Buy a machine with basic facilities.
Hopefully you will be able to pay a little more than the minimum price, to get a machine with :
– variable length and width of stitches,
– a buttonhole,
– the ability to change stitching speed by how heavily you press on the foot pedal.
If you have a choice, try to find a machine on which the presser foot lifting lever is near the position in which you will have your hand while stitching – it does make it less effort to pivot.
Sadly many bottom-of-the-range machines are more trouble than they are worth. May be barely controllable and not stitch well. Best not to buy one on-line ! Though if you have the luck to be able to go to a store – if they are willing to demo, or let you try, their cheapest machines, they’re not likely to show something that could cause them embarrassment !
So you need some help with finding which cheap machines are good. Here’s a post from a UK sewing magazine about good cheap sewing machines. Beware Brother uses different model numbers in the UK and USA, and 2 of the recommended machines are UK store models though made by Janome. The magazine (Simply Sewing) is good so hopefully they are reliable about this, though they do get a commission for their recommendations.
You’ll be able to do most garment, home dec and crafts sewing on a basic machine.
The next step up will probably also have :
– a needle-up-down function,
– a speed control, so you can sew slowly – one stitch at a time under the control of the foot pedal.
– a ‘free arm’, which makes it easier to sew small items such as children’s clothes and sleeve and leg hems.
When you feel confident with using a basic machine, you may know what extra facilities you would like to move on to (see this post about the various special machine options).
But buying a ‘better’ machine is something for later.
There’s a lot to learn to make even the simplest sewing project. And it’s not a good idea to try to learn that all that at the same time as learning how to use a complex sewing machine.
Many advisors tell you to buy a machine you can grow into, but I say the opposite – if you do that it’s likely to stay in the box. A beginner won’t know enough to be able to find their way through all the options.
So a good secondhand basic machine is a better buy than a cheap modern machine which doesn’t sew well, isn’t easy to control the speed or adjust the tension, and may not allow you to change the length or width of the stitch. A good secondhand machine is also a better buy for a beginner than a good expensive machine which has such a big choice of functions it’s too complex for someone who isn’t confident with sewing basics to understand.
Some of the options
Some confusing words about the technology:
A ‘manually operated‘ machine is not powered by electricity, you provide the power by turning a hand wheel or operating a foot treadle. Not many available to purchase new, but a refurbished one can be an excellent buy second-hand.
Hand-crank machines and old treadles are straight-stitch only, but perfectly usable.
Modern treadles have a small selection of different stitches including zigzag and buttonhole.
A ‘mechanical‘ machine is powered by electricity but all the setting changes are made using buttons or levers. You can tell them from electronic and computerised machines because they have no display screen.
A basic electric ‘mechanical’ machine is a good starter buy as they have zigzag, 4-step buttonhole, often a few simple decorative stitches.
This guide from Sew Liberated patterns says much the same thing, with a few more specific tips.
An ‘electronic‘ machine will have a display screen, and possibly more figurative decorative stitches, such as flowers and leaves. And a 1-step buttonhole.
A ‘computerised‘ machine will also have a memory so you can make sequences of decorative stitches. A top-level machine may have so many options it is difficult to learn to use. Various levels of screen for these, from simple dot/matrix letters and numbers to tablet-like touch screens with full size realistic images and multiple colours.
Mechanical or electronic/ computerised ?
Both ‘electronic’ and ‘computerised’ machines have a powered display panel, which may be anything from simple dot letters to full colour fine detail touch screens. Fun, if that’s what you enjoy. But it’s not necessary – there are many people who produce clothes of couture quality on a basic mechanical machine.
Touching a screen instead of pressing buttons is not the important issue for a beginner. A more high-level machine may have many options which a beginner knows nothing about, so does not know how to make the choices and gets very confused.
I know I am going on about this, but there’s no point spending a lot of money on a machine which you’re frightened of because you don’t know enough about sewing to know what to try when it doesn’t do what you expect. I had been sewing for decades before I treated myself to my present machine. I now love it, but it does not have a good manual, and it took me months (and many screams and tears) before I learned how to use all the options. And the manufacturers recommended it for beginners – oh dear ! (It’s a Bernina 4 series. I do recommend Bernina 3 series for beginners, but they are expensive, at the luxury end of the basic machine market.)
