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My new book: How To Buy a Sewing Machine

Everyone always asks me what sewing machine they should buy, or what sewing machine I have. In my new book, I'll help you to learn how a sewing machine works and what common options you may want to consider when shopping for your new machine.

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Buying sewing machines

There is a wide variety of sewing equipment available. A lot of it is nonessential. You can sew almost everything with an entirely mechanical straight stitch only machine (and one of your authors did, for over a year)... but do you WANT to?

What sewing machine should I buy?

Bernina is in vogue this week, but we think that Pfaff will be the hottest style next month.

Seriously, this is really not something that someone can give you a definitive answer to. There are a lot of good choices of available sewing machines. Companies which are known to presently make excellent sewing machines include:

Bernina
http://www.bernina.com
Brother
Main page at http://www.brother.com/
Sewing page at http://www.brother.com/us-hsm/indexus.html
Elna
Esante / Babylock
http://www.babylock.com/
New Home / Janome
http://www.janome.com/
Pfaff
http://www.pfaff.com/
Viking / Husqvarna
http://www.husqvarnaviking.com/

Note that some people have complained about the quality of some of the lower-end models of Bernina, Brother, and Pfaff sewing machines. This doesn't necessarily mean they're necessarily bad machines, but reflects the fact that some manufacturers make inexpensive models designed for light use which may not live up to the quality standards of their more expensive, standard models. Also note that some models of Kenmore (Sears) sewing machines are reportedly excellent, while others may be of poor quality.

Remember that there are many excellent used sewing machines available. Sewing machines were often made to last, and a 20 year old (or more) sewing machine can be perfectly good (if properly serviced) and may easily cost less than $100.

Regarding the Singer Sewing Machine Company: Singer's reputation for quality has unfortunately degraded substantially over the last 20 years. Many posters to alt.sewing and rec.crafts.textiles.sewing have reported many unpleasant problems with Singer brand sewing machines. On the other hand, some others have posted that they are very happy with their Singer machines, and I am assured by reputable sewing machine dealer that the Singer Quantum sewing machines have normal reliability. It seems possible that the problematic machines are the less expensive machines and that the higher end Singer machines are perfectly good. Your experience may vary.

How do I choose a sewing machine?

You should visit your local sewing machine dealers and try a variety of different machines to see what you like. Bring your own thread and your own fabric, of types similar to that with which you plan to do your regular sewing, to try the machines with. Note that some dealers will offer to provide these items for you. You should try your own anyway, as they may provide thread and fabric chosen to showcase the machine but of types that you wouldn't actually want to use.

A good sewing machine dealer will be happy to let you try different machines, will show you how they work, and will let you sit down and play with them until you have a good feel for the machine. A good dealer will also not try to pressure you into more expensive models. A good dealer will never try to offer you a special sale price that you have to take immediately or not at all - a good dealer will generally offer you a special extension of a sale price so you have time to make up your mind comfortably.

As an example, in a recent purchase, one of your authors visited one dealer and explained that he had $400 to spend on a new machine. The dealer tried to pressure him into $600 machines, so he left. He found another dealer that talked to him about his needs and recommended a $230 machine, which he bought and is happy with.

Also make sure to ask about what comes with the machine. Some manufacturers include a standard package of tools with the machine such as additional presser feet, seam rippers, screwdrivers, etc. Others may not. A dealer may choose to throw in such additional materials... or they may not. Some dealers also include free lessons with your purchase. Consider the value of what you're getting with a machine from one dealer versus what you get from another. Even if a dealer is asking slightly more for a machine, if they offer better service or tools or lessons than their competition, you may discover that you consider them a better deal anyway.

Are plastic parts bad?

No, not necessarily. Many purchasers avoid machines with parts made of plastic, and many dealers will try to tell you that one machine is better than another because it has all metal parts. These are not necessarily good ideas. Metal parts require regular lubrication and are intended for regular use. If you're planning to put the machine in the closet for six months at a time, all metal parts may not be a good idea for you. Plastic parts may reduce friction and reduce or eliminate the need for regular lubrication. Practically all of the top-of-the-line sewing machines made for home use today have some plastic parts. (Our sewing machine dealer tells us it is in fact all of them.) Plastic parts also help make the sewing machine lighter.

What do I need to consider when buying a computerized or electronic sewing machine?

