How To Choose a Sewing Machine (Beginner’s Guide)

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Buying your first sewing machine may seem like a daunting task. 

How are you supposed to select a sewing machine if it’s your first time sewing? 

Don’t worry, you’re not alone–we’ve all been there at some point!

To help out, I’ve written this guide on how to choose the right sewing machine!

It will explain the types of sewing machines, feature options, and finally how to pick a new machine that fits your needs best. 

How to Choose A Sewing Machine for Beginners

Types of Machines By What They Do

First, it’s important to know the different types of machines available. 

I’ll not be covering industrial sewing machines, sergers, or coverstitch machines, as these are more specialized and not ideal as a first machine. 

1. Standard Household Sewing Machine

CS6000i sewing machine

In general, I recommend beginner sewists start looking for their first sewing machine amongst the standard-size household machine options. 

Everyday household sewing machines can sew, mend, alter, and even quilt. 

Most also allow you to do even fancier tasks like making buttonholes, satin stitching for appliques, and creating decorative stitches. 

I started my sewing journey on the old Brother CS6000i, a computerized sewing machine, and loved its functionality!

mini sewing machine

While there are also handheld sewing machines and mini sewing machines, these are not as functional, and I don’t love them as much for beginners. 

2. Heavy Duty Sewing Machine

singer 4452

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 as snazzy as your everyday sewing machine in terms of features, but they do allow you to sew a wider range of different 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.

3. Embroidery Machine (Or Combo Machine)

brother se1900 review
My Brother SE1900 combination sewing and embroidery machine

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 combination sewing and embroidery machines. Simply pop on the embroidery unit, and you can stitch computerized embroidery designs in addition to sewing. 

Entry-level combo machines like the Brother SE600 or SE700 also aren’t much more expensive than regular sewing machines, so the extra functionality might make the higher price worth it for you. 

Types of Sewing Machines By How They Work

There are three different types of sewing machines: manual, mechanical (not computerized), and computerized.

1. 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 machines. 

While manual sewing machines are not very popular these days, they are useful for countries or situations where there is no electricity.

2. Mechanical Sewing Machines

singer start 1304
My Singer Start 1304–an example of a mechanical machine

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.

3. Computerized Sewing Machines

stitch selection on the Brother CS7000X

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.

Features to Consider When Choosing A Sewing Machine

Now that you know what type of sewing machine you want, it’s time to make your list of must-have sewing machine features.

To note, there’s no reason to buy the best sewing machine out there that is thousands above your price range if you don’t plan to use all the features!

1. Sewing Machine Size

singer handheld sewing machine
My Singer handheld sewing machine

As mentioned earlier, I recommend full-size if you plan to do any serious sewing, as miniature machines like the one above have VERY basic functions.

Threading a mini sewing machine and operating a mini sewing machine are more difficult for mini than standard sewing machines, in my opinion. 

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. 

2. Included Presser Feet

brother sewing machine presser foot

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 basic 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.

3. Number and Types of Stitches

Singer Start 1304 stitch dial

Basic sewing machines usually include zigzag, straight, buttonhole, stretch, and maybe even a few decorative stitches. 

More expensive sewing machines include more premium stitch options such as a quilting stitch, overclocking stitch, triple stretch stitch, blind hem stitch, and satin stitch.

Thus, 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 that this is not the same as having a serger, which can also trim seams.

4. Adjustable Stitch Width and Length

s1 and s2 on the stitch length dial

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 want to do more than basic mending or sewing with a straight or zigzag stitch, 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 use buttons.

5. How Buttonholes Are Constructed

making a 4-step buttonhole with the singer 1304

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 a one-step buttonhole is worth the money if you’re a beginner and want to sew buttons frequently!

6. Foot Pedal vs. Buttons Sewing

All newer mechanical machines 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!

Also, sewing machines with buttons are more likely to have automatic thread cutters and other fancy functions. 

7. Built-In Free Arm

cp60x free arm

A built-in free arm results when you detach a portion of the sewing machine base. 

The free arm allows the sewing of narrow cylindrical or tubular items such as pant legs or sleeves. 

Most sewing machines have built-in free arms, which is a must-have on all my sewing machines!

8. Oversized Extension Table

extension table

A detachable wide table fits onto the base of the machine to increase the size of your work area. 

It is not standard on entry-level sewing machines but is included on many mid-range and more advanced sewing machines.

It’s helpful when sewing larger projects such as quilts or curtains and can be removed and stored when not in use. 

9. Moveable Needle Position

Basic sewing machines come with just one needle position. 

