How Do You Choose a Sewing Machine? PART 1 – The Options

Are you new to sewing? Looking to buy your own sewing machine? Usually 1 of a handful of things has happened:

  1. You’re inspired to make a quilt for a friend’s wedding or a baby
  2. You’re inspired by fashion (Project Runway, Fashion Week, WWD, Great British Sewing Bee)
  3. COSPLAY! Comic-Con!!! (and related price-shock!!)
  4. You’re tired of clothes not fitting / looking like everyone else / being cheaply made

Welcome to the tribe. We get you.

Now, you’re ready to buy a sewing machine. This is like buying your first car. Do you want easy to drive? Do you want cheap? Do you want cheap to repair? Do you never want repairs? Do you want high resale value? Do you want sturdy? Do you want speedy? Bells and whistles? Just like with a car, these are rarely all the same machine.

You search online for what machine to buy, just like with a car. On Reddit, Facebook, and other social platforms you’ll get 5 people telling you to buy a $100 Brother machine, 2 people telling you to buy a $25 garage sale “all metal machine that will last forever and sew through anything,” and usually 1 person telling you they love their $5 million dollar Bernina. Sound familiar? 5 people telling you to buy a Honda Civic, 2 people telling you to buy an old Ford with a manual transmission, and one person telling you they love their Land Rover.

You just want to make something cool. What do you do? Let’s go through the usual recommended options above, THEN I want to show you something that, unless you have a hands-on mentor, will help you really decide.

Let’s start with Bernina.

  • OMG they’re beautiful and they really do sew very nicely.
  • Dealer support/sales/deals – and Bernina dealers are ONLY Bernina dealers.
  • Metal inside, Swiss engineering, some metal bodies. You can go from a $250 basic mechanical Bernette to full on free arm quilting and embroidery machines that cost more than a down payment on a house.
  • I never see them in thrift shops or garage sales for $25…I never see ancient basic models for less than $500 AKA they keep their value
  • If you get a bad one, repairs are $$$
  • Accessories are $$$
  • Tune ups are $$$
  • The Bernina tribe is strong and LOYAL. Just read comments anywhere and you’ll see what I mean.
  • Some Berninas recently had a software update….ABOVE a price point, while the machines below said price point did not get an update. Not hatin’ just statin.’ When you’re looking at a pretty high beginner buy-in point…it’s something you should know. This is unlikely to be different in any brand, and frankly, we’re not getting into embroidery machines right now, are we? No. So take it or leave it.
  • ***EDITED perk I totally forgot! Dealers will throw in free lessons with a machine – so they’ll train you to use it and maybe even a beginner sewing class too! Work out a deal with them!

Brother, et al.

  • Amazon reviews. Read them. Brother makes killer industrial/semi-industrial machines…you’re not buying one of those or even one made on the same planet.
  • I generally don’t talk about Singers made after 1960…that said, I’ve read from a mechanic that the Heavy Duty model would be a reliable home sewing machine. Not my words; not an endorsement; not an affiliate link.
  • $100 or so is a great starting price point
  • Plastic on the outside and inside – this means plastic gears that will eventually break. Maybe in a month, maybe in 100 years. The Singer in the top photo? Metal gears. Plastic cams (decorative stitch thingies)
  • Fairly universal and economical accessories
  • No dealer guarantees, no discounted service, no free tune-ups for a year
  • Anecdote: Told a friend to buy a Brother to start. Friend made a few quilts and curtains. Friend upgraded from $150 Brother to a $350 metal, mechanical Janome after 3 years. Friend couldn’t BELIEVE the difference in quality and sturdiness and fell in love with sewing again. Friend even got a serger, they got so into it after the Janome.
  • That said, Sew Sweetness started a huge business making bags on a basic Brother machine. Bags are tough to sew, and if she can make a mini empire on one, who’s to judge? I have bought, seriously, a half dozen or more of her patterns before she upgraded her machine.

