Sewing Circle: How to buy a sewing machine

Another question for Sewing Circle!

This time, we're talking about sewing machines... which kind is right for you?  How do you research and buy one that you'll be happy with?  What all kinds are there, even?

I got a question from Crystal, who asked:


Q: What is a good sewing machine for sewing garments, including knit fabrics? I am somewhat of a beginner sewer. My experience is mainly in sewing small crafty items, and I am interested in sewing more dresses and clothing items. I currently have a basic Kenmore machine, but the only option for knits on this machine is the zig zag stitch. I would appreciate any suggestions or input you may have!

A: Well, Crystal, I myself don't have experience with all the different machines out there, so I can't name one of the top of my head that works well with knits and other clothing.  I can offer my advice on buying a machine that will work for you--at least my personal opinion!

When I got my (most recent) sewing machine as a grad school graduation present, I looked at both Target/JoAnn's-level brand name machines and at the more professional quality machines at the local "Vac and Sew."  The local shop had machines ranging from $250-$2,500, pretty much, including some very fancy ones with CDs and computer programming for complicated machine embroidery and quilting.  Obviously I don't need all that; I just wanted a very good quality machine for apparel sewing.  The salespeople were very helpful and attentive (another benefit of a small, local store) and pointed out their selection of used machines that were good for sewing clothing.  Sometimes people trade in their old machines if they want a newer, fancier model, and the shop can give them a tune-up and resell them for a good price to new customers.  I tried out several machines that were much fancier and more capable than anything I could have afforded brand new.  Another benefit of many used machines is, depending on their age, many of them were made in Germany or Sweden or wherever the brand is from, and are made of a full one-piece metal base and arm rather than two pieces fit together or plastic exterior.  They tend to have metal gears and a wider range of capabilities than the few brands than the store sells new.

I had my criteria in mind (one-step buttonhole, detachable/free arm--almost essential for clothing sewing--, east-to-wind bobbin) and I tried out machines that fit those criteria.  On my second trip to the shop, after some reflection, I ended up getting a Viking Husqvarna (complete with cover and manual) from quite a few years ago that sews like a charm!  I'm very happy with the excellent quality sewing and stitches I get out of it and I know it's nicer than I would have been able to buy if I had only seen new ones.  That said, not everyone has access to high quality used machines, and there are simple machines out there that will do what you want them to for not too much money.

However, it was really important to me to be able to try out the machines--in Crystal's case, I recommend bringing a piece or two of knit fabric to the store so you can test the machine out on the type of fabric you like to sew on (they will probably have basic woven cotton in a quilting weight for you to test the machine with).  Tell the salespeople what you want to use it for and what elements are important to you.  Ask them to explain the basics of the machines they show you so you can compare.  Don't be afraid to go home and do some research before you buy, or do your research before you go.

That gets me to my next advice--check out some of the great resources online for advice on how to buy the right machine for you and reviews on specific machines.  I'm sure some of you have been thinking about getting a sewing machine--I'm sure these links will help you!!

Also, I'm sure our readers will have thoughts about their machines--readers, do any of you have good basic apparel-sewing machines?  Are you happy with your Singers or Target brand machines?  Did you have a good experience buying your machine?  What do you recommend for Crystal?

And, if any of you have any more sewing-related questions, send me an email for Sewing Circle!

16 comments

  1. I have a kenmore 12 stitch machine that was my mothers when she got married. I love it! Its not fancy, and has no computer parts--all mechanical. Its been great for my beginning sewing projects so far, and I think it will be fine as I advance! One day I hope to have a new machine with a one step button hole option!

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  2. I'd only owned cheap Singer machines up until recently and didn't really understand what a huge difference in quality a better machine can make. My previous machine was electronic and the stitch length was always way off - the length went from 0-7 and even set on 3 or 4 it made tiny little stitches. I had to set it on at least 5 to get a standard stitch length, which means that it was impossible to do a basting stitch on this machine! I also never really maintained it (had no idea about needing to oil it) and now it will not sew without breaking the thread every 30 seconds.

    I took it in to my local sewing machine store (which happens to be a Husquvarna Viking dealer) and wound up just buying a new machine. For $250 I thought it was a great deal (I'm pretty sure my mom paid close to that for my crappy Singer) and it sews like a dream! It's the most basic Husqvarna model, purely mechanical, lots of dials and different feet that seem intimidating at first but now I can't imagine doing it another way. Plus I get free maintenance and free classes for a year through this shop. If you have a decent brand dealer nearby I'd highly recommend going that route instead of buying from a big box store!

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  3. Hi i recently bought a new sewing machine a Husquvarna Emerald 118 and i am so happy with it. I managed to get it for a great price too £215.00 (i think thats about $320) It sews jersey knit, silk and heavy fabric wonderfully....no puckering or missed stitches at all. Before i bought it i read lots of sewing machine reviews on Pattern Review. If possible i would recommend buying from a dealer too.

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  4. Anonymous8/29/2010

    Consider where you are buying it. My local sewing shop offers owners classes for as long as you own the machine, free of charge. It is well worth the extra money to by at a dealer as oppose to target/walmart/sears where you get no help at all. If you are having trouble with a stitch or how to use a foot, it is really nice to be able to get help. Also where is the service and maintenance done. Some dealers ship your machine off and you pay the shipping. And YES! your machine should really be serviced at the very minimum every 2 years, but if you sew a lot more often.

