Trying to pick your first sewing machine is a scary and overwhelming process. Chances are you know very little about sewing terminology, and there is so many words and measurements that are given with a sewing machine. Then add the price; some machines really don’t come cheap!
This article will discuss some of the terminology that you will come across when looking at sewing machines, so you know what you are looking at. Then, I will make a number of sewing machine recommendations for various budgets that I have researched and would personally recommend to friends and family.
Stitch Number, Width and Length
The Number of Stitches
When it comes to the number of stitches you might be thinking that bigger the number, better the machine, right? Not necessarily so. I thought this when I bought my machine, saying to myself that I would use all the stitches. I read online people suggesting only the zigzag and straight stitch, and I used to laugh in disbelief that they would limit themselves. But in reality, you will be struggling to find a reason to use all those different stitches. Whilst the option is nice to have, you just won’t use them. At first I really tried to, and I just found a lot of my garments looking tacky.
If you feel like you must have as many as possible, just know that chances are the more stitches you have the higher the cost of the machine.
Ultimately, you only really need the straight stitch and a zigzag stitch.
This will generally be relevant to the zigzag stitch. A stitch can move forward, but also side to side on many machines. Noe that not all machines can do a zigzag stitch.
As the name suggests, the stitch width is how far apart the needle can move from one side to the other. A lot of sewing machines will have a stitch width of 5mm or 7mm, though I have seen models that go up to 9mm. When using a zigzag stitch you won’t always select the maximum width; most machines will allow you to change the width by increments of 1mm or so.
My sewing machine uses a 7mm stitch width, and I have never found a problem with it.
Ultimately, you don’t need adjustable width, however I recommend it.
Like the zigzag, stitch length is often adjustable. The smaller the stitch, the closer the needle will stitch to the last stitch; this will result in a stronger and less likely to break seam. The standard stitch size is between 2 and 2.5mm. I’ve never really had a need to reduce the length much.
The larger the size the further the needle stitches are apart. There will quite a number of times when you will need to “baste” material, and this is when you will use the larger stitch size. You will often baste material when you might have to remove the stitches later – it’s quite common. The larger the stitch length, the easier it will be the remove the stitches. My sewing machine has a maximum of 5mm for the stitch length, and I find it just fine. I do sometimes wonder what it would be like with a 7mm stitch length though.
Stop Stitch and Back Stitch (Reverse Stitch Button)
It’s generally practiced that you sew a back-stitch or stop stitch when starting and stopping a series of stitches. It secures the stitches to stop them unravelling or from the material to be pulled apart.
Back stitch is actually a straight stitch that has been stitched “backwards”; there are quite a lot of machines out there that offer a reverse stitch button which is generally needed to back-stitch.
A stop stitch is a really neat stitch. One press of a button and my sewing machine will stitch several times in the same hole; securing the thread very neatly. This is great when sewing on the outside of garments as you don’t even have the visible thickening of stitches from the outside.
Ultimately, a reverse button to back-stitch is necessary in my opinion and a stop stitch is really nifty.
Buttonhole – Automatic vs Manual
There will be a lot of garments that will require buttonholes to be sewn. There are a variety of buttonhole options when it comes to sewing machines: one step (fully automatic), four step, or none.
A four step buttonhole will sew one side, then require you to pivot the material before sewing the next side, and so on.
For a lot of people buttonholes are hard enough to sew, let alone doing it completely manually. I made sure to get a completely automatic one step buttonhole on my machine, and don’t regret it at all. It will sew all four sides of the buttonhole for me in a zigzag stitch, leaving a small gap of material between the four sides. I then have to go and cut the actual hole out.
A lot of newer sewing machines will have some form of automatic buttonhole stitching; be it a four step or one step. Ultimately, I recommend a machine with an automatic buttonhole feature, if possible a one step.
Up/Down Needle Position
This is another feature that you will probably use a lot of. Most people will use it when sewing corners or curves, or to hold the material when they remove the pins. I can set my sewing machine to always put the needle down when I lift my foot from the pedal, or I can just lower and raise it that one time when needed.
