Friday, October 12, 2012

Let's Start with Sewing Machines

Sewing Machines
People often ask me which sewing machine I suggest they buy; that is a hard question to answer because there isn't one right answer. There are many things to think about but to keep it simple, I believe that as long as a sewing machine sews nice stitches, then you have a good sewing machine! You may not find that a very helpful answer, so here's more to think about. . .

For starters, ask yourself two questions:
1-What do I plan on sewing?
2-How often do I plan on using a sewing machine?

Once you've answered those two questions, then you can make a better decision about the type of machine you should buy and how much you should spend. Your choices come down to two types of machines, MECHANICAL and COMPUTERIZED, but within those two choices you will find a whole range of other choices, e.g. price; bells and whistles; plastic parts vs. metal parts; dealer vs. chain store vs. used.

Below I have listed some basic information to think about when shopping for a sewing machine. (I think you will also find this information helpful if you already own a sewing machine.) There are four specific sections:
-an inexpensive machine
-a mechanical machine
-a computerized machine (may also be referred to as an electronic machine)
-a vintage machine.

DISCLAIMER: These are my personal opinions and not meant to be absolute truths about sewing machines.

-an INEXPENSIVE machine (most are mechanical; some are computerized/electronic):
This machine will be priced roughly between $75 and $150. You can find it at a big box store or a chain sewing/craft store. It has basic options and comes with a nice variety of accessories and tools but the key internal parts are made of plastic. If those parts break or crack, the repair will cost you as much as you payed for the machine, if not more; these machines are often considered to be "disposable" machines.

If you plan on being an occasional sewer sewing basic projects or working on mending and alterations, then this is the machine for you. It is not a big investment, but it will get the basics done. If you begin to do more sewing, then you will find that you will want to upgrade to a more quality sewing machine.

I purchased a few inexpensive sewing machines when I first began doing sewing instruction and they're still hanging in there after 7 years (pictured above). I still use them if I need extra machines when I teach and they still sew a nice seam. Every once in a while, the plastic bobbin hook gives me trouble but usually works right again if I take apart the bobbin area and clean it out.

-a MECHANICAL machine:
The mechanical machine has dials and knobs that you turn by hand to select the stitch, the stitch length, and the stitch width. It is a basic machine but can do a fine sewing job. It can sew straight stitches, zigzag stitches, and decorative stitches. It can make buttonholes and comes with a variety of presser feet and tools to help you get your sewing job done well! A mechanical machine can be used to make garments, quilts, home decor, and crafty projects too.

I distinguish the quality of a mechanical machine not so much by price but by plastic vs. metal parts. In my opinion, a mechanical sewing machine with a plastic bobbin hook is a low-end machine ($75-$150). These are the sewing machines you can buy at a big box store or a chain sewing/craft store. A sewing machine with a metal bobbin hook is a better quality machine ($200-$600) and can be found at a sewing machine dealer. The difference between the two is that the plastic hook can crack/break and this will make your machine nonfunctional until it gets repaired.

This machine has a screen that displays information about the stitch you have selected. The information varies, but it can tell you about the stitch (length and width), the presser foot you should use, and other features specific to the model you buy. This machine adjusts itself automatically depending on the stitch you select but also allows you to adjust the settings to your particular needs. It is said to be more precise than a mechanical machine and can offer a wide variety of stitch selections.

To the right is an example of a computerized/electronic sewing machine. It is a kind of "hybrid" sewing machine because it is a combination of a mechanical and computerized machine. It has a digital display but you turn a knob to adjust some settings. This machine was given to me and so I don't know where it was purchased but my guess is that it's from a big box store or chain sewing/craft store. And just like with mechanical machines, computerized machines can be made with plastic or metal bobbin hooks.

A good computerized machine will usually be sold by a dealer and might even come with a free class or two. The price range is roughly between $300 and $1,500 or more. The price will go up as the machine offers more options and comes with more accessories. A computerized machine is good for someone who sews often and makes garments, quilts, home decor, and crafty projects too.

Which one should you buy? Mechanical vs. Computerized? I suggest that a beginner sewer test-drive a mechanical machine and a computerized machine to decide which one feels better. You might be able to tell a difference, or not, but you won't know until you try. One feature I really like on a computerized machine is the "needle up/needle down" option which means that once you come to a stop, your machine will lower the needle into the fabric automatically or it might give you the option to do this with the push of a button--this depends on the brand of the machine. Having said that, I've been very impressed with the quality of the mechanical sewing machines we use at Fancy Tiger Crafts. They've held up well considering the amount of people who use them AND I think they are sturdy enough to last for a long time. My best suggestion to you is to test-drive the choices.

