Precision Sewing

Buying a Sewing Machine: 1 of 3

Sewing machines can be one of the biggest and most important investments in your hobby.

Not all machines are created equal. One of the things we go into in the first couple of days in our Basic Sewing classes is the universality of sewing machines. Being mechanically
universal does not mean that all machines are equivalent, though.

After you understand the basics of threading the machine, then it
comes down to price, aesthetic, and the kind of sewing you do. How much
should you invest? Which brands are better? Should you buy new or used?
How portable do you want it to be? These are all questions that need to
be considered.

Over on AskMetafilter, there was recently a thread
about just this. (As an aside, we cannot tell you how helpful and
generally kind the folks over at Metafilter are. If you thought that
online communities were just a bunch of computer dorks arguing about
Ayn Rand, Fonts and/or Typeface, or the finer points of CSS and HTML…
well they do all of that… but they also have a brilliant and dynamic
userbase that can answer just about any question you throw their way. )
Since Tchad himself is active in the community, he threw in his 2¢ but the question comes up so much in the real world we thought we could expand it a bit and flesh it out with some more detail.

It is probably a good time to mention that we are not affiliated
with any particular website, organization, or manufacturer. Our
opinions about sewing machines (and anything else, really) doesn’t
depend on advertising or sponsorship, so we feel like we can break
things down a bit better than the employees of a gallery or store.

Let’s get going.

There are a few things you need to consider when you are looking for a machine:

  1. What kind of sewing are you going to be doing?
  2. How much do you have to spend (what is your budget)?
  3. How often will you be sewing?
  4. Is it important that the machine look nice?
  5. Is weight important?
  6. Where will you be sewing (as in geographically)?

Let’s go into detail about this list and in Part 2 and 3 we will get into specifics with links and pictures!

Keep in mind that the answers will overlap a bit and no answer is
The Answer for everyone. It is hard to think about one quality without
considering another. What you are going for is a well-thought-out
balance of wants, needs, and general information about both the machine
you are buying and your personal sewing style.

If we were more mathematically inclined, we would write an algorithm
that factored in the answers to each question and then gave you
<trumpet fanfare> THE ANSWER </trumpet fanfare>. Since we
do well to remember the value of Pi, you are going to have to deal with
it longhand:

  1. What kind of sewing are you going to be doing?
  2. This should be your first consideration – the differences between
    general home sewing, upholstery, and fine sewing can be vast. If you
    are going to putz around on a Saturday afternoon, you will want a
    machine that is pleasant to use – you won’t want to have to remember
    all of the functions and features. You will want it to be fairly light
    and quiet, but still be able to handle the jobs you need it to handle.
    If you are working on heavy upholstery fabric (or finally
    making those sails for the new boat) you will want a machine that is
    rock-solid and you won’t be as worried about the user experience. Most
    home sewers and nearly all beginners will want some combination of the
    two. You will want a machine that has a nice feel, but will also be
    able to plow through heavier things that you may need to work on. If
    you know what kinds of fabrics you will be sewing when you are shopping
    for a machine, you can easily take swatches of those fabrics with you
    if you are shopping at a regular retail store. Some machines are better
    than others of spanning projects and techniques.

  3. How much do you have to spend?
  4. We will get into this more in the second post, but in general our
    rule is something like: “You should expect to spend between US$300-$600
    for a good new machine”. This is changing with the newer Brother
    machines that have come out, though it is still a good starting point.
    We have found that the ONLY decent machines on the market for less than
    US$200 are the new Brother machines. We will discuss our shock and awe
    in part 2.

    When you buy a new machine, you are paying not just for brand name,
    but for the engineering that goes into it and the motor as well. In
    general, the more expensive the machine, the better the motor and the
    tighter the mechanical tolerances (it will tend to jam and malfunction

    The best thing to do when you are just starting out is to treat it
    like you would walking into an auction – decide how much your upper
    limit is and stick to your guns.

