Sewing Machines for Dummies
July 15, 2021 1:40 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn how to sew. On a sewing machine. I have been roundly discouraged from this pursuit in the past, as it is "old-fashioned" and "you can just go buy what you need." Call me old-fashioned and poky, then, I don't care anymore! I am well versed in the art of sewing by hand, but that sort of thing takes *too damn long* if you want, say, curtains by the end of the next century. I'm not a medieval seamstress!

A few years ago I asked about repairing my Singer Featherweight 221, which wasn't working properly. It got fixed - yay! But since then, it has sat around, largely because it intimidates me. Boo! The few times I used it, I found pushing the pedal made it go at a snail's pace, or else it raced along to where I was concerned for the health and safety of my fingers. I was told, though, that this was a good machine for a beginner, since it is sturdy and uncomplicated. Is this correct? If so, where would I learn how to use it without causing myself injury? In YouTube videos, people always seem to have their hands in the way of the exact thing one is trying to learn. Or (my preference) should I invest in a modern "sewing machine for people who are scared of rapidly moving pointy bits" and learn on that instead? If so, what machine would any of you experienced sewers recommend? I am sure I will overcome my fears quickly, but the Singer hasn't helped with that.

It can be a cheap machine that won't last long; I figure once I master that, I can use the Singer. But it should to be easy to use (I'm not above getting one for 10 year olds, if those exist and would serve the purpose) and high-enough quality that it doesn't jam up, otherwise malfunction, every few minutes. Inexpensive is preferable, but... if you know of the perfect machine that is expensive, Beginners Deluxe, or whatever, tell me about it anyway. I want to know what all my options are. :)
posted by Armed Only With Hubris to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (31 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I taught myself to sew on a Janome Mod-9, which is a very cheap beginner machine that does all the fundamental things you want. I'm still using it several years later and I sew very frequently. No sewing machine should malfunction every few minutes, even if it's very cheap!

I will note that there are many things like buttonholes that will function differently between your Featherweight and a newer machine, even a no-frills one like the Mod-9, but once you get past the "scared of the machine going fast" stage you will be able to figure this out no sweat.
posted by branca at 2:03 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

Do not get a children's machine. They are terrible.

A very common feature on all but the lowest end current machines is a variable speed slider. I keep mine on 2 most of the time and slow it down to 1 for hard things, because 3 is too fast for me. I have a Janome Sewist 525e and I love it, but a lot of mid-range models will have this now. The basic function of all sewing machines is fairly similar -- and you can ignore the fancy features on them until you're ready to do fancier things -- but I like the Janome because it does a certain amount of auto-tensioning so I rarely have to change tension, which I hate.

In most cities, you can take beginner sewing lessons from a variety of sources. Check your school district or city's recreational and adult education programs, or ask a your local hobby shop. Community colleges with fashion programs will offer sewing classes, as well, but they run pretty fast paced and are often on industrial machines that you would not enjoy given what you've posted here so they would not be ideal for you. In larger cities, there may be workshops that specialize just in giving lessons or providing machine time for people who don't have their own.

Some learn-to-sew programs are bring-your-own machine, which is nicer provided you have a car and some programs you will sew on the machines they have there -- and the knowledge is about 98% transferable to your own machine. There are also regional sewing conferences where you can take more specialized classes but they don't tend to offer as many pure beginner classes because they people who attend a sewing conference generally already know at least somewhat how to sew.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:05 PM on July 15 [4 favorites]

Not to thread-sit, but I should add: I too was afraid of the speed of sewing when I started. I really only got over it by trying, trying again, mostly on scrap fabric, until I had learned from experience the way sewing felt. I don't know that buying a newer machine is going to solve this problem for you, but I've also never sewn with a Featherweight and maybe it really does go screamingly fast.
posted by branca at 2:05 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]

I am a complete sewing machine noob, and from what i've gathered, most machines have *much* more in common than they don't. If you already have a machine, go with what you've got and learn on that. No need to buy a new machine. That being said, I did find it helpful to look for videos that were made using the same brand machine as mine, and same model when possible.

Assuming you've found these, but they look helpful.

I've watched tons of videos, and found some of them great, and some of them are crap (as is the entire internet!). So just keep looking.

