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Conversational Threads

The perfect machine

TerryWink | Posted in Equipment and Supplies on

There probably is no such thing as the perfect all-in-one machine, but since I’ve never bought a sewing machine or serger or embroiderer, and I’m still sewing on my 1964 Featherlight, I’m overwhelmed by the choices before me. Help please!

I need a machine that will make basic sewing easier on my limited skills. I think I want: 1-step buttonholer and drop-in self-winding bobbin. Do I want: a free arm? (why?), do any common machines also do overlock? How is overedge different from overlock?

Can anyone recommend a good FAQ source to help me shop wisely?

Thank you so much!


St. Louis


  1. BernaWeaves | | #1

    Most important, find a sewing machine vendor in your area and buy a brand that they service.   I bought a Janome because there is a shop in my area that supports that brand and gives me free lessons for life.  Plus, because they were very familiar with all their machines (unlike a flunky at Wal-mart) they showed me how everything worked and several different machines in my pricerange, and I was able to pick what I felt comfortable with.

    I picked a computerized Janome that has a needle threader (don't know how I lived without that), drop in bobbin with clear plate so I can see how much thread I have, one step button hole, and 36 other stitches.


    1. TerryWink | | #2

      Thank you! This is such a big decision for me--I've been considering it for years, but by the time I get the money saved up, all the models have changed and there's more tech to consider, and I start all over again.


      1. User avater
        JunkQueen | | #3

        Terry, Berna is exactly right about the value of a good dealer. I don't know what I would do without mine. He and his wonderful secretary/assistant have bailed me out so many times when I was ready to give up. I come from the same place you do. I began sewing at my mother's knee making crude doll clothes and went on to being able to make whatever my mind could conjure up. Then life got in the way, and I put aside sewing for a number of years. When I got back into it, I was amazed at the equipment, materials, and techniques available. I'm not sure I'd make the same decision now as I did then, but I'm not unhappy with the machine choice. I would be if it were not for this dealer. Good luck and keep us posted.

    2. Pattiann42 | | #35

      You are lucky to have a great dealer - no reason to insult those who work at Walmart. 

  2. Teaf5 | | #4

    I believe there are many sewing machine reviews on the pattern review site, but here are my two cents:

    A free arm, or an adjustable flat-to-free arm, allows you to easily sew pants hems and sleeve hems or any other tubular item; I love that feature.

    Overedge is just some kind of zigzag or wide stitch, while overlock is the chain stitch that sergers do.  Overlock is fast for manufacturers, but most of us don't need it.

    Even the most complicated sewing techniques can be done on the simplest machine, and the older, simpler machines rarely need servicing.  New machines have amazing features, but you're unlikely to use anything other than straight, zigzag, reverse, and buttonholes most of the time. 

    Buy a machine only if you have had at least a half hour to use it yourself on fabric samples you bring with you; you need to get a feel for the machine and see if it works the way you want it to.  Have fun researching your purchase!

    1. TerryWink | | #7

      What is the "pattern review site", please? I am unfamiliar with it, and would love to check it out. I only found you guys because I used to subscribe to Threads, yeaaaaaars ago.

      1. fabricholic | | #8

        sewing.patternreview.com is a place to see other's work and to show your sewing skills. It reviews patterns, books, accessories and sewing machines. It's a lot of fun.

  3. sewslow67 | | #5

    Hi Terry:  I agree with what everyone has said about a good local deal, and taking your own fabrics to sew on the different machines in the shop before making a decision.  I have owned most every major brand of sewing machine over the years and, for one reason or another, enjoyed using each one. 

    The machine I own now is a Pfaff 2170, which was the top of the line until they came out with a new one recently, and I dearly love it.  However, it is too heavy for me to take to classes, and too delicate to "bump along" in our RV when we travel, so my husband bought me another machine recently for those occasions.  It is the Janome "Jem Platinum 760" and I LOVE IT!! 

    This machine is only 12-pounds, but does a number of stitches - all beautifully - and does the most wonderful button holes ever (lots of choices) ...and so easily!  If I never did embroidery (like I do on my Pfaff), I would be happy with this little Janome forever when doing "regular" sewing, i.e. making my clothes, things for the children and grandchildren (and soon to be great grandchildren), quilting, etc.

