On the Choosing, Care, and Feeding of Sewing Machines.




Those new to sewing often ask: Where can I buy a cheap sewing machine?  The answer is 'All over the place!'  Cheap new sewing machines are as common as dirt, and just about as useful in a sewing room.  I can understand the wish not to spend too much in case it turns out that you don't like sewing, but if you really need to stick to a very tight budget, take a long and serious look at older pre-loved machines. As with so many things, you get what you pay for.


Folk are also often tempted to buy a very cheap sewing machine, one of those miniature jobs that abound at present, or even a toy sewing machine for a youngster.  Please don't, unless you want to put them off!  I have taught teens for slightly more than 30 years, and I know just how easily they can be put off by poor materials and tools.  There are good modern, clean looking machines in the pre-loved market, just as there are ancient heavy jobs that look like they wouldn't move if you moored the QEII to them!  A good, used, slightly old fashioned machine that works really well and will withstand learner errors is a much better teaching tool than a brand new cheap thing that won't sew half the fabrics the kids want to nail together (like denim culled from old jeans!) and breaks the minute you look at it funny...



When it comes to sewing machines, it's hard to beat this Buying A Sewing Machine article: http://www.cet.com/~pennys/faq/smfaq.htm


Once you have read it, make a list of the sorts of things you want to sew (bags, curtains, clothing, costumes, whatever), and the types of fabrics you want to use (denim, curtain fabric, cotton, chiffon... )


Make a list of the things you want the machine to do. My list includes:

Impeccable straight stitch!

Variable needle positions (makes all sorts of things like putting zips in easier).

Good zigzag stitch.

Good blind hem stitch and adjustable blind hem foot.

Wonderful buttonholes!

Eyelet plate (I make costumes and corsets, and have a severe hatred of metal grommets!).

Ruffler foot for making miled of frills!

The ability to sew REALLY S L O W L Y !! Speed comes later with practice, but you'll ALWAYS need to go slow sometimes! :) When I'm teaching people to sew, I like a good big foot control that is easy to operate. If you find them a little difficult at first, you can always take your shoes off!


I teach people to sew on all sorts of machines, from ancient old straight stitch only hand cranks to electronic marvels with over 200 stitches... ALL are good for beginners, but some are better than others. And different machines work better for different people. You really need to try before you buy, so take your lists and some fabric samples along to the sewing machine emporium and talk to a proper sewing machine engineer about both used and new machines. Sales droids work on commission and will try to sell you something expensive: an engineer should be able to find you several machines that would suit your purpose, so you can test drive them and find the one that suits you best.



Here are some comments about some of the better known makes on the market:


Husqvarna: they do a good range from mid-price upwards. They do some designed for quilting as well as garment construction. There is an excellent range of attachments for both.


Bernina: much as Husqvarna, with slightly different styling. They also do a fantastic mechanical machine (the 1008).


Pfaff: In the same quality range as the Bernina and Husqvarna, with much the same range of facilities. Some models have a built-in 'walking foot', which some quilters love.


All three of these brands also do a cheaper range of machines. I don't know anything about the Pfaff ones, but the Husqvarna Huskystar machines seem to be well received. Don't bother with the Bernettes: not really worth it...


I find that there is precious little difference in the machines as far as stitch quality and function: it's really only a matter of style preference. I love Husqvarna, and my Bernina, but find that Pfaff just don't fit my fingers. You must always try a machine before buying! Think of it like buying shoes or a car.


For a mid price range that will be good for domestic dressmaking and household sewing, look seriously at Toyota, Elna and Frister & Rossman. You'll need to look at the upper levels of these ranges.  But be aware that as I write, the Elna name is owned by Janome, and the machines are no longer Swiss made.  Janome are killing off parts availability for the older Elna machines, so just be careful to do your research before you buy...


I don't rate Brother sewing machines very highly on the whole. They make excellent sergers/overlockers, but the sewing machines tend to be rather flimsy and fragile, with too many functions crammed into too light weight a structure. Singer machines are much the same. They are no longer built by Singer, but bought in from various sources in Taiwan and China, and are rather variable in quality. They no longer do the only one I've been prepared to buy made after 1964!


Some folk love their Janome machines. Personally, I've never met one I'd take home, never mind pay for! I find them rather plasticky and flimsy and over-priced for what they are (says one who has a machine that was £1100 list price 10 years ago!). I do have an older all metal New Home that is a beautiful mechanical wonder, and worth preserving. It's like some of my other old machines: tough as old boots, could sew through a tin can, and has impeccable manners.


If you want one-step buttonholes, go for an electronic machine. Mechanical one-steps are not worth the bother. I don't rate built in threaders either: they also tend to get in the way and then break. The only one I've ever had time for is the one on my Bernina 1150MDA serger, and half the time I do it quicker by hand.


Take a look at these web sites - they will tell you a lot more about the different machines available:


... BERNINA International

Brother sewing Machines




Janome Sewing Machines Pfaff


Toyota Sewing Direct



One thing that is VERY important is a good sewing machine manual: all machines come with an operator's manual. This shows you how to operate the machine, what all the parts are, how to thread it, and how to do all the stitches it has. Some are much easier to follow than others. Some machines come with the manual on CDROM. PLEASE print out a copy to keep beside the machine, if this is what you get. You'll need to refer to if often, and getting up to look on the pooter is a pain!  If you get a paper manual, it might be a good move to scan your manual and keep an electronic copy, as manuals do go missing at times...