One area where a modern ‘electronic’ machine makes sewing easier is that it has a 1-step automatic buttonhole. A modern ‘mechanical’ machine usually has a 4-step buttonhole, and the user has to start and stop each step. You can make good buttonholes with these, but they need a bit of practice (see this buttonholes post).
One or more stitches ?
A straight stitch sewing machine is enough for most projects.
In fact most clothes manufacturing is done on a straight stitch machine. But manufacturers do have sergers/ overlockers for seam finishing and sewing knit fabrics. If you want one machine that can finish seams and sew knits, as well as do the main sewing on woven fabrics, you need a basic machine that can sew zigzag as well as straight stitch.
Top loading or front loading bobbin ?
I learned to sew using a front loading bobbin with separate bobbin case. It does have a couple of advantages :
– if the bobbin thread runs out in the middle of stitching, you don’t have to take your work out of the machine to change the bobbin. On the other hand – you can’t see the bobbin, so you can’t tell when you start stitching that the thread is about to run out !
– for later if you’re interested : some special types of machine embroidery need you to use different types of thread in the bobbin. This can only be done with a separate bobbin case.
Most modern machines have a top-loading bobbin, and many people find them easier. I grew up with a front-loading bobbin, so don’t have problems with them. More important : I did once briefly have a machine with top-loading bobbin, but with my shaky hands I found it close to impossible to get the thread into the slot at the side of the bobbin.
You can find marvellous sewing machine bargains from charity shops.
Otherwise it’s worth paying a bit more to get a guarantee.
Not always possible these days, but it is worth more to buy from a specialist dealer who provides sewing advice and convenient repairs.
In an ideal world where you can get to a dealer, you have a chance to try out different machines. Sometimes you just get on better with one machine than another, because of the facilities and the buttonhole or the ‘feel’.
I’ve owned 6 machines and not ‘bonded’ with 2 of them.
One because it only had 2 speeds – 0 and very fast – so I couldn’t do the quality sewing I enjoy.
One because I just didn’t like the look of it – trivial I know but it affected my pleasure in sewing.
There are angular machines and curvy ones, machines covered in flowers or dogs. The Oekaki machine was so ‘high concept’ that it was not available for long.
You can also buy stickers to decorate your machine, such as these from Urban Elementz.
It’s good to find a machine that matches your style.
If you can’t get to a dealer, try to find videos of the models you’re interested in, as they give some idea. For example, from the videos I know I wouldn’t actually enjoy using a top-of-the-line machine !
Extra presser feet can be a treat to have, and make many sewing processes much easier. But most of them aren’t essential.
There are only a few important special feet. Though a complete beginner doesn’t need them.
– if you use zigzag as an edging stitch it’s good to have an ‘overcast’ foot, which stops the fabric from being pulled up by the zigzag.
‘Advanced beginners’ will want :
– zipper foot, for zips, piping, etc.
– buttonhole foot.
Most modern machines come with these feet.
Some good specials :
– an ‘edge stitch’ foot, for a near miraculous improvement in top-stitching quality.
– if you like using dense decorative stitches or thicker threads you’ll want an ’embroidery’ foot, which has a channel underneath so it doesn’t catch on the thick amounts of thread making up the stitch.
(Here’s a video from Lucy of Sew Essential, who has a completely different opinion about important feet 😀 )
There are dozens of other special feet, which you may enjoy exploring later.
If you’re tempted by a cheap ‘generic’ foot, check that it will work on your make and model of machine. Snap-on feet holders are not all the same.
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When you know more about sewing, you may like to invest in a machine with more special facilities. If so, here’s a post about some of the options.
But you can make high quality clothing and home dec using a very simple machine, so long as it has a high quality easily controlled straight stitch for sewing woven fabrics, plus zigzag for finishing fabric edges and sewing knits and stretch fabrics.
Some people get overwhelmed / intimidated by all the choices on a more complex machine. While for some people, it’s exploring all the fancy possibilities of new technology that gives the pleasure.
For most of us it’s the sewing that is the focus, and we want to do that on a machine that has minimum problems.
So for a beginner, I think it’s best to invest in stitch quality rather than fancy facilities.
And once you have your machine, here are some tips on learning to use it 😀 😀 😀
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