    A caveat about galleries and dealerships: They will want to upsell
    you as a matter of policy. (We know this for a fact – the reason we no
    longer affiliate our classes with a manufacturer is that they wanted to
    enforce an upsell mentality in our classroom recommendations.) If you
    walk in and say you are willing to spend US$400, they will show you
    the high end in your bracket and work you up to something just a little
    more expensive. It works a lot like a car dealership. You walk out with
    a great deal on a US$600 machine that may or may not be what you
    needed, wanted, or could really afford. Stick to your range unless you
    know for sure that what you are getting is really astounding. Most of
    the time it won’t be that astounding.

  5. How often will you be sewing?
  6. This is one of the places where price, value, and user experience
    collide. On one hand, if you are just going to be a weekend sewer you
    will not want to invest scads of money in a machine. On the other hand,
    if you are a weekend sewer with limited experience and you buy a new
    machine based on price alone you will most likely get a machine that is
    going to jam and tangle again and again.

    Your best bet if you are a basic or beginning sewer is to buy a
    well-made machine that has a range of functions/stitches you can grow
    into without overdoing it.

    Your best bet if you are an intermediate sewer who doesn’t sew very
    often is to buy a machine that has tons of functions, but is maybe a
    little less than top of the line.

    Your best bet if you are an intermediate or advanced sewer,
    regardless of the amount you sew, is to buy the best and most
    functional machine possible.

  7. Is it important that the machine look nice?
  8. Consider how you are going to live with the machine. If you are a
    home sewer in a large city you will not (unless very lucky) have a
    sewing room you can close off from the rest of the world. This means
    you have to give some consideration to what you sewing machine looks
    like when you are working on that week-long project on the dining room
    table or island in the kitchen. Is used ok? Will you be embarrassed to
    have grandma’s Singer out, or will it become a statement? If you want
    an industrial machine, are you ok with having 2’x4′ of your
    living space taken up by what is essentially a steel frame?

  9. Is weight important?
  10. How strong are you? Will you be traveling with it? How much will you be traveling with it?

    As a rule, the heavier the machine, the more metal in the gears, the
    more durable it is, the heavier the fabrics it can sew. If you are
    really putting it through the wringer, you will want to think about how
    much plastic is used in the gears. Plastic or nylon is strong and
    lightweight, but can snap when put under too much pressure. If you are
    constantly sewing heavy fabrics, you would do well to buy an all-metal
    machine. Your back will not like you very much and you will find
    yourself developing a sense of momentum to move it anywhere (Grab… 1,
    2, 3… Swiing!) but your sewing will look better and you won’t find
    yourself at 3 a.m. looking online for a replacement cam at
    or trying to find out when the grumps at the local repair shop open so
    you can finish your beautiful new color-blocked caftan in four weights
    of leather with burlap trim.

  11. Where will you be sewing geographically?
  12. As in: Do you travel internationally? Do you live in more than one country?

    This is something we rarely see addressed enough in sewing machine threads, but it comes up in class at least once a quarter.

    If you travel internationally for extended periods of time, you will
    want to make sure that your machine is adaptable. The higher-end
    machines have built-in adapters, so it is as easy as changing the
    plugs. They can also cost at least US$2,000. If your machine does not compensate
    automatically for the differences in voltage and you try to put a
    converter on it, it may not work as well and may very likely ruin the
    motor. Motors can be tricky things when it comes to their electrical
    supply and a motor that was built for 120v but plugged into a 240v with
    an adapter may have a little meltdown. Not always, but it has happened.
    Similarly, we have had students bring their 220v and 240v machines to
    class with 120v adapters and gotten less than stellar results. The
    machines were sluggish and not working as they should have. This can
    have as much to do with the adapter itself as it does with the motor
    and electrical systems in the machine.

    So that is it. Well, not it it. But that is it for now.

    We are putting Part 2 of this entry together and will have it posted in the next couple of days.

    We will talk about the different brands and be a little more specific about what we like and do not like then. Stay tuned.