As for the speed, embrace the slow, and use that as a way to learn. It's still faster than sewing by hand!
posted by hydra77 at 2:07 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

I love my old Featherweight. The pedal should work like a car 's accelerater so one can control the speed. If it races from a snails pace to speedster, the pedal may need a slight adjustment. Youtube videos are available but any sewing tech can adjust this and show you how much pressure to use.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 2:14 PM on July 15 [4 favorites]

Using the sewing machine is pretty straightforward as a newb. It's just that even the good ones break down all the time.* It may help to think of this project less as learning how to sew with a sewing machine (though there's some of that) and more as learning how to troubleshoot, repair and maintain a sewing machine.
posted by aniola at 2:17 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

If you want to buy a new machine, I like my Brother CS6000i which usually runs less than $200 on Amazon. It's a few notches above the cheapest machines, and worth it. I used it frequently for 5 years while learning to sew clothes for myself and had no mechanical problems or frustrations. I didn't even take it for a tune-up. (I got a heavier machine only because I decided to make jeans.) This machine is popular and has been around for a while so there are loads of videos on YouTube. It's a very friendly little machine and even has a throttle so you can cap the speed with a switch and then it can't run away no matter how hard you press the pedal.

Unsolicited advice for learning to sew: define success as learning rather than making something perfect. Try not to use the cheapest fabric as it can be horrible to sew (slippery, flimsy). If you want to sew clothes, you don't need to make curtains or sheets or other big straight things first (unless you really want to); the classical progression is a tote bag to get familiar with the machine, and then you are ready for pajama pants in fun quilting-weight cotton fabric. If you are on instagram, look for hashtags #CitySews or #RegionSews (fill in your city or region) to find other local sewing people!
posted by esoterrica at 2:18 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

*Needle breaks, thread jams, needs oil, etc.
posted by aniola at 2:18 PM on July 15

Does your machine run with a foot pedal? I learned on a very old Kenmore with a knee lever to control speed and it took years a decade with a foot pedal Kenmore to get comfortable and not be spreading my right leg all the time. The foot pedal tended to go from 0 to 60 in a fraction of a second vs the subtle speed increases I was used to with the knee lever. What I did (again, for a decade) was to turn the foot pedal around. It makes no sense but I did find it easier to control the speed that way.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 2:19 PM on July 15

Maybe you could borrow one from somebody, or buy secondhand? I bought a used Brother sewing machine off of Craigslist and somehow I find that much less scary than my mom's antique Singer. Mine has a little LCD screen and a bunch of pre-programmed stitches, so if I want to try a zigzag stitch or whatever I just push a couple buttons and there it is. It can also adjust stitch length and spacing. I don't have to monkey with the tension much at all. It came with a nice manual that explains how to set it up and has a whole section for troubleshooting. I learned a lot by reading through the manual. Just push the foot pedal down a tiny bit and it will stitch sloooowly. I don't think I've ever gone full speed on mine.

There is a moving pointy bit, no way around that, but I went from novice to sewing piles of masks last year without ever hurting myself on it. I learned the most by lurking in mask-making groups on Facebook where people would post very basic tutorials and step-by-step videos, it was a great way to learn actually because it felt like there was a community I could go to with questions.
posted by beandip at 2:22 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

What I did (again, for a decade) was to turn the foot pedal around.

I thought I was the only one! I turn my foot pedal around and elevate the rest of my foot on a thick book (or, in a pinch, the foot of my desk chair). I guess it's easier to move a lever by touching the far end of it, and maybe my normal stance on the foot pedal is putting the force closer to the center, where it's all or nothing?
posted by fountainofdoubt at 2:23 PM on July 15

See if your local community college offers sewing classes. My friend has fallen in love with a community college near her job that offers all kinds of sewing classes, including beginning. Most schools have a few different machine models and the knowledge is highly transferrable from one machine to the next.
posted by shoesietart at 2:25 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

If you take the pedal to a sewing machine shop, they might be able to adjust the speed gradient (I forget if there's a better term) for you.

Anyway, good speed control definitely helps a lot when you're learning to sew. (I agree with the "embrace the slow" advice above.) If you're in the US I'd probably get a basic mechanical (not computerized) Janome or Elna, but that's personal preference. If you have a sewing shop in the area, you could go there and try out a bunch of machines and see which ones feel good when you're using them. They (and local boards like Craigslist) might also have good second-hand machines, which if you can test them out and make sure they work nicely might be a good way to get a solid machine for cheap. But again trying them out is important -- different machines have a different feel to them, and you might as well get one that feels good to you.

One other thing to consider is what sorts of things you'll want to sew. If it's just curtains, or other things using woven (non-stretchy) fabrics, the featherweight should be fine, though it won't be able to do a zig-zag stitch to overlock fabric edges to keep them from fraying. (Instead you'll want to enclose the edges in your seams, which was the standard technique before zigzag machines were invented.) If you think you might want to sew stretchy stuff sometimes, or buttonholes or anything else that requires zigzag, you'll want another machine. (Technically there are accessories for the featherweight that make those things possible, but unless you're lucky they'll cost about the same as a basic zigzag-capable machine.)