    Considering the prices of most top model ($7,000 to $10,000) my new little "travel machine" was a great deal.  The list price for most dealers is $800.00, but we got mine for only $400.00 ,,,and it is well worth every penny.  My husband is pleased too, as he thought I might not be happy with anything less than my top model Pfaff, but that is not the case.  As I said, I love this machine too, so you might want to check it out as well.  I hope my experience helps you, and that you find exactly the right machine for you, regardless of what we all enjoy.  A machine is such a personal thing, and I'm sure we all think ours is the best ...for our own personal needs.  Good luck.

    1. TerryWink | | #6

      Thanks, everyone, for these great insights. I have only known Singers as my uncle was a regional manager for the company for about 30 years--50s, 60s, 70s. He is gone now, but I have three of the dozens of Singer machines he gave us over the years. The Featherweight is the newest of them, and I think it dates to the year I was born!! I have never really understood any of my machines--if the tension went goofy I just had Uncle Joe fix it. The last time I tried to take my machine to a repairshop, I couldn't get it out of the cabinet! It's a workhorse, but I never had any of the cams, so I only use zigzag and straight stitch. I've always lusted after the more sophisticated machines, and fantasized about having an embroidery business for textiles....I guess it boils down to having a variety of machines for different purposes. Thank you all so much for your input! This is a wonderful group.

  4. Susan -homedecsewing | | #9

    Hi Terry, I love my Viking Rose. I bought it used, it does any and all you would need. has a blind hem , tons of stitches an open arm and is portable.People trade up all the time so re- loved is the only way to go in my world.The Viking designer series have a larger hoop for lettering and such, so you might check them out.Have fun.

    1. Lilith1951 | | #10

      I agree with most that has been said; look for a good dealer locally for sure.  Beyond that, I love my 20 year old Singer computerized model, but mostly what I do with it is straight stitching, some zigzag (I have a serger, also, so don't use the zigger as much) and quilting, even though it came with lots of fancy stitches and some simple embroidery. I very much like the drop-in bobbin with the see-through plate.  I rarely get surprised by running out of bobbin thread unless I was just trying to squeak through "one more seam."   Mine makes easy buttonholes with one special foot. Once it's attached, it's the just the push of one button and it will make buttonholes to automatically fit the buttons I want to use.  I've never had a problem with it in 20 years.

      Most modern zig-zags will do an "overedge" stitch, which works a lot like a serger, but without the automatic cutting knives.  It is a similar to a serger stitch, but it does require an overedge foot (very cheap to buy if your machine didn't come with.)  Before I had my serger I used it quite a bit for things that I otherwise would have finished with a serger.  It is much slower, that's for sure, but I made a friend a dozen fitted cloth diapers with it and they looked very nice around their "overedged" edges.

      I have never been sorry I had these features (and a few more) but I also have a collection of used (some antique) sewing machines at my disposal and they all work fine for most sewing.  I agree with those who have said look for a gently used machine.  If you buy it from a shop, you may get some short-term warranty.  If you buy from another individual, make sure you test it out well before buying (do that with a dealer, too, of course!)

      Good luck!  Hope you find the machine that was meant for you.


  5. MaryinColorado | | #11

    http://www.patternreview.com is a good site.  You can join for free or as a paying member.  They have excellent reviews of patterns, sewing machines, sergers, notions, tools done by real people like us.

    I'm partial to Husqvarna/Viking machines and own the Viking Rose over 11 yrs and still runs like new, the Designer I, and the Huskylock 936 serger/coverstich machine.  The presserfeet I bought years ago for the Rose also fit the Designer I so I have most of the accessory feet though I don't use many of them that often I am glad to have them interchangeable.  I also believe the Pfaff and Bernina and Brother are excellent .  Just my opinion, but the Singers sometimes have problems with the bobbin mechanism that cannot be fixed, maybe they've taken care of that on the newer models.  A few major corporations actually own several brands now.  Such as Viking/Pfaff/Singer are now owned by one corp.  Not sure, but maybe Bernina and Brother? 

    The type of sewing you do can make a difference.  Dollmaking, infant and childrenswear, Tight sleeves and cuffs on garments may be easier for you with a free arm.  If you are a quilter, you may want a larger harp (opening to roll the quilts up in while stitching) and a larger work surface, possibly free motion capability where you drop the feed dogs and move your fabric by yourself instead of the machine moving it for you. 

