Starting sewing (for $200 and under).
November 21, 2014 10:42 AM   Subscribe

My wife wants to start sewing and was wanting to get a Brother HC1850 sewing machine. Supposedly it's one of the best computerized sewing machines for $200 and under. I tried to buy one and it's really hard to find right now. I bought one online and almost instantly the seller refunded my money and told me there's a quality issue and Brother has asked sellers to not sell it until that's sorted out. Which other makes and models compare favorably and should be considered instead?
posted by brokeaspoke to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Standard advice for new sewers is to buy an old sturdy Singer. They're dead simple to use and hard to screw up. You can find them for less than $100 at one of those sewing machine/vacuum repair shops.
posted by radioamy at 10:57 AM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

I bought a 1950s Pfaff on eBay for £1 (that's less than $2.50). It does everything I can imagine wanting a sewing machine to do, and there are virtually no plastic parts, so it's going to last for ever.
posted by pipeski at 11:02 AM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you want something brand new, you might consider the Brother CS6000i, which is on Amazon for under $150. Fewer stitches, but she probably won't need everything the HC1850 offers if she's just starting out (or, honestly, even if she's incredibly skilled).
posted by rebekah at 11:03 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yeah, if you want a new computerized machine, you can't go wrong with a Viking. Their low-end models do nice computer things like buttonholes and simple embroidery stitches; the high-end ones will embroider an entire wall mural.
posted by Melismata at 11:12 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

If she wants new, the Brother XR9500 Project Runway machine is also said to be good. For new cheap machines, Brother is the best. Janome is ok, but harder to find. Do not buy a new Singer. Even on a new machine, fewer features and less electronics means less to go wrong.

If she will consider used, try a sewing machine repair shop for a trade in. Bernina machines of any age are great and last a long time, but likely to be more money than you'd want to spend. Pfaffs are good, but have their own quirks that some people hate, and Pfaff has stopped making parts for a lot of them. They should let you try out any machine they have for sale. Juki and Baby Lock are also excellent.

Consider making a trip to a sewing machine shop that carries the nicer machines just to try them out so that she can decide which features she likes and which she can live without. A better machine is worth a bit extra, if you're sure you'll use it.

If she's willing to start without electronic features, a pre-1965 Singer or Japanese made Kenmore (starts with 148 or 158 on number plate under the bed) or other Japanese manufactured machine up through the 1970's can be had for very cheap. They are like tanks and easy to troubleshoot. Hard to break. I'm just starting out sewing too, and I was afraid that I'd damage a new plastic machine, so I bought a few old machines that I've cleaned up. My main machine is a Kenmore that is a year older than I am (from 1975) and is much less fussy than the nice electronic Pfaff from the 1980's that my mom has. If you are going to be around Indianapolis, I know a lady who refurbs older machines.
posted by monopas at 11:31 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Check out this review of sewing machines for beginners. Though they dismiss my Ikea SY sewing machine, and I've been happy with it, especially for the price.

I think a good how-to book is as helpful for me as a sewing noob as the machine, and there are a ton out there. Might be worth a trip to the library for a stack of them to try out, plus they'll have info about what features are needed for the specific projects she's interested in.
posted by asperity at 11:40 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Brother/Project Runway co-branded machines are GREAT. (Consumer Reports even loves them!) They're cheap as heck, intended to be a lifetime loss-leader as they get teenaged girls and curious hobbyists hooked on sewing who will eventually want to buy sergers! and quilting arms! and machines that go 2000 stitches/minute! But they're sturdy, super-easy to use, and do a really nice job.

I'm not an expert seamstress but I've been using machines for 25 years, and I had to replace my busted Singer a few years ago unexpectedly. I got a Brother/PR co-brand, and I LOVE it. L-O-V-E.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:55 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you can take classes that teach sewing locally, you would be in good shape. However, if it is hard to get to classes, you can take training classes available online, such as from beginner classes at or a starting one on Craftsy has a few free Mini-Classes that are excellent - in this case, the Sew Ready: Machine Basics, Sewing Machine Feet from A to Z, Mastering Zipper Techniques, and Bag-Making Basics courses are very good for a beginner.

The sewing machine is only one of the essential investments you need for successful sewing. Of the more expensive accessories, you need a good iron, sharp fabric-cutting shears (used only for cutting fabric - so they stay sharp), and a few of the fancier sewing machine feet (zipper, buttonholes, and blind hem stitch if you're making garments; a walking foot if you are working with knit fabrics).

BTW - I can't stress enough how important it is to have sharp sewing machine needles -- with the right needles for the fabric. Plan on buying sewing machine needles in multipacks. Essentially every new project should start with a new needle.