The most important aspect of your usage of a computerized sewing machine is how you feel about its user interface. Is it intuitive, or confusing or intimidating? Is it easy to get it to do what you want it to do, or do you have to wade through too many menus and screens and press lots of extraneous buttons? You're going to have to live with this interface for as long as you have the machine, so you'd better be comfortable with it.

Also, if you're buying a sewing machine that can be connected to a computer (for embroidery features), consider what kinds of computer you can connect it to. At time of writing, while several brands of sewing machines can be connected to PC's, only Pfaff offers the feature of connectability to Macintosh computers. Some people actually consider the purchase of a Windows PC just to use with an embroidery sewing machine. However, many people find Windows PC's to be inherently frustrating, and would be much happier with a Macintosh. Make sure, if you're thinking about buying an embroidery machine, to consider the possibility that you may be happier with a Macintosh and a sewing machine that works with it. Your authors urge you to contact manfacturers other than Pfaff to urge them to offer appropriate software for Macintosh.

You should consider the price of additional embroidery cards for the machine. The cost of additional cards varies from machine to machine, and if they are very expensive and you want several, this can add substantially to the cost of the machine. Alternatively, some sewing machines with a computer interface allow you to create and share embroidery designs, and you may be able to obtain additional embroidery designs over the Internet. This may reduce the cost of ownership of the machine.

You should also get a surge protector for computerized or electronic sewing machines, to protect them from electric line problems. You should also keep magnets (including magnetic pincushions) away from computerized machines.

Also remember that if you have a computer connected to your sewing machine, you should take good care of the computer too. This means you shouldn't put drinks (such as coffee) around it, make sure not to drop pins in the ventilation or disk drive holes, don't smoke around it, etc. Consider these factors in the placement of the computer - you may decide, for example, that you really LIKE to have coffee while you sew, so you could place a small side table nearby on which to place the coffee cup.

Make sure to read the warranty before buying an electronic or computerized sewing machine to see how the manufacturer warrants the electronics. Many manufacturers warrant the electronics for a substantially shorter period of time than the mechanical parts of the machine, and you should be aware of this in making your purchasing decision.

Lastly, remember that computerized design allows substantial internal design changes which may result in a lighter, more reliable sewing machine, so don't be alarmed if the machine is lighter in weight than you expected.

What do I need to consider when buying a sewing machine for quilting?

The requirements differ depending on what you call "quilting"... :-)

Patchworking (making or "piecing" the "quilt top") can usually be done with any sewing machine -- Singer Featherweight machines are highly prized among people who want to take their machines to classes to make the quilt tops due to their small size and weight. (Featherweights have only a straight stich.) If you like crazy quilting, you'll probably be happier with a machine that can at least do a few decorative stiches. If you actually want to quilt with your sewing machine (stitch together several layers of fabric and batting), you probably want a machine that has a longer arm so it's easier to stick a queen or king size quilt underneath and, unless you only quilt in straight lines, you want a machine that can drop the feed dogs so you can quilt free-hand.

What sewing machine should I buy for my spouse/mother/friend?

None. Don't buy someone else a sewing machine. Let them choose their own sewing machine. What makes a "good" sewing machine versus an "unpleasant" sewing machine can be very subjective. You can try two perfectly good, high quality sewing machines and love one and hate the other for reasons that have nothing to do with how well made they are, such as where the controls are placed and what set of features were chosen for the design. Consequently, it's important for the happiness of the person who will use the machine that they have the opportunity to try before you buy.

If you really want to make a gift of a sewing machine to someone, the best thing to do is to decide how much you're willing to spend and then give them a card stating that you will buy them the sewing machine of their choice up to the specified dollar amount. Then take them shopping and make a happy occasion of it.

There's a dealer that's offering "school model" sewing machines or machines which were accidentally bought as excess by a school, at a huge discount. Should I buy one?

This sort of thing is often heard from sewing machine dealers. Unfortunately, it's usually some sort of tactic to make money rather than necessarily the truth. There's generally no actual school involved - if there's even so much as a box which says "school model" or anything like that, it's probably just that the manufacturer stuck some machines in that box. In some cases, they have a bunch of really basic model machines that they're trying to get rid of. In some cases the same model can be had cheaper elsewhere, and the "discount" is phony. (If they don't usually offer these machines, how can whatever price they're offering them at be a "discount"? What's it discounted from?) In some cases there aren't even actually any such machines - the advertisement is really just a method of getting you into the store so they can try to pressure you into something more expensive. If there are actually machines, often the dealer will try to pressure you into buying at once with no time to think about it, telling you that they're about to run out or saying that they'll give you a "special discount" but only if you buy at once.

