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Sewing machines

Sewing machine buying guide

Last updated: November 2013

Getting started

Maybe you're one of the millions of viewers who became hooked on the TV series "Project Runway." Or maybe you haven't cut into a piece of fabric since junior high school but would like to get back into making your own clothes. If so, you might be surprised by how feature-laden the current generation of sewing machines has become. This sewing machine guide will help you choose.

A few hundred dollars buys a good, basic sewing machine that can handle most clothing and crafts projects. More money buys you more automated functions, and a top-of-the-line machine can run into thousands of dollars. It will produce professional-quality designs and you don't even need to know how to sew.

If you remember an old Singer machine in your house, you might be surprised by the new machines that can recommend the proper presser foot, determine the right thread tension and stitch length, size and sew a buttonhole, and automatically cut the thread.

The best sewing machine for you depends on your skill level and budget. Before buying a sewing machine, assess your needs and skills. Consider, too, how you might use the machine when your skills improve (independent shops might offer you a free tutorial; many also have low-priced classes). Typically, people keep a sewing machine for at least 10 years.

Singer, Brother, and Kenmore are the top-selling sewing machines, and brands such as Bernina, Husqvarna Viking, and Janome are gaining in popularity. Choose your retailer wisely. Different retail channels offer different advantages. An independent shop might not have the lowest prices but it usually offers more personalized service; repairs can often be done in the store, sometimes even on the spot. Note that some models are only sold at authorized dealers (usually independent stores), that offer instructional classes and repairs.

Look for sales (stores typically discount sewing machines around Christmas and Mother's Day) and try before you buy. Test out several machines on a variety of fabrics and settings to make sure that they stitch evenly and are easy to use.

When you sew, be sure to use the right needle. A dull one, or the wrong kind, can bend and damage the fabric and/or machine. Change your needles after every project or when switching fabric types. And at least every two years (more if you sew a lot), take your sewing machine in for a tune-up.

Never pay full price

Save by searching for online coupons and asking about upcoming sales, trade-in allowances, and interest-free financing. Don't be shy about negotiating with dealers and asking for free sewing lessons.

Learn about repair polices

Many dealers offer in-store service. If not, they'll send you to a repair center or to the manufacturer. No matter who will do the repairs, ask about turnaround time, which can vary from days to weeks. Remember that repairs made by technicians who are not factory-authorized can void the manufacturer's warranty. And keep your machine's box and packaging, in case it needs to be shipped for repairs.

Types

The basic function of a sewing machine is to make a uniform, running stitch entwining two sources of thread. But a lot has changed. Mechanical models are still around and workmanlike but more skilled sewers can take advantage of newer types of sewing machines, including electronic and embroidery/sewing models. Here are the types of sewing machines to consider.

Mechanical models


If you're an occasional sewer or on a budget, this type should work fine. They require you to manipulate most controls by hand and can handle the basics: repairs, hems, simple clothing, and crafts projects.

Electronic models


If you sew frequently or can spend more for an automated machine, an electronic model might be a worthwhile investment. These shift many tedious sewing jobs from your hands to computer chips. A typical unit offers touchpad controls, an LED screen, an array of presser feet for challenges such as piping and topstitching, and settings for dozens or even hundreds of stitch types.

Embroidery/Sewing units


In addition to all of the features and options found in an elaborate electronic machine, you'll also have the ability to do monogramming and embroidery for projects such as garments, bags, bedspreads, and pillowcases.

The machine holds a hoop under its needles and moves the hoop in all four directions as the needle sews. You start by stretching fabric over a hoop. Then, secure the hoop under the needle. Designs are built into the machine's memory, or purchased on memory cards, CDs, or data sticks or linked from your home PC. A touch screen or computer link lets you position the design and specify colors for design elements. Often machines let you resize, reposition and mirror designs and sound an alert to let you know when to change colors.

Features


Even the most basic machine should be able to handle a variety of fabrics, from satin to denim and corduroy, without stretching or puckering the fabric or producing loose, loopy stitches. Here are a number of sewing machine features to consider. But don't pay for those that you aren't likely to use.

Good ergonomics/controls


The machine should be responsive to pressure on the foot pedal, and not stall or growl when sewing thick fabric or multiple layers. The controls should be easy to reach and manipulate, and the symbols on the machine or LED display should be easy to read. Models that have more room to the right of the needle provide more space for fabric and your hands.

Lightweight

If you'll be storing the machine in a closet and hauling it out when you want to sew, look for a machine that's easy to lift and has a handle on top.

Needle threader


This is a device that pulls the thread through the eye of the needle and saves you from squinting or pricking your finger.

Top-load bobbin


Unlike older machines, in which you had to thread the bobbin in a recessed compartment, many machines now allow you to simply slide open a panel and drop the bobbin in. A clear cover lets you see when thread is running low.

Automatic buttonholer

Sews a buttonhole in one step so you don't need to stop and turn the fabric or manipulate a dial. Some machines allow you to insert the button into a slot so that the machine will sew a buttonhole to fit.

Speed control

Lets you determine the pace at which fabric is fed through the machine, enabling you to sew at a nice, steady tempo rather than stopping and starting.

Adjustable presser foot


Regulates how tightly the machine holds the fabric while you sew. This prevents puckering in fine fabrics and stretching in knits.

Feed-dog adjustment

Some machines allow you to drop the toothy mechanism below the sewing surface to do free-style embroidery or darning.

Needle down

This feature allows you to choose to have the needle up or down when you stop. Needle down makes is easy to lift the pressure foot and turn a corner without a jump stitch.

Tension adjustment


This allows you to change how "tight" the thread is that's fed through. Too-tight thread can result in puckered fabric; if it's too loose, you get loopy stitches.

Brands


We're testing 18 models, including some from brands that your grandmother knew and one that's familiar to project-oriented fashionistas who keep an eye on the runway. Singer, Brother, and Kenmore sell about 70 percent of all units. Brands such as Bernina and Husqvarna Viking are gaining as the market shifts to more expensive, feature-laden machines. Use these profiles to compare sewing machines by brand.

Brother

Brother International is one of the leading manufacturers, with a market share of 29 percent of home sewing machines. The company offers basic to top-of-the line combination sewing and embroidery machines. Models are high tech with multiple functions and advanced technology, yet easy to use. Models are available through www.brother.com and a network of independent dealers and mass merchants.

Husqvarna Viking

Husqvarna Viking is one of the leading manufacturers of high-tech electronic and computerized sewing machines. The sewing machines are developed and manufactured in Sweden. The company recently launched Designer Diamond, which is the newest addition to their high-end full service computerized line of sewing and embroidery machines. The Designer Diamond and others are available at Husqvarna Viking full-service dealers.

Janome

Janome America is one of the top manufacturers of more-advanced and innovative sewing machines. Janome offers electronic and computerized models from entry level to the high end. Its most advanced computerized sewing and embroidery machine to date is the Memory Craft 11000, which has patented stepping-motor technology and computer software.

Kenmore

Kenmore (Sears) is a leading supplier of sewing machines. Kenmore offers a variety of mid- to low-end multifunction models that are available exclusively at Sears and Kmart.

Singer

Singer is the leading brand of sewing machines, with more than 43 percent of sales. Singer offers a variety of models with style and features for beginners to proficient sewers. Models are available at specialty stores, mass merchants including Target, Walmart, Kmart, and other national retailers.

   

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