tips for buying a beginner sewing machine

July 31st, 2012

Meet my darling, my Elna Lotus- this is the machine i learnt on. If i ever have a brick and mortar store she would sit in the window. Excuse me for getting nostalgic, but it’s the machine my mother learnt on too. My Ouma bought it for her when she was a kid to learn to sew, and when i was 10/11 and showed an interest in sewing, my mom gave it to me. It’s old, but it is quality. It has served me well, and i am so happy i learnt on this machine. I don’t use it any more as i don’t want to abuse it with the quantity of sewing i do, but it’s still amazing, and every time i get it serviced the service man tries to buy it from me. Apparently they are quite collectible now. No way dude, he’d have to pry it from my cold dead hands. Oh did i get distracted with my anecdote? why yes, yes i did. Let’s begin again, sans teary eyed nostalgic meg…

A question i get asked a lot is what sewing machine is best for a beginner sewer. It’s a very hard question to answer!

For one thing, there are a tonne of different brands and much like cars, what machine is “the best” will really depend on who you ask- it’s a very personal decision.

So instead of suggesting a particular machine as “the best beginner sewing machine”, i’ve put together some tips for choosing a beginner sewing machine.

Decide what you’re going to be sewing. For example, I sew mainly apparel (yeah you knew that hehe) so since I don’t quilt my needs are different to a quilter. There will be functions that i cannot live without that a quilter couldn’t care less about, and vice versa. Do i need 300 decorative stitches? No. So you need to make sure the machine you choose fulfills your specific needs. Now, given that i don’t know much about quilting, please keep in mind that some aspects of my recommendations will apply only towards apparel sewing.

Invest in mechanical over computerized. If you are mainly going to be sewing apparel I recommend getting a mechanical machine. Basically when you are looking at machines you will see mechanical machines, and computerized machines. There is often a huge bump in price from mechanical to computerized, so you can save money there if you don’t need the computer functions. There is also less that can go wrong with a mechanical machine, and there are a lot of computerized functions you really don’t need as a beginner, so it’ spending money on things you don’t need.

Try and find a second hand machine. There’s really nothing worse than starting a new hobby and spending a lot of money on equipment and doodads to get started, and then finding out… you hate said hobby. That is one of the reasons i think it’s a good idea to try and find a second hand machine first – maybe you have a friend or relative who could loan or give you a machine to try out? It’ll also give you a good idea about what you want out of a machine when you buy one. Another thing to keep in mind with second hand machines, is that you can often get a good quality machine really reallllly cheap. It was sad how little i sold my machine for when i left the USA – the person who bought it got a deal – you could too!!

Choose a low priced model from a good quality brand. I do not believe in cheap machines. Now please don’t misunderstand – i don’t mean i’m against low prices – i mean i am against poor quality, cheaply made machines. Don’t let the sticker price be your only guide. The problem with cheaply made machines is that they don’t work as well and will cause you more problems than you need. I’ve seen issues like inability to sew even stitches or in a straight line, machines rattling, getting caught on even slightly thick fabric – or just plain breaking for no apparent reason (happened to my SIL). It’s not worth your money. I recommend buying a lower model from a big name brand like Elna, Bernina, Brother,Viking, Pfaff and Singer (thought i have heard rumbling that Singers quality is slipping).

Make sure the machine you buy has all the functions you need. I’m old school and don’t really care about fancy functions, in my opinion you only really need a straight stitch and a zig zag stitch. You can sew pretty much anything with those stitches. You don’t need to have an overlocker/serger to sew stretchy things (they’re nice machines but not necessary) a zig zag will suffice for a beginner. However it is imperative that you be able to adjust stitch lengths and widths. Another thing that is important if you are sewing apparel is a free arm. I did not have this on my first machine (pictured above) and doing sleeves was hell, hell i tell you!! I often do my buttonholes with a zig zag stitch, because i’m a control freak (and a freak in general because i enjoy it) – but you may find a good 1 step buttonhole function very useful.

Buy in person not online. Yeah i love online shopping too, i really do, i buy almost everything online – but would you buy a car, or a house without seeing them in person first? no. You really want to try out your sewing machine first, shake it a bit to make sure it’s sturdy (i’m not kidding hehe) and generally get a feel for it (i’m a huge believer in gut feeling). Also, a lot of sewing stores will provide added services when you buy a machine with them. Things like classes – or just the ability come in and ask questions if you are having trouble. Heads up, most big chain stores won’t be as helpful as smaller boutiquey sewing stores.