This doesn’t have to be down with a button, almost every sewing machine will have a circular dial on its side which will allow you to raise or lower the needle.
Ultimately, it’s really handy having the up/down needle button. Although it’s not necessary, it’s something you will use a bit of so I recommend.
Built-in Needle Threader
Those days of hand stitching needles where they hold it up to the light and squint just to thread it… You have do that too with a sewing machine needle. Luckily there are some models out there that have a built-in needle threader. I honestly have to say that a built-in needle threader is amazing; it takes all the hassle out of the task. Just pull down a little lever, and rest the thread against it; it does all the rest by pulling the thread through the small eye of the needle.
Ultimately, please try to get a sewing machine with a needle threader, especially if you have not-so-great eyesight or aren’t really nimble.
Speed is important when it comes to sewing. Too slow and you will feel frustrated, too fast and it will be difficult to control. The foot control will generally allow you to control the speed; just like a car the more you push down on the pedal the faster the machine stitches.
But some machines let you take it one step further. My machine has a speed controller in the form of a slider. It allows me to adjust to three speeds; slow, medium and fast. At each of these speeds I can then control it further with my foot controller. Essentially if I set my slider to slow, the maximum speed will be “slow” and the slowest speed will be equivalent to a crawl. It’s really helpful when you know your working on small areas that require accuracy compared to large straight seams.
Ultimately, it’s not a requirement but I do suggest it as a useful feature.
The feed dogs are those little teeth like things that sit in the needle plate, directly below the needle itself. As the needle moves up and down, so does the feed dogs. They pull the fabric away from you at a certain speed and rate, allowing the needle to pierce the fabric at equal distances (the stitch length that we discussed earlier).
Some feed dogs can also be lowered, so that they don’t rise to touch the fabric when sewing. This gives you greater control over how the needle pierces the fabric, and comes in handy for a lot of tasks.
Apparently the higher the number of feed dogs there are, the more accurate they are. I couldn’t find any resources to back this, so hopefully someone else can comment.
Ultimately, consider getting a drop feature to the feed dogs. This is especially true if you plan to do free hand stitching to create shapes and effects with just the stitches.
Convertible Free Arm
Some sewing machines have a detachable section of the case. It will reveal a section that is just a bit smaller than the circumference of a pant’s leg at the ankle. It’s use for that purpose; to slide the pant or sleeve around this section to more easily access the sewing machine needle.
It’s not needed, and its very common to find sewing machines without a free arm. It is nice if you plan to sew a lot of long sleeves or long pants.
Top or Front Loading Machine
This is referring to how a bobbin is placed into the machine. A bobbin is that little spool of thread that fits into the machine. A top loading machine will allow you to lift the needle plate and pop just slide it in. A top loading machine may also be called a drop-in machine, since you are just “dropping” it in. A top loader will be easier for a novice to learn.
A front loading machine can be a little more difficult as it will often require you to remove the body of the machine prior accessing the bobbin holder.
In my experience a top or front loading machine comes down to personal preference. I like my top loading machine as the needle plate is transparent, allowing me to see just how much thread is left on it.
You don’t buy pre-threaded bobbins. Your sewing machine will mostly come with a couple of bobbins which you can then spin your thread around. As far as I can tell pretty much any sewing machine will come with a bobbin winder by default.
A quick tip for any international buyers browsing Amazon: check the side bar for AmazonGlobal Eligible. Not all products can be shipped internationally, but by selecting this filter option then you will only see the products that can be shipped – a great time (and your hopes) saver.
At $399 (on Amazon) is the Janome Magnolia 7330. This is the sewing machine that I bought, and I absolutely love it. It’s the first sewing machine that I ever bought, and I don’t think I would find a need to upgrade at any time soon; it does everything that I need it to do with the exception of embroidery.
