The Home Ec 101 Sewing Machine Buying Guide

Ivy says:

When I first started sewing, my mom gave me her ancient (okay, 1970s, which is about the same age as I am and I totally feel justified in calling ancient) sewing machine and bought herself a new, fabulous machine. Although it’s pretty old, it’s solid, and is a total workhorse. It has served me quite well over the years.

But the time had come that I was ready to step up to a new machine. I knew just what I wanted in a machine and how much I had to spend, and I researched online until I narrowed it down to a few models that I wanted to see in person, and possibly try out. It was between a Kenmore model and a Brother model. The Kenmore was obviously at Sears and the Brother was at Hancock Fabrics.

That Friday night, I went first to Sears. I found the model I wanted and looked at it, and kept an eye out for an associate. I watched associate after associate walked right past me to talk to other people. I got the attention of one associate who told me he’d be right back, and he never came back. Tired of this treatment, I went to Hancock Fabrics, where I knew I might be ignored, but only because they’re totally understaffed.

When I got to Hancock Fabrics, I went to look at the machine, and found it was entirely unsuitable. It was way too light (light machines tend to “walk” across the table, unless you have a sewing cabinet which I do not) and it was awfully small, to boot. So I went on home, determined to come back the next day to Sears with my hair straightened and dressed to the nines, so THEN they’d pay attention to me.

While I was at home that night, I did even more research. This time, I went to forums and message boards and read buying advice from people, rather than the reviews I had been reading. I noticed a common thread. Most people were saying to go to a sewing machine dealership rather than a store like Sears or even Hancock’s or JoAnn’s. Very interesting. So I googled for a Janome dealership in my area (another brand I was looking at) and lo and behold, there was one fairly close to me.

This experience was absolutely fabulous. I walked into the store and told them I was an intermediate sewer, had X amount of dollars to spend, and wanted certain features. She led me to a few machines in my price range, then showed me one that was slightly out of my price range, but was one I had drooled over online. Online, it was way out of my price range, but in the shop, it was just slightly out of my price range. I talked to her about the price and they dropped it down so it was in my price range. She showed me several nifty features of it like the one step buttonholer, let me play with it, and I was sold.

For the tl;dr crowd, let’s sum up:

Decide first what your price range is. It’s easy when looking at sewing machines to keep looking at machines that are 200 or 300 bucks more than your price range, then decide that the features available on those machines are the ones you really need.

Then start your research. Look at various websites, then google the model number and brand and see what people are saying about the machines. Some good websites to look at are at Sewingpatternreview.com and Craftster.org.

The first place you should look at in person should be a sewing machine dealership. Not Sears or Hancock Fabrics. In addition to the excellent customer service I received there, I also got a free class on how to use my machine, and a one year in-house warranty. The warranty was especially cool- if my machine breaks or starts acting weird, I can take it somewhere local and most likely not be away from my machine for a terribly long time.

No matter where you go, make sure you see the machine you’re buying in person first. It’s okay to buy online, but if I had bought the Brother machine I was looking at online, I would have been disappointed.

Don’t rule out Craigslist and thrift stores to buy a machine. Older machines make good first machines, especially if you can buy them cheap. Make sure you either get one that comes with a manual, or google your model number to download or buy a new manual. A manual is essential to sewing success, especially if you’re new to sewing.

That said, though, I will say this. A good machine can be the difference in whether you love or hate sewing. My old machine was a good machine, but it was kind of a pain. With my new machine, I LOVE sewing and live for the minutes I can spend sewing every day now. I remember using the machines in school- they were AWFUL and I absolutely despised sewing. It took spending some time with my mom and her machine to convince me I didn’t despise sewing. It wasn’t sewing I hated, it was sewing on crappy machines.

Oh, and the sewing machine I ended up buying, in case you’re wondering, is a Brother Innov-is 40 Project Runway Limited Edition. I’ve been sewing on it for nearly a week now and I LOVE it. Love, love, love.

Tell me about your sewing machines, Home Eccers!



14 Comments

  1. Kendra on February 3, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    I’m shopping around as we speak…I think I’m more confused than when I started. Like you I started with my mothers Singer Genie. I’m off to a dealer this weekend. Hopefully they can help me. I found one on the walmart site but I’ve heard bad things about their machines being made with plastic parts to cut down on the cost.

  2. Traci on December 22, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    i grew up sewing on my mom’s old 1970’s bernina. when i went to college, she bought me a cheapo walmart one (a brother i think) that i *loathed.* (she has it now and thinks it’s fine, but i wanted to throw that thing over a big cliff and/or into a large bonfire.) so when i finally had enough money to buy a good machine, i went to the bernina dealership in town and got a pretty basic model. so far, it’s been wonderful. i <3 my bernina.

  3. Judith on December 21, 2008 at 5:13 pm

    I researched the Brothers sergers and discovered the absolutely best price on on the one I wanted from Amazon (along with free shipping), so I ordered it. My husband was thrilled that I got what I wanted.
    I am waiting till the 12 days of Christmas (when life is less crazy) to open it and start to play. Have lots of knit fabrics bought to make baby clothes for my coming grandson, so I’ll really have fun!
    Wish me luck!

  4. WRC on December 19, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    I have a Singer 328K Style-O-Matic. I’m guessing it was made in the early 60’s (same vintage as me). I bought it for $65 in the mid-80’s with my income tax refund and it was the best $65 I ever spent. I love love love my machine.

  5. Thankful on December 18, 2008 at 10:57 am

    I have my aunt’s Singer from the early 60s. It can’t do buttonholes, but the thing is a hoss when it comes to sewing well and fast.