More advanced sewing machines come with right, left, and center needle positions. 

The most advanced machines allow you to choose any position between far-right and far-left using the computerized touchscreen. 

While not required, having multiple needle positions can be helpful with zippers, edge stitching, and difficult-to-sew areas.

Some computerized sewing machines also have the option to change the default needle stop position.

You can choose to always have your machine stop with the needle up or needle down. 

If you sew corners and squares often, the needle stopping in the down position will make pivoting your fabric around the turn faster.

10. Dropping the Feed Dogs

how to drop 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 like the Brother XR3774 require you to manually cover the feed dogs with what’s called a darning plate.

However, 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.

11. Automatic Needle Threader

using brother auto 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.

12. Workspace Lighting

led light on se2000

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.

13. Monogramming Options

There are also monogramming sewing machines with one or more monogramming fonts, like the Singer 9960 or Brother HC1850

These are small fonts that can be stitched by the sewing machine. With them, you can add initials or names to children’s clothes or even add small letters to a quilt, for instance.

14. Bobbin Thread Indicator

se2000 bobbin thread is empty warning

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 have a light to let you know the thread is low, and some present a digital message when the time is coming to change your bobbin thread.

Some inexpensive sewing machines will have front-load bobbins hidden within the sewing machine’s free arm. 

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 it!

15. Knee-Operated Presser Foot Lifter

knee 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 your hand. 

This is not something that comes on a beginner sewing machine but rather on a more advanced machine. 

16. Brand Loyalty

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 on their entry-level machines.  

Other brands like Janome, Juki, Baby Lock, Bernina, Pfaff, Husqvarna, EverSewn, etc. are less budget-friendly for an aspiring sewist. However, they are often made to be more durable and users say they last longer.

17. 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 sounds like a silly way to buy a sewing machine, consider purchasing a popular sewing machine from a big box store. 

A sewing machine with more users has more online tutorials, which means more troubleshooting help.

Or, depending on where you live, you can purchase from a local sewing machine dealer who can offer free classes and individualized help.

Either way, 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. 

Buying a Sewing Machine

Important Considerations for Specialized Tasks

If you want to quilt frequently with your sewing machine, consider the following:

  1. An oversized wide table to hold bulky quilts
  2. A larger throat space. The throat space is the area between the needle and the right side of the machine, and bigger spaces allow for bigger quilts to be rolled and bunched.
  3. Dropping feed dogs with a button if you want to switch between free-motion quilting and other sewing projects regularly.
  4. Knee lifter
  5. Presser feet like the spring action quilting foot, a walking foot, ¼” quilting foot, and a quilt guide. 

As an aspiring dressmaker who wants to sew their own clothes, look for a sewing machine that comes with:

  1. A free arm to help with sewing sleeves and pants legs.
  2. Automatic one-step buttonhole and several buttonhole stitch designs.
  3. An overcasting stitch function is a good alternative if purchasing a serger as well is not an option.
  4. 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.

For sewing upholstery, consider:

  1. A heavy-duty or industrial sewing machine rather than a household sewing machine
  2. Adjustable stitch length and width
  3. An extension table will support comforters, curtains, and other large projects.

Consider the following presser feet: zigzag and zipper feet, invisible zipper foot, blind hem, piping foot, and gathering foot 

New vs. Used Sewing Machine

In most cases, a used sewing machine is considerably less expensive than a new sewing machine. 

However, be careful when purchasing pre-owned if you don’t know what a good machine looks like. 

At least consider these factors:

  • Warranty: Can you return or replace the sewing machine for free within a warranty period if it doesn’t work as it should?
  • Machine condition: Did the owner service it or perform routine maintenance regularly? Does the machine sew as it should?
  • Age: If you are purchasing an older machine, make sure any accessories or parts you may need down the road are available. (For example, we had to replace my Mom’s 40-year-old Singer sewing machine when we found out replacement parts for the bobbin case were no longer available.)

Testing Out a Sewing Machine

In today’s online world, you can’t always try before you buy.

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:

  1. Take your time if you feel uncomfortable! Don’t rush this decision. You may be stuck with this sewing machine for years!
  2. Inspect all parts of the machine for damage.
  3. 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.
  4. Test the responsiveness of the foot pedal. A temperamental foot pedal on a mechanical machine can be a major pain!
  5. Practice sewing by yourself! You can bring fabric samples from home that will be similar to what you will use in your project. Make sure you can 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.

 

Still lost and don’t know which machine you want? Check out my favorite beginner sewing machines and my top inexpensive machines for beginners.