-a VINTAGE machine:
Another type of machine that you might consider sewing with is an older machine that some might call "vintage". Do not underestimate the quality of an old machine! Sewing machines used to be made of all metal parts, including the body, and some can easily out-sew some of the newer models of machines. If you buy one of these from a yard sale, a thrift store, or are given one, make sure you are getting one that has been well-loved. Watch Sewing Machine 911 for help in giving it a good cleaning or take it to a repair shop to get it cleaned up and tuned and you should be all set to get started sewing. A vintage machine is a mechanical machine.

Notice that I'm not pushing any brand names. I do have a few brands that I really like, but it doesn't mean I won't sew with other brands. I want to stress that as long as you understand the descriptions above, then you should be fine buying any of the big name brands of machines for your sewing adventures. Beware of buying a machine that might be more than you are ready for as a beginner. Start simple and remember that you can always upgrade. Dealers usually offer a trade-in program within the first year or two after your purchase which allows you to put your initial investment into a better machine. Also, a dealer might be the perfect place to get a good used sewing machine. They often tune-up and clean trade-in machines and resell them.

Give yourself some time to find the machine that feels good for you. Test-drive a few and go to a few stores before you make a final decision. Once you pick your favorite, get it home and START SEWING!


  1. Wow, great article, I really appreciate your thought process and having it explained properly, thank you!


    1. Thanks! I'm glad you found it helpful. Do you own a sewing machine or are you shopping for one?

  2. Very helpful, Claudia! And thanks for your tips with my machine this weekend! It was so nice to meet you! Glad to find your blog, too. It's great! Looking forward to seeing your pants. :)

    1. Thanks, Allie! So glad you found me. :) It was a great getaway for me and I enjoyed meeting you and so many nice and talented ladies. I'll be following you on your blog. Take care and hope you're safe in the storm. BTW, I hope to work on my pants soon.

  3. This is BRILLIANT information Claudia...... Some great advice and tips.

    I bought my machine (Brother Innovis 20) after test driving loads of models. It was well worth exploring different models as this one is truly a great fit for the tasks I complete.

    I'll be adding and sharing your blog via mine also

    thanks again for sharing


    1. Hi Gem,

      Thanks for the comment! I'll be heading over to your blog; thanks for sharing! -Claudia

  4. Dear Claudia,

    This is a great article. I am planning to buy a sewing machine. I had one in India which was power operated but not computerized. I could sew garments, alterations etc. It had few embroidery stitches options too (never explored that part much)

    My query is, When i join two garments together, the finishing needs to be sealed inside,(i suppose it is called serging? Please correct me if am wrong). The basic machine that I had was not able to do that or may be I did not know if it had that option.

    So when I find a new one, I need a machine that can join/seal the ends apart from the basic line stitches, so that it looks professional inside too and also the fabric threads doesnt get tripped off.
    Do the basic sewing machine help this kind of work ? What kind of machines should look for if I need to go to the Level 2 or Level 3 stitching ? Please help.

    Sorry for the lengthy question :) Hope you would be able to help me.

    1. Hi Prathibha,

      Glad you found this post helpful.

      Yes, serging is correct to describe finished seams inside a garment or sewn piece. It is a nice way to finish seam allowances but it is not necessary to use a serger. You can zigzag to finish the seams or even use pinking shears or my favorite, the pinking rotary blade. Some sewing machines do have a stitch that is called the "overlock" stitch that mimics a serger stitch. You might want to look for that. I always like to recommend the Janome Sewist 500 because after using them for instruction for 5 years, they've held up very well and offer good options--this one does have an overlock stitch option, btw!

      Feel free to contact me with more questions,

  5. Hi Claudia,

    Thank you very much for the reply. I googled the images of all the stitches and names that you mentioned, and yes, these are the ones exactly i had in my mind. Great ! I will save your email id, do more research and get back to you with my questions when am going to buy it. It is so nice of you to help me out. Thank you again.

  6. Very nice and helpful information has been given in this post. I like the way you explain the things. Keep posting. Thanks!
    Sewing Machines

  7. I really like your blog, but I find it difficult to read because the font color is more gray than black. Don't know if you've heard this from others. Could be my eyes, but the rest of the websites I've looked at tonight are fine.

    1. Thanks for letting me know! I've never been told this but it's a simple fix to darken the color of the font. I'll change the color and ask that you please let me know if you can tell a difference (I understand you've posted this comment as "Anonymous" so you may not read this but I hope you do). Also, the dates for each post are written in a very light gray but not the actual writing of the post. I wonder if that is what you are referring to?