How to buy the best sewing machine
The best electric sewing machines can make light work of bigger sewing jobs, while a quality overlocker model will help even a sewing novice to achieve a professional finish.
Use our expert sewing machine buying guide to find out the differences between sewing machines, what a fat quarter is and the essential features you should look out for.
What are fat quarters and where can you buy them?
A fat quarter is a fabric cutting measuring around 50cm x 55cm/18in x 22in. Made by cutting half a metre off the full width of a yard, then cutting it in half again vertically, they are essentially one fourth of a yard.
Fat quarters typically come from quilting fabrics – although they can come from other materials – and they can be used for a variety of projects, including blankets, tea towels and cushions.
You can buy fat quarters individually or in bundles of different patterns and colours from a variety of shops, including:
Which type of sewing machine should I get?
Electric sewing machines
Electric sewing machines are the most popular kind, sew a range of stitch types and are controlled by a foot pedal.
A basic electric sewing machine contains a motor in the body. This drives the needle in the top part of the sewing machine and controls other working parts, such as the bobbin and feed dogs that automatically feed material to the machine under the needle.
The motor is driven by a foot pedal that you control. These usually offer a range of speeds – the harder you put your foot down, the faster you sew.
Electric sewing machines allow for a reasonable range and size of stitches, which are selected by turning a dial. They're much faster and more accurate than old-fashioned manual sewing machines.
Computerised sewing machines
Computerised sewing machines do everything that ordinary electric machines do – and a lot more.
They’re controlled by a computer which is pre-programmed with the correct tension, length and width for each stitch style. They're operated using a touchpad and screen, and with more advanced models you can download programs from your PC.
Computerised sewing machines can memorise past work and will also store hundreds of different stitches for you to choose from.
Overlocker sewing machines
Overlocker models are designed to stop fraying and to give a professional finish to the seams of a garment. They are typically used in addition to a regular sewing machine – you can’t use one on its own as its functions are limited.
The main purpose of an overlocker sewing machine is to neaten seams, which it achieves by trimming while sewing. While you can use an ordinary sewing machine to neaten an edge, you have to cut the fabric yourself, then set the machine to zigzag stitch, which takes time and creates a slight ridge.
An overlocker sews faster than a sewing machine and you can buy attachments that make it particularly useful for stitching rolled hems, gathering and attaching bindings.
Sewing machines for beginners or occasional sewers
If you're just starting out or intend to sew only now and then, a basic electronic model will probably suit your needs. You won’t need to spend more than £200 to get a good one.
As a general rule of thumb, look for models offering a selection of foot attachments that will allow you to do the basics, such as inserting a zip. A zipper foot, buttonhole foot and possibly a plastic foot for delicate fabrics is a good selection for beginners.
Look for a few different stitches: several different lengths of straight stitch, a choice of zigzag stitches and an automatic buttonhole are the bare minimum.
Decorative stitches are nice to have, but aren’t worth paying much more for unless you're confident that you'll progress to creating work with decorative embellishments. Some brands have accessories you can buy for this purpose, which is handy if you decide you want to get more adventurous once you’ve mastered the basics. This is less likely with cheaper models.
Sewing machines for dressmaking, embroidery and soft furnishings
If you plan to use your sewing machine a lot, particularly for dressmaking, then a middle or top-of-the-range model is probably a good bet. These vary in price from around £200 up to £1,000, but a good middle ground is about £300 to £500.
Make sure you buy a machine with a free arm. Most machines have them, but they're a must if you want to sew anything with sleeves or pockets. Here are a few other features to look for:
- Overlocker stitch Used to neaten seams and hems. If you can’t afford a machine with that on, you can use a close-set zigzag stitch instead.
- Sturdy machine If you think you'll be using lots of thick, heavy fabrics.
- A wide selection of machine feet Including a zigzag foot, blind hem foot, concealed zipper foot, narrow hem foot and piping foot, which will all come in handy for dressmaking and sewing soft furnishings.
If you'll be using a wide range of stitches or plan on doing a lot of embroidery, consider going for a computerised machine. Most of these have a wide range of pre-programmed patterns and will create multicoloured hoop embroidery patterns.
You may also need a computer and memory card if you intend to download further stitch programs.
What types of fabrics can you use with a sewing machine?
Before you buy your sewing machine, it’s helpful to think about the type of fabrics you’re most likely to work with. Basic machines will easily handle cottons and slightly heavier cloth, but may struggle with denser fabrics, such as those used for making soft furnishings.
Thicker fabrics, such as fleece and denim, require a longer stitch length than thinner fabrics – check that the machine you're interested in offers a genuine choice of long and short stitches.
Delicate fabrics need light handling. If you're using them the majority of the time, choose a machine that lets you reduce the pressure of the presser foot so you’ll decrease the risk of snagging your fabric on the feed dogs.
Check whether the sewing machine comes with a Teflon-coated plastic foot, which sometimes works better than a standard metal foot on delicate fabrics. Also make sure that you can buy a fine needle for your brand and model of machine.
Sewing stretchy fabrics is a challenge, so look for a sewing machine with a stretch stitch that will help you get the best results.
Look for a machine with a large sewing bed or extension table, which will make it easier to handle large panels of fabric. You'll also want one that can cope with sewing multiple thicknesses of fabric of different weights.
Sewing machine features to look out for
Every sewing machine will have certain standard parts, such as a feed dog, sewing bed and stitch selector, although it’s not always easy to identify what the part actually is from its name.
Most modern sewing machines enable you to sew a buttonhole easily, with specific stitches and accessories. There are various types to choose between:
- An automatic buttonhole feature measures the size of your button and automatically creates a buttonhole of the correct size
- A one-step buttonhole feature automatically creates a buttonhole, but you may have to tell the machine which size of hole to make
- A four-step buttonhole process involves sewing each side of a buttonhole individually by selecting stitches sequentially to create the left side, top, right side and bottom.
Once you know how to use it, an auto needle threader is a great timesaver and removes the need for passing the thread through the needle manually.
Found on only a few sewing machines, a knee lifter is a lever that can be pressed with your knee, allowing you to lift the presser foot and drop the feed dogs without taking your hands off your work.
It enables you to move the fabric freely for quilting, sewing around curves and embroidery - ideal for large projects or for giving you an extra hand for fiddly jobs.
Sewing machine carry case
Check whether your chosen sewing machine comes with a carry case or if you'll need to buy one separately. A hard case, rather than a soft cover, makes it much easier to store and move the machine around between.
Sewing machine jargon buster
- Bobbin/bobbin winder A small spool for holding the thread in the bottom of the sewing machine – it sits in a compartment under the needle. Thread needs to be wound on to the bobbin before you start sewing, but most electric machines have a bobbin-winding function.
- Feed dog A metal plate that feeds fabric from the front to the back of the machine. Some sewing machines have a 'drop feed dog' function which fixes the feed dog in the down position, letting you move the fabric manually under the needle in the direction you choose. This is useful for embroidery and mending.
- Presser foot Holds the fabric flat under the needle and in place against the feed dog. This helps feed it through evenly as you sew.
- Sewing bed Is the bottom part of the backwards 'C' of the sewing machine. A curved sewing bed helps you to feed the fabric smoothly.
- Sewing machine needle plate Fits over the feed dog on the bed of the sewing machine and covers the bobbin. They often have a series of lines etched on them to indicate the distance away from the needle, help you sew in a straight line and keep your stitches a set distance away from the edge of the fabric.
- Bobbin winder This is a small pin that sticks out of the top of the sewing machine and is used to load thread on to the bobbin.
- Spool holder Is the pin at the top of the sewing machine where you place the reel of thread. It's useful to have a couple of spool end caps of different. Some sewing machines have two spool holders, so you can sew with two different coloured threads at the same time with a twin needle.
- Foot pedal Controls the speed of the machine – it speeds up as you press down on the pedal.
- Stitch selector Basic sewing machines have a dial that you turn to select the stitch you want, while more expensive machines let you select a stitch by pressing a button or using a touchpad.
- Tension control Is used to control the tension of the upper thread. This is important to help stitches form correctly.
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