    I concur about finding a dealer when purchasing a new machine–specialty retail is the way to go. I love the place I take my machine for maintenance, and the ladies who work there not only know their stuff, they have time to really answer questions.

  6. Keter on December 12, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    I had a White Westinghouse from the early 1900s that I grew up using until the motor shorted out and I couldn’t find a replacement. I was really poor at the time (early 80s) and doing a lot of sewing for my family, so I bought a top of the line Kenmore (on credit), figuring it would be reliable. The thing was a total lemon and Sears flatly refused to honor the warranty. Borrowing friends’ newer machines and a few trips to a sewing machine dealer convinced me that anything modern under $1000 (probably $2000 by now) would be a disappointment. (Although I fell in lust with an embroidery machine that can be programmed and run by a computer…only $10K…)

    The machine I have now is an old Singer I found advertised in Thrifty Nickel or Greensheet for $75. It was absolutely GOOEY with a mixture of dried up oil and extremely heavy cigarette residue, struggled to run, and had no accessories. I got it for $50 and had it professionally serviced. It took two months of soaking it in penetrating oil, but the machine came out like new. The guy who fixed it told me that most of the old machines that get sluggish or even bound up (but the motor still hums) are just gooey from the old formula of oil and are just fine once cleaned.

    I found a bunch of aftermarket specialty feet on sale for $1 each at a fabric store, so I bought nine or ten different feet for it – even one that creates covered cording for upholstery, and was able to get a huge box of metal bobbins also for cheap. Shortly after that, I was in a flea market and found a complete zig-zag and decorative stitch accessory with six cams that fit it – I think I paid another $10 for that. A garage sale yielded even more cams and fabric hoop for delicates. I think I now have every accessory for it.

    A few years ago, I did some research online and found out that the machine was made in 1953 in England of all places, and was able to download a complete parts list and manual for free from a UK site (sorry, I no longer have the link). Aside from normal oiling and cleaning, it hasn’t needed any service in the 17 years I’ve had it. The accessories are a little finicky to set up, but work perfectly, and I’ve been able to do quilts, curtains, alterations, even boat upholstery on it. So I would definitely recommend looking for a stout old machine that is gooey with oil and fixing it up.

  7. Judith on December 12, 2008 at 11:41 am

    Thanks, Angela. It’s good to hear that you found your mother’s serger useful. Thirteen pairs of pajama pants!?!?! Wow!

    I’m going to check out the Brothers site and read some manuals. I will go to a sewing machine dealer this weekend and learn more ….. my husband just offered to buy a serger for me for Christmas! I can’t turn that down!

  8. Angela on December 12, 2008 at 11:09 am

    I hace a Pacesetter by Brother… My parents got it for me for my high school grad present… I did not use it for many years and now a week does not go by that I don’t use it. I also got mine from a dealer and that is who I bring it to when ever it needs anything, like to get cleaned and gone through every couple of years, it will make it last so much longer. I am also getting a sewing machine and table from some one that left it in there apt when they moved out. I have no idea what that machine is like, but hey I can either give it to my kids to sew on or gift it to some one that does not have one.

    About the serger, I will be getting one hopefully soon(this is the second part to my HS grad present and I have been out of HS for almost 10 years now). My mom has had one for many many years and as it is awsome to make cloths and crafts, I warn you, do not sew quilt blocks together on it… I have learned that they show the thread when strtched for quilting and the seam is much too bulky. I barrowed my moms a few Christmases back and make 13 pairs of PJ pants as gifts… it when so fast and the look so nice with the clean edge.

    I know Brother manuals you can download for free, Singer want you to pay to download theres… atleast that is what I could find.

  9. Allison Wonder on December 12, 2008 at 8:33 am

    My SIL gave me her old machine. I honestly don’t know whether it works or not; the foot is off, and I haven’t taken it in to have it looked at. Also, no manual, and I know nothing about sewing (I actually want it to use on greeting cards).

    I’m sure I’d use a machine if it was working (and I knew how to use it), but it seems like too much money to spend to get a new or decent used one. I guess I could scour the classifieds, though…

    • Badbadivy on December 12, 2008 at 10:02 am

      Allison, I’d definitely take it in to a repair shop and see if it can be repaired. It is soooo much less expensive than buying a new machine. They can also get you the feet you need for it. You can download a manual online, most likely.

  10. Judith on December 12, 2008 at 2:21 am

    I used a Kenmore for nearly 30 years (bought it with babysitting money when I was 15!). It was a wonderful machine, and is still being used by a friend to whom I gave it when I bought my new Janome. The Janome is a dream to sew on.
    I have a question for you all: I’m thinking of getting a serger. If you have one, is it useful? Complicated? Do you have a brand or model you would recommend? I want to use it to make clothes for my (coming) grandson and for myself, and to do home dec things, so I’m thinking regular serging, piping, ruffling. What are the possibilities with a serger? I’m intrigued, and I’d appreciate any advice you might have.

  11. Karen on December 12, 2008 at 12:47 am

    DON’T buy a sewing machine that’s one of those school specials! I do NOT know what I was thinking. I paid about 4 times too much and got a lightweight machine that couldn’t hold tension if it’s life depended on it!

  12. Carriem on December 11, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    My machine is my mother’s Elna from the early 80s. It is nice solid metal, and was over 2000 dollars (at the time!). So we take care of it, and take it in for tuning from time to time, and I just love it. I really don’t even want another machine.

  13. PollyS on December 11, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    I was JUST looking at that machine on Sunday. My walmart has it on sale. I was wondering if the sewing machine shop in town would match their price. Now I know that I will call them to ask. I need the free class they give. I also need to take a class on using a serger. I inherited one and it is such a shame for it just to collect dust.
    Thanks for the tip(s).

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