Choosing Your First Sewing Machine

Choosing your first sewing machine

A little help in making your first machine purchase

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You’ve finally done it; you’ve committed to buying your first sewing machine. There’s nothing more exciting than investing in something that’s going to bring you hours of creative fulfilment.  But where do you go from here? Deciding where to pool your hard-earned dollars can be daunting when there’s a sea of functions and features to navigate. Don’t panic – help is here to find you the perfect fit.

The good news is that most entry-level sewing machines come with a decent spec nowadays, so you’re likely to find some pretty cool features to help get you on your way. A good tip is to opt for a model at the top end of your budget. This allows room for progression into using more advanced features as you become more proficient at your sewing.

What are the different types of sewing machine?

If you’re just starting out, it’s helpful to research what’s available. With that said, there’s so many options it can be a real challenge as you struggle to decipher one type from another. Here’s a quick guide to the different types of sewing machines available to buy.

Mechanical sewing machines

The workhorse of the sewing world! These machines make up the majority of what’s on the market and are good all-rounders, they cater to novice sewing through to more advanced crafting and dressmaking projects.

Once you’ve plugged them in and threaded them up, you control the stitching speed using a foot pedal. They offer around a dozen stitch patterns with easy controls to adjust stitch type and length. Prices start at around $100 for beginner ranges in popular stalwart brands like Singer and Janome.

Computerized sewing machines

Computerized machines work in the same way as above, the main difference visually being they have digital display panels and controls instead of manual dials or switches. These machines have advanced programmable features for experienced sewers as they offer more precision over needle positioning and stitches. However, their easy to use automatic features can be useful for amateurs. Brother are the leaders in this field with their entry models starting at around $300.

Specialist machines

There are a few machines which focus on one aspect only.

Embroidery-only machines are computerized and equipped with wide bed surfaces to stitch motifs directly onto clothes. They have multiple built-in designs and fonts to choose from. Designs can be imported via USB and editing using software packages sold as add-ons.

Sergers are a type of finishing machine used in dressmaking and are again, mainly for intermediate and advanced sewers who want perfect edges to their garments. They work by reinforcing or overlocking the seams and cutting away excess fabric for a neat, professional finish.

What should I look for as an amateur?

Regardless of what you’ll be using your sewing machine for, there are some universal features you should look out for, particularly as a beginner to make life that little bit easier.

Multiple stitch types

Although straight stitch is the one you’ll use most often, it’s good to know there’s an abundance of other stitches available. Some are purely decorative, and some will come in handy more than you’ll know! Look for zig zag stitch to reinforce edging and blind hem stitch for almost invisible hemming.

Stitch length adjuster

This handy feature allows you to set the stitch length according to requirement. It can create stronger, denser areas of stitching in thicker fabrics such as denim or longer temporary stitches for basting which can later be removed.

Variable speed control

As a beginner, it’s likely you’ll want to take things slow at first to avoid crooked lines and badly finished stitches (it’s okay, we’ve all been there). It can be tricky to control the speed of the machine with the foot pedal while guiding the fabric with your hands. Some machines – usually computerized models – have variable speed switches which you can set to your preferred sewing speed.

Automatic needle threader

If you want to spend your free time sewing rather than constantly threading needles, this is for you. An automatic threading function will not only thread the top thread for you but will always pick up the bottom thread from the bobbin, ensuring the perfect amount of tension in your stitching.

Bobbin systems

There are two types of bobbin systems in sewing machines which you’ll need to know about: drop-in and front loading. Drop-in means that the bobbin panel is accessed under the needle plate, whereas the panel for a front-loading bobbin is on the side. Which is best? Some feel that a drop-in bobbin is easier to load up, as front-loading bobbins can be a bit fiddly taking them out of the machine. Drop-in bobbins tend to be made of transparent plastic which makes it easier to see how much thread is left, but it really is a matter of preference.

Automatic tension

One of the challenges of being new to sewing is setting the tension on your machine. Too loose and the bottom thread will unravel, too tight and the fabric will pull and jam up the needle. Automatic tension control can help to find the perfect bite point between the two on a variety of sewing fabrics.

Interchangeable presser feet

In addition to a standard ‘all purpose’ presser foot, it’s useful to have a couple of others in your arsenal to help you should you want to do more than straight stitch sewing. Some new machines come with neat extras like a zipper foot and buttonhole foot for dressmaking, and darning/free motion foot for embroidery and quilting.

Free arm

This is the area under the needle plate which is revealed when the storage box at the front of the machine is removed. You can find it on all machines and is useful when stitching tubular items like sleeves and cuffs. The length will vary between models so keep an eye out for this if you’re going to using your machine for dressmaking.

What additional features should I look for?

