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novice’s first (and last?) machine

HBFteacher | Posted in Equipment and Supplies on

I am looking to buy my first sewing machine and am really overwhelmed!  I am fine buying on eBay or used from a dealer, but I don’t even know where to begin or what features to look for.  All of the terms thrown around on discussion boards might as well be in a foreign language, so a salesperson could easily take me for a ride.  I have learned that brand loyalty is very fierce, so there are highly-touted models from every brand on every discussion board — which doesn’t help me narrow my search.  I don’t know which model numbers are good quality and which are being sold on eBay because they’re crap.  Everyone says “the old Singers” or “the new Vikings,” but that doesn’t tell me anything.  I got the Consumer Reports ratings, but they don’t help if I don’t know what all the details mean.

I sewed a little on my mom’s old Singer and am a very fast learner.  My home ec. class did hand sewing only.  I’m a crafter and have so many ideas that require access to a machine, I’d finally like to get my own.  I’d also like to be able to do basic and advanced general sewing, mend (or even make) garments in a range of fabrics, have access to decorative stitches, and do detail work (like attaching trims and appliqués).  Quilting and embroidery would be nice, as would electronic capabilities, but I realize those could really up the price tag.  I can definitely spend $300 and may be able to go $400ish.  I don’t even know if that’s a ridiculous amount to try getting a machine with or not.  I’d like this machine to last me for a long time, since it’s a pretty big purchase.  I don’t want a “starter model” that only does the baby basics (like the $99 models at Wal-Mart) because I want room to grow with this machine.

I may be describing an exact model perfectly with my expectations/desires, or I may be expecting too much.  I don’t even know what features should be sacrificed in favor of price and which are standard.  Weight doesn’t really matter to me, if that is a factor.  In my ignorance of sewing machines, I desperately need some unbiased (non-salesperson) guidance here.

Thanks so much!

~ HBFteacher


  1. orchid_2010 | | #1

    I am also looking for a sewing machine, but I've been sewing for many years and am getty ready to upgrade to a machine with all the bells and whistles. I can't tell you what you should buy, but I CAN tell you that I have sewn for thirty years on very basic, inexpensive machines, and the finished projects have come out beautifully.  (Well, occasionally not so beautiful, but those were my fault, not the machine!)  Amazon has some nice Brother machines for less than $300, and if you don't like it after a couple of years, you haven't invested too much, so you can upgrade without guilt.  Personally, I've been sewing on an inexpensive ($150) Brother machine with 21 stitches for 16 years, and you'd be amazed what you can do with a basic machine.

    You'll probably hear from a lot of people praising the more expensive machines, and they are right -- you do get more for your money when you spend more on high-end machines.  But if you are starting out, I think it's a shame to spend so much on a machine that you don't have money left for projects to sew on it! And you have to think about how often you will use those high-tech features.  Is it really worth an extra $1000 for a feature you may only use a few times?

    1. ShannonG4d | | #2

      Another option is a used machine.  Dealers often take in machines on trade, and will sell them at less than retail. 

      Several years ago, Threads had an article about "vintage" machines, and recommended several by name and model.  That article would probably be worth looking into.

      Since your requirements are pretty basic, you should be able to find a reasonably priced machine.  Here's another idea: is there an American Sewing Guild (ASG) member or group near you?  Perhaps one of the members would be willing to advise you regarding reputable dealers. 


    2. HBFteacher | | #3

      The Consumer Reports "Best Buys" were the Kenmore 15218 (selling  on eBay for around $100) and the Brother Pacesetter NX-200.

      Amazon.com currently has Brother CS-8150 150 Stitch Function Computerized Free-Arm Sewing Machine for $280 (down from $500), the Brother XL-5600 at $99  (half off), and the Euro-Pro 7500XH Craft N'Sew for $200 instead of $460.  I also have a local Baby Lock dealer offering a Pro Line BL6300 for $299 (instead of $699).  Are those good deals for good machines, or just discounted short-term machines?  I'd never heard of Euro-Pro or Baby Lock before.

      Brother CS-8150  http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0002KHBRI/ref=br_fq_k_hw_hmmm_1//102-0941974-1900962?v=glance&s=kitchen&n=510250

      Featuring a unique quick-load thread cassette system with automatic needle threading, this computerized machine makes sewing easy, with room for control and creativity. For a variety of sewing projects, from clothing to home decor, the unit provides a selection of 150 built-in stitches, which include utility, decorative, heirloom, quilting, and stretch stitches, as well as super-wide 7 mm zig-zag and decorative stitches. Fully automatic buttonhole sewing allows for accurate buttonholes in one easy step with 10 types of buttonholes to choose from. The machine's needle position is adjustable, offering versatility when using the straight stitch for topstitching or piecing, and its stitch width and length, as well as its thread-tension, are adjustable as well. The unit's back-lit LCD screen displays computerized stitch selection, while its convenient dual LED lamp makes it easier to work with dark fabrics. Using one-touch start, stop, and reverse, the machine operates with or without a foot control, while an electronic speed adjustment feature provides added control. Other convenient features include quick-set one-step bobbin replacement, slide-type speed control, a thread cutter, and a free-arm/flatbed convertible sewing surface. One thread cassette, four bobbins, a screwdriver, a twin needle, a cleaning brush, and needles are included, as well as spool caps, an extra spool pin, a spool net, and a foot control. The machine also comes with a soft cover and seven creative feet, which include a buttonhole foot, an overcasting foot, a monogramming foot, a zipper foot, a zigzag foot, a blind stitch foot, and a button fitting foot.

