A straight stitch sewing machine is enough for most clothing projects. It’s helpful if the machine can be controlled to sew one stitch at a time, has zigzag stitch and a 4-step or 1-step buttonhole.

So a good secondhand basic machine is a better buy than a cheap modern machine with more functions but which doesn’t sew well and isn’t easy to control the speed or adjust the tension.

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.

Treadle and hand-crank machines are straight-stitch only, but perfectly usable. A basic electric ‘mechanical’ machine is a good starter buy as they also have zigzag and buttonhole. They don’t have a powered display panel.

‘Electronic’ and ‘computerised’ machines do 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. They do have more functions, and ‘computerised’ machines have a memory. But it’s not necessary – there are many people who produce clothes of couture quality on a basic mechanical machine.

One area where a modern ‘electronic’ machine makes sewing easier is that it has a 1-step automatic buttonhole. A modern ‘mechanical’ machine has a 4-step buttonhole, and the user has to start and stop each step. You can make very good buttonholes with these, but they need a bit of practice.

You can find marvellous 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 this 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 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.
If you can’t get to a dealer, do try to find videos of the models you’re interested in, as they give some idea. For example, I know I like to use push buttons for making machine settings, and don’t like to use a stylus on a screen. That means I wouldn’t actually enjoy having a top-of-the-line !

Presser feet

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.
– zipper foot, for zips, piping, etc.
– buttonhole foot.
– invisible zipper foot – makes it much easier to sew invisible zips.
– if you like using decorative stitches, you’ll want an ’embroidery’ foot, which has a channel on the bottom so it doesn’t catch on the thick amounts of thread making up the stitch.
These 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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Moving on from straight stitch and zigzag

There are many machines with extra facilities. Best to move on to one of these when you have enough experience to know what sort of sewing you most enjoy.
Mostly sew knits ? or crafts ? love embroidery ?

Machines for knit fabrics
When you have some experience, you may want a serger/ overlocker, if you find you love speedy sewing, or want your seam finishes to look like RTW, or sew a lot of knits. Next add a coverstitch machine to make RTW-like hems on knits. (Many machines which claim to do both overlocking and coverstitch are not easy to use.)

Machines for quilting, home dec, crafts
If you like to sew bags, home dec, toys, crafts – you’ll want a sturdy machine with the penetrating power to sew through many layers of fabric without complaint.
If you sew a lot with heavy fabrics you may want an industrial machine (see useful comment below).

Quilting machines have a built-in ‘walking foot’, which ensures several layers of fabric move through the machine together.
And a wide gap to the right of needle, to make room for the bulk of a quilt.
Some have a ‘stitch regulator’, so when you’re ‘free motion’ quilting, the stitches are all the same length whatever speed you move the fabric.

Machines for embroidery
In some types of machine embroidery, you control the fabric movement and stitching. In other types of embroidery the fabric movements and stitching are controlled by the machine.

You move the fabric
If you want to do ‘free motion’ embroidery, controlling the stitching yourself, you need a machine on which you can lower the feed dogs. This embroidery is like the opposite of drawing – instead of moving the pencil over the paper, you move the fabric under what is making the mark (the needle).

If you want to do ‘bobbin work’ with thicker thread, you need a machine with a front loading bobbin in a separate bobbin case (many simple machines have a drop-in top-loading bobbin which can’t be adjusted).

Many basic ‘mechanical’ machines can sew narrow lines of decorative stitches which can give attractive effects, usually 5mm or 9mm wide. No need for an ‘electronic’ or ‘computerised’ machine until you find you want to explore all those special decorative stitches (most garment sewers rarely use them).
An ‘electronic’ machine has those fancy stitches, and some extras such as ending stitching with the needle down.
A ‘computerised’ machine has a memory, so you can store stitch settings and decorative stitch combinations.

The machine moves the fabric
Machine controlled embroidery wider than the narrow strips of decorative stitches is done on special machines, controlled by software which moves hooped fabric around under the needle.
As the designs are software they can be downloaded, so there are huge numbers of machine embroidery designs on the internet.

If you find you enjoy using decorative stitches and want to move on, start with a modest embroidery machine to learn the skills involved. Most people find they’re happy to use simple embroidery methods with designs made by other people. Some people move on to spend surprisingly large amounts on a top-of-the-line embroidery machine and the software to alter or make their own designs.

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But these choices are not something for a beginner to worry about.
Machine manufacturers emphasise the glamour of their top-of-the-line machines. But most of us don’t do much of that sort of sewing, and just need a ‘workhorse’ machine.
Take your time to find out which types of sewing you enjoy enough to justify the investment in special machines.

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, and zigzag for sewing knits and stretch fabrics.
For a beginner, I think it’s best to invest in stitch quality rather than fancy facilities.

Here’s a post with some suggestions on learning to use a sewing machine.

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