One of the questions I get asked the most is: “I want to start sewing- which machine should I buy?” So here’s my hopefully handy guide on buying a sewing machine.
Firstly, YAY! You want to start sewing! It will be daunting. You will make mistakes. But you will also get better with each step you take. And that sense of achievement after you complete that first item? Well, there’s no feeling quite like it. I promise you won’t regret it. It is doable. Trust me. I’ve been there- just scroll back and you’ll see my wonky-hemmed maxi skirt which didn’t even fit over my head. That was 4 years ago. Then there’s the less than perfect wonky-zipped maxi dress a year after the skirt (a wonky-theme to my sewing abilities). And then a week after that, my graduation dress. Fast forward 3 years and I’m being flummoxed by stretch materials in the quarter-finals of The Great British Sewing Bee. So two things to take from that: you can go from making barely-wearable items to being in the quarter-finals of The Great British Sewing Bee with a bit of a ‘can-do’ attitude and seam ripper, and secondly- there’s always more to learn!
Anyway, pep-talk out of the way: lets get onto sewing machines and the questions you might want to ask yourself.
The B word
Sewing machines come in a wide range of prices: you can get mini ones for around £50, cheaper full-sized ones from around £100 and above that: well, the sky’s the limit! So what’s your budget?
I’d really think about what you want to do with your sewing and how far you want to progress with it. You probably won’t upgrade your machine for 10+ years- how many of us talk about our mums/grandmothers machines still going strong?
Do you want to keep it simple? Cushion covers, taking in or repairing ready-to-wear items? Or do you see yourself making your own dresses? Moving up from them, coats? Quilts? Or maybe like me, you’re just not sure and want to see where life takes you?
Well if you’re one of the first lot and you want to keep it cheap and cheerful, perhaps a nice mini-machine isn’t a bad bet. I made my graduation dress on one, so I wouldn’t knock it. After all, all you really need in life is a good straight stitch and zig-zag. They’d make a great starter for kids, or if you don’t quite know if you want to commit to sewing yet. A lot of people also use them as their travel machines as they’re so light.
But… there are those little bugbears which mean you may grow out of it pretty quickly. Most will have a set speed which is on the slower side. Great when you can barely sew a straight line… but frustrating once you get used to sewing and just want to power through that hem. They don’t tend to have a inbuilt lamp- which is pretty essential especially at night, and they aren’t built to deal with heavier fabrics. So if you can stretch your budget towards the £100 end then try and go for a full sized beginner machine.
So Mini-Machines: Yay for travel and cheap and cheerful. But you may well grow out of them pretty quickly.
Lower budget full sized machines (I’m all about those technical terms you know…)
These might be a good idea if you just want to do some dressmaking every now and then. As standard you can expect speed control which lets you go slower for those difficult curves, and fast as lightening (kinda) on those straight hems. You also get the lamps which save your eyes, a build in thread cutter (which is essentially a little blade for you to snip your threads against on the go), a small selection of stitches and if you’re lucky a button hole setting of some sort.
As you go higher in price, the more stitches you get: the question is, will you use them? Like I’ve said- all you really need in life is a good straight stitch and a zig-zag. The zig zag can be used to overlock the edges of fabric (to prevent fraying) or as a stretch stitch for knit/jersey/stretch fabrics. But you can get special stretch stitches made for stretch fabric which are helpful; or even blind hem stitches (the type used for smart trouser hems where you can’t see the stitching from the outside); you can even get decorative stitches…which if I’m honest, I’m yet to really use! So yes, on one hand-yay to more stitches, but mmmm…will you actually use them?
Cute as a button
Lets take a slight detour here and talk about button-holes. As you move up the price range you’ll find button holes come in ‘4-step’ up to ‘1-step’. This basically means the number of stages it takes to make a buttonhole. Imagine the rectangular shape of a button hole, 1-step means it will stitch that rectangle all in one go. 4-step means you have 4 stages to creating that rectangle. So less steps=easier button hole. More advance machines will you different shaped button holes for different finishes/button types.
