How to Choose a Sewing Machine

Some of the machines ready for testing!
Article By:
David Wise


Last Updated:
Wednesday
September 27, 2017

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How do you select which sewing machine is the perfect fit for you? The technology behind these machines has undergone a dramatic evolution in the past couple hundred years, with many different variations sprouting from the original concept. Whether you are an avid seamstress, seamster, or tailor, a hobbyist that sews regularly, or the weekend warrior merely looking to patch up some holes, there is a sewing machine that exists that is the perfect fit for you.

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?


The inner mechanism of a typical sewing machine.
The inner mechanism of a typical sewing machine.

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.

Mechanical


Singer 4423
Mechanical style machines refers to the fact that settings and stitch selection is all done through a series of dials and knobs, compared to a small computer chip. These machines are simple, have a handful of basic and decorative stitches, and usually have the ability to do a one-step buttonhole. These machines are attractive to beginners, as they are usually the least expensive and less overwhelming, than the computerized versions, but we found they scored slightly lower than some of their computerized counterparts. However, these machines still perform well, and would enable a beginner or intermediate user to sew all kinds of projects.

Computerized


The 9960 has an enormous library of built-in stitches to choose from.
One of the more recent innovations to the sewing machine is the advent of computer control. These machines use a keypad or a touchscreen to adjust settings or enter selections, usually with a small LCD screen to display the current selections. These machines typically offer more stitches, with a larger emphasis on decorative stitches — usually ones that are more sophisticated than the available selections on a mechanical model. Some of these models will even have small embroidery selections, with a library of stock images and text to add customization to your projects.

The Singer 9960 has a variety of built-in decorative stitches and alphabets  allowing you to add planes  trains. automobiles  or shameless self-promotion to your projects.
The Singer 9960 has a variety of built-in decorative stitches and alphabets, allowing you to add planes, trains. automobiles, or shameless self-promotion to your projects.

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.

Portable/Handheld Machines


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.

Overlock/Serger Machines


A serger  or overlock machine by Singer
Overlock, or Serger machines are a specialized type of sewing machine for making clean, finished seams. These machines use multiple rolls of thread to make a variation of an overlock (hence the name!) stitch, usually coupled with an automated cutter to trim the fabric as you work. These machines are restricted to joining fabric edge to edge, and can make a stitch that will stretch with the fabric. A common sighting of this type of stitch is the bottom hem on a T-shirt. These are less versatile than a typical sewing machine, but will be much faster and easier to use if you are only making seams. These would be something to supplement your sewing machine — rather than supplant it — when you are taking on more ambitious projects, or are sewing on a much more frequent basis. These machines are widely used in commercial textile productions, and can range from a few hundred dollars for a household model, to several thousand for a commercial-grade one.

Embroidery Machines


A computerized embroidery machine by Necchi.
Embroidery machines are the artsy cousins of sewing machines — creating images on fabrics with different color threads and stitch textures. These machines are automated, and move the hooped fabric in sync with the needle to create images. These machines may have automated thread cutters and multiple colors, or will stop and instruct you to switch colors when it is time to switch. Some sewing machines will have a removable embroidery foot that can be attached, converting it to an embroidery machine.

Heavy-Duty/Commercial/Industrial


An industrial sewing machine by Juki.
The true giants when it comes to sewing machines, these are the largest, most expensive, and most specialized. Ranging from a standard sewing machine scaled up for industrial production, to burly, heavy-duty machines for making sails or saddles, these are designed to easily handle projects that would break a household machine in an instant. These can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and unsurprisingly, were out of the scope of this review.

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.

Some of the machines ready for testing!
Some of the machines ready for testing!

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.

Here you can see the 4 stitches that made up most of our sewing: long straight  zigzag  scallop  and buttonholes.
Here you can see the 4 stitches that made up most of our sewing: long straight, zigzag, scallop, and buttonholes.

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!
Having the most stitches is a critical part of having a great sewing machine — at least according to the manufacturers' advertising campaign. We found that while the addition of extra stitches is great, and we did have fun using the plethora of decorative ones on various projects throughout testing, it can come at an astronomical cost. Some of the models we tested were essentially identical, with only the small addition of 10 or so stitches, while the price skyrocketed, nearly doubling in some cases. We would caution against spending too much solely for extra stitches, unless you are primarily a decorative sewist, in which case you should jump down and take a look at our section on decorative sewing towards the end of this article.
  • Auto-Stitching
Automatic stitching refers to the addition of a start/stop button, as well as speed control that supplants the use of the foot pedal. This is a fantastic addition for those that do decorative stitching, as having the machine control the speed will allow a much more even and consistent stitch than you could do manually.
  • Automatic Thread Cutter
This feature surprised us, as it ended up being a feature that we could not say enough about. It reduced the mess when we were sewing, as well as saved us yards and yards of thread throughout our testing.

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
More sophisticated machines will not stop the instant you let your foot off the pedal or hit the stop button, instead finishing the current stitch and always stopping the needle in the up or down position of the stitch.

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.
  • Auto-Threader
Threading sewing machines is hard. Period. There is a reason that thread the needle has entered the common parlance to refer to something difficult. Most machines will have an automated needle threader, but we found we had mixed results with their performance in our testing

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.

Decorative Sewing




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.

The 9960 has an enormous library of built-in stitches to choose from.
The 9960 has an enormous library of built-in stitches to choose from.

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.

David Wise
About the Author
Born and raised in South Lake Tahoe, David Wise earned his B.S. in Mechanical and Ocean Engineering at MIT, where he participated on the marine robotics team and interactive STEAM education in the community. After graduation, David went on to work for a startup company building underwater autonomous robots used for seafloor mapping and ocean exploration. Unable to resist the mountains' calling, he returned to Tahoe in 2015 to join TechGearLab as a senior review editor. When he's not testing the latest and greatest tech gear, David enjoys skiing, mountain biking, baking amazing bread, building silly electric vehicles, and spending time with his amazing girlfriend and extremely large dog.

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