Regarding youtube videos, unless it's model-specific stuff like how to thread your machine, you don't need to look for featherweight videos specifically. Just look around at sewing tutorials in general until you find ones you like - there are plenty of good ones where the hands don't get in the way, for example. There are also a lot of good non-video tutorial sites out there.

About hands: they'll rarely need to get close to the needle. You use your hands not to pull the fabric but mostly just to gently adjust the angle while sewing so the seam stays straight. You can do that while keeping your hands a good few inches away from the needle in most cases, if you're not sewing something really small. That said, a good habit to develop is to keep your foot off the pedal whenever you're not actually trying to make stitches - you don't want to accidentally get the needle moving when you're not planning on it.

If you don't have an iron, do get one - it'll make your life much easier and if you're making curtains they'll look much better with pressed hems.
posted by trig at 2:31 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

Really it's not hard, needs practice, lots of youtube videos and googlble info, cost me $5 for a manual for my $10 craglist special (old White) that runs like a charm. (once adjusted and threaded right, yes omg bobbin winding direction takes long review:-) Oh and just learned a heavy thread takes a lot of adjustment. Old, heavy, simple is a good thing. If you have space table size are given away, portable are more popular. Get one and do a very simple project/carrybag thing. Then dream about Project Runway!
posted by sammyo at 2:38 PM on July 15

Do you have a sewing machine store near you? I recommend going to one and taking a few machines for a test drive. A knowledgeable sales clerk will ask you what you plan to use the machine for and will guide you to machines that do those functions and are in your price range.

Me, I have always been a fan of Janome.
posted by medeine at 2:52 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

I learned on a Singer Slant-O-Matic during the pandemic because it's the one we found at the thrift store a year previously. A good straight-stitch machine is ideal for learners. The 221 is a good machine.

If you have an original pedal that looks like this lump o'bakelite with the sticky-outy square, here's a secret: turn it round and use your heel. Put your foot on the flat bit and your heel square on the back with one side resting on the solid bit, then just rock your heel sideways.

Get the manual. Singer's Teacher's Textbook is also good. You can buy PDF scans from Etsy. (There are obvious copyright issues in doing this, but the actual books are expensive collectibles.) The 1938 edition is the one that was made for the Featherweight 221, but the 1957 one is good too. They have a bunch of exercises to teach you to how control speed and to get a consistent seam width, which is a lot of the battle. Use paper, use scrap fabric.

YouTube is good. Sewing blogs are good. There's a real old-internet-school vibe in the online sewing community and a willingness to share intermediate techniques. Masks were a very good starting project for basics. Pillowcases are good for things like French seams.
posted by holgate at 3:06 PM on July 15 [2 favorites]

From "SEW-lutions Guidelines are educational articles in pdf format. They cover all aspects of sewing, from beginner and learn to sew instructions to advanced sewing techniques."

I am in a similar boat (old machine, has been fixed, too nervous to try), and here's what's been working:
* practicing winding a bobbin (being sure to choose the correct bobbin. Oh God, spare yourself the frustration and make sure it's the right one)
* practicing threading the machine according to the damned instruction manual (rather than following my hazy recollections from 7th grade home-ec class)
* screwing up perfectly good scraps of material to address tension issues
* choosing newer thread instead of the lovely old spools whose thread has become delicate
* imagining that there is an egg between my foot and the pedal and transferring pressure rather than just mashing down. My heel is on the ground, and the rest of my foot applies force. I can't explain why this works.

I have now achieved correct tension! And have sewn a straight seam on scrap fabric! I was ready to call my local extension service and get local help but I think I'm going to be okay with YT instead.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:36 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

choosing newer thread instead of the lovely old spools whose thread has become delicate

Yep. Start with something like Gutermann polyester. After about nine months' practice I felt comfortable with Aurifil cotton for piecing and quilting but thread breaks are a pain, especially at the outset, and polyester should limit that. Also get new needles for similar reasons.
posted by holgate at 4:28 PM on July 15

And please have a look at aniola's post, she's a sewing machine mechanic!
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:36 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

A tuned up 221 is a classic for a reason, but when you’re learning it’s hard to tell if the machine is wrong, or you are. I’d say, first useful would be in-person sewing lessons so someone experienced can check you and the machine; then tryouts and lessons for a new machine at a shop; then getting a fancier new machine online (probably it will go smoothly, but if not??)).
posted by clew at 4:39 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

The machine you have is great for beginning sewers. There is a way to adjust the foot pedal so the machine can’t see at that scary-fast speed.
posted by KayQuestions at 4:49 PM on July 15

I meant sew.
posted by KayQuestions at 5:15 PM on July 15

Sorry, I was on my phone and I realized I could not finish the post on the phone. You describe a pedal mechanism which controls the speed by pushing down. You can attach a piece of wood or rubber under the foot pedal so that it stops at medium speed, and never gets to the fastest speed. A triangle shaped piece works well, so that when the pedal is all the way down, the shim supports it. This is what parents used to do to keep little girls from getting their fingers fun over as they were learning to use the machine.

