Keep reading to find out why you may need a sewing machine, the different types available, and to look at our step-by-step guide to help you select the machine that is the perfect fit for you. For an in-depth comparison of the top ten sewing machines, take a peek at our detailed Sewing Machine Review.
Why Buy a Sewing Machine?
The first documented instance of one of these machines is a little over 200 years ago, undergoing many technological advancements and improvements to arrive at the machines you see today, with many different inventors contributing to the development. This large number of inventors even triggered a patent thicket known as The Sewing Machine War in the 1850's with multiple companies and individuals suing and countersuing each other over intellectual property infringement. Luckily, the majority of these contested patents have expired, bringing to us modern day machines that have great performance at an affordable cost.
Sewing machines sew, obviously. It doesn't take much use to realize that machine sewing is exponentially faster than sewing by hand. These machines can sew faster, producing stronger and more durable stitches, with more consistency and variety than even the best hand-sewer out there. However, these machines do have some limitations, and can be a significant monetary and space investment, so if you are looking to purchase one of these to simply darn some socks or mend some pants, then you may be better off just purchasing a sewing kit and becoming proficient at that. Regardless, becoming proficient at hand sewing is a great skill to have, and will help you be better at machine sewing, as it is necessary to finish lots of projects by hand sewing.
How do These Even Work?
Most modern machines, whether they are computerized or mechanical, have identical sewing mechanisms. The upper spool of thread is wound through the machine, then through the needle. A second smaller spool of thread, referred to as the bobbin, is installed below the needle in the bottom part of the machine. The loop-taker, or shuttle, catches the upper thread after the needle pierces the fabric, then weaves it with the lower thread to create a stitch, such as a lockstitch.
The animation above shows how a lockstitch is done (credit: NikolayS)
The presser foot provides pressure to keep the fabric in place while sewing, while the feed-dogs advance the fabric a set amount per stitch, keeping your stitching even and consistent. More complex and sophisticated machines will have mechanisms to allow them to do things like decorative stitches or buttonholes, but all operate off this same basic principle.
Types of Sewing Machines
As sewing machine technology has become more innovative, it has been applied in a multitude of different ways, spawning the creation of machines for both general and specialized uses. The first step in determining what sewing machine is the best fit for you is to decide what you are trying to sew. Do you want a general, all-around workhorse that will be acceptable for the majority of commonly found fabrics, or a specialized, niche machine with a set purpose in mind?
All-Around Sewing Machines
These machines come in two types, detailed below.
Higher end computerized machines may even have an embroidery foot that can be added on, converting them to an embroidery machine, and allowing you to create complex designs on your work. These machines will typically be the most versatile, allowing you to use your own designs or designs downloaded from the internet to embroider. On the whole, computerized machines are a little pricier, but are a great choice for a more experienced user, or for a beginner that is confident they will be sewing frequently.
These are predominantly the type of machines that the majority of people will be interested in, and the type that we focused our review on.
These machines are limited versions of all-around sewing machines, usually made to be much smaller and more maneuverable. While these can be attractively priced, these can be much more difficult to use and a lower-quality machine can provide hours of frustration.
Now that you have a better idea about what type of machines exist, it will come down to your experience level, and what type of sewing projects you are planning on taking on. Many of you looking at this review may already be experienced at sewing, while others may be total novices, which leads us to the first step in our guide.
Step 1: Starting out? New to the Textile Arts?
Bobbins, presser feet types, needle and thread types, straight stitch, backstitching — feeling lost? Sewing can be a complicated, and expensive craft to take on for a beginner. The more experienced will feel right at home among these terms, along with all of the other sewing related jargon. We feel confident that an intermediate or advanced user could make a plethora of amazing projects with any of the machines that we looked at, but some of our more novice readers may have some sticker shock at the price of some of the higher end machines we reviewed, and drown in a sea of features and functions that the you don't really need when starting out.
While all of this may seem incredibly overwhelming, refrain from panicking. We had complete novices and experts test each of the machines, and gained a ton of insight about which machines would be great for the aspiring seamstress or seamster, and which ones are better suited for the machine sewing aficionado. A few of the models that we looked at would be a fantastic entry-level machine, and they all had some similar features that were deemed a must have.
Sewing as a craft requires a significant amount of additional accessories and peripherals, meaning that it is important to not spend your entire budget on the machine itself, reserving funds for scissors, fabric, thread, bobbins, patterns, or other accessories. We would recommend a newcomer to this hobby to seek out a machine that is a universal, household machine and should expect to spend somewhere between $150-$200. This should get you a machine that gives you a handful of stitches, and the ability to adjust their length. We would recommend against getting any product that does not have the ability to sew a straight stitch, a zigzag stitch, a blind hem, and a buttonhole. Especially for the beginner, an automatic buttonhole function will make life much easier, specifically one that will stop automatically. Typically, machines that fill this criteria are mechanical, though some of the lower-end computerized ones may also fit the bill.
