Buying a Sewing Machine

How to Choose a Beginning Sewing Machine

Sewing by machine is much faster than hand sewing. That is machine sewing's biggest virtue. But it is a nice one if, like me, you have a thousand and one projects floating in your vivid imagination.

When I decided to buy a sewing machine, I bought one that was on sale at Sears because, well, back then (1970s) you bought everything but groceries at Sears. By sheer accident, I got a wonderful, basic sewing machine that is still going strong. What made this machine so great?

It was a Kenmore (Sears' brand for home appliances) made by Janome (a Japanese manufacturer of excellent sewing machines).

It was very basic, but it had several features that were very helpful. It had zigzag stitching, as well as straight stitching. It also made semiautomatic buttonholes. It came with all the machine accessories you were likely to need, including sewing feet and a portable case, and it was a free arm style.

Free arm style means I can snap off part of the sewing machine bed from around the presser foot area, leaving a small arm onto which I can slip small, round things to sew. This makes it easier to do things like sew a cuff on a sleeve, or perhaps, sew lace onto the top of a little girl's socks. The sewing machine part snaps back on, providing a larger support base for those times I want to sew a long straight seam.

It was a quality machine, sturdy and well-made. I still love it. I still use it.

Badged Sewing Machines

Although made by Janome, my machine was not sold by that brand name, but by the store's name. This is a practice known as "badging". The Kenmores at that time were badged Janome machines.

Badging became very popular early on in sewing machine manufacturing. Actually the first cases were out and out thefts of machine designs, usually of Singer designs.

This was obviously illegal and eventually the Singer Company took legal action to stop it. Nowadays, badging is done by contract, with the machine patent holder being reimbursed. The manufacturer usually includes in the contract a stipulation that its name must never be, in any way, used to sell or even identify the machines. Who would pay full price for a Bernina, if they knew that they could get one cut-rate at a department store?

This makes it very hard to score a really nice find for a really good price, unless you stumble into it like I did.

So how do you find the right machine for you? Let's take a look at some of the brands available and some of the machine features you will want to consider.

Available Brands of Sewing Machines

When you ask your friends about their sewing machines, you may hear many different names of brands. The ones you'll see most often today include:

  • Bernina
  • Singer
  • Pfaff
  • Viking
  • Brother
  • Janome

Less well-known, but still good brands include:

  • Babylock
  • Elna
  • White
  • Kenmore
  • Necchi

These are all excellent household sewing machine brands. Any one of them will produce fine sewn products of light to medium weight materials, such as cottons, silks, linens, or lightweight synthetics. Household sewing machines will sew some amazing things, like layers of light leather, for a little while, but eventually, the power required to punch through the heavier than normal materials will throw off the machine's timing or perhaps even break a gear or something inside the machine.

If you plan to sew often with really heavy materials, perhaps doing upholstery or luggage, or using several layers of canvas or denim, you will want to look for a machine for that specialty. Household sewing machines, old or new, are not made to sew regularly on heavy materials -- no matter what you read in sewing machine sales pitches on that auction site!

People who pitch household sewing machines as "built like a tank" or "all-metal, can sew anything!" are looking to get your money and have no plans of being there when your machine breaks down. Ahem, end of rant.

Sewing Machines from Expensive To Cheap

If you have the money, buying a brand new machine from any one of the brands listed above will almost certainly be a very good buy. These manufacturers are all reputable, and they all produce a wide range of machines, each with different capabilities, accessories, and targeted users.

For example, all of these brands produce at least one model aimed at quiltmakers. There are also amazing computerized embroidery machines by most manufacturers. Some big box stores will carry inexpensive models aimed at the beginning sewer. However, these cheap models at the big box stores are usually meant to be used only for minor mending projects. Their ability to last when used for household dressmaking projects is questionable.

For the purposes of this article, we're going to assume you want a fairly basic household sewing machine for dressmaking. If so, then check your local Yellow Pages, or use a good search engine, to see where sewing machines are sold in your area. Also, write down any other sources you might want to consider.

You will probably come up with a list that includes the following: big box stores, sewing machine shops, Craig's list, and, for some, your family members. Consider adding secondhand shops, thrift shops, friends who might have tried sewing but not liked it, Freecycle, and the local Thrifty Nickel or other advertising paper.

Now, obviously, the most expensive machines are going to be the brand new, brand name machines, most likely purchased from the sewing machine shop. So why would you spend that money? Glad you asked!

Buying from Your Local Sewing Machine Dealer

When you purchase from your local sewing machine shop, you will be dealing with people who sew. They will have used the machine and they will know its capabilities. They'll have a range of machines, from basic to computerized. They should have all the accessories you might need.

And, probably most important of all, they should have, for a very reasonable amount or perhaps free, classes that will teach you how to use your machine and how to take care of it. Those classes are a very important benefit if you have never sewn before, or, even if you've only sewn a small number of projects.

