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How to buy the best sewing machine

Sewing machine types

By Jess O'Leary

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Sewing machine types

Unsure whether you need a basic electronic or overlocker sewing machine? We explain the different types to help you make the right choice.

Whether you want an electric sewing machine for quick and easy sewing, or an overlocker model to achieve a professional finish, it’s important to choose the right sewing machine for your needs.

This guide highlights the key facts about the various types of sewing machines you can buy. Once you know what you want, our brand reviews can help you decide which model to go for.

We’ve asked owners of all the big-name brands, such as Singer, Janome and Brother, to rate their machines on everything from ease of use to build quality, and whether they would recommend it to a friend.

To compare the big brands and see typical models and prices, head to our guide to the best sewing machine brands.

Electric sewing machines

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.

Electric sewing machines are the most popular kind, sew a range of stitch types and are controlled by a foot pedal.

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.

Computerised sewing machines are pre-programmed with the correct tension and stitch dimensions and operated using a touchpad.

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.

An overlocker machine is used in addition to a regular sewing machine to stop fraying and give a professional finish.

Manual sewing machines

Generally limited to some old heritage models, manual sewing machines are operated by turning a handwheel as you guide the fabric under the needle with the other hand.

The only places that you're likely to come across one of these sewing machines are in an antique shop, a museum, a schoolroom or perhaps hidden away in the loft.

You could also find one of these older sewing machines on internet auction sites. The vintage look does have a certain charm, but there are also a few practicalities to consider before you commit to buying one.

Look at models that take standard needles and have standard feet, as otherwise you may have trouble finding replacements. Also, make sure the sewing machine you choose has a round bobbin rather than a long bobbin, as this will make winding easier.