Thoughts on choosing a sewing machine (learn to sew post no. 3)

So now that you are keen to get started on sewing – great! Now you probably want to get a sewing machine, which is a useful thing to have.  Here is a couple of my thoughts on what sewing machine you might need, and where to get it from.

Thought 1: A basic model will do just fine

Domestic sewing machines of reputable quality starts around $200 in Australia, and goes up to all sorts of fancy computerised quilting or embroidery machines costing upwards of thousands of dollars.  If you are just starting to sew, and your aim is to make a few household items, simple clothes, and maybe a quilt or two, believe me, you just need an entry-level machine.

Because all you need is basically two types of stitches: straight sewing, and zig zag. Even the most basic machine would come with way more than these two stitch types. 

If you are considering extra features, and you want to make clothing, the one feature I recommend is a buttonholer.  The cheapest machines normally have a “four-step” buttonholer, which does its job.  It’s not as nice as a “one-step” version, but it may not warrant the at least $100 in price difference.  

But what about quilts? Wouldn’t you need a special sewing machine for quits, you ask? Well, you don’t.  My old quilting teacher had a basic little home sewing machine, and did all her quilting on that machine.  What you may want to buy though is a separate “walking foot” for quilting or sewing bulky layers (and maybe a “darning foot” for free-motion quilting, if you’d like to give that a try), but you can find these feet to fit most basic machines.

Eventually, after sewing for a while, and deciding you like to sew a lot (or start a sewing business), you may want features like automatic thread trimmer and needle up and down option.  I discussed more about these features earlier regarding how I upgraded, after five years, from a basic home sewing machine to an industrial one.  But for occasional home sewing, you really don’t need these high-end features.

Even if you have, say, $800 to spend on a sewing machine with nice extra features, I’d still recommend a $200 basic machine (or perhaps a $400 machine with one-step buttonholer) – and buy an overlocker with your remaining budget. Because while an overlocker is not a necessity, it is a very nice thing to have for professional-looking finish.

Thought 2: Try to get a cheap (or free!) second-hand sewing machine

I confess to having a dark past of mindless consumerism, but these days I am a big fan of frugality and recycling.  Especially when it comes to sewing machines — just how many sewing machines would you guess there are in this world, stowed away in attics and storage, gathering dust?

Perhaps you can start out by borrowing an unused machine from your mother, grandmother, or mother in law. Make her a gift of something pretty, like a patchwork potholder, and chances are she’d let you keep the sewing machine for good! If your family does not have a spare sewing machine, I bet someone else you know does – ask around your friends, colleagues and neighbours.  Check out Freecyle in your area to see if anyone is offering a sewing machine for free.

Secondhand sewing machines are everywhere and good ones are easy to find.  Check out sites like Gumtree (the last time I checked, I found a basic Janome for $25), eBay, and the Trading Post for good deals.

Thought 3: Newer doesn’t necessarily mean better

I am no expert, but the basic function of sewing machines has not changed much in many, many years.  Unless you have a need for shiny computerised sewing machines with fancy features (which most of us don’t), a 20-year-old sewing machine you find on eBay will do just as well as a new machine you’ll find in shops today.

It is even possible that a vintage sewing machine is better made, with better materials, and will last much longer than newer machines made with flimsy plastic.  My beloved industrial machine is probably around 30 years old, and still works perfectly.  

Sure, newer machines might be lighter and thus more portable than 30-year-old machines.  But if you are just sewing at your home, does it really matter? So my point is, don’t be put off by how old a sewing machine is, when you find a free one sitting in your grandmother’s attic.  As long as it still works – sews straight and zig zag stitches – take up on it! 

My next post will be on where to find fabrics.  


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