In short, these sorts of offers are probably best ignored. Never buy any sewing machine when you feel pressured - a trustworthy dealer will always offer you plenty of time to think about it.

What about those handheld sewing machines that you just pull along the fabric you want to sew?

[Tom replies:]
As far as your authors are aware, all such machines sew with a one thread chain stitch. That kind of stitch is suitable for mending only because it comes out easily - if you pull on the thread at either end, the whole line of stitching will pull right out. Many readers of the sewing newsgroups have also commented that the machines are poorly made and/or form the stitch incorrectly anyway, and that they consider such machines a waste of money.

What about the Singer Tiny Tailor machine?

[Tom replies:]
The Singer Tiny Tailor machine is intended for mending only (the box refers to it as a "mending machine" rather than a "sewing machine") and is not suitable for general sewing work. Many readers of the sewing newsgroups have complained about the quality of the machine's stitching.

What presser feet should I buy for my machine?

Your sewing machine should come with a basic presser foot which allows you to straight stitch and zigzag. (Or just straight stitch if you bought an old straight stitch only machine.) We'll call that the "plain" foot. It may include a number of other feet, or it may not.

Most people find a zipper foot to be very useful. There are a number of styles of zipper foot - if you don't get one with your machine and have a selection, look them over carefully and think about which one you'll like better. It's a matter of preference. With a plain foot and a zipper foot you're well equipped to get started.

Other feet tend to perform functions which you can do without the foot but may be easier with the foot.

Plain foot
Good for most ordinary stitching, straight or zigzag.
Automatic buttonhole foot
Used to make buttonholes on sewing machines capable of automatic buttonholes. You place the button for which the hole is to be sewn into a clip on the foot, which sets the length of the buttonhole. A sensor arm on the sewing machine "feels" to know when the end of the buttonhole is reached. This type of foot can only be used with sewing machines that specifically support it as a feature - most such machines come with the foot.
Binder foot
Used to install bias tape binding, the binder foot automatically feeds the binding into the correct place on the edge of the fabric and folds it correctly as you sew. One of your authors thinks this is wonderful... another thinks it's easier to do by hand.
Button foot
Used to install buttons, a button foot may take several forms. generally it will have something to make a bit of slack in the threads holding the button in place. Some button feet may have a clip to hold the button in place while you sew as well. This can make installation of the button particularly easy, as you place the button in the clip, then position the fabric under the button foot, then just stitch a little. (This avoids having to carefully hold the button in place while you position everything and stitch.) This type of foot may also ease installation of various other types of snaps and fasteners.
Even feed foot
See Walking foot, below.
Embroidery foot
This foot has a minimal surface area so that you can easily see what you're doing as you embroider.
Flat fell foot
Used for making flat felled seams. Your authors don't understand why this is necessary, having done perfectly good flat felled seams without any special foot.
Gathering foot
Used for gathering fabric. Your authors don't quite see the point of this foot - it doesn't seem to do anything that a plain foot can't be used for.
Rolled hem foot
Automatically rolls the edge of the fabric as you sew in order to make a very neat hem. This isn't absolutely necessary - it can be done by hand, and it's tricky to learn to do it right with the rolled hem foot, but if you learn it you can produce very neat hems very quickly, and if you use a very small rolled hem foot, you can probably make a much narrower hem than you could do by hand. Your authors have several rolled hem feet but don't actually use them... yet. Tip: You can achieve much better results by feeding the fabric into the rolled hem foot on an angle.
Ruffler foot
Automatically ruffles fabric. It generally has a little metal thingie which shoves extra fabric under the needle just before the stitch is formed, making a little pleat. You can usually control the depth of the pleats and how many stitches between pleats. These can be awfully fun to play with.
Satin stitching foot
Has a raised area behind the needle hole to allow closely packed zigzag stitching to pass through without catching on the needle hole.
Walking foot
This device acts as a set of feed dogs on the upper side of the fabric as you sew. It's used when you're sewing several (at least two) layers of fabric together to help keep all the layers moving at the same speed to prevent bunching, puckering, or mismatching of patterns.
Zipper foot
Excellent for installing zippers. This foot is also excellent for topstitching very close to the edge of something, as it stays out of the way of your work so you can see more easily what you're doing.