Take a class, read a book, and definitely read the manual. I guarantee you that if you sit down in front of a brand new sewing machine and just start sewing without any preparation you will cry. Or at least throw your hands in the air and give up in frustration. Like any skill, you need to learn the basics. The first place you should start is your sewing machine manual. I am a huge fan of the manual. It will tell you how to thread your machine, maintain it, trouble shoot and most manuals will provide instructions for basic sewing. I also recommend reading some books – you don’t need to buy a tonne, or you could just borrow from your library. If you need some recommendations for beginner sewing books, here is a list of recommendations for beginner sewing books i compiled last year. If you are not the book type, and find it easier to have someone physically show you what to do – i definitely recommend taking a class. Most good sewing stores are providing classes now – actually a lot of the brick and mortar stores that stock my patterns run amazing classes. Or if you’re really lucky, you can rope in a friend or relative to teach you the basics. My mom taught me the basics of sewing when i started out! And don’t forget, we have the internet :)

Have i missed anything? Please feel free to chime in if you have any tips for buying a beginner sewing machine, or if you just want to put in a good word for your awesome machine!

31 Responses

  1. Jodi says:

    I was going to write this very post this weekend, with pretty much the same advice. :)

  2. Ash P says:

    Excellent post! Do you have any tips for buying a coverstitch machine? I’ve been toying with the idea of getting one because I want to sew lots of knits. Do you use one?

  3. Lauren says:

    Awesome post! I recently bought a second hand Brother, it’s going well.
    My tip, from experience, is to not buy the dodgy no name ones from Kmart or other such stores, you will wish you spent a tiny bit more for a decent one that doesn’t jam constantly!

    • Meg says:

      I absolutely agree 100%!!! Those no-namer’s are definitely dodgy, and not worth the money!!

      So glad you managed to find a nice second hand Brother!! It so great when you can find a gem like that!

  4. Jen says:

    SUCH good advice! I’ve had quite a few people ask me about buying their first machine over the past few weeks and I’ve been saying the same things.

  5. Brandie says:

    Almost 40 years ago, my mother bought an Elna with a bank loan she received after showing the bank manager what she could make with it. She made almost all of my baby and toddler clothes. I’ve always been in awe of her talent. She still has that Elna!

    • Meg says:

      Wow! That is such a great story Brandie!! And i bet it still runs perfectly as well!! I’d be in awe of her too – sometimes i’m still struck by all of the amazing sewing past generations did, just as part of their daily lives! so cool :)

      • Brandie says:

        Well, I took the plunge and bought my first sewing machine! I went to a small, local sewing machine shop because I wanted to buy a decent machine based on actual advice (rather than take my chances with a random machine from a box store). I went in with a budget of $200. Unfortunately, I’m a sucker for bells and whistles on my gadgets, so I walked out of the store with a Janome DC2012 and a big dent in my pocketbook.

        I had never threaded a sewing machine before, so it took me half an hour of reading the manual, watching a YouTube video, and chatting online with my mother to thread it. :-) Finally, I got to make my first stitches. The Janome feels solid and smooth. Maybe someday my sewing skills will be worthy of her!

  6. Roxy says:

    I learnt on an Elna like that as well. It’s not a Lotus, in fact I should find out what it is and how old it really is (I’m thinking about 40yrs). It still sews like a dream but belongs with my Mum in Perth so I don’t get to use it very often. I can’t believe how strong and sturdy it feels compared to my very nice but still made from plastic Janome. The old Elna survived all of my crazy projects including sewing multiple layers of vinyl to make an art portfolio!

    • Roxy says:

      It’s a Contessa 400. I wonder if they are collectibles like the Lotus.

      http://www.sewdebeaux.blogspot.com.au/2012/07/trip-home-and-finished-dress.html

      • Meg says:

        That’s so cool! Definitely worth looking into!! I asked the Elna guy here in Perth what was so special about mine – and he said it was because the ones from that era were hand made in Switzerland, and had stronger metal construction. He reckoned that you can take one of them and build onto it to give it the functionality of new machines – which i have to admit, kind of blew my mind!

        Meanwhile, i have to agree – the old sturdy ones really do feel so much stronger and more reliable than a lot of these new plastic ones. I’m not surprised it handled sewing through all that vinyl hehehe i think they are such great little work horses!! Pity they don’t make them like that anymore :(

  7. Jenn says:

    Had to respond to this post with agree, agree, agree! I sew on a 16 year old Pfaff which I bought earlier this year after sewing on my Mother’s 20 year old one- it is a dream! Previously I had an older Singer which was a pretty good machine, but I got sucked in by a new Singer with it’s shiney white doodads…gave the old one away and bought the new one- BIG mistake. It was awful, nothing more to say. Bought the Pfaff off Gumtree (here in Perth) and haven’t looked back. There are two older Elnas on Gumtree atm and I’m thinking of buying one for my daughter!

  8. Jane says:

    I also learnt on the Elna lotus, seeing a picture brings back memories of summer holidays sewing at the scrap strewn dining room table. When Nearly 20 years ago I got a lovely new (second hand) elna for my 16th I passed the lotus to my sister, she’s never used it and I’m claiming it back next week (just as a back up!). I live in Switzerland and took my Elna air electronic SU in for a service when I moved here. Even with my bad german I could understand that the service shop man was super excited by my machine. I joked that now the machine would be almost as good as new, and he got very offended and said that actually it was completely as good as new (with a warranty too). Apparently it’s from 1982 and that was the last year the machines were made from all metal parts- it was a top of the range machine – selling for 3000 CHF (that’s about the same in $). My Mum paid £50 and says now she feels better about getting me a lame birthday present (not that I ever thought it was lame). I always recommend second hand, however I have a friend who uses the cheapo ikea machine with no problems (yet).

    • Meg says:

      Jane that is such an awesome story!!! I totally support your claiming it back hehehe. But seriously, aren’t they lovely little machines? So cool to hear you mirror my experience with the little Elna as well!! Hugs!! XOXO

  9. Anneke says:

    Hi there,
    I’ve been struggling my way through your “how to make a dirndl skirt (gathered skirt)” instructions. I chose this one as my first attempt at making a skirt because it was rated as “beginner” but it seems to be anything but! there also seems to be quite a few key tips missing like when to hem, and the bit about sewing the waistband to the gathered edge isn’t very clear- how do you make it so the gathering is even? Also, I found that I had to hand sew to pull the skirt with a thicker thread as the thread kept snapping and would pull the whole skirt in on the largest stitch I had…. Any help you can give would be much appreciated!!!
    (Sorry for posting here I couldn’t find anywhere else to)

  10. Sandra says:

    I teach sewing, including lots of beginners, and this is a question I get asked a lot. You’ve put it all so well, although I think beginners buying electronic machines is a good idea. Mainly because the needle finishes at the end of the stitch each time, ie in the highest position, eliminating the cause of frustrating tangles and jams at the beginning of the next seam. I do agree there are too many unnecessary stitches, so the most basic of the electronic ones is my usual recommendation. My heart sinks when someone brings in a $100 machine in case they don’t take to sewing. They’ve just increased the chances of that happening due to frustration. I actually had one student wear out a cheapy in one year. For what it’s worth, the free arm is neither here nor there to me, I never use it. I trained in factory sewing, so I teach factory methods modified for home sewers. I actually add quilting tables to my machines to get a decent sized bed.
    As an experienced sewer, I love mucking around with weird old machines from the tip or the side of the road. I’ve picked up some beauties, including a 1950′s Phoenix that looks like it was designed by the Sputnik team, a really pretty brown, curvy Singer from the 1950′s and a hand-crank from around 1900 covered in mother-of-pearl inlays and gold trimmings. My daily stitchers though are either my industrial Juki or a Bernina Activa 140 with the needle down function on the foot pedal and a knee lift for the presser foot. Oh, and a lime green overlocker from the 1970′s, all metal, which walks all over my 15 year old Elna overlocker that mum bought because she loved her Elna air electronic so much. The overlocker is hopeless, so she gave it to me :-D
    I generally suggest that $400 will get you a good basic new machine, but wait until the factory sales just before Mother’s Day and Christmas, because they get discounted. And it’s counter-intuitive, but beginners will get better results on a good machine, old or cheap machines are for the experts ;-)

    • Meg says:

      Sandra, it’s so great to hear the perspective of a teacher! You’ve raised some really good points – for one thing i certainly didn’t think about the needles finish position being a frustration, but i can see that could be a real pain for someone who is new to sewing! and I absolutely agree with your price point too – i’d say it’s impossible to find a good machine for $100.

      You have such a great collection of machines!! I’m always so tempted when i find unusual vintage machines – i think it’s awesome that you are taking some home with you! The hand crank ones really fascinate me too – my mother in law still has her great grandmothers hand crank, and i love to “visit” it whenever we go to their house. Unbelievably, his grandmother actually used it quite regularly before she passed – i find that pretty cool.

      Meanwhile, i have to admit I’m really intrigued by the idea of doing sleeves without a free arm – do you still do inset sleeves (i know it’s doable, but i always find it a pain without an arm), or more of a “flat” method? Getting an industrial Juki is on my wishlist – i am dropping massive hints to the hubby hehe.

      Thanks again for feedback!! hugs! xoxo

  11. Sandra says:

    I have a few different ways of doing sleeves, depending on the height of the sleeve cap, the fabric, and whether I had coffee or tea with my lunch ;-)
    You’re quite welcome to visit me and my machines sometime, I’m not so far away, straight down Reid Hwy. I’d be more an happy to show you a sleeve insertion.

    • Meg says:

      That’s so sweet of you! I might just take you up on that some time – factory techniques really fascinate me :)xoxo

  12. Sandra says:

    Yay! I’ve sent you an email with my contact details. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

  13. Miranda says:

    Great tips, Meg! I get this question a lot, too! I end up offering a lot of the same advice. I have a basic Janome, and haven’t felt at all limited by it not being computerized or high-end. I’d add that brand to your short-list of good brands for beginners.

    I’d be fascinated to hear what you learn about factory sewing! It really intrigues me, too!

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  15. suzy says:

    I learned on an Elna Lotus too! My mum, who is 60 this year, was given one for her 21st birthday and it is still going strong. They are such beautifully designed machines, and so simple that even someone un-mechanically minded like myself can fix any thread snags etc.

  16. Denise says:

    Great advice!

  17. christina says:

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