Hi all! Amy Here! As many of you might know, earlier this summer we released a beginner sewing course . It has been so fun and gratifying to see new sewists approach our patterns and use our instructions to make their first garments! Everyone reading this knows how empowering and exciting your first sewing experiences can be and hopefully are merely the start of a lifelong journey of sewing. So in that spirit, we will be spending some time on the blog this summer addressing the beginner sewist, the tools and tips that some of us might take for granted. I love nothing more than taking it back to basics because often there is a new little nugget of info lurking in there, something maybe you forgot or skipped over that will take your sewing practice to the next level. In this post we will be looking at equipment, mainly, that one piece of equipment that makes everything else possible, THE SEWING MACHINE.
As you may know, we are a Pfaff sponsored studio, and we currently have a few of their top of the lines machines at our disposal (if you wanna do some ogling we did wrote a blog post about our new machines here). Obviously we realize this is not an option for everyone, especially if you are new to sewing and still trying to decide if this is the hobby for you (it is and you are about to become a straight up addict, you’ve been warned). So with that in mind, we are going to give you the low down on buying your first machine: what you should look for, what to avoid and most importantly how to make it easy on yourself so that you love sewing and don’t get frustrated with equipment that seems to hate you. Let’s go shopping!
BUYING A VINTAGE SEWING MACHINE
Most of us here started on an inherited machine. A big heavy clunker from the 70’s that our mom had in the basement and got oiled about as frequently as the Christmas lights came out of the boxes. It probably didn’t have a bunch of fancy features, it probably weighed about as much as the washing machine and if you dropped it off the roof you could still dust it off and rethread it. That’s probably why I’m still sewing on mine. “They don’t make em like they used to” in this case is more than just a cliché. Before the 90’s they made everything with metal, steel usually, which means they tend to last a lot longer than newer machines made primarily of plastic.
Buying a vintage model for your first sewing machine is a great option for a few reasons. One, it’s generally not a big investment. You can find them easily at just about any thrift store, not to mention estate sales, Ebay, Craigslist of Kijiji. A vintage machine generally sells for $50-200, although vintage Berninas tend to go for a bit more. Second, because the features tend to be more basic than a newer machine, they are easier to operate for beginners. Third, almost everything on an old vintage machine can be fixed if you find an experienced repair person – which brings me to my biggest piece of advice. Before you even start looking for a vintage machine, find out where your nearest experienced sewing machine repair person is located and get in touch. This person will be your gateway to easy/happy sewing. You want to have the machine serviced right away (this will cost $50-100) which will include oiling and a tune-up, just like a vintage bike or car! You will want to have that done yearly or if you encounter any problems as you go. Make friends with this person (usually they are lovely people anyway) and keep the number handy.
Often times if you are buying an old machine the manuals were lost at least a generation ago. Worry not, you are not alone, there are lots of resources both free and available for purchase that can be downloaded. Here and here are a couple of places to start if you are looking to replace a manual or spare part; buying a scanned copy of your manual for $10 is worth every penny. It will show you how to properly thread and maintain your machine, and may reveal a few tricks you didn’t even know your machine could do!
BASIC SEWING MACHINE FEATURES
While having a lot of bells and whistles to play with on a machine can be fun, a beginner sewist can get away with some pretty basic features. Whether you are buying vintage or new, the things that you absolutely must have on a machine are few. Some of the best sewists I know sew on Singer Featherweights which is literally the first sewing machine to run on electricity and dates to the 1930’s. The principles of sewing haven’t changed though and so as long as the machine you are looking at has most (or all) of the following capabilities, you should be good to go.
- Straight stitch
- Zig Zag stitch
- Overlocking stitch (this is in order to fake a serger)
- Movable needle position (left-right)
- Needle up/needle down
- Free arm (the tray should be removable so you can sew tight areas like sleeves and hems)
- Feed dogs that can be disengaged for sewing buttons or quilting
- Reverse button
BUYING A NEW SEWING MACHINE
The advantage of buying new over vintage is pretty simple: features, features, features! Modern machines are the benefit of decades of research and technological advances, which means you can do a LOT more on them. At the bare minimum, you can expect a lot more stitch types. In addition, modern machines tend to be more automatic or intuitive; they may have automatic tension (no more fiddling with the tension dial!), auto threading, needle up/needle down buttons, and auto thread cutting. If it has a big digital component, you can also do a lot of programming, like creating and saving custom stitches and doing embroidery. Again, cars are a great analogy; you can certainly get from A to B in a beautiful vintage manual convertible, but it won’t be as easy to drive as a modern automatic with leather seats and Bluetooth connectivity. With a new machine, you also benefit from warranties and tech support, especially if you buy your machine from a dealer, which is something we HIGHLY recommend. Test-driving a new machine with the help of an experienced sales person means you’ll get a machine that works for you, in addition to actually learning how to operate the darn thing. Keep in mind, the best quality machines are bought directly from a dealer rather than on Amazon or Walmart. Usually a sewing store will carry a few different brands and be able to tell you what would work best for you and your budget.