My sewing machine is doing something wrong! What do I do?

Try a different or new needle. Remove all thread from the machine and rethread it from scratch. Open all service panels and clean out all lint. If the manual directs you to oil the machine, do so according to the manufacturer's instructions using quality sewing machine oil. (Do not use standard household oils or automotive oils. Only sewing machine oil should be used on a sewing machine.) Use a better quality thread. Adjust the thread tension. Hold onto the loose ends of both the upper and bobbin threads as you begin the seam. Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate. Do not run with scissors. Do not play with fire. Where has that finger been?

What's a serger?

A serger is a sewing-machine-like device that simultaneously trims the fabric with a blade, sews a seam, and finishes the cut edge of the fabric. According to "Sewing Secrets From the Fashion Industry," such a device can only be considered a serger if it both forms a chain stitch to make the seam and also overlocks the edge - this implies that only five thread sergers are really sergers, and everything else is just an overlocker. Opinions on this matter vary widely.

Sergers allow you to quickly sew and finish a seam, eliminating the step of going back to overstitch the raw edges or installing bindings or french seams. On the other hand, the process of using a serger limits somewhat the techniques you can use - for example, turning a 90 degree corner or curves is really rather difficult. Comparing a serger to a sewing machine is like comparing a microwave oven to a conventional stove/oven set - yes, you can do things a lot faster, but you have to learn new techniques to do them, and it's not always the best solution.

Do I need a serger to sew?

No, you can sew without a serger. Sergers for home use are in fact a recent development. Most garments can be easily completed with a sewing machine and without a serger. However, you may prefer to use a serger because of the convenience it offers in some circumstances.

What serger should I buy?

Again, this is rather subjective. It's best to go look at your available choices, try some different models with different features, and decide what you like. The list of manufactures above still stands.

A few things to keep in mind when test driving a serger:

  1. How easy is it to thread?
  2. Sergers are usually harder to thread than sewing machines, so you want to find out before you buy just how hard it is and if you can live with it. Have the dealer unthread and re-thread the machine for you and then do the same (trust us, dealers have an awful lot of practice with the machines and can make the whole process look much more painless than it actually is until you got the same amount of experience). Also, many times, you have to re-thread the machine to change from say, four-thread mock-safety stitch to two- or three-thread overlock. What if you buy one of the funky new designs with self-threading, you may ask? Make sure that it will auto-thread the threads you'd like to use -- many sergers can't auto-thread wooly nylon or very thick or very thin threads and now the mechanism for auto-threading is right between you and the loopers, making the process even harder. For further considerations regarding auto-threading, also see the section below entitled, "Does it have a free-arm?"

  3. How thorough is the manual?
  4. Some manuals are very helpful and complete, but we heard of people on the newsgroup complaining that their manual didn't mention threading the machine -- just casually told them to tie the new threads to the old ones and pull them through -- and while that works most of the time, if one of the threads breaks you'll have to begin from scratch.

  5. What is differential feed and should I have it?
  6. The short answer is you probably want differential feed and it usually doesn't add enough to price to avoid it. Sergers with differential feed have two sets of feed dogs, one right behind the other; the feed dogs can work separately so they either gather the fabric (extremely useful for easing in fullness) or stretch it slightly, producing several interesting effects (such as self-ruffling edges), and helps when you are sewing knits or very light fabrics that tend to misbehave.

  7. What about tension control?
  8. Sergers often use the thread tension to produce different stitches, so for example, the difference between flat-lock and overlock three-thread stitch is often merely how the tension is set. Some designs have auto-tension, which makes it much easier to use, but that's often twice the price of a standard serger -- so make sure that there's actually something there (a computer, for example) controlling the tensions as opposed to just a LCD telling you to manually adjust the tensions yourself.

  9. What about specialty stitches?
  10. You often want to do things like rolled hems or, the latest craze in the industry, cover-hem stitches. Some designs make it absolutely easy to do it by, say, just flicking a switch. A lot of sergers, however, make you change the throat plate, which can be more than 20 steps. The thought of stopping one's sewing, removing screws and changing coverplates just makes your authors give up on the idea -- if you have the feature, it should be not only useful, but used. Your mileage may vary.