Back to machines:
I would class my machine as a mid-range machine and would recommend these if you can stretch your budget a little further (£220-3000). Its a good solid machine for the basics and has those nice extras for day-to-day sewing like a needle threader (to help when you don’t want to fiddle trying to get the thread through an eye of a needle), 1-step button holes, but most importantly it’s got those features which have meant it has grown with me as I’ve become more adventurous with my sewing. Things I didn’t even know it could do! For example, you can change the pressure of the foot. Helpful for things like sewing with lightweight fabrics like chiffon/crepe/silk (trust me, I never thought I’d be sewing with those, so it was a nice surprise when I did sew with silk!)
Another thing my machine can do is drop the feed dogs. These are the little teeth which grip the fabric and pull them through the machine as you stitch. ‘Dropping’ the feed dogs basically means disabling them so that the machine stops pulling the fabric through. Why is that helpful? Well, stick on an free embroidery foot and you could do some embroidery…or more in my skills-range, some basic applique!
These machines are also more likely to be able to handle heavier fabrics like denim, or even layers of fabric for quilt making. So I’d go for these if you can as they’re a little more future proof.
One other thing you might want to think about in the mid- spec machines…
How do you like your technology? Beeps and bops or grinding cogs?
Broadly, theres two types of machines: ones I like to call ‘manual’ machines (but are technically ‘electric’ machines) and computerised machines. The manual ones have a single motor and use dials and knobs to adjust the stitch lengths/type whereas computerised ones have more motors and are far more precise, using a screen and buttons to select the various options.
What does this mean in real-terms? Well, when it came to buying my machine it came down to the fact that I prefer the ol’ fashioned feel of turning dials rather pressing buttons into a computer screen. Maybe it has something to do with my memories of playing with my mums hand-crank Singer machine in Bangladesh? Anyway, for me, it really was as simple as that!
But… having now used computerised machines: they do offer very accurate stitches (you can change pretty much every variable by tiny increments) and they have a huge range of stitches on top of that too. But as I’ve already mentioned… all those stitches come at a price…
If money grew on trees
So what would tempt me to upgrade to a newer, higher spec machine? Well, if I’m honest- I’m not sure. I was lucky enough to use some great machines on the Sewing Bee. They were smooth and quiet. They were built to work with all sorts of fabrics (PVC…shudder), did the dreamiest of button-holes and had nifty extras like lock stitches (so you don’t have to reverse stitch to secure your stitching) or auto-thread cutters (instead of pulling the thread to one side and snipping them against a blade, the machine snips them for you). They also have even feed feet built in which is essentially a built in walking foot which helps with slippery fabrics or quilting. But for me these are nice extras and definitely not essential. So maybe if you think you want to take your sewing further or step into semi-commercial sewing, or perhaps you’ve finally found that ‘safe place’ for the last decades birthday money (I found a £10 note in my pocket at work today and it made my day) then a more expensive machine might be something to consider.
There are a million and one different features to a machine and I haven’t gone through each and every one, but mentioned a few which have made my life easier. I’ll post more on these features later, but another one is the top loading bobbin- thats the small spool of thread which sits inside the machine. Top-loading bobbins are easier to learn to load, so if you a complete beginner then you might want to go for a top-loading machine.
I won’t go into brands as I just don’t have enough experience with different brands, but one thing I would say is it’s worth going with a machine which lets you buy universal fitting accessories for example if you want a concealed zipper foot or a walking foot. Things can get pricey- and don’t get me wrong, sometimes sticking to the branded stuff is the way to go, but for other things the universal brands do the same job but for cheaper. Just another thing to consider when buying a machine.
So that’s my rather long take on deciding which machine to buy. Do post any questions and let me know your thoughts. My next lot of posts will be going through the absolute beginner things like how to thread a machine or use the features I’ve mentioned in this post.
P.S. My machine is a Janome 7025 and my beginner machine was a pillar-box red mini John Lewis machine.
P.P.S This is based on my personal experiences/opinion and I am in no way an expert in sewing machines nor am I affiliated with any brands.