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  5. I'd grab my OLD husqvarna viking if there was a fire. It's solid steel. It's been in the family for 35 years. It has tons of fancy stitches which we've never used.
    I always recommend the 70+ year old solid black cast iron Singers for straight stitching sewing. Like mine, they don't break.

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  6. I love this new column! Keep 'em coming!

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  7. I second (seventh?) the advice to check out your local shop. And don't try to rely too heavily on online shopping. It's not like buying a digital camera; most good sewing machine models aren't available online. Whether you buy used or new, you'll want to try out your machine on several fabric types before you buy it.

    If you want to get feedback online (rather than the actual machine) check out the sewing machine reviews at Pattern Review and Stitcher's Guild.

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  8. I recently sent the following resources to a friend who was considering buying a new machine: SewMamaSew has a decent post on preparing for buying a sewing machine. Then there's a really good guide from the PurlBee. A bit of advice from Casey's elegant Musings, that goes into some extra skills/tools/etc. And some random people's opinions on sewing machines on UCreate, haha.

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  9. I'd say if you want to sew on knits, stick with the machine you already have and then get a serger to go with it. Also, if sewing knits is your ambition, you should check out the Built by Wendy book, "Home Stretch". It has plenty of basic instruction about sewing knits- how to sew them with your machine (serger or no) and comes with some good basic and alterable patterns. You can get the book used for about $10, which I think is worth the price.

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  10. I'm new to sewing also, what is the difference between a serger and a sewing machine?
    Thanks, Missy
    missy93073@yahoo.com

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  11. What a great write-up...this is why I love your blog! You're so knowledgable, and not just taking the easy way out. I bought my Brother XL-2600 on Amazon.com for $60 about 3 1/2 months ago. It has many stitch options and I've never had any problems with tension, which I've seen people complain about with cheaper machines. The bobbin winder stopped working after 3 tries, so I had to buy a small portable one, but overall I've been very happy with it. I've sewn two knit shirts and I didn't have any issues with the machine. I used a simple zigzag stitch, set at the suggested length and width. Good luck finding a machine!
    silverrosesewing.blogspot.com

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  12. Crystal8/29/2010

    Wow, thanks for all the great advice and resources, Suzannah and posters! I have been researching online only so far, but I will definitely have to see if there are local dealers that I can visit. Part of my anxiety is not having tried many types of machines out there, so testing the machines at a store is a great suggestion.

    Sewing Circles have been so informative Suzannah! Thanks and keep up the great work! :)

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  13. Anonymous8/29/2010

    Take your time in buying a machine...and yes and older used one is great too. I teach sewing and I think the old machines are awesome. These newer machines with an "overlock stitch" for knits...I have never seen one of these overlock stitches work like a zig-zag. You can sew knit with any machine that has a zig-zag stitch. It is all about testing the stitches on the fabric before sewing. Try all the machines before you make a decision, so that you can decide which one you like the way that it stitches! Always buy from a dealership so that you have a warrenty, and yes, take the classes to learn about your machine. And always read the manuals...I cannot even tell you how many of my students tell me that they cannot do something with their machine, and I ask the ultimate question..."Did you read your manual"? Find out all that your machine can do before purchasing it!

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  14. I get asked this same question a lot, and I think you and your readers have done a fine job in explaining the issues. I will just add, that the added value to working with a dealer is being able to trade up within the year. This allows you to start with a basic machine and as you progress you can add more features by trading in your old machine for the model up. The other value involved in staying with a brand is that your feet and accesories can be carried over to the new model.

    I often recommend old machines to new students, but they then should invest in an adapter foot so they can use some of the wonderful new feet, which help the new sewer get proffesional results. One of my favorites is an edging foot, which allows you to do accurate top stitching, and stitching in the ditch.

    A thought on knits...just use a straight stitch, the stretch stitch isn't necessary unless you are doing athletic wear, in which case you will need to invest in a serger.

    If looking at used machines be aware that the embroidery machines sometimes have more aggressive feeds, which can be problamatic for garment sewing on knits and finer fabrics.

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  15. Anonymous8/30/2010

    I have a Brother XL-2600 too and I love it. It's the machine I learned on. I have a personal preference for Brother's and a severe hatred for cheap singers. I've lost count how many times a customer will tell me they hate the Singer they got or that it broke down with in a few months. I usually just have to ask them how much they paid for it. As for sewing on knits, try a twin needle. It gets the same finished cover stitch look that t-shirts have. My mom kept the twin needle when she gave me her machine so I haven't gotten a chance to try it yet. Here's a link -->http://sewfordough.wordpress.com/2010/03/15/hemming-with-twin-needles/

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  16. I'm still a beginner sewer, and I decided to go incredibly vintage with a Singer treadle sewing machine that was manufactured in 1955. I bought my machine from someone for only $55, and I was very lucky it came with all the original instruction manuals and many accessories, including a button holer, a gathering foot, a ruffler, etc. I've tried out several electronic machines from friends and family, but I feel like I have much more control with my treadle machine. It works great, too! If you're not good at rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time, it might be a little tricky at first. But, it's a lot of fun, and the stitches are great. If you're looking to buy one of these, remember that it's more like a piece of furniture because it's connected to a table, and my machine only does straight stitching, so no fancy zig-zagging here. Also, if you get a Singer, manuals are available for purchase or download on their site for their older models. Enjoy sewing machine shopping!

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