  11. Does it have a free-arm?
  12. It seems silly to suggest checking that, but a lot of sergers don't ofter one. Your authors happen to find a free-arm very useful for finishing tight spots in garments. The problem seems to be that some designs trade a free-arm for some other feature (frequently auto-threading) and you have to balance the advantages and disadvantages of one feature over the other -- in our opinion, one threads a serger rather infrequently compared to the number of times you need a free-arm. On the other hand, if you intend to use the serger entirely to finish edges of pieces before sewing (there are people who do this) you may not care. On the other hand (the other hand? That makes three...) there are people who use the serger strictly for the application of decorative threads and want to change the threads often to match every different garment. If that's your goal, you might consider features that help you to thread the serger more quickly to be more important than a free-arm.

You'll find additional thoughts about buying a serger at http://www.ianr.unl.edu/pubs/NebFacts/nf93-142.htm.

What about the Singer Tiny Serger?

Many people on the sewing newsgroups complained that they felt that this machine was of very poor quality and did not produce adequite results. However, one reader did state that she felt that it was usable for minimal purposes of finishing fabric edges, although she did not feel it acceptable for general serger use.

It doesn't, actually, seem to have a knife.

Pfaff sells an apparently identical device - it may be the same machine under a different brand name.

My dealer says they have a combination sewing-machine/serger. Is that for real and should I buy it?

What you're probably talking about is really probably a sewing machine with an accessory that cuts the fabric and an overcast stitch that looks like serger overlocking, but is really only done with two threads. A real serger has loopers, which carry extra threads below and above the fabric to be brought into the overlock stitch. If the machine does not have loopers, it is not really a serger, but merely a sewing machine which is capable of performing a similar function.

As for whether you should or should not buy it, that depends on whether you like it as a sewing machine otherwise. If you want a sewing machine that does what it does, maybe you might want to buy it. Don't however think it's a serger if it doesn't have loopers.

Should I buy a toy sewing machine for my child?

Probably not. Most, if not all, toy sewing machines made today are of very poor quality and will not produce a result of quality acceptable to the child. This may very well discourage the child from actually learning about sewing when they're ready to.

Some toy sewing machines may also actually be so poorly made as to be more dangerous than a real sewing machine - remember, a needle is a needle, and if the machine isn't rigid enough to keep the needle in place, it could snap or come loose and injure the child.

Should I let my child use a real sewing machine?

It's better that they learn sewing in the safety of their own home than learn it on the street from their friends...

Seriously, this depends greatly on your opinion of the ability and responsibility of the child and the circumstances under which you are considering allowing them to use the machine.

Many parents allow their child to use a real sewing machine while it is unplugged, operating it by turning the hand wheel. This limits them to a sufficiently slow speed that they're less likely to hurt themself. Another idea is to have the child sit on the parent's lap while the parent controls the speed of the machine to make sure the machine isn't too fast and that the child is paying attention.

Some people on alt.sewing and rec.crafts.textiles.sewing have mentioned a device that makes the machine go slow by limiting the amount of power it can get from the wall outlet. Such a device should never be used with an electronic or computerized sewing machine, and is of questionable value otherwise anyway.

http://www.sewingprose.com sells educational material for teaching children to sew.

What if the child runs over their finger with the machine?

It will probably hurt a lot, and they'll probably cry. They probably will learn from the experience and not do it again. Your authors know several people that this has happened to including one of your authors, and the general solution is to apply some antibiotic and a band-aid. See a doctor if you think it's necessary.

Isn't it overly expensive to spend hundreds of dollars on a sewing machine?

[Tom replies:]
The real value of your sewing machine depends on what you get out of it, not what you pay for it. I am, for example, very picky about my shirts and like only shirts that cost $60 to $150 at the store. My sewing machine cost $230. I make shirts that I'm very happy with for $25 each, a savings of $35 to $125 a shirt. This means my sewing machine paid for itself in 2 to 7 shirts. I made five shirts in the first two months after buying the machine. I also like high quality denim jeans. A pair of new jeans from a reputable manufacturer costs me $45 in the store. I can make a pair for $15, at a savings of $30, which means 8 pairs of jeans would make my sewing machine pay for itself as well.

 
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