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Buying your first sewing may seem like a daunting task. How are you supposed to choose a sewing machine when you know nothing about sewing machines? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We’ve all been there at some point!
I’ve written this beginner’s guide on how to choose a sewing machine so you’ll know what type of sewing machines exist and how to pick a sewing machine that fits your needs best. There is no reason to buy the most expensive, most feature-filled sewing machine if you aren’t going to use it!
I’ll start this sewing machine guide by describing the types of sewing machines, and then I’ll help you make a list of must-have features. By the end, I hope you’ve narrowed down your choices and are one step closer to buying the perfect sewing machine for your sewing corner.
Types of Machines By What They Do
First, it’s important to know the different types of machines available. For instance, there are sewing machines that will accomplish sewing and quilting tasks, there are heavy-duty sewing machines, there are embroidery machines, and then there are sergers. There are a few other types, but for purposes of this article, we’ll stick to these. Here are how these are differentiated.
Household Sewing Machine
This is your everyday, household sewing machine. You can sew, mend, alter, and even quilt with most sewing machines. Many allow you to do even fancier tasks such as making buttonholes, satin stitching for appliques, and designing your own decorative stitches. I sewed on the Brother CS6000i, a computerized household sewing machine, for years and loved its functionality!
Heavy Duty Sewing Machine
While a standard sewing machine has some ability to sew thick fabrics, a heavy-duty sewing machine is designed to handle much thicker fabrics than a sewing machine while still performing well on thin fabrics. They have a stronger motor and other nice features that make sewing fabrics like denim, leather, upholstery, and canvas much easier and much more successful! These sewing machines aren’t typically as snazzy as your everyday sewing machine in terms of features, but they do allow you to sew a wider range of fabrics. If you plan to primarily sew thick fabrics, consider a heavy-duty sewing machine. I have a Singer 4452 heavy-duty sewing machine (see my Singer 4452 review for more info!) that does my heavy-duty sewing.
Embroidery machines are computerized machines designed mainly for embroidering digitized patterns on fabrics. You can monogram anything or embroider shirts, hats, towels, and more. If you like the idea of embroidery in addition to sewing, there are also combination sewing and embroidery machines.
I have the Brother SE1900 sewing and embroidery combination machine, and I LOVE how I can do both with this machine. I’d recommend its slightly less complicated sister machine, the Brother SE600, for beginners, though, if you’re in the market for a combo machine.
A serger (also called an overlock sewing machine) sews a seam, finishes the fabric edge, and trims the excess fabric off in one step. This results in a professional finish to your project and finishes the task faster than a conventional sewing machine. Sergers usually do not stitch buttonholes, topstitch, and more so are not going to replace your everyday sewing machine.
If you look at the seams on your shirts and other garments, it’s highly likely a serger made these seams! Do you need a serger? Definitely not. However, it is nice to have around if you sew frequently and enjoy making garments.
Types of Sewing Machines By How They Work
There are three different types of sewing machines: manual, mechanical (not computerized), and computerized.
Manual Sewing Machines
Manual sewing machines are sewing machines with absolutely no circuitry and are operated by turning the handwheel or pumping your foot. Think vintage sewing machine. While manual sewing machines are not popular for new users by any stretch of the imagination, they are useful for countries or situations where there is no electricity.
Mechanical Sewing Machines
Mechanical, or electric sewing machines, have minimal circuitry with a motor in the body that moves the needle up and down through the fabric. A foot pedal drives the motor, and the harder the foot controller is pressed, the faster the machine will sew. Many electric machines come with a small stitch selection and limited features and are thus very easy to operate for beginners.
Computerized Sewing Machines
Computerized sewing machines have an LCD screen and are the most sophisticated type of sewing machine. As such, they offer more stitches and functions. Default stitch length and width are programmed, and troubleshooting is also easier because of error messages.
Most often, mechanical sewing machines come in at a lower price point, but computerized sewing machines are more feature-rich.