Sewing Books:


Another good thing to do would be to get a good basic sewing book. These ones are comprehensive:


New Complete Guide to Sewing: Step by Step Techniques for Making Clothes and Home Accessories (Readers Digest) by Reader's Digest (Hardcover - 25 Jul 2003) £12.99 from Amazon. Covers most dressmaking processes.


Sewing for Dummies (For Dummies) by Janice Saunders Maresh (Paperback - 13 Aug 2004) £9.79 from Amazon. Horrid title, decent book).


Fun book!

101 Ways to Use Your First Sewing Machine by Elizabeth Dubicki (Hardcover - 27 Oct 2006) £11.19 from Amazon


How to make patterns fit:

Fast Fit: Easy Pattern Alterations for Every Figure by Sandra Betzina (Paperback - 3 Jun 2004) £10.47 from Amazon


There are more sewing books to brows through on my Book List.



Sergers (Overlockers):


For stretch knits and Lycra fabrics, you will find a serger or overlocker invaluable. As with any type of sewing machine, you need to try before you buy to make sure that it 'fits' you and the way you want to sew, can cope with what you want to feed through it, and does what you need it to do.


As for makes... I have owned and used all of the following:


3 thread Toyota serger: this was a very good, sturdy little machine, but I outgrew it. The only three-threads you'll see on the market now will be older. pre-loved models. If you think you'll mostly be neatening edges and doing the occasional rolled hem, a nice one should be found for well under $100/£80 in a proper sewing machine shop.


3/4 thread Toyota: New and used models of varying sophistication are available. I've owned a 3/4 thread, and like my old 3 thread, it was sturdy, sewed a beautiful stitch, and did all I asked it to with ease, from rolled hems on chiffon to Polartec 300 seams. A little slow for my needs... They come with and without differential feed. If you think you may be sewing stretch knits, differential feed is VERY useful...


ALL the Toyotas I've used have been very good for the money: a nice budget machine.


Brother: I now own a Brother 1034D: this is an excellent machine that will do 3/4 thread stitches, does a lovely rolled hem, and has coped well with Polartec 200 and laminate fleece, silk, chiffon, denim... Loads of lovely fabrics! A little slower than I'd like, but I bought it as a back-up and for the free-arm.


Huskylock 905/910: these are identical in function, the difference being that the 910 has the memory and sewing advisor. I never used it on my 910, so that was £100 spent I needn't have wasted.  But I know other folk who use the function all the time, so…  A clear case of Your Mileage May Vary.  It's a lovely machine, but large and a little noisy.  Does a fabulous 2/3/4 thread stitch collection, is dead easy to thread, and really easy to convert to rolled hems and 2 thread sewing...


Bernina 1150 MDA: A Rolls Royce of a machine. Doesn't have a free-arm (which is why I also have the Brother), but is otherwise a perfect (if pricey!) 2/3/4 thread machine. Seriously easy to thread and use (my teenaged son uses it, and threads it himself), and does a fantastic job on all the fabrics I've used it on, from silk chiffon to denim and Polartec fleeces of all types.


Some examples of things I've used my sergers for:


100% silk chiffon, 7 layers, bias cut. Bernina 1150MDA 3 thread rolled seams seams, 2 thread rolled hems.
100% polyester: chiffon over crepe de chine, with habotai lining. Brother 1034D: 3 thread rolled seam on chiffon, 3 thread rolled hem.
Velour project using Bernina 1150 MDA and Brother 1034D


This is just a small taster of the sort of thing you can do with the serger.


For beginner sewists, lessons would be an excellent idea. Try your local sewing and quilting shops, and your local adult studies network. There may well be some beginners classes in your area, and a good class is an excellent thing. Not only do you get tuition, but also a network of sewing buddies and like-minded fabric sniffers!  It will teach you which fabrics are best for what purposes, how to handle fabric and sewing equipment, and all the different processes needed to complete your project. You may need to find specialist classes to stretch knits and Lycra fabrics. They are very different in handling characteristics, need special sewing techniques (not difficult, but they take time to become good at!), and fitting can be VERY different for high stretch, close fit garments (we get into the rocky seas of negative ease... ) There are some specialist books that might help you with this:


Stretch Fashion: Design for Stretch and Knit Fabrics by Keith Richardson (Spiral-bound - 15 Aug 2007)


Stretch and sew method of sewing with knit fabric (Unknown Binding)

by Ann Person (Author)


One last note: for the successful sewing of knits and Lycra fabrics, it is essential to use the correct type of needle. Look for Stretch and Superstretch needles for Lycra fabrics and elastic. Always buy good quality needles, and start every new garment with a new set of needles. The most common of the good makes is Schmetz, but other good ones to look out for are Klasse, Rhein, and Groz-Bekert (all are German made: the Germans make the best sewing machines needles).


On Using You Machines:




Sorry this got so long... Hope it helps!


Sewing started as a way of getting more dolls clothes, when I was less than five years old. As a teenager, it was a way of stretching a slim clothing allowance further than anyone thought possible! It has become a way of life. Have fun!


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