.
2. The holes on most 2 and 4 hole buttons are spaced to match the widest satin stitch. Set your machine to zero stitch length and satin stitch. Place your buttons on your material and hold them with Scotch tape. Line it up under the foot, and crank the first few stitches by hand. If everything lines up, step up on the gas. E-Z buttons!
posted by plinth at 10:11 AM on March 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

Even if you're a teach-yourself type, I would definitely recommend (at least) beginning sewing lessons. There are just a thousand little things about the sewing process that that books don't necessarily mention. There are some NY places that look interesting (if not more $$ than Austin lessons!) -- there's Make Workshop and Sew Fast Sew Easy. Sometimes these places have student machines to use on-site (so you can form your preferences) and the teachers will give lots of good advice on what to look for when you buy your own.
posted by kmel at 10:38 AM on March 18, 2005

Here's a good online resource for comparison shopping for basic sewing machines, with several other useful links:

I certainly echo the points already made about going with a local dealer and exploring used machines. If you live in an area where you can select from several different dealers, and could conceivably return to any of them easily for classes and follow-ups, by all means check them all out. My opinion is that the brand of machine is less important overall (so long as you stick to the big names: Pfaff, Bernina, Viking, Janome, Brother, Singer, Kenmore) than the quality of care, access to help and general compatibility you can get from a dealer and/or whatever community of teachers (and active students) the dealer has established. If you have any definite current ideas about what you'll want to sew, bring some sample swatches along when you go shopping, and let the sales person show you how the machines they're touting will do, as well as trying them yourself. Consider that you're checking out not just the machines but the folks showing them off.

Regarding used machines, I'd say it's definitely worth it to consider a used top-of-the-line machine in good shape with a reasonable warrenty, compared to a new middle or low-end machine. You'll certainly be getting a lot a bells and whistles you won't need, but some of those features will prove to be very handy...and you'll also be assured of getting the most powerful motor.

Back in the day, most folks bought machines only once or twice in a lifetime, but these days, avid sewers are likely to trade up quite frequently. I wouldn't hesitate to get a "starter" machine, if all this option-overload talk here is feeling a bit daunting. Find out if you even like to sew, find a support community locally and/or online, and as your interests and skills develop, so will your capacity to make a good machine choice. Sewers are a great, eager-to-help bunch, pound for pound; I think you'll like 'em!

In addition to the excellent Pattern Review mentioned above, google these keywords to find some other online sewing communities:
Creative Machine at Quiltropolis
posted by dpcoffin at 10:45 AM on March 18, 2005 [1 favorite]

1. You don't have to cut out the pieces from a pattern precisely. Rough cut them, then pin them down to your fabric, then cut them out carefully. Nice time saver.

I'd never do this. How do you get the grain right if you've removed the fabric you're cutting from the edges you're measuring against?
posted by jacquilynne at 11:38 AM on March 18, 2005

I would take an approach similar to jacquilynne's first post. If you're just starting out, you don't need to invest in a pricey starter model until you're sure that you enjoy sewing on a machine.

Search the used sewing machines on eBay. There are frequently sellers who have just upgraded from their starter model/older machine to one with more bells and whistles, and they are always willing to explain exactly why theirs is on the market. [Used models tend to fall into 3 categories: perpetually broken (obviously, steer clear of these), rarely-used, or recently-upgraded-from. The latter two are what you're after.] Both a friend and myself have purchased heavy, sturdy older models - no cheap plastic - in excellent condition for very little $. My seller even met me at a mutually convenient subway station for the drop-off.

Total outlay: $40. Total return: priceless.

I can check the make & model # tonight if you want to know the specs.
posted by hsoltz at 1:01 PM on March 18, 2005

I just got a Bernina Virtuosa 153 Quilter's Edition after using a beast of a 1950's or 60's Kenmore. (The thing took years off my life.) It was a closeout on the older model that is being replaced by a 2005 model. The differences between the two didn't mean much to me and it was a good deal. Look for deals at dealers.

Things I cared about were:
--knee lift (so you can keep your hands on the material)
--good, well-placed, logical display screen (some makes have them way over on the right side of the machine and aren't as clear about what they're displaying)
--solid, quiet
--buying from a shop that had people I didn't loathe so I would actually go back and take new owner's classes, be able to deal with them if anything went wrong/maintenance, etc.
--ability to handle all different weight fabrics without fussing endlessly with the tension
--ability to add stitches
--needle up/down setting
--walking foot

I really liked that the Berninas all come with a knee lift. Others like Pfaff and Viking only have it on higher end models. I don't know if you want quite that much machine, but I would definitely check out Bernina's features--they have a new line for beginners, I think. Be careful about getting a brand that isn't well made--you won't know if you like sewing if you have to battle your machine.
posted by lobakgo at 1:20 PM on March 18, 2005

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