      Brother XL-5600 http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000259FW2/ref=pd_wiz_16/102-0941974-1900962

      The Brother XL-5600 is a 46 Stitch Function Free Arm Sewing Machine.The machine features an automatic one-step "auto-size" buttonholer with a stitch balance control to ensure equal density on both sides of the buttonhole.There is a built-in needle threader which threads the needle for you with the touch of a button.The XL-5600 features a variety of stitches including those for garment construction, decorative sewing, heirloom sewing and quilting.Accessories are included for quilting, zipper insertion, darning, buttonholes and button sewing.This machine features snap-on presser feet which are easy to change. The XL-5600 features adjustable stitch width and length as well as a dial thread tension control.The machine has a variable needle position as well as a twin needle capability for decorative stitching.Threading is easy with the lay-in threading system featured on the XL-5600 as well as the automatic bobbin winding system.

      Euro-Pro 7500XH  http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B000068U62/qid=/br=1-3/ref=br_lf_k_3//102-0941974-1900962?v=glance&s=kitchen&n=3028541

      Offering 59 stitch functions and loads of features for ease, simplicity, and flexibility, this heavy-duty machine sews all fabrics, from multiple layers of denim to delicate silks. Features include a one-motion threading system with automatic tension; reverse sewing for locking seam ends and reinforcing stitches; adjustable stitch length and width; and an infinitely adjustable needle position for attaching zippers and top stitching.

      Among the feet included is one for one-step automatic buttonholes. Others include overlock, satin stitch, blind hem, zipper, darning/embroidery, narrow rolled hem, quilting, cording, and gathering. The accessory package includes bobbins, needles, a seam ripper, and a hard carrying case. Ruggedly built with solid-metal mechanical parts and a metal frame inside a plastic housing, the machine has a sewing light, a built-in carrying handle, and a slide-out sewing table (which stores accessories) for free-arm sewing. Among the stitch functions the machine provides are double overlock, decorative, utility, and stretch stitches.

      1. Elisabeth | | #4

        I suggest you test drive the machines that are available to you at local dealers. Something that is all good technically might feel all wrong to you for starters. A nice machine won't feel like it is giving you a hard time. Good even stitches, zigzag, blind hem, a decent button hole, ease of adjusting stitch length and width, non tricky tension adjustment, these are basics and things that you will know best by sewing on the machine. One could hardly expect a machine to do good decorative stitches if the basics are not acceptable.The computer models and decorative stitches does create a jump in price. If you are really interested in machine embroidery then it is a big jump unfortunately.Check out the sewing machine reviews here http://www.patternreview.com Someone has most likely bought and reviewed the machines you mention.Best of luck with your search.

      2. orchid_2010 | | #5

        I think the Brother that Consumer Reports tested may have been a dealer model.  Brother has different product lines, and the CS machines are sold through mass retailers.  Several other product lines (which you can see on their website) are sold through dealers.  They do show their NX line on their website, http://www.brothersews.com/html/ProductCategory.jsp?parentid=1 .  If you want support from a dealer, you should probably go that route.  If you are comfortable learning on your own, you can buy from a retailer like Amazon.

      3. orchid_2010 | | #6

        Another note -- I was at the Bernina dealer today, and they have three Bernina entry-level machines below $500 -- they are part of the Bernette line, and I guess they are made in Asia rather than Europe. They might be worth taking a peek at.

        1. orchid_2010 | | #8

          Hello again!  I've spent the past few days looking at machines from Husqvarna Viking, Bernina, Janome, Pfaff, and Brother.  I have finally made a decision!  I'm going to buy the Brother NX400 machine.  It has amazing features for the price compared to most of the other machines, and I feel good about the fact that Consumer Reports rated the NX200 version of the same machine as a Best Buy in their review.  The NX200 was a great machine, too -- it sewed over many layers of heavy fabric without any hesitation and with perfect stitches.  It also made much nicer buttonholes than either the Bernina Active 220 or the Husqvarna Viking Rose or Scandinavia 300. 

          Good luck on your ongoing search -- I'll look forward to hearing what you decide on!