If you have decided that sewing is for you are or you’re ready to invest in a new machine here’s the deal: you should be prepared to spend at least $300. Yes, there are cheaper machines on the market, but like anything in this world, you get what you pay for. Anybody that has been sewing their own clothes for a while will tell you, it’s not a cheap hobby. There is a big investment at the beginning to get all the tools and supplies you need, so it can feel a bit overwhelming to commit to buying a fancy new machine. The frustration you will save buying something that will last and not break in the middle of a project is well worth the investment. Buying a good machine that will last until the next generation will not only make your current sewing experience more enjoyable, but also saves a piece of plastic junk from going in a landfill when it completes its short-lived life cycle. While newer machines tend to be made from more plastic than in days of yore, a good quality new machine should still last for as long as you need it, especially if you get in the habit of servicing and oiling it regularly (not all machines need oiling so make sure you read your manual!) New machines can be fairly basic, or super advanced like our Pfaff Performance Icon which basically sews on its own if we’d let it. It’s important to think about what you want out of your sewing machine, make a list of what you’re looking for and then start shopping with all that in mind.
In terms of brands? Honestly, this is really up to you. Each brand has pros and cons, and honestly, it comes down to what features you want and how it feels to sew on it. This is why we recommend going to a dealer with a few different brands in stock to see what machine feels right for you. In the studio we’ve sewn on all kinds of machines before making the switch to Pfaff because Heather fell in love with how they sew. When in doubt, try before you buy!
Here are some features to look for that will make your sewing life extra-breezy:
- Auto-threader (especially great if you have vision issues)
- Lockstitch or stitch tie-off (will lock the stitch at the beginning and end so you don’t have to backstitch)
- Automatic thread cutter (no manually trimming at the end of each stitch)
- Quality light
- Automatic tension (most machines will let you adjust it manually as well)
- Ability to save or create custom stitches
- Automatic buttonholes
- Large work area (especially great if you want to make quilts)
- Built-in walking foot or dual feed to help feed fabric evenly when sewing knits or matching stripes (this tends to be a feature of high-end machines but the IDT system comes with most standard Pfaff machines)
- Optional knee lift (a great feature if you’d like to do more hands-free sewing)
- Adjustable presser foot pressure (ideal for sewing slippery knits and thick fabrics)
- Start/stop button (lets you sew without the foot pedal)
- Variable speed control (lets you slow or speed up stitching)
SEWING MACHINE FEET
Your machine (new or used) might come with some different sewing feet. These are used for doing all kinds of different seam finishes, installing zippers, making buttonholes, embroidery, pleating, ruching, gathering, stretch sewing, quilting… I mean, I could go on forever. If you can do it on a sewing machine, they probably make a foot for it. Do you need every single one of these?? Absolutely not. That said, most feet can be found on Amazon for very little money (this kit costs $24 and has every foot imaginable). Having an invisible zipper foot when you want to install an invisible zipper? Priceless.
Just be aware that there are low shank and high shank machines. Most domestic machines use low shank attachments (except Bernina which uses its own system) so when you are shopping online just make sure to check it works for your machine. These are all the things that “handy sewing machine repair person” will be able to help you with. Now you see why that phone number is handy? Buy this person a Christmas present.
Here are the basic feet we recommend:
- Zig zag foot. This foot can be used for all sorts of stitches (straight stitch too!) and just ensures the hole in the needle foot is big enough to accommodate a widely moving needle.
- Invisible zipper foot for installing invisible zippers.
- Regular zipper foot for installing standard metal coil zippers.
- Buttonhole foot – should come with your machine.
Once you get going, here are some other feet you will find helpful:
- Edgestitch/stitch in the ditch foot. Includes a guide and lets you sew exactly on top of the seam line.
- Piping foot – easily inserts piping.
- Button foot – lets you sew a button on by machine.
- Walking foot – helps feed fabric evenly on top and bottom. Great for matching stripes/prints and sewing knits.
- Blind hem – to sew invisible hems
- Hemming foot – helps create hems by machine, available in multiple widths from baby hem to 1/4″.
Just remember that if sewing is going to be your life long hobby there will be lots of time (and birthdays and Christmases) to acquire all of your dream tools and equipment. The important thing in the beginning is to build your skillset and that means practicing and making mistakes! Break a few needles, sort out a few bobbin snarls and do some troubleshooting, and when all else fails….”now where did I put that phone number?”
Do you have any tips for someone buying their first sewing machine?