    I like the drop in bobbin, auto buttonholer, stretch stitches if you sew on knits, good lighting, good "feel and sound personal preferance", smooth running, solid without alot of vibration is important even though it may increase the weight, self adjusting tension that I can over ride if I chose to for different effects or fussy fabric, the ability to thread the needle from the front of the machine without standing on my head, easy bobbin winding. 

    You can google search the company names or go to http://www.allbrands.com to look at the variety of machines offered.  http://www.husqvarnavikingusa.com, http://www.berninausa.com, http://www.pfaff.com  are some possibilities if memory serves.  They show their machines and describe features of each.

    The other gals have given some great advice, you can also do a search on this site for "machines" we've had lots of discussions.  A regular sewing machine is important to have, a serger is more a secondary machine as it takes alot of experience to be able to completely do a project on a serger.  Though I don't know how I survived without my serger now that I'm hooked on it and can do almost anything with it, I still need the sewing machine.  Hope this helps.  Good luck on your search and take your time deciding what is best for you.  The dealer is important, they should offer free learn your machine classes and probably charge a small fee for most other specialty classes and clubs.  The clubs are lots of fun!  Oh, and ask if they have an authorized repair on site or if you will have to pay to ship it for possible repairs and maintenance. 


    1. TerryWink | | #12

      that's a VERY good point I hadn't thought of. Thanks. I'm back to shopping, and I think I like the BabyLok Grace. But no-one seems to ever mention the BabyLock as a brand, good or bad, on this board. Thanks for your input (however long ago it originally was!)

      1. MaryinColorado | | #13

        I hope you will find just the perfect machine for you!  Enjoy!  Mary

      2. Sewingsister3 | | #14

        I am new as of a few minutes ago and look forward to great info and discussions.  I am especially interested in opinions on sewing machine because I am going to buy myself a Christmas present soon.  I have a 30 year old Elna Super which has been, and still is great.  But I want to pass it to my daughter and geta new machine for myself.  I have done alittle research but neem more.  I just do simple sewing, clothes, handbags, pillows, some bedding, curtains, etc.....any suggestions for all of you out there?  I am looking at Elna, Pfaff, Bernina, probably close to the top of the line, most probably computerized.  But I never do button holes so that that function is not a factor for me,


        1. jsinger | | #15

          Several of the major companies have come out with new TOLs this year.  You can probably get a good deal on the former TOL. I recently got a Viking Designer SE--last year's TOL. It was a floor model (in my opinion a good way to go).  The price was good and the machine is excellent.  It does everything that it is supposed to do extremely well and is very user friendly.  I must admit that I've had Vikings since 1977 and so might be prejudiced in their favor.  However, they have served me long and well.  As for buttonholes, I don't do them too often either as I tend to go with "unstructured garments".  I have found, though, that there seems to be a correlation with the quality of the buttonhole and the quality of other stitches.  I have never been satisfied with the stitches on a machine which does not make good, precise buttonholes.     That said, if I were you, I'd check the major machine dealers for tade-ins, demos and new machines of last year's models.  (Bernina, Brother/Babylock, Janome, and Viking all have new machines this year.)

          1. Sewingsister3 | | #16

            Thanks for the response to my inquiry.  What do you know about current Elna machines......as I mentioned I have a 30 year old Elna Super that still works well.