Viking, Janome, Pfaff, Babylock, Juki…and all the other dealer brands not Bernina

  • Higher entry point than Brother, but not as high as Bernina
  • Dealer support/sales/deals and warranty options
  • Tons of variations in styles and reliability – read reviews. Ask the dealer pointblank: which machine gets returned/serviced the most?
  • Also in variations, some metal bodies, some plastic housing with metal inside in various amounts. For example, Janome has ~3 price levels and 3 different countries of manufacture for those levels.
  • Test drive them all even if it’s just because you can. They’re each so different and have their fans. I love Viking, Janome, and Juki. I know plenty of sewists that will fight to the death for their Pfaff. I have no experience with Pfaff or Babylock…I can’t know what I don’t know.
  • Accessories and parts are $$ and often brand-specific.
    • I have a 2012 Viking Sapphire 835. After an initial buy-in of +$1000, I have purchased:
      • invisible zipper foot
      • a quilting foot-set (see also: walking foot / differential feed foot, 1/4″ foot, AND darning foot)
      • ruffling foot
      • My Viking is hydraulic, which means no oil but also means I don’t work on it myself at this time. A single tune up is $180. It also means it does not like to ‘hand crank’ over tough spots.
      • extra Viking bobbins
  • ***EDITED perk I totally forgot! Dealers will throw in free lessons with a machine – so they’ll train you to use it and maybe even a beginner sewing class too! Work out a deal with them!

Garage Sale, Thrift Store, Hand-Me-Downs, or Craigslist

  • Do you know enough to look at it and know why it is for sale? If the power comes on, and the wheel turns freely by hand (toward you only, please), look at the bobbin area. In my experience, 90% of the issues are there, and 90% of THOSE are user-errors, but if you’re a beginner…those may soon be your errors.
  • $25 used sale price adds up if you’re wrong
  • Tune-up or a basic service to clean it is still likely to be $80-100, and that’s if you’re not wrong about why it’s for sale
  • Sometimes parts/accessories can be had cheaply on eBay, sometimes not so cheaply
  • ***edited*** you can find certified, warrantied machines at a dealer – if you do this, I highly recommend you negotiate an hour or more in classes/how to use said machine.

 

I say all of this, HOWEVER, in addition to my Viking and at the time of writing this, I have 9 used and/or vintage machines. 3 work flawlessly, 1 works mostly flawlessly, 5 are in various stages. 2 of the flawless, I bought working flawlessly (read: more than $25), the rest I’ve worked on/am working on. That said… 1 is a Janome and has 3 feet I’ve wanted but didn’t want to spend the money on for my Viking. I just got the 3 feet I wanted, on a 10+ year-old working Janome for $25, with a bit of elbow grease, and $10 for new bobbins. Those feet would have cost me at least $100 for my Viking.

BUT it did not start out that way. I am able to work and sew on old, mechanical sewing machines now because some years ago, my mom’s computerized, super-schmancy Janome (current comparable model is in the Memory Craft line) just let me sew something cool….AFTER I got frustrated on her 1970s Kenmore. Mom’s Kenmore is a 158 series – a machine you’re likely to find in the thrift stores and now one of my favorites. But then, I really just wanted to sew something cool and didn’t get that I needed to pay attention to a few mechanical details.

PART 2

Viking, Brother, and Bernina images owned by respective companies.

One Reply to “How Do You Choose a Sewing Machine? PART 1 – The Options”

  1. Good advice! By the way, Brother makes both machines that you can buy at big box stores and machines that you can only buy from a dealer– including high end sewing and embroidery machines with pretty incredible features. In the mid range they’ve got some pretty sweet machines for reasonable prices that I’ve found both easy to use and very nice to sew with.

    I know all this because I work at a sewing machine store and service center- we sell Brother, Bernina and Pfaff and service all kinds of machines– I’m not being paid to write this, I’m just being a busy body :).

    I would warn against buying machines on eBay– or to do so very cautiously if you do and report any issues you might find to eBay if the machine does not arrive as promised. I’ve had quite a few customers sink a lot of money into repairing machines they bought on eBay thinking they were getting a good deal– remember too that many dealerships offer used machines as well and may be a more reliable source. I recommend buying from a dealership when possible because a good dealership will support you with service and instruction on how to use the machine (my store offers free service for the first year and unlimited free lessons with purchase)…. Of course I am biased. To anyone looking for their first (or second or twenty second) sewing machine, good luck and I hope you find one you love!

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