Further, when you deal with a sewing machine shop, you've tapped into a wealth of knowledge, as well as found a place to get repairs and tune ups. Your dealer will know, for example, when the next big promotional period for a certain sewing machine will happen. He or she will have all the accessories for the machine you buy. And most dealers will take trade ins, if you have an old machine you no longer want.

What About Buying a Used Machine

For a more frugal purchase, you might want to consider buying a used machine. These are available from many sources, including most of the sources listed above.

In fact, one of the better places to buy a used sewing machine is again at your local sewing machine dealer. Most dealers take used sewing machines in trade when they sell their new machines. These used sewing machines are usually carefully cleaned and refurbished, then placed for sale.

If you ask about them, your dealer may be able to make you a really good deal for just the sewing machine for you. I would just go ahead and check out the used machines the same as I would if I were buying from a thrift store or off a classified ad.

This would again give you a place for repairs and tune ups. You could also buy accessories and ask about sewing classes.

If you decide to purchase from one of the other sources, you probably won't have those advantages. You might, however, save enough money to be able to have your new-to-you sewing machine cleaned and checked over by your local sewing machine dealer.

Checking Out a Used Sewing Machine for Purchase

If you're looking at buying a used sewing machine from a place other than your sewing machine dealer, what do you look at? Things you want to look at would include things like the finish. Is the paint scratched up badly, or is the case dented? Are there any obviously missing parts? Are any parts swinging limply from the machine instead of performing some sort of function?

Also, carefully look over the power cord from the wall plug to the plug that goes into the machine. Then do the same type of inspection for the foot control wiring. You should not be able to see metal wire at any point -- it should all be covered with rubberlike insulation.

Is there a carrying case? What kind of shape is it in? If it has water stains and is in really bad shape, you might question how well the machine has been taken care of.

Take a look at the bottom of the pressure feet. Are they smooth or have they been scratched or marked up? If they're not smooth, you'll want to replace them, or they'll cause pulls in your fabric or not feed your fabric evenly and well.

Place a piece of fabric under the needle and lower the pressure foot. The fabric keeps the feed dogs from chewing up the bottom of the presser foot, as mentioned above. Now, turn the hand wheel slowly but as smoothly as you can. Does the machine turn freely and smoothly? If the machinery jerks or catches, that's a sign that something is not right and repairs are needed.

Are the feed dogs feeding the fabric under the presser foot? Is it going through straight or is it twisting to one side? If it is twisting, that is a sign that the feed dogs are worn or out of time. That means repairs before you can sew well.

Next, ask to see the bobbin area. This usually involves moving or opening a small plate under the presser foot. The bobbin should be a small round spool, with or without a separate case. Look carefully in the area for lint and thread pieces. If there is a lot of lint and such, the machine will definitely need a cleaning and oiling before you'll be able to sew with it. Again, turn the hand wheel while watching the bobbin area for unusual jerks or catching.

Finally, ask to see the User's Manual. Read a bit of it quickly to see if it is well written enough for you to understand. Look to see if there are helpful illustrations. Check to see if it has zigzag stitching, automatic buttonholes, or decorative stitches. Make sure it will do what you want it to, but without having so many bells and whistles that it confuses you. HINT: Zigzag stitching is really useful, even if you don't use it at first.

Don't pay extra for a bunch of stitches you will not use.For example, if you have no children and no intention of sewing for other people's children, think seriously about whether you need a stitch that makes a row of little duckies across your fabric.

If no manual is available, be aware that most manuals are available online, either free or for a small fee.

How Much to Pay for a Used Sewing Machine

Now we consider the question that's in everyone's mind -- how much should you pay for a used sewing machine? The answer is that it really depends on what you want, what you can find and how badly you want it.

Some people feel sure that any sewing machine that is more than twenty years old is an antique treasure, rare and desirable -- especially if they own it! But the fact is that there are very few sewing machines that have been used that are "rare and desirable". Remember, most sewing machines are turned out on assembly lines at a rapid pace.

If you are not a sewing machine collector, then look for one that you would be comfortable using daily. If you feel that the first one that you find like that is too highly priced, then look some more. There are others out there just like it -- or, perhaps, even better. Just decide how much you can afford and look for a usable machine in that price range.

I own, or have owned, in the range of 30 to 50 sewing machines at one time or another, for various reasons. Most of them were old and used, but after a good cleaning, they were very functional. I usually paid in the range of $35.00 USD or less for most of them.

There are sewing machines available in all price ranges. Let friends and relatives know what you are looking for. Watch the ads. Read Craig's list daily. What you want and need will turn up eventually.

After you've been sewing for a while, know that you enjoy it, and have an idea of the things you want to make regularly, then you can take a look at spending more money for a specialized machine if you want to. Be aware, though, that you can do a lot of nice things with just a basic sewing machine.