          1. HBFteacher | | #9

            As a matter of fact, I just bought a "Kenmore Electric Rotary Sewing Machine" at an estate sale.  I figured it would be a good resale even if I couldn't keep it to use.  It is housed in a sturdy, beautiful wooden inlay cabinet. It came with its original manual and all the attachments (in their original box) as well as the "Kenmore Buttonholer" (with manual) in its original, velvety box. The attachment box even has two original paper envelopes containing "Kenmore Rotary Sewing Machine Needles." There is no date anywhere. The machine needs to be cleaned, but it works just fine (including the light). It has a thigh "pedal" under the cabinet. Everything is in absolutely fantastic condition, including the manuals. It's a #120.491 model, and the cabinet is a "Sears Roebuck & CO." model as well.  Both have serial number plates.Where can I look to get this serviced? I wouldn't mind keeping it to use.

            Also, any idea what it might be worth or even how to get a sewing machine fairly appraised?

            ~ HBFteacher

            P.S.  Many thanks to all of you who have responded so far.  It's a lot of help for a newbie like me.  Please keep the advice coming (I check regularly)!

            I also checked out John Giordano's The Sewing Machine Guide from the library --- it earns my high recommendation for non-sewers wanting to buy a machine!

          2. kayl | | #10

            Most sewing machine mechanics are quite willing to tackle machines that they're not "official service for that brand". Do you know someone who sews? If so, they may be able to recommend a local mechanic. Much of the time, a careful oiling and general lint and dustbunny removal will result in a functional machine, if you'd care to try that yourself first. Is this a machine that does only straight stitch, or zigzag and other
            stitches, too?There's also a yahoo group called "Wefixit" for shade tree sewing machine mechanics you might enjoy if tinkering pleases you.Kay Lancaster [email protected]

          3. HBFteacher | | #11

            Thank you, Kay!  I thought dealers would only be willing to touch their own machines (or be responsible for the outcome anyway), so I was despairing because mine is an old Kenmore.  Unfortunately, I only have one friend who sews, and she doesn't take her machine anywhere.

            It appears that the machine only does a straight stitch, but I could be missing something.  I don't want to test it until I get it looked at.  It does have a "Kenmore Buttonholer" that allows for monogramming and embroidery.

          4. kayl | | #12

            If the hole in the needleplate (the shiny thing that covers the feed dogs) is quite small and roundish, you've got a straight stitcher. If you've got a slit running between the feed dogs, you've got a machine with zigzag capabilities, it sounds like. I'd also expect to see two dials or levers marked with lengths on a zig-zag capable machine-- one of them would control the stitch length and the other would control stitch width. Buttonholers and monogrammers typically went with straight stitchers rather than zigzag-ers, but I know some preferred to have a buttonhole attachment rather than using the zigzag on the machine to make buttonholes.You might check with Sears for available parts... might have a replacement manual available -- go to http://www.sears.com and
            look for the parts button in the upper right portion of the screen. They've got diagrams of various machines available, with the parts lists... they can be really handy if you're thinking about some do-
            it-yourselfing. As for the buttonholer, Greist made almost all of the ones I've seen, even though they were sold under various names. Smithsonian Institution has a collection of sewing machine trade literature (manuals, ads, etc.) at:
            http://web4.si.edu/sil/sewingmachines/index.cfm and there are greist manuals at: http://web4.si.edu/sil/sewingmachines/single-record.cfm?AuthorizedCompany=Greist%20Manufacturing%20Company
            I suspect the monogrammers were also made by Greist and worked similarly, but I've never had my paws on one.If you do take it in to someone for service (got a local fabric store? or quilt shop? Ask there for a recommendation for service people) and you don't have the manual with oiling diagrams, ask them to show you where and how to oil it. I just worked on my aunt's old Kenmore, and it had some oil points up under the top surface of the machine... I had to pull two screws to get to the top oil points, something that I wouldn't have thought of by myself, though I found the oil points on the bottom of the machine and in the bobbin case area. Old machines should be oiled after every few hours of service, or a few months of storage. (Newer machines are "oil-less" because they've had oil "soaked" into their bearing surfaces by a special process that lasts decades -- as the bearings heat, they actually release oil.)Also, be sure you use genuine sewing machine oil only, not 3-in-one or WD-40. 3-in-1 gets gooey after a few years, and it's either major time or $$$ to get it cleaned out again so the machine will stitch again. WD-40 is meant for helping to dry parts in a humid environment, but it's not a real lubricant. When it dries out (which it does in a few weeks), you've got metal wearing against metal -- not good. Singer sewing machine oil or any other brand specifically labeled sewing machine oil will work nicely, and a $2 tube will last years for most people. You may want to store your machine with a
            scrap of cotton fabric under the presser foot to soak up any excess
            oil in storage.Enjoy your machine!Kay

            Edited 1/13/2005 10:08 am ET by kay

  2. ixs | | #7

    I think you just need to sew first and get some experience before you decide where you want to go. 

    Can you borrow a machine or pick one up from a garage sale?  My niece cleans and adjusts her great grandmother's machine and has been quite successful sewing. 

    Good luck.

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