Although I have never used it myself, the Brother XL2600I has received some great ratings on Amazon – in fact it has a 4.4 star rating with over 880 reviews. It’s a top loading machine with a free arm, 25 stitches and 1-step buttonhole. It comes with some extras, such as button hole foot, button sewing foot, narrow hem foot, zipper foot and blind stitch foot. I don’t even have a button sewing foot! It normally sells for around US$150 (on Amazon), but often goes on sale online.
The Brother CS6000i has also received wonderful response; it has 4.4 stars with over 2200 ratings!! However it normally costs US$449 (on Amazon). It does have worth-while benefits for the purchase however:
- an extension table,
- 7 different styles of 1 step buttonholes,
- 9 included presser feet,
- 60 different stitch styles, and
- a hard case for storage.
If I had just a bit more space I might have gotten this as my sewing machine. Note that you can get some pretty great deals for this sewing machine – it’s gone on sale for US$140 on Amazon before.
The Hidden Costs – Accessories
After you get comfortable with your sewing machine and sewing, chances are that you are going to want to get a few extra accessories and add-ons to improve your sewing experience. There are a lot of things you need out there.
Sewing Machine Needles – Sizes and Types
In most cases you can get away with using the standard sewing machine needle that came with your machine, but before long you will need to replace it. Sewing machine needles can become blunt and cause numerous issues; skipped stitches, broken threads and even sewing machine jams. Most needles will only last one or two projects, and its good practice to change it before any new major project. Not only that, but sewing machine needles can snap and become completely unusable.
You will need to buy several sewing machines to have on hand. My sewing machine shipped with two needles sized 9, and two sized 11. Consider getting a couple of each size at the very least. You shouldn’t sew fine materials with a large sized needle as you will leave visible holes, and needles that are too small will snap when sewing through material that’s too thick. Also if you plan to sew anything specific such as leather or denim then there are specialty needles for that purpose to make that process easier.
You will need bobbins, and depending upon how much you sew you will become a collector of these bobbins. For each spool of thread that you buy, you will probably need a bobbin to go with it. What happens if you finish one project and decide to change thread color for your next project – do you use your one bobbin by removing all that thread still on it (“oh no all that thread goes to waste!”)? No, you should save that thread and use a new bobbin.
Your new sewing machine might come with a couple bobbins – mine came with three – but you will be needing new ones pretty soon. Luckily they aren’t too expensive, most manufacturers will sell packs of 10 for a decent price of around $10.
Sewing Machine Presser Feet
Let me list just some of the different presser feet types out there:
- Standard General Purpose
- Walking / Even-Feed
- Zipper Foot
- Invisible Zipper
- Button and Button Hole
- 1/4″ and Straight-Stitch
- Rolled Hem
- Blind Hem
- Darning and Free-Motion
Some of these feet can cost up $60! And each of those categories can have multiple feet options; for example the Rolled Hem category can contain a 4mm Rolled Hem foot and a 6mm Rolled Hem foot. If you are planning on doing a lot of sewing, you will eventually want to purchase more feet.
Pretty much everything can be done with your standard sewing machine foot that comes with your sewing machine, the other feet just help make things simpler, easier and much faster.
Other Things to Consider
Always read reviews when possible: quality and the reputation of brands can easily change over time. What I might recommend here and how might not always be the best option, especially after considering personal preference. If you are after quick ratings, I checked out sewing machine models and reviews on Amazon.
Warranty (Including Shipping to Manufacturer)
If in the horrible situation something does go wrong with your sewing machine, you will need to get it repaired. Consider what options you have in this situation: do you have a local repair shop (and more importantly is it authorised) or will you have to ship nationally or internationally? Shipping a sewing machine can be costly. Find out if your local repairs will cost anything; if its under warranty doesn’t always mean you won’t be out of pocket.
Repairs and Maintenance
Going with the warranty options above, you may need to get something repaired on your sewing machine. Check out local repair shops (if you have any). Consider how much regular maintenance will also cost you; some things can be done at home but you will need to buy the appropriate parts (like specialised oil).
What About You?
What sewing machine do you use? Can you suggest any reliable machines that would be easy for a beginner to learn with?