One of the most important factors to keep in mind when choosing a sewing machine is its purpose. Someone who wants to customize clothes will have different requirements to a quilter or crafter. Below is a quick round-up of some features you might want to look at to make sure yours fits the bill.

Making clothes and home accessories

The world really is your oyster when it comes to choosing a sewing machine for making clothes and accessories and will ultimately come down to budget. If you’re just starting out and want to do basic alterations like turning up the hem on a pair of pants, letting out a waistband or making cushion covers, then a simple entry-level sewing machine may be all you really need. It’s good to look for a heavier model with a metal frame as it will provide a sturdy base from which to sew bigger items like curtains.

If you want to move onto more skilled dressmaking, then you’ll need to look for more specialist features.  Buttonhole stitch is the game-changer for any would-be tailor. Why spend time creating your own when it can be done for you? Look out for computerized models that can do this for you in one step. Other presser feet to look out for include a quarter inch foot, this will help to guide you when sewing straight lines and is useful for keeping neat seam allowances on tricky curved items like collars.

Quilting

When it comes to quilting, you’ll need a flatbed to lay your fabric on. You’ll also want to pay attention to the harp or throat space – this is the area around the needle under the arm of the machine. Look for a machine with as large an area as possible to position the quilt while working on it. A machine with a long arm will also give you more room to maneuver thick layers.  

A walking foot is a must for any beginner quilter as it grips the top layer of fabric and helps to guide it under the needle for straight stitching. If you want to try your hand at more advanced techniques, then a free motion quilting foot is a must. Juki, Singer and Husqvarna are good brands to consider for quilting features and accessories.

Crafts and embroidery

If you want to unleash that creativity in a variety of different projects, then you’ll probably want a machine that offers a degree of flexibility. Again, one with a wide flatbed working area is a good choice.  Computerized models such as Brother and Pfaff have hundreds of in-built programs to stitch patterns, letters and numbers, offering a huge amount of versatility. If you prefer to do freehand embroidery, then a model with a drop feed and darning foot is a must have.

Accessories like applique and cording feet will add further embellishment to surfaces. Look to brands like Bernina and Singer for robust machines that can accommodate mixed media and threads.

Weight

At first glance, this might seem a bit of an odd thing to include but it’s something you’ll need to think about. If you plan on taking sewing classes, then you’ll want to make sure that the machine you choose is portable and easy to assemble. A dust cover is also useful.

On the other hand, if you’re living the dream and got a permanent craft space set up at home or you’re going to spending quite some time making curtains for instance, you’re going to want a weightier model to help anchor down your work. A sewing machine with a metal frame will be sturdier and help to cut down on a lot of the vibration which in turn will help to prolong the life of your machine. 

Warranty

All sewing machines should come with a warranty of least one year, with many offering a guarantee between two and five years on average. It might be worth investing in a more expensive model to ensure you get your money’s worth.

Finally, as an amateur, you’ll want to make sure that you get to grips with your machine before starting any major projects. Tempting as it may be to jump in at the deep end with any creative endeavor, taking time out to read the manual and familiarize yourself properly with the basics first will be worth its weight in gold. A stitch in time really does save nine…

First Sewing Machine FAQs

Which sewing machines are the easiest to use?

As with most things, it’s down to personal preference, but as a beginner you may find it easier to use an entry-level sewing machine, like the Singer Start range. Priced at around $100, these machines are light, compact and come with 6 inbuilt stitch types and three presser feet, which should be more than enough to get you on your way.

Do I need a special sewing machine to do quilting?

Not necessarily. It’s easy to do straight line and free motion quilting on most sewing machines, so long as you can drop the feed dogs (the teeth which guide the fabric through) and use the right presser foot. This is either a quilting or darning foot for free motion quilting, or a walking foot for straight-line quilting.

Can sewing machines sew buttons?

Yes – many sewing machines will have an automatic button sewing setting, but you can sew a button using any machine that can do zig-zag stitch with the feed dogs lowered.

Can I use any thread with a sewing machine?

All-purpose sewing thread works in all machines. It tends to be more durable than cotton sewing thread which is more prone to snapping. You should always buy the best quality you can afford and make sure that you check the tension after changing spools. Metallic threads can be a little more tricky to work with, so check your instruction manual first.

How long does a sewing machine last?

On average, a sewing machine with regular use will last around five to 10 years. Investing in a good, trusted brand and servicing regularly will ensure that it always works at its best and may even prolong its life expectancy.

Are all sewing machines operated by foot pedal?

No. Some computerized models can work without foot pedals. Brother and Janome have a few models that do this and are a good option for people with mobility issues or struggle with maintaining sewing speed.

How much should I spend on a sewing machine?

You should always spend as much as you feel comfortable with. As a rough guide, an entry level sewing machine with basic functionality can be picked up for around $100. Computerized sewing machines will start at around $300 and top spec machines from brands like Bernette will cost you at least $1000.