Get to know what's out there
Before we dive into the details, lets cover some essential sewing machine info.
Firstly, there are many types of machines that sew in different ways to serve different purposes. You are probably used to seeing something like these two machines (below) in shop catalogues.
Digital sewing machine
Generally used for sewing woven fabrics. Commonly include straight, zig zag and button hole stitching options. Some also include decorative stitches and a basic stretch stitch.
4 Thread overlocker
Used to finish raw edges on woven fabrics and to sew stretchy (knit) fabrics. Typically 4 thread. Many also include differential feed which is used to reduce bulk/waviness when sewing knit fabric.
While these are the most commonly used domestic machines found in homes, there are others to consider:
This machine looks like a hybrid between a sewing machine and an overlocker. The hem on a shop-bought knit t-shirt was probably sewn on one of these.
Decorative pictures can be added to fabric such as logos on business shirts and caps with an embroidery machine. These require computer files to operate.
Treadly and other vintage pot motor/knee operated machines are not limited to straight stitch. Some can use zig zag cams and specialty feet like a zipper foot.
Features to consider
- STITCHES – sewing machines sew straight lines. Early machines allowed the user to set a shorter/longer straight stitch length. Features such as zig-zag and button hole options were later introduced and some modern digital machines even do a one step button hole. Some machines also include a ‘stretch’ stitch which sews forward/backward in sequence to create a straight line that has a little give to suit knit fabrics.
- MANUAL/DIGITAL – a manual machine has physical levers or dials that move to set the desired stitch settings. Digital machines use a computer board to set programmed stitch settings. The benefit of manual is that there is no potential for a circuitry failure, so they are easier to repair. Digital machines however, can do far more decorative stitches.
- PEDAL – While the foot pedal is often not a feature you would consider when choosing a machine, there are modern machines that have the option of not using a pedal. The user can instead press a button to start/stop sewing. This can be very useful for those who find it uncomfortable to sit in the required position to push a foot pedal. Arthritis, foot/knee issues and muscular control conditions are among many challenges people can struggle with when wanting to sew. Using a machine with a no-pedal option can make sewing a real option for those who struggle with pedals.
- SHAPE – The BED is the flat area under the machine foot. It can sometimes be quite small. This can be handy if compact storage is important. Having a larger bed can make sewing large items like bedding and adult clothing much easier. The bed is often removable for sewing smaller things like sleeve holes. Some machines have optional extra accessories you can buy separately such as a large bed attachment.
The NECK is the open area between the foot and the body of the machine. A large neck area makes sewing bulky items like quilts easier.
- DOMESTIC/INDUSTRIAL – A regular domestic machine is intended for typical domestic use. An industrial machine is made tougher to withstand far more frequent use and usually much more demanding sewing projects such as thicker fabrics. They are ultimately stronger machines. If you want to sew heavy fabrics or sew every day, it may be worth looking into getting a second hand industrial machine that can do the stitch options you need.
- OTHER FEATURES – there are a number of small differences that may be of personal preference to some. Things like the use of a reverse button or lever. Top thread holder vertical or horizontal. Self threading needle. The ability to deactivate the feed dogs for applique. Heavy duty sewing. Thread cutting blade. ++++
While there are many different companies that manufacture sewing machines, not all are available globally.
Here in Australia a few of the largest sewing machine brands are SINGER, JANOME, ELNA, BERNINA, BROTHER & TOYOTA.
Sometimes a company can come out with one fantastic model and the rest are not as great. The inverse is possible too with most models being very reliable, but then that odd lemon that gets a bad wrap. So how do you know which make or model to pick?
Once you have outlined the features you want in a machine from the above list, start making a list of models that encompass as many of those features as possible. You can often find reviews of machines online and some stores also have machines set-up in store for you to try before you buy.
My personal favourites are Singer and Janome. Singer have been making sewing machines since the 1800’s and are renown for quality. I do have a weak spot for vintage Singers, with a modest collection of 7 metal manual Singer sewing machines made between the 1940’s -1990’s. I also have a 120 year old treadly table. I absolutely adore how much fun a treadly is to sew on!
Janome has a strong reputation for reliable modern machines and especially overlockers. Both of my overlockers are janome. I have a slightly vintage 1980’s janome machine and my first ever sewing machine I bought when I was 18 was a Janome (I still have it).
Over the years though, I have owned and sewn on a variety of different machines. My personal experiences of a few brands have led me to sell the Brother, Semco and Toyota machines I have owned. The Elna and Bernina machines I have encountered have been perfectly fine to sew on. I would gladly purchase from these brands if they suit your needs.
If the cost of a brand new sewing machine is more than you are looking to pay right now, it may be worth searching local thrift stores, op shops, markets and online markets for a second hand machine. I advise plugging it in and testing the machine before paying for it. Second hand machines more than 2yrs old should be serviced straight away so factor servicing costs into your decision.
Vintage machine prices can vary a lot depending on whether the model is considered valuable or not. obviously, the better the condition and more accessories included, the more it is likely to cost more. You can find out info about vintage machines using the model number at the ISMACS website.
Brand new sewing machines can sometimes be found on sale. It can be useful to search around for the best price from a local retailer, rather than ordering something online and then paying shipping costs.
At present in 2020 in Australia, a very basic sewing machine suitable for a learner can be as little as $99. An average manual machine can be anywhere around the $150-300+ mark. A digital domestic machine can set you back anywhere from $250-900+.
I hope that this info has helped you think about what you want in a sewing machine. I recommend writing a list of the features that are a must & those that are preferred. Aim to find a machine model available near you that has all of the must haves you want and as many of the preferred features you would like. Remember to consider vintage, second hand or industrial machines in your search if they suit your list.