Choosing a Brand of Sewing Machine
Depending on your budget and desires, certain brands of sewing machines will appeal more to you. I’m a user of mostly Singer and Brother sewing machines because they offer the most value for an affordable price. Other brands like Janome, Juki, Baby Lock, Bernina, Pfaff, Husqvarna, EverSewn, etc are more expensive and less budget-friendly for an aspiring sewist. However, they are often made to be more durable and users say they last longer.
More Features to Consider When Choosing A Sewing Machine
We’ll now go through a few more considerations and talk about available options to help you put together your list of must-have sewing machine features.
Sewing Machine Size
Do you want a miniature sewing machine or a full-size sewing machine? In general, I recommend full-size if you plan to do any serious sewing as miniature machines have VERY basic functions.
If you choose full-size, make sure to check the weight and dimensions of the unit you’re considering and decide if you have an area large enough to store it. Also, if you plan to travel with your sewing machine or move it around, make sure it is not too heavy or bulky to carry.
Included Presser Feet
Presser feet, or sewing feet, hold your fabric in place as you sew. Different presser feet accomplish different tasks.
How many presser feet do you think you’ll need? Most sewing machines will at least include an all-purpose presser foot and a zipper foot. Other helpful feet are a buttonhole foot, button sewing foot, blind hem foot, monogramming foot, walking foot, invisible zipper foot, and an overcasting foot, for example.
In most cases, you should be able to purchase additional presser feet to match your sewing machine if you decide you want more later.
Number and Types of Stitches
Basic sewing machines almost all include zigzag, straight, buttonhole, stretch, and maybe even a few decorative stitches. More expensive sewing machines will include more premium stitches such as quilting, piecing, overlocking, triple stretch, blind hem, and satin stitches. It’s good to sit down and decide exactly what stitches you’ll need for the projects you plan to sew.
If a serger is out of your budget or you don’t have space for one, consider a sewing machine that can finish and sew professionally seams with an overcasting stitch and presser foot. Note, this is not the same as having a serger, which can also trim seams.
Adjustable Stitch Width and Length
Entry-level sewing machines have a small number of stitches that come in preset lengths and widths. These presets take the guesswork out of knowing common lengths and widths for a straight stitch or zigzag stitch, for instance.
However, if you’re wanting to do more than basic mending or sewing with a straight or zigzag stitch, it’s to your best advantage to find a sewing machine that allows you to change stitch length and width. On mechanical machines, there will be dials for changing length and width, and on computerized machines, you would use buttons.
How Buttonholes Are Made
Buttonholes are made either in one step or four steps.
With the four-step buttonhole, you manually switch between the zigzag and bar tack stitches to form the buttonholes.
In contrast, with an automatic one-step buttonhole, a custom buttonhole presser foot holds a button and automatically stitches a perfect buttonhole sized to the button you place in the foot. When it comes to choosing a sewing machine, I think this is worth the money if you’re a beginner and wanting to sew buttons frequently!
Foot Pedal vs Hands-Free Sewing
All mechanical machines will only sew with a foot pedal.
In contrast, some computerized sewing machines will allow you to sew without a foot pedal and instead use the buttons on the sewing machine. I often like to sit criss-cross applesauce while I sew, so with my computerized machine, I can sew with my hands instead of my feet! This is a handy feature.
Built-In Free Arm
A built-in free arm results when you detach a portion of the sewing machine base. The free arm allows sewing of narrow cylindrical or tubular items such as pant legs or sleeves. Most sewing machines have built-in free arms, and it is something that I must have on all my sewing machines!
Oversized Extension Table
A detachable wide table fits onto the base of the machine to increase the size of your work area. It’s helpful when sewing larger projects such as quilts or curtains. It can be removed and stored when not in use. It is not standard on entry-level sewing machines but is included on many mid-range and more advanced sewing machines.
Moveable Needle Position
Basic sewing machines come with just one needle position. More advanced sewing machines come with right, left, and center needle positions. Some very advanced machines even allow you to choose any position between far-right and far-left using the computerized touchscreen. While not required by any stretch, having multiple needle positions can helpful with zippers, edge stitching, and difficult-to-sew areas.
Some computerized sewing machines also come with the option to change the default needle stop position. You can choose to always have your machine stop with needle up or needle down. If you quilt or sew corners and squares often, having the needle stop in the down position will make pivoting your fabric around the turn faster.