I returned to sewing garments this past summer after having learned sewing as a teen in 4-H. We had a horrific sewing machine when I was growing up -- but now that i have a good, basic sewing machine (~ $260 for a Brother), it has become one of my favorite hobbies ever. I kick myself for not sewing all these years.
posted by apennington at 12:02 PM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Any machine you consider should have a buttonhole (if she's planning on sewing clothing), a zig-zag stitch, and a straight stitch. Beyond that, the details will depend a lot on what she's planning on sewing -- clothing? Quilts? If so, is she interested in free motion machine quilting? Household items? Stuffed toys? Machine embroidery?

Basically any new entry level Brother would be a good starting point. If she plans on doing any straight-line machine quilting, upholstery sewing, or sewing heavy fabrics (e.g. denim), throw in a walking foot -- it feeds thicker fabric through the machine.

I would avoid used machines unless you know what you're doing (or you buy from a reputable dealer, I guess). A lot of people buy them up, strip the parts, and then dump them on the thrift store/resale market. Moreover, the cost of a basic servicing (which you will need for almost all used machines) is comparable to the cost of a new low-end Brother. Not worth it!

If your wife likes Hello Kitty, I have also (believe it or not) heard very good things about the Janome Stitching Pretty with Hello Kitty, which is available from Target and Walmart.
posted by pie ninja at 12:27 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for the great comments, tips, and answers.

She has her mother's old 1960s or 1970s beast of a Singer or Kenmore (I can't recall even though I'm the one who was able to find the manual online after she tried many times in vain). For some reason this machine is daunting to her (unfortunately her mother has passed away so can't be the source of lessons).

I had it in my head to take it to a local shop and have it serviced/rebuilt (maybe this isn't smart or economically feasible?). It seems to work when you plug it in and turn it on but it seemed to me a good idea to at least get it tuned up.

From there I thought I'd give her some supplies and a gift card for sewing lessons somewhere that works with her schedule. If it's still not to her liking then maybe invest in a newer, fancier model.

Looks like I have a bit to sort through yet.
posted by brokeaspoke at 12:35 PM on November 21, 2014

Yes, the old Singer will probably need to be serviced, cleaned, have the timing checked, any blades sharpened that need it, etc. etc. If it doesn't have a manual, you will probably be able to find one for it online - try here. Take it to be serviced somewhere that also sells second-hand machines.

If your wife still doesn't like it and would prefer a computerised machine, talk to the person servicing it about its trade-in value. Older computerised machines are still great-- I use an old Husqvarna 400 and it's a marvellous thing.
posted by Pallas Athena at 3:28 PM on November 21, 2014

Avoid the machines sold at Walmart under major brand names such as Singer. They are basically throw away machines. A good sewing machine should be able to be serviced, while I have heard nothing but horror stories from my local repairman about the machines he can't even order parts for.

I second the advice on the Viking, I've had mine for 14 years and it sews like a dream. The previous Viking lasted me 20+ years. I've done everything from sewing blue jeans, t-shirts, and hundreds of quilts on them.
posted by OkTwigs at 5:46 PM on November 21, 2014

Don't pick out her sewing machine for her. My mom is still upset about the time 20 years ago when my dad bought her a sewing machine without her input -- it was a great machine, but he made choices she wouldn't have about trade-offs in features, cost, ease of use, etc. As an example of things she might dislike about her current machine: it may have side-loading bobbins instead of drop-in bobbins; it may be difficult to keep the tension right; it may not have a good buttonhole. If you don't know what the problem with it is, then you won't know which machine will solve that problem, and none of us can tell you. Some people don't mind a side bobbin; I strongly prefer drop-in. I never use buttonholes; some people have very strong feelings about how well their machine does them. Etc. Even a bunch of experienced sewers can find it impossible to agree on which machine is the best for a given type of sewing, because we each have our own tics and preferences.

I like the idea of getting her existing machine serviced, and giving her a book and a gift card or something.
posted by katemonster at 6:28 PM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, Katemonster. My wife picked out the Brother HC1850 herself but apparently that's a no-go at this point. When she mentioned that model to me she said I should pick one out for her if that one can't be had for some reason - believe me, I'm a bit nervous about that myself (she wouldn't pick out bike parts or other hobby related gear for me unless she was given very specific info).

She's really reluctant to use her mom's machine. One thing she really wants is a machine that automatically threads the needle. Beyond that she's not at all sure what she wants or needs.

If I get a new machine for her I'll try to get something similar to the HC1850, well-rated, and maybe most important - easy to return or exchange.
posted by brokeaspoke at 7:06 PM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

As someone who grew up cursing at my mother's vintage Singer, I think she'll be happy with whatever you get her. My mother got me a cheap brother (not sure of the model, but it's not electronic) and while it may not last me through the nuclear apocalypse, I can sew a pair of pants without wanting to throw the machine through the window.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:48 PM on November 21, 2014

I hate to be the voice of temptation, but this Singer is one of Amazon's daily deals. It's over budget but it's a pretty good feature match to the Brother. (On the other hand, yeah--I've been using my great-grandmother's old machine and sewing happiness does not come from number of stitches. Outside of a serger, you only use two--straight and zig-zag.)
posted by anaelith at 5:42 AM on November 24, 2014

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