Julie Cefalu from The Crafty Quilter helps you plan your next sewing machine purchase! Julie loves to quilt, and teaches in a variety of venues including The Quilt Show. Learn more about Julie in her introduction, and add your tips in the comments!

7 Tips for Buying a Sewing Machine

Are you in the market for a new sewing machine? As a beginning quilt instructor I am often asked the question, “What kind of machine should I buy?” That’s not an easy question to answer with a simple “A or B.” I have a lot experience with different brands of sewing machines, both my own and those of my students. I’ve come up with seven essential tips for buying a sewing machine to share with you, so you’ll be a little wiser and a lot more prepared when you’re ready to make that purchase.

1. New or Used?
Most of the time I recommend buying a new machine (from a reputable dealer– see Tip #2). You’ll be able to test drive different models, ask questions, take classes on how to use it, and return it or get it repaired if something goes wrong (check their return policy).

If this is your first time sewing or quilting and you don’t know if you’re going to stick with this new hobby of yours, then it might be worth looking at Craigslist or garage sales. However, this could be risky if you don’t know anything about sewing machines. Try to find a friend or relative who has sewing experience and see if they’ll help you. Many dealers accept trade-ins and will carry used machines. This will give you the benefit of some kind of limited warranty and a place to go with questions about your machine.

2. Buy From a Reputable Sewing Machine Dealer
This could be the beginning of a long relationship, so make sure you like and trust the business you’re buying from. Check their Yelp reviews, talk to others in the community and visit their store (often) to see if you like “the vibe.”

Questions to Ask:

  • What’s your return policy?
  • Do you offer instructional classes, specific to my machine?
  • Do you service the machines here or send them out for servicing?
  • Do you offer trade-ins or trade-ups? (Where you can return your machine and get full purchase price towards a new machine?)
  • Do you offer financing?

Resist the temptation to buy a sewing machine from a mass market store. In the end, it may not be worth it. You won’t get any help or support for your new purchase, and there is hidden value in good customer service and care.

3. Buy the Best You Can Afford
That’s easy for me to say, right? Take a look at your budget and determine how much you can afford to spend. Get a dollar range that’s comfortable for you. It might be worth waiting six months until you’ve built up a little reserve for your new purchase. If you can save up to $500, you’ll have more options available to you.

Sewing machine prices will start at less than $100 and can go well beyond $5,000. But remember, in general, you get what you pay for. Indeed, this is a big purchase, but it doesn’t have to be the only sewing machine you’ll ever buy. It’s always possible to upgrade in the future. If you’re a beginning sewer or quilter, the main thing you should be looking for is good stitch quality and ease of use rather than the 600 built-in stitches and lots of bells and whistles.

Don’t forget to look for sales. You can always make an offer below asking price or negotiate some extras to be thrown into the purchase. In my area, there is a large quilt show each year in October and many vendors have great deals in association with the show. And don’t be pressured into buying something you don’t want or aren’t ready for.

4. Research Sewing Machine Manufacturers
You can visit company websites and find the history of the company and information about their products and philosophy. Two websites with good overviews are Sewing Insight, which has a good summary and review of nine different brands, and Pattern Review, which has specific sewing machine reviews by individuals.

Some well-known brands are Bernina, Baby Lock, Brother, Elna, Janome, Juki, Kenmore, Pfaff, Singer and Viking. I’ve personally owned all of those listed except Baby Lock, Brother and Elna. My first sewing machine purchase was a Kenmore. My current sewing machines are a Bernina 770QE and a Juki TL-2010Q. They’re very different machines in price and function, but I love them both.

Some things to consider when looking at different companies are:

  • Where are the machines manufactured?
  • How is their customer service history?
  • What is their repair reputation?
  • How long have they been in business?

5. Important Features to Look for in a Sewing Machine:
Some of these items are from a quilter’s perspective, but I think anyone can benefit from them. This list is in no particular order.

  • Needle up/down setting. This allows you to stop stitching with the needle in the down position. It’s very useful for keeping your position when sewing.
  • Adjustable stitch length and width.
  • Straight stitch adjustable needle position. This gives you the ability to change the “center” of the needle position to the left or right.
  • Blanket stitch. If you’re a quilter, eventually you’ll want to use a blanket stitch for machine appliqué. I’ve had many students in my appliqué classes lament the fact that they don’t have one.
  • Good harp space. This is the space between the needle and the body to the right of the machine. It’s helpful when there is a good amount of space here to fit the bulk of a quilt sandwich when you’re quilting a large quilt.
  • Feed dog up/down. Being able to disengage or drop the feed dogs is important when free motion quilting.
  • Walking foot. Most machines don’t come with a walking foot (also known as a dual feed foot), but you’ll want to make sure one is available for your machine. This makes sewing through multiple layers smooth and even.
  • Machine weight. How heavy your machine is can tell you a few things about it. A very lightweight machine may indicate that it’s made with a lot of plastic parts. This can be useful if you need it to be portable. However if it’s too lightweight, you’ll get too much vibration while sewing. I like my sewing machine to have some metal (weight) to it.
  • Strong motor. Some machines can plow through anything. Others will faint at the sight of a bulky seam. Stronger is better in most cases.
  • Free arm. This allows you to sew sleeves, pant legs, bags and other circular projects easily.
  • Stitch quality. A good sewing machine will have a nice, even straight stitch.
  • Top loading (drop-in) bobbin vs. front loading bobbin. There are pros and cons to each of these systems. For a beginning seamstress or quilter, the top loading bobbin is more user-friendly. You can often see how full the bobbin is (if it’s plastic), and it’s easier to load. The front loading bobbin allows you to change the bobbin without having to remove your work from underneath the needle. You can also adjust the bobbin case tension for use with specialty threads or techniques. