Choosing a sewing machine

The first big decision you make when you start sewing: which machine? There are just thousands out there to choose from. I won't recommend any in particular because there are too many to make any sort of fair or comprehensive list from but I'll outline the relative advantages of three types of machine: mechanical, electronic, computerized.

Firstly, if you don’t already have a machine and are looking to buy one, think about how much you are going to use it. If you intend to become a fully-fledged hobbyist then look at getting a machine that has a good choice of basic stitches – I think you only really need straight, zig-zag and a buttonhole stitch setting (buttonholing is just preset zigzag stitches any way!). 

You want a machine that is robust enough to see lots of use, so buying a familiar brand is probably the best bet. Reliable brands include Singer, Brother, Elna, Pfaff, Bernina, Husqvarna Viking, Juki, Janome, Toyota. If you buy a familiar brand you will also always be able to get new parts and standard accessories. I would not recommend buying one of the mini models that John Lewis seems to be so fond of at the moment. Those little machines just don’t have the power to get through thicker fabrics, such as upholstery or denim fabrics, nor to churn through mutliple layers of ordinary cotton. They’re made out of plastic to save on weight but it means they’re not strong. On that note, don’t be tricked into buying a sewing machine that is advertised as 'light'. It may be light, but that usually means that it has few metal components. In truth, it probably won’t last if it sees frequent use. Those mini machines also have a tiny armhole (the hole right of the needle column and left of the arm) which would make quilting impossible if you ever decide to take it up.

This retro Jones Brother is charming to look at too.
On ebay there are quite a number of 'vintage' machines, the type that only do straight stitch and reverse (occasionally you can find them with zigzag stitch). By vintage we're talking 1960's here - don't worry, they are electric! The great thing about these machines is that they have all metal gears. They are seriously sturdy and have the power of a semi-industrial machine. Their basic design also makes them quicker, cheaper and easier to fix. Most of them have 'drop-feed' which means you can lower the feed dogs for free motion/ free-hand quilting. If you think you may go into business someday, I would give these machines a second look. Usually between £80-£180, these are the closest you will get to an industrial machine without the price-tag of an industrial machine (about £1000). 

You don’t have to spend vast amounts of money to pick up a good first machine. If you want to buy a Bernina you will pay over the odds because of the name but you will also get perfect stitches every time. And I would recommend thinking hard if you intend to buy a machine online. If you get one from a dealer they often show you all the functions and how to work your shiny new machine. Your dealer will also be on hand if, God forbid, anything goes wrong with it. If you buy a machine second-hand look into whether the warranty will still be valid.

One of the big debates is which is the best type of machine: mechanical, electronic or computerised? The cost to buy and repair a sewing machine is effected dramatically by this factor. Mechanical machines are electrically powered but stitch selection etc is done by turning dials; they have no electronic mechanisms. This is what those electric 'vintage' machines are. You can fix these yourself if you’re nifty with that kind of stuff and even if you send them to be fixed it shouldn’t be too expensive. Electronic and computerised machines however need special attention and some extra cash to fix. To me it’s like the difference between buying an ordinary mobile phone with buttons and buying a touch screen. If you crack your touchscreen screen the whole phone is unusable - this is the computerized machine.

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each:

- cheaper to buy
- cheaper to fix
- robust
- can sew for many hours at a time
- a good option if you mainly do repairs

- not such a good variety of stitches
- lowest spec only do straight stitch
- If you have it, buttonholing is manual. This means you have to determine the size as you sew, rather than just putting in a number and the machine automatically pivoting for you; some people, however, prefer this
- only one style of buttonhole
- stitch length not guaranteed to be even when sewing trickier fabrics

- interesting stitches without the price tag of a computerised machine
- entry price is not dissimilar from prices for mechanical machines
- more consistent stitch length than mechanical machines
- automatic buttonholing; usually more than one style of buttonhole
- stitch tension l

- no memory for your favourite settings
- more expensive to fix than mechanical machines

- perfect stitch length every time
- stitches usually preprogrammed with correct tension
- a must if you like to do lots of decorative stitching
- inbuilt memory means that you can get projects done quicker because you can switch between settings at the push of a button; especially helpful if you go professional
- add your own stitches: some computerized machines can be connected to your computer or a memory card that allows you to download more stitches

- expensive to buy
- expensive to fix
- can overheat if used for long periods continually

Individual things you might want to look for in a machine:
- freearm: essential if you will be sewing cuffs or trouser legs
- dropfeed: essential for freemotion quilting
- built-in walking foot: good for quilting, slippery fabrics, piled fabrics and multiple layers
- top-load bobbin: easier to see when you're running low on bobbin thread


  1. Listing the pros and cons of each type of sewing machine is really helpful for choosing what kind you might need. I'd imagine that one of the main factors would be what you're using it for and how often. I don't see the point in buying something like this if it's only going to be used once.