          2. Sancin | | #21

            Ahh Elna. I traded my 30 year old Singer Featherweight (given to me by my grandmother) in 40 years ago for a Elna Supermatic because I wanted the zig zag stitch and a heavier machine. Then last year I bought a Featherweight for 10x the price of the first one! So those of you who have a FW hang onto it or sell it for a fortune - it is said to have the best stitch ever made. I had my Elna Supermatic about 30 years. I sew anything and everything and have since I was a teenager, never using a top of the line machine. I absolutely loved the Supermatic until a dealer/ cleaner ruined it. I subsequently purchased 2 more Elnas before getting the Janome I have now. Elna and Janome and Kenmore are all made by the same company, and most parts interchangable. But not with many more common parts and feet.All my machines were/are not top of the line machines. The first 'new' Elna (#2) was no where near the quality of my Supermatic, was very noisy and just felt clunky. My daughter in law, who doesn't sew, has Elna #2 machine. Last year I used her machine to make her some curtains and confirmed the noisiness. It didn't have cams to do decorative stitches. I seem to be one of those rare people who actually used all my stitches. I had purchased #2 machine in a hurry on sale when my first fell apart - I had done no research. I traded that one in on a 'semi' computerized Elna which did run smoothly, but drove me nuts as the computerized part was the stitching. I could never get to a zero stitch which I did use previously. Three years ago I bought a Janome quilter's companion 6260, primarily for the wider arch and I got it at a points off store. I gave my #3 Elna to a friend. I love the Janome. It has the feel of strength and while the stitches are computerized I do have more control. It also has a foot down, foot up feature I like. It sometimes is a little difficult to line up the lines in the foot to the needle so I always do a trial run. I think I should be able to, but cannot find, the way to put the needle to the left or the right. I still have some feet from my original Elna and they fit the Janome. I miss the knee control running feature of the Elna Supermatic yet have not seen it any other machine since since. You have been given good advice regarding searching for a second hand machine and looking for a local dealer. As I have moved around quite a bit I have noticed fewer and fewer Elna dealers or repair people who know how to service the old mechanical and no one seems to know how to service the computerized one. Frankly, I do not like the Elna/Janome dealer here in town and will not go back to him. I found an independant maintenance repair man working out of his house. Unfortunately he is getting quite old!Think about features you use all the time on your current Elna, even those you don't usually think about and look for those when shopping for a new machine. Almost all newer machine, top or bottom of the line will have more features than either the Feather weight or the Elna Supermatic. I use my Singer Featherweight for straight stitching and would buy a reconditioned Elna Supermatic in a heartbeat if it came with a variety of cams. I still use the zipper foot from that machine as it really allows you to get close to the zipper, or binding, better than the Janome.
            Sorry to be so long winded, but several readers asked about moving up on both Featherweight and Elna Supermatic.
            Let us know what you decide and good luck.

            Edited 11/19/2008 6:04 pm ET by Sancin

          3. TerryWink | | #22

            I took the advice to test sew on the BabyLock Grace, and I was disappointed. Then I read your comments about the Featherweight's super nice stitch. it really is nice, isn't it? And I expected all new machines to be superior to it. But last night I sewed on the Singer, with the broken bulb, and it purred like a kitten. So now, I'm thinking, just find a repairman? Does anyone make housecalls?? :) I seriously can't get it out of the cabinet, bc it has the knee and foot pedal wires all hardwired or something. It's bizarre. And I think maybe my needle problem has been that I've been using the wrong needles?? I still have a box of singer universals from when I worked at SoFro (in the 80s!!!) and now I think I heard somewhere that the Featherweight only likes a very special needle? Ah, the things we take for granted. i guess I'm just lazy. I want an easy answer--the xyz is the best machine ever!--and there is no such thing

          4. damascusannie | | #27

            Your Featherweight takes a regular home use needle--nothing special. And any Singer made before about 1960 is going to have a good stitch. Actually, Singer felt that the best machine they ever made was the full-sized 201. I disagree, I think it was the 15 class machines. What this really tells us is that the OLD Singers were excellent sewing machines, which is why they were so widely copied. The main reason that they sew so well is probably because they only made a straight stitch. In order to make any other stitch pattern, the needle has to be able to move side to side and as soon as this feature is added, you will lose some stitch quality, plus reduce the longevity of the machine due to added wear to these parts. So, my 100 year old machines that I still use daily continue to have good stitch quality, while newer models are worn out after 15 or 20 years (or less).

          5. Sewingsister3 | | #24

            Sohappy to get your response and appreciate all your comments and ideas. Today, in Orange County Calif where I live, I spent at least an hour at an Elna dealers, trying various machines and fell in love with one of them.  I dont know what a good price is, and I am not willing to buy second hand from someone I do not know.  I have a little money saved so I can get a new one......I am getting excited now.  But I need to try other to be sure of my ultimate choice.  Will be trying huskies next, ytying to find something compararbel to the Elna I like, which is called something like The Quilting Qween.  Nobody quoates prices on Elnas on the internet so I cannot shop around that way. Let me know if you know anything elsa I should know about huskies (husquevarna) of Elnas.  Thanks so very much.....Debbie aka sewingsister3

