Buy a machine with basic facilities – variable length and width of stitches, a buttonhole, and it can sew slowly – one stitch at a time if necessary. You will have to pay a little more than rock-bottom price, but you will have more control over your sewing. You’ll be able to do most garment, home dec and crafts sewing with it. And when you feel confident with that you’ll know what extra facilities you would like to move on to.
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 with more functions but which doesn’t sew well and isn’t easy to control the speed or adjust the tension. It’s 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.
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.
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 (see this buttonholes post).
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 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, homely ones covered in flowers, or designer ones with polka dots. Sadly the Oekaki machine was so ‘high concept’ that it was not available for long.
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.
– 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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Moving on from straight stitch and zigzag
The best sewer I know uses a basic mechanical machine costing about £110/$140 new.
But 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. If you go that route, look for a machine that does straight lock stitch.
‘Industrial’ machines are special purpose, and there are many different types, or watch someone use many machines to make jeans.
There are also semi-industrial machines, which are heavy duty and with minimal facilities, but oriented to the home market.
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
Most modern machines will produce some ‘decorative stitches’, narrow lines of patterned stitching 5mm or 9mm wide. Most sewers don’t use them. I love them so have upgraded to a machine with more.
Many basic ‘mechanical’ machines can sew some decorative stitches which can give attractive effects. No need for an ‘electronic’ or ‘computerised’ machine unless you find you want to explore more.
An ‘electronic’ machine has more control over shaping of stitches, so there can be pictures of flowers, leaves, toys. . .
A ‘computerised’ machine has a memory, so you can store stitch settings and decorative stitch combinations.
There are 2 types of machine embroidery that cover a wider area. There’s ’embroidery using a machine’ – done on a conventional sewing machine and entirely operator controlled, and ’embroidery by machine’ – needs an embroidery module holding an embroidery hoop, and is entirely controlled by the machine.
Machine embroidery, you move the fabric
This is done on a domestic machine. In general sewing, the feed dogs move the fabric through the machine. 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). May take some time to learn the skills needed, see this post.
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).
Embroidery machine, 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. Photos of this type of machine usually show the embroidery module and hoop.
Using these machines is not just a matter of pressing a button and ‘hey presto’ something beautiful emerges. There may be quite a lot to learn about operating the machine and choosing the right materials. Here’s a post about the basics.
As the designs are software they can be downloaded, so there are huge numbers of machine embroidery designs on the internet.
There are both ’embroidery only’ machines, which only do the machine controlled type, and sewing-embroidery ‘combi’ machines, on which you can do both types of embroidery. A combi machine can be cheaper than buying both separately, and is good if you rarely do machine-controlled embroidery. I prefer to have separate sewing and embroidery machines, as there are many steps involved in changing the machine from one function to the other. Top-of-the-line machines are all ‘combi’.
So if you find you enjoy using decorative stitches and want to move on to larger sizes of design, I suggest you start with a modest machine-controlled embroidery machine to learn about the skills and supplies used. There’s a group of posts here about using an embroidery machine, starting with choosing one.
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.
What type of beginner are you ? some people get overwhelmed / intimidated by all the choices on a more complex machine.
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.
For some people, it’s exploring all the fancy possibilities of new technology that gives the pleasure.
But 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.
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