Or you can take your machine in and have them adjust the pedal so that it moves gradually and evenly from slowest to fastest speed. It has to do with the little screws that hold the pedal onto the base. Sometimes those get worn out or out of adjustment so the machine skips to fastest when the sewer is trying for medium-slow or medium.

If you do one of these things so you know your machine can't to to top speed, it should not intimidate you any more. A 221 is a great little machine. I would much prefer it to any of the cheap new machines.
posted by KayQuestions at 5:44 PM on July 15 [4 favorites]

I don't know much about sewing machines, but among quilters I know, who are constantly running off to bees and the like, a Featherweight 221 is considered very desirable and they are highly sought after.

Here's one on Etsy, for, example for $650+.
posted by jamjam at 7:24 PM on July 15

You can stumble upon 221s at estate sales and flea markets or even specialised dealers for way less than that but yeah, eBay prices for serviced ones that aren't rare models are in the $400 range. (Singer made a lot of them over a 40-year period.) If you've already stumbled upon one, it's worth the love. As others have said, it's a really good machine. It does one thing -- straight stitching -- really really well. Straight stitching gets you a long long way, because that's all machine sewers had for decades. If stuff breaks it's fixable in the same way that an old truck is fixable. There are parts and people who know how to fix them. If the pedal needs a tweak, then it can be tweaked. There are

On the stabby-stabby side: I was scared too. Things really came along when I learned to look at the presser foot and the gauge on the shoe and not the needle, and to let the feed dogs do the work. Your hands are for guiding. One thing you can try with a bit of, say, handkerchief-sized scrap fabric is to put it under the presser foot more or less square on and hold it at the back well away from the needle and just run it through. If all's set up well, the feed dogs will do their job and you'll see how the machine doesn't want to stab you.

(Remember to lower the presser foot. Remember to lower the presser foot.)
posted by holgate at 7:44 PM on July 15

Featherweights are great! I'm a big fan of those old Singers, but I don't recommend any made after 1990. Janome and Brother are better brands now, but I think the machine you have is going to be better than anything that's affordable new. If it doesn't still have its manual, they're available online. Nthing taking a class, and also just practicing on some scrap fabric or cheap felt squares until you get the hang of what the machine does.
I find that videos specific to the model are usually the best bet--I have a 50s machine and those have been pretty helpful to me.
Are you sewing barefoot? Because that helps a lot with feeling the pedal, and I always sew barefoot, or in socks if it's cold. I put my heel on the floor and just push the button with my toes.

I'm kind of scandalized people would discourage you from sewing. Sewing is having kind of a renaissance right now, and making your own stuff is cool! Lots of people sew. I just had to learn to put in invisible zippers and there were dozens of videos to choose from. If you're just looking for general inspiration/cozy sewing videos, I recommend Rachel Maksey or Bernadette Banner's YouTube channels.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 8:30 PM on July 15 [1 favorite]

For me, the best thing to start sewing on is paper! Thread the machine up (yes to polyester thread) and just see - it's all about getting the foot (floor pedal) control and with paper you don't have to make sure it's not getting caught or anything. Then you can graduate to single bits of scrap fabric, and finally to layers of fabric.
posted by london explorer girl at 3:32 AM on July 16 [1 favorite]

Please ignore the fuddy duds who think sewing is old fashioned.

It sounds like your main concern with your Singer is that it feels hard to control, to the point of being scary. This is a very reasonable concern! Full speed is too fast, especially for a beginner. KayQuestions' advice about putting a shim in the pedal is spot on. Or having an expert adjust the pedal itself to achieve the same thing - explain to the tech that you are learning, and want to limit the top speed.
posted by mrgoldenbrown at 7:58 AM on July 16 [1 favorite]

It's also possible that a slow start and then going to fast is caused by a buildup of lint or string that's wrapped around something.
posted by SandiBeech at 8:35 AM on July 16

I second the suggestion to sew on paper, and also, just get yourself some old bedsheets or similar scraps and just sew. Don't try to make anything, just sort of go nuts with the machine and get used to what it feels like to feed fabric through it at different speeds and with different stitch lengths, etc.

I get feeling scared when it goes too fast! I still am too scared by my partner's industrial machine to use it. But a lot of that is just needing experience, and thread is cheap :]
posted by fiercecupcake at 9:05 AM on July 16

Sewing is wonderful, and it just sounds like you may need to adjust the foot pedal. I had to do this with my newer Singer, and it was easy. Here is a video for the Featherweight's pedal adjustment.
posted by TheCoug at 2:38 PM on July 16

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