Dropping the Feed Dogs
Feed dogs are the metal teeth on the base of your sewing machine that help move the fabric from front to back. You have to “drop” these feed dogs if you don’t want the fabric to move as you sew, for instance when sewing on a button or doing free-motion quilting.
Some sewing machines require you to manually cover the feed dogs with what’s called a darning plate, but more expensive sewing machines have a button to drop the feed dogs or automatically do it for you when you select the button sewing stitch, for instance. This is only a necessary feature if you regularly plan to disengage the feed dogs.
Automatic Needle Threader
Can you thread a needle by hand? A feature on most mid-level and more advanced sewing machines, an automatic needle threader uses a small hook to pull the thread through the eye of the needle. Sewing machines with automatic needle threaders are especially helpful for users with poor dexterity or eyesight. I have a love-hate relationship with my automatic needle threader. It works most times, but sometimes it drives me CRAZY.
Look for a machine with a great light source if you have poor vision. Bonus points if the light points from both sides of the needle, thus avoiding awkward shadows! If you can’t find a machine with adequate lighting, you can always purchase an overhead light or lighting strips for the base of your sewing machine.
Included Monogramming Font
There are also monogramming sewing machines, like the Singer 9960 or Brother HC1850, that have one or more monogramming fonts. These are small fonts that can be stitched by the sewing machine. These will help you add initials or names to children’s clothes or could add small letters to a quilt, for instance.
Bobbin Thread Indicator
Some machines, like most Brother sewing machines, have a clear glass case over the bobbin so you can monitor the remaining bobbin thread. Other machines will have a light to let you know the thread is low, and some will present a digital message when the time is coming to change your bobbin thread.
Many inexpensive sewing machines will have front-load bobbins that are hidden within the free arm of the sewing machine. One issue here is if you don’t check your bobbin thread before beginning to sew, you may run out in the middle of a line of stitches and not realize!
Knee-Operated Presser Foot Lifter
I never used a knee-lifter until recently, but now I swear by it for certain tasks. For instance, while quilting or holding elastic together as I place it under the presser foot. With a knee lifter, you can raise and lower the presser foot with your knee rather than hand. Only more expensive sewing and quilting machines have this feature.
Make sure you read the warranties that come with different sewing machines and compare them. Nothing’s made quite like it used to be, so make sure you are happy with the warranty! If not, you can usually purchase an extended warranty from retailers like Amazon or Walmart if you don’t want to take chances on your sewing machine.
Extra Support and Tutorials?
Do you have access to more experienced sewists who can guide you while learning to sew? Are there local sewing classes for you to attend? If not, while this seems a silly way to buy a sewing machine, if you’re a true beginner, consider purchasing a popular sewing machine. A sewing machine that has more users has more online tutorials, which means more troubleshooting help available to you.
And before you purchase, consider watching videos, reading reviews, or even scanning the user manual to determine how easy it is to set up and use your machine. You don’t want to be stuck with a complicated-to-use machine that deters you from learning to sew!
Sewing Goals and Experience – Recommendations
In general, a beginner seamstress who only wants to sew occasionally might be best served with a basic sewing machine model like the Brother XM2701 or Singer Start 1304 (read the review of my daughter’s Singer 1304 for more info!)
If you’re an intermediate user or beginner who wants to develop new sewing skills, choose a sewing machine that will grow with you. For instance, a sewing machine with a larger selection of stitches and several types of presser feet as well. Also, make sure your sewing machine can accommodate more accessories later as you become more skilled.
For instance, I started seriously sewing on the Brother CS6000i sewing machine. It comes with 60 stitches and 9 presser feet. It was an easy-to-use Brother sewing machine that had ample room for growth and many compatible accessories!
What is your budget?
As a general rule, the more features and stitches a sewing machine has, the more expensive it will be. If you don’t plan to do more than basic sewing, no need for a top-of-the-line machine. Picking the sewing machine that’s most suited to your needs will keep you from paying top dollar for functions you will likely never use. Therefore, don’t feel pressured to buy the latest and greatest if you only plan on basic alterations or mending! There is no reason to spend over $200 for a sewing machine if you don’t have very specific needs.
