I’m a member of several sewing, quilting and embroidery groups, both on Facebook and “private” forums (meaning not Facebook). One of the questions I see most often from sewists of all skill levels is, “Which sewing machine is the best?” In my mind, the answer is always, “It depends.”

Sewing machines are a lot like relationships, and what works well for one person may not work at all for another. Let’s take a look at some things that should be considered when choosing a machine.

Skill Level

My own vintage Singer Rocketeer, produced c. 1960

While skill level is subjective to a degree, you know whether or not you’re just starting out, or if you’ve been sewing for several years. I’ve seen several new sewists buy machines that are so far above their capable skill level that they quit in frustration. I’ve also seen this happen, and have fallen victim to it myself, with vintage sewing machines. One of the things that people need to remember when asking a question like this in a public forum is that others have their personal favorites. So often, I see a new sewist ask for advice on his or her first machine, and someone will inevitably bring up vintage machines. “They’re the best!” says the proponents of vintage machines. “So much sturdier than the current trash on the market!” another will chime in.

The reality is that vintage sewing machines aren’t for everyone. If that’s what a person likes to use, then that’s great. They are beautiful machines, and they have their place, just not in MY studio. I have used many vintage machines (and own three), but I don’t like to use them for daily sewing. I find the tension issues to be frustrating, and the lack of modern conveniences annoying. When I was a new sewist taking Home Economics in school, I absolutely hated the machines we used, and back then, they were new. Now they’d be considered vintage, but those machines are a big NO in my book.

Planned usage

What do you normally sew? Are you making garments, or are you strictly a quilter? Home decor more your thing? When deciding on a sewing machine, the type of sewing that you do most often should be foremost in your mind. I do more quilting than garment sewing, though the garment sewing is quickly becoming more of a focus for me. My first “big” machine was a Viking Rose, but it turned out that it wasn’t really the machine for me.

To be honest, I don’t recall a lot about that machine, except that it was good, but it just wasn’t the right fit. It had been an impulse purchase after I got my first bonus from my new job, but I realized that I really wanted to do some machine embroidery, a capability that machine didn’t have. So I traded it in on a Brother PC-8500, another impulse purchase, but a better fit.

My studio in 2004. I did a lot of sewing in this room!

The PC-8500 was the perfect machine for me at the time. I did mostly quilting and some embroidery, and I made the rare garment. When it was time to replace it, I bought another Brother, this one the 2500D. Again, it was a good fit – perfect for quilting and embroidery and the occasional garment. That brings us to …

Desired Features

What features are most important to you in your new machine? Do you have to have a knee lift? Automatic cutter? Is a pivot feature really important to you? Determine what it is you can’t live without, and make a list of them.

For me, the “must have” list includes the pivot feature, a large touch screen and great lighting. At one point, my list also included an automatic thread cutter, but since I’ve noticed that this tends to leave bird’s nests on the back of my pieces, I rarely use it, so it’s no longer on my “must have” list. I’m not a fan of knee lifts and I never use it, so it’s not on my radar screen. But your list should fit YOUR needs, not the needs someone says you need.

Initial Investment & Cost of Future Accessories

Set a budget with which you’re comfortable for your initial investment. Whether your budget is $100 or $10,000, you need to feel comfortable that this purchase isn’t going to leave you bankrupt. Keep in mind the cost of accessories for the machine. Does it come with the accessories you’re going to need, such as a walking foot? If not, how much does the walking foot cost if you decide to purchase later? If the machine is priced at $500, but the accessories you want or need will cost an additional $300, is this a good buy for you, or should you look at a machine that’s a step or two up, which will cost more, but might include those items you want to add?

One of my biggest mistakes when buying a machine occurred when I bought my Brother DreamCreator VM5100. I had the decision narrowed down to two machines – the DreamCreator or the DreamWeaver. The price difference between the two machines was $1200. Primary differences between the machines were that the DW had the even feed foot, the drop light for the embroidery foot, a laser seam guide and a pen to mark stop points. I was told that the feet would run me about $300 total to buy separately. At the time, I didn’t care about the pen or seam guide. The reality after I brought my DC home was that the two feet I wanted cost closer to $500 than $300, and I wish I had the laser guide and pen. Live and learn.

Brand

I have owned every major brand except Bernina and Baby Lock, and I am going to say that they all have their good points and not so good points. All of them have had issues with production and bad machines at one point or another. My personal opinion is that brand really comes down to personal taste. You may not like the interface for one brand as much as the other. I find my Pfaff to be less intuitive than my Brother, but others find the Pfaff to be very intuitive. Still others say that the Pfaff embroidery machines are far less intuitive than the sewing only machines.

My Pfaff Creative 4.5

Some brands seem more focused on garment sewing, while others appear to target the quilter/crafter. Check out what accessories are available for the machine you’re considering before taking the plunge. You may find yourself disappointed with that new sewing machine purchased for garment sewing and decorative stitches when you find that a cording foot isn’t available for it.

Wrapping it up

All in all, this decision comes down to one question – what do you like? Go to different shops and try out all the machines you can before making your final decision. Take some of the fabric that you sew with often to try out on the various sewing machines you’re interested in buying. If you make your own jeans often, take some denim scraps and give it a go on the machine you’re considering. Most shops just have cotton for demos, so try out what you sew regularly before you decide.

And that’s another thing – most sewists will strongly suggest that your sewing machine should be bought from a reputable dealer, and that’s good advice. A sewing machine purchased from a dealer usually comes with free classes on how to use it, one on one support should you need it, and service capabilities.

Additionally, dealers will sometimes have the sewing machine you’re interested in at a discounted price, either due to a trade in, or because it was a floor model. My Brother was brand new in the box, but my Pfaff sewing machine was used at the Houston International Quilt Festival as a classroom machine, and it had less than 1,000 stitches on it when I purchased it. I got a great deal on it, too – buying the class machine instead of a brand new sewing machine saved me more than $2,000.

The Big Box Option

However, if you’re just not able to swing a purchase at a dealer but you really want or need a machine, there are other options. Vintage machines. for example.

For my money, I’d rather spend a couple hundred dollars on a machine at Wal-Mart and get something new with some modern conveniences. I had to go to Wal-Mart yesterday, which is a rarity for me, and I saw a very nice looking Janome JW8100┬áin the store. In fact, I’m sorely tempted to go back and get it, because it has some really nice stitches. For about $300, it has 100 stitches, including seven one-stitch buttonholes, and a nice selection of feet. It also has a seven piece feed dog.

My point is, there are always options, and you should explore them all. Buying a sewing machine can be a little like buying a car, but like buying a car, don’t rush through the process. Enjoy it, and consider it a journey to years of sewing fun.