When you are confident with using a basic machine, you may know what types of items you like to make, and what extra machine tools you would like to have.

The best sewer I know uses a basic mechanical machine costing about £150/$200 new.
If you love sewing garments, you usually use just the basics, perhaps with a good choice of buttonholes.

There are many machines with extra facilities. Best only to move on to one of these when you have enough experience to know what sort of sewing you most enjoy, not before.
Mostly sew knits ? or crafts ? quilting ? love embroidery ?

My own machines ? an example of the choices to be made :
I love machine embroidery and have a good machine for doing that (Bernina 500E).
I used to do a lot of patchwork piecing, for which you can use a basic machine, as all you need is a 1/4″ seam allowance. I didn’t enjoy the hand and machine quilting I tried, and always got the quilting done by a commercial quilting company, so I don’t need a machine with space and support for handling a big quilt.
I enjoy making bags, but my domestic machine (Bernina 480) is plenty strong enough for all the layers I have tried to sew through so far.
I’ve recently become a serger/ overlocker owner. I don’t sew knits, but don’t much like any of the overlocking stitches on my basic machine for finishing seam allowances. As I have shaky hands I’ve been doing much research on overlockers that are easy to thread, see next paragraph.

Knit fabrics
There are machines which make special stretch stitches not available on a domestic sewing machine.

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.
You can get an air threader, so you don’t have to find how to do the threading yourself. Though with a bit of research you can find a machine with good help with threading. As air threaders are more expensive.

Next add a coverstitch machine to make RTW-like hems on knits.
Many machines which claim to do both overlocking and coverstitch are difficult to change from one function to the other. So much so that many people don’t do it, so try to find a manual or video about a model you are thinking of, to check what is needed.

Bags, home dec, toys, crafts
You may want a more powerful machine.

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 only does straight lock stitch, as true ‘industrial’ machines are special purpose.

There are also semi-industrial machines, which are heavy duty and with minimal facilities, but oriented to the home market.
Here are some of the options, a post from Sewing Direct.

When home sewists talk about an ‘industrial’ machine they usually mean one that does straight stitch only. But actually there are many different types of industrial machine.
Commercial sewing can be very different from home sewing.
Here is a video about an individual jeans maker. See all the different machines he uses in making one pair of jeans. Domestic sewing machine manufacturers try to fit all those different functions into one machine, or they assume the operator’s knowledge and skills.
Large scale manufacturing is even more different from domestic sewing. Not only special purpose machines, but each part of the process is done by a different person. Here’s a video about factory making of jeans (there’s an audio-only section at one point).

Look for machines with extra space, a large working area for supporting the fabric while you stitch, and with more controlled stitching.

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.

There are machines with special firmware/ software, which can stitch in any direction and make beautiful patterns.

Decorative stitches
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, letters – even several alphabets. . .
A ‘computerised’ machine has a memory, so you can store stitch settings and decorative stitch combinations.

Wider embroidery
There are 2 types of machine embroidery that cover a wider area (decorative stitches just sew a narrow line). 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
‘Free motion embroidery’, or FME

This is best done on a domestic machine with some special options.

In general sewing, the feed dogs move the fabric through the machine.
If you want to do ‘free motion’ embroidery, controlling the stitching direction 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.

Lovers of machine embroidering may want to be able to vary the width and length of stitches while they sew. On basic machines you have to stop sewing to change the width and length of the stitch, and the machine only makes changes in clearly different steps, not gradually. There are a few machines on which you can gradually change stitch length and width by turning a knob while you’re sewing.

If you want to do ‘bobbin work’ with thicker bobbin thread, you need a machine with a front loading bobbin in a separate bobbin case (most 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 available on the internet.

There are both ’embroidery only’ machines, which only do machine controlled hooped embroidery, and sewing-embroidery ‘combi’ machines, on which you can do conventional sewing and 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’.

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 size of 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. The smallest embroidery machine can just make embroideries 4″/10cm square. Every embroidery technique can be done on such a machine. Paying more gets you an increased area of embroidery, and increased ability to edit (alter) designs directly on the machine.
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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Choosing a special machine which can do more than basic straight and zigzag stitches is not something for a sewing beginner to worry about.

Machine manufacturers emphasise the glamour of their top-of-the-line machines. But many of us don’t do much of that sort of sewing, and just need a ‘workhorse’ machine.

You can take your time to find out which types of sewing you enjoy enough to justify the investment in a special machine.

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