Extra Considerations for Specialized Tasks
How To Choose a Sewing Machine for Quilting
If you want to quilt frequently with your sewing machine, you may want to consider the following things when picking your sewing and quilting machine.
- An oversized wide table to hold bulky quilts
- A larger throat space. The throat space is the area between the needle and the right side of the machine. Bigger spaces allow for bigger quilts to be rolled and bunched.
- Dropping feed dogs with a button rather than having to screw on a darning plate if you want to switch between free-motion quilting and other sewing projects regularly.
- And if you have the budget for a knee-lifter on your machine, this can be very helpful!
- Presser feet that quilters may find useful in addition to the everyday zigzag foot are the spring action quilting foot, a walking foot, ¼” quilting foot, and a quilt guide. It’s not necessary that these accessories come with the sewing machine but rather that the sewing machine is compatible with the purchase of these additional accessories.
How To Choose a Sewing Machine for Dressmaking
As an aspiring dressmaker, you’ll want to look for a sewing machine that comes with:
- A free arm to help with sewing sleeves and pants legs.
- Automatic one-step buttonhole and several buttonhole stitch designs.
- An overcasting stitch function is a good alternative if purchasing a serger as well is not an option.
- Presser feet that will be useful are the everyday zigzag foot, blind hem foot, rolled hem foot, overcasting foot, buttonhole foot and button sewing foot, zipper foot, and invisible zipper foot. Again, just make sure your machine is compatible with these feet if you decide you need them one day.
How to Choose a Sewing Machine for Upholstery
For this type of task, you will want to look for:
- A heavy-duty sewing machine rather than a household sewing machine
- Adjustable stitch length and width
- An extension table will support comforters, curtains, and other large projects.
- Consider the following presser feet: of course the zigzag and zipper feet, an invisible zipper foot, blind hem, piping foot, and gathering foot
New vs Used Sewing Machine
In most cases, used sewing machines will be considerably less expensive than new sewing machines. However, you need to watch out when you purchase pre-owned. Always try it out before you purchase. Here are a couple of extra things to consider when deciding between a new vs used sewing machine.
1. Is there a warranty, and how long is it? When you purchase a used machine, you usually have no idea how it was treated before your purchase or how old it is. Did the owner service it or perform routine maintenance regularly? Is the reason they are selling it because it no longer functions as it should? The answers to these questions are less important if you know you can return or replace the sewing machine within a warranty period at no cost to you.
2. Are parts still available for this sewing machine? If you are purchasing an older machine, make sure any accessories or parts you may need down the road are available. Some sewing machines come on the market for a short time and are then discontinued, along with the production of their replacement parts. This happened with my Mom’s 40+-year-old Singer sewing machine, which is why she had to replace it when the bobbin case broke a few years ago.
How To Test Out a Sewing Machine
In today’s online world, you can’t try before you buy. (I’ve almost always bought online, though. Having young children is more conducive to online shopping!) However, if you live near a sewing machine store, stop by and try out some sewing machines to figure out what you like and don’t like before settling on a machine. Here are a few tips to consider.
- Take your time if you feel uncomfortable! Don’t rush this decision. You may be stuck with this sewing machine for years!
- Inspect all parts of the machine for damage.
- If someone is available, ask for help. Especially if you’re a beginner, allowing someone else to show you how to set up and sew on the machine will help showcase its best features.
- Test the responsiveness of the foot pedal. A temperamental foot pedal on a mechanical machine can be a major pain!
- Practice sewing by yourself! You can bring fabric samples from home that will be similar to what you will be using in your project. Make sure you’ll be able to wind and install the bobbin and thread the sewing machine easily. Then, sew a straight stitch, sew a zigzag stitch, sew in reverse, try a buttonhole, and do everything else you think you’ll need to do at home.
Did You Choose a Sewing Machine?
Now that you know how to choose a sewing machine, I hope you were able to narrow down your selection of machines to one or a few that will fit your needs! Happy sewing!