These machines will probably even have a handful of decorative stitches thrown in, but for the beginner, we would recommend against paying more merely for more stitches — as it is unlikely you would use them that much for quite a while.. There is a multitude of projects that can be accomplished with a machine like this, from stuffed animals for a loved one, to new curtains for your home.
While it may be tempting to look at a cheaper option, or a handheld/portable option, we would caution against this. While some of the models in the $75-100 dollar range receive acceptable ratings and reviews, the majority of model at this price point and below receive very poor ratings and reviews. While these models did not make the cut to test in the review and we did not see firsthand how they performed, we feel that based on the reviews and input from our sewing consultants that these would prove very frustrating, and prone to failure and breakage.
Step 2: Stitching Aficionado?
For those that already have some experience with sewing machines, we would recommend considering a more advanced machine, specifically one of the middle to upper end computerized machines. Having more experience, you will be able to make better use of the additional stitches and features in your projects. We have put together a list of the features and functions that we found were the most valuable, as well as our experience with a combination sewing and embroidery machine. However, this advice comes with a few caveats. Most likely, someone who is already experienced at sewing will have some pretty strong ideas and opinions about what features they want in a machine, and the ones that they don't care about, and this may very well differ from ours. Personal preference will play strongly into what sewing machine is the perfect fit for you, as well as your budget, as some of these higher-end machines can represent a significant investment.
- Stitches — and More Stitches!
- Automatic Thread Cutter
While this might not be a feature that we would use to filter out any machine that didn't have it, or pay hundreds of dollars for, we definitely would give any machine that had it strong consideration, and be willing to pay a couple extra bucks for it.
- Needle Stop Position
While there is not one style that is better than the other, and the preference for up or down is totally up to the user, machines that allow you to set the preference are more desirable over ones that do not. You may find that you prefer the needle to stop in the up position when doing the patchwork part of a patchwork quilt, and down when you are doing the quilt part. This is a really nice feature, especially for those that find they are continually forgetting to put the needle down before pivoting the fabric, or forget to move the needle up before removing the piece.
Some of the auto-threading methods felt like they required a third hand, and yielded a low success rate, mainly the type pictured above. However, for those that find it extremely difficult to thread the needle — maybe those with arthritis, or for those whose eyesight isn't quite what it used to be — the type of needle threader that is spring-loaded can be an amazing aid.
This style can thread the needle amazingly fast and accurately, and is something we would definitely spend the extra money on, especially if you have reduced dexterity or eyesight.
A handful of the machines that we tested have a wide array of built-in embroidery functions, as well as decorative stitches. There are really two choices that you have, if sewing decorative elements is a priority to you: an embroidery machine (either a combination machine, or a dedicated one) , or a sewing machine with a library of built-in stitches and small embroidery patterns.
Obviously, the embroidery machine will offer more versatility, with the capability to add additional designs. Unfortunately, these aren't exactly printers with thread, and require a specialized filetype to control them. These machines will typically have a library of standard designs stored on them, and It is possible to download stock designs from the internet, or use your own after sending them through digitizing software, or paying a service to do it for you. However, these costs can add up, with designs or services costing anywhere from $5-30, and digitizing software can be hundreds or even thousands of dollars, with a steep learning curve. These machines can have a steep learning curve, but can be well worth it, if you are willing to invest a non-trivial amount of time and money to go beyond the stock library on the machine.
For those that are unwilling to commit to a full embroidery machine, many of the higher end computerized sewing machines will have a library of built-in icons and letters, usually coupled with many more decorative stitch patterns than typically found. While these can add customization to your projects, they can definitely come at a premium. Many people may use these features on a daily basis, and for others it will be an overpriced novelty, used a few times and forgotten. We would recommend strongly thinking about how often you would actually add these stock icons or text to your project, and to work out the approximate additional cost. For example, the Singer 4452 has 32 stock stitches, compared to the Singer 4423 with 23. This increase of 9 stitches increases the price anywhere from $100-$150 dollars, depending on the retailer. Would you pay $12-$16 for each additional stitch, and would you use it enough to merit the expense? If the answer is yes, and an emphatic, definite yes, then the computerized machines will be a worthwhile purchase. If not, stick with a good, all-around machine that has some or most of the features mentioned above.
For a more in-depth breakdown of our testing method, take a glance at our How We Test page, or our quest to find the top Sewing Machine.