          6. Sancin | | #25

            I think most people recommending a second hand machine are recommending buying one from a dealer - would likely be a trade in - should be conditioned and ready to go. I also would not buy one from someone I didn't know (or our local dealer!!). Husky's are not Elna's - they are Huskavarna's. I don't like to recommend anything as sewing machines are a bit like cars, and almost expensive and everyone has their own desires or beliefs as to what is best. But from discussions with other sewers if I had lots of money, was younger and had my choice I would purchase a top of the line Pffaf, then a TOL Bernina with the new attachment for quilting (almost as expensive as the machine) then a TOL Huskavarna. And lastly a Janome ? - a combined embroidery and sewing machine - forget the name. I am afraid that the decreasing quality of Elna's would lead me not to purchase another one - something I said I would never say when I had my supermatic. I would never buy a new Singer. BTW - has your daughter used your Elna? Both my mother and SIL had the same Elna and we all found them to be one woman machines (adjusted to the most frequent sewer) and had difficulty using each other's machines. Definitely look for free sewing lessons with whatever you buy as most people only use less than half of what their machine is capable of doing. ;oPS There is a EuroPro machine on the market - a cheaper machine with a variety of beliefs about, the negatives primarily being not being able to get it repaired. Seems it is a throw away machine, but I have a friend that loves hers and indeed does intend to throw it away when it stops working. She recently also bought a TOL Janome that was on 1/2 price as a new model just came out.

          7. Betakin | | #26

            Being that Janome makes machines for other companies including the Sears Kenmore models plus they now head Elna and make some of their machines you might find similar models in the different brands but with different prices.

            Viking/Singer/Pfaff (VSP) is all under Singer's holding company Kohlberg now and there are some very similar models between the new Pfaff's and Vikings. Pfaff's are still German designed but haven't been made in Germany for quite some time now but some TOL Pfaff's are now made in Sweden as the TOL Viking's are. It seems that in many brands today many new lesser priced models are now made in China.

            Some of the major companies are having some holiday sales going on now so there are some good prices out there. Hopefully you can find a machine you love at a good price.

            Edited 11/22/2008 1:09 am ET by Betakin

            Edited 11/22/2008 1:14 am ET by Betakin

          8. Sewingsister3 | | #28

            Thank you for taking the time to respond to me.  I bought the Quilting Qween, Elna.  Hope it lasts 30 year like my first Elna.  So far, no buyers remorse.

            Buying a sewing machine now seems like buying a car....you dont really know who the parent company is, who really makes it, or if the warranty really means anything.  Sewing and Vacume deslers fall by the wayside frequently here in Calif, so I have no faith that the guy I bought it from will even be there next month.  Hopefully I will never need to access the warranty.  So far, I love it, but for $1485 it should be dam good!

            I could have spent weeks reading and researching snd I just wanted to sew!

            I am so happy that I found Gatherings in the process and look forward to chatting with new sewing sisters!!!!!

            Debbie in CA

          9. MaryinColorado | | #29

            Congratulations on your new machine!  I hope you have many years (decades) of sewing enjoyment together!!!  Also welcome to our little forum!  Mary

          10. Sewingsister3 | | #30

            Thanks to all.

            Debbie in CA

          11. MaryinColorado | | #31

            Good luck in your search!  The "brand name" isn't important, just that you find the machine that is just right for you!  It's great that you're doing the research first so you know what you're getting. 

          12. DiannaCard | | #34

            OMG!!!  Are you ME????   In 1972, as a new bride, I was sewing a coat, & broke my 30 yr old Featherweight that my Grandmother had given me.  The local dealer would fix it for $35, or give me a trade in on the Elna SU I had been lusting over.  I've sewn everything on that Elna, still keep it threaded & at the ready, & loved it ever since.  About 3 yrs ago, I bought a Kenmore 19606,& wow do I ever love that machine.  Every once in awhile, thought, I do wish I had come up w/ the $35 & kept the FW.

            Happy Sewing!

      3. User avater
        sewdizzy | | #17

        I bought a BabyLock last year - a wonderfully small 12-pound portable model - and I've been very pleased with it.  I too do your normal home-type sewing for the most part, but I am lusting after a turn-of-the-century walking suit so asked them specifically about sewing several layers of heavier fabric.  They demo-d stitching through about six layers of denim, which was good enough for me!

