As sewists our Sewing Machine is our most important tool. It is the workhorse that enables us to enjoy our hobby. But with a price tag that can run anywhere from $200 to $10,000, picking the right machine can be a tremendous challenge! A basic machine will certainly enable you to sew a garment or a quilt, but as you learn and master sewing skills, an upgraded machine will enable you to improve your results, create a professional finish that doesn't look "homemade," and provide a more joyful sewing process. In this blog post I am covering some general considerations and research to do before purchasing and upgrading a sewing machine. I have also polled my readers as well as the readers of The Classic Sewing Magazine Group on Facebook and asked what features they would never want to be without. See the pie chart below for their responses and if you prefer to listen rather than read, scroll to the bottom to watch the video where I explain a little bit more about all of this and show the features.
First, Consider the Sewing Space Available and Portability of the Machine.
Do you have a dedicated sewing space so you can leave the machine set up and available? I now have a dedicated sewing room (for which I am very grateful) but for many years my "sewing space" was the dining room table. From there I had a small table in one of the bedrooms - a small machine that didn't need a large space and wasn't heavy to lift and put away was all that would work.
Next consider portability. Although this consideration may sound similar, it is a different. Will you be taking your machine to sewing classes and retreats? One year at a Smocking Arts Guild Convention, we had top of the line Bernina machines available for rent. The machines were wonderful but we had ladies trying to haul them from classroom to classroom and up the stairs - it was a disaster! I have many friends who own a large machine and have a 2nd "traveling machine" because of the weight and size of their primary machine. That might be a solution, but investing in two machines isn't an option for most.
Second, Consider the Support Available for the Sewing Machine Brand & Model Chosen.
A local sewing machine dealer who supports and services the sewing machine brand chosen is ideal. They can provide classes and that all important yearly service. But don't limit yourself to just that support. Look online at the brand's website. Many sewing machine brands are now offering online classes that will help you learn how to use the many features of an upgraded machine - does the brand you are considering have any? Also look on YouTube for the specific brand and model you are considering. At 9:00 p.m. at night when the bobbin is stuck and you are trying to finish the dress for the next day, you will be so grateful that there is a YouTube video for your machine and model right on point - thank you Bernina Jeff!
Third, Choose the Popular Model of Sewing Machine within Your Price Range.
Each sewing machine company currently makes numerous models at various price points, but certain models at each price point, are more popular than others. The more popular models are more likely to have more support as mentioned above, but also will be manufactured longer, have more parts available, and more people who know how to service them.
Fourth, Research the Features of each Sewing Machine Model Online before Going to the Store.
While the local sewing machine dealer will be tremendously helpful, sewing machines now have so many wonderful features and capabilities depending on the type of sewing that you are doing, that if you truly want to end up with your dream machine, you need to know what features are important to you, research those features, and confirm which models that have those features. All of this can be found on the brand's website. Don't go to the store counting on the sales person to be able to tell you that information. For example, I enjoy heirloom sewing so it was important to me that my machine have a Pin stitch, a Parisian Hem Stitch and a Venetian Hem Stitch. If you are into quilting or sewing with knits, a dual feed may be very important, and if you enjoy sewing bags, a machine that can handle leather may be needed.
Fifth, Go to the Store and get a Demonstration of the Sewing Machine.
Head to the store with your specific list of desired features, (keep reading), the models you are considering, and take sample fabrics with you. If you sew bags, take some leather scraps and ask to see how the machine handles the leather. If you sew with fine fabrics, take those and see how the machine behaves - does the tension adjust to handle the fine fabric? Nothing can replace seeing and feeling the machine as it sews.
Sixth, these are the features my fellow sewists would not want to be without!
1. Needle Down
I received 50 responses to my poll and while many sewists would not want to be without any of these features, these are the are the features many would not want to live without. The overall winner was the Needle Down feature. All sewing machines stop with the needle up and out of the fabric. Being able to set the machine so it stops with the needle down and in the fabric gives greater control and allows the fabric to be turned and pivoted.
2. Duel Feed
Duel Feed/walking foot followed close behind at 18.6%. Duel feed or a walking foot feeds the fabric evenly from both the top and bottom. This is extremely helpful in matching fabrics, handling any fabric that easily shifts, and bulky fabrics. Duel feed is usually only available on the higher priced machines. If that is out of your budget, check the price of a walking foot. This foot doesn't usually come with the machine and can be upwards of $100, but it can make a tremendous difference in the finished item and reduce your frustration while sewing.
3. Knee Lift
Next on the list was the Knee Lift option. Again, this is a feature that provides greater control while sewing. I knee lift is a bar that sits next to you knee and when pressed raises the sewing foot. As one sewist explained, the "knee lift means you have two hands to position and hold your fabric."
4. Automatic Needle Threader
Following closely behind was the Automatic Needle Threader. This is a game changer if seeing is becoming more difficult or if you have arthritis in your hands.
5 & 6. Automatic Buttonhole & Embroidery Unit
Sewists also loved their automatic buttonhole and embroidery units. Several sewists do all of their buttonholes with the embroidery unit. When visiting the store to try a machine, definitely try out the buttonhole feature and see how it works and if you are happy with the buttonhole that it makes. This is an area where machines are very different and a machine that makes a great and easy buttonhole is so important.
7. Automatic Tension
I was surprised that the automatic tension didn't receive more votes, but I would urge you to consider it. I think it is one of those features that we take for granted just because it works so well and that we would miss tremendously if we didn't have it! Switching from sewing batiste to coating and having the machine adjust automatically for you makes sewing a pleasure.
8 & 9. Needle Position & Mirror Imaging
Although these didn't make the list, there are a few other features that I would urge you to consider. The first is needle position. All machines that have a zig zag stitch will allow the needle to be shifted from left to right; however, the number of different needle positions is important. I recently taught a class how to make piping. This is a job that a basic machine should be able to handle (you can find a blog post and video on how to make piping here), but the machine only had 3 needle positions. The machine didn't allow the needle to be as close to the piping cord as it ideally should be. Another helpful feature is mirror imaging. For stitches with a specific orientation, this allows the stitch to be flipped to the opposite orientation. A blind hem stitch, scallop and certain stretch stitches have a specific orientation. It is extremely helpful when sewing larger items to be able to flip the orientation so the item doesn't need to fit between the presser foot and the side of the machine.
Finally, there was one feature that many sewists didn't like - the removal of the up/down lever on the back of the presser foot. Instead there is now a button that needs to be pressed on the front of the machine to lower the presser foot. I didn't care for this initially either, but I have gotten used to it. It doesn't seem to be on most high end machines.
I own my dream sewing machine and I would like you to be able to find yours as well. Picking the perfect machine that has what you need within your budget can be a daunting task, but I hope these considerations and advice from your fellow sewists will set you on the right path.