        1. nancyina2 | | #18

          Which Babylock did you get?

          1. User avater
            sewdizzy | | #19

            It's the "Xcape", Model BL66; it was on sale at a local sewing place for I think about $350, and I have to admit it was STRICTLY an impulse purchase, as I wanted to go to Costume College and while my OLD OLD White could have made the trip, it weighs about 40 pounds and I KNEW I didn't want the hassle.

            So I cannot give you any pluses and minuses of this versus other machines, as there was not really more than about ten minutes of consideration given to it (very unlike me, I must say!), but I've been very happy with it.  It has a "free-arm" feature, which  I mention only because I'm rapidly scanning the owner's guide; I've never used that myself.  It also has a buttonhole foot and a bunch of decorative stitches (non-sizeable, though:  they're all more or less for little girl's dresses, I'd say.)

            Let me know if you have any other questions I can answer - good luck; hope you'll let us know what you decide!

          2. nancyina2 | | #20

            Thanks for the info

      4. zuwena | | #32

        Hi TerryWink,

        I have a Babylock Ellure plus, which is about three years old.  It was more expensive than I wanted to spend at the time but it did all the things I thought I wanted--most of which I have not used to date.  I'm happy with a number of aspects of the machine but as I can remember many of the the regular details were about the same with all of the machines I saw in the same price range.  Two aspects of the Babylock were particularly important to me: the automatic threader (which in my opinion worked best on the Babylock) and the knee lift capability.  The buttonholer is one-step and seemed easy enough during the tryout but, in retrosepct, I think some of the other machines were slightly better.

        As I recall there were also a few things I liked about the Elna and the Pfaff also.

        Most important, and this has been emphasized by others in the past but never fully appreciated:  Do a test drive as many times as you need to to feel comfortable with the type of sewing you do and think you will do before you make a final choice.  If your dealer doesn't allow this, go to a different dealer.  I think you get the point: identify your price range, try to identify your specific or special needs; try these out on all the machines available to you and then go with your best call.  Even then, you will get some surprises once you start working with the machine at home over time.  But your reasoned choice will save you from buyer's remorse and any regrets.  Good luck. Z

        1. TerryWink | | #33

          Thanks! I really thought the BabyLock Grace (CreativePro?) was everything I wanted, until I tried it out and was disappointed with the stitch. I'll try others, but I dont have any idea what models in other brands are similar to the Grace. Looks like I'm back to online searching to narrow it down for testing. Everyone's help and opinion have been much appreciated. Happy Thanksgiving!

  6. Sancin | | #23

    I don't use special needles for my Featherweight. I use Schemetz as that is what I can get. I also just use sewing machine oil, not specific Singers sewing machine oil. I do have a lot of Organ needles but so far haven't tried them in the Featherweight. Are you sure you are putting the needle in correctly? With my Janome I put the needle in with the flat part to the back, but with the Featherweight I seem to recall putting it in with the flat part to the left. Do you have an instruction booklet? You can download one. There are a number of
    special sites for this machine. The instruction booklet also tells you how to clean and oil the machine. It may be possible that your oil is old or you haven't cleaned it in awhile. One of these sites may also tell you how to get the machine out of the cabinet or have a person you can ask. In looking for a repairman ask for someone who repairs or services mechanical sewing machines. You may find the following sites handy for Featherweight and other machines.http://www.featherweight221.com/ - has a forum you can join and/or a book for purchase on doing your own repairshttp://www.gpbwebworks.com/fwinfo/manual.html - more # specific instruction booklethttp://planetpatchwork.com/fweight.htm - interesting history of FWhttp://www.sew2go.com/needleset.htm - excellent threading diagram

    http://www.singer-featherweight.com/sitetwopages/singfea.pdf - the 221 FW manual http://www.mindconnection.com/interests/sewingmachines.htm - excellent source on repairs of any machine - a technician site

  7. Pattiann42 | | #36

    You know what you like to sew.  Visit as many dealers as you can an try out the machines - none of them are going to compare to the Featherweight.

    None have a serger/overcast feature that can compare to a serger.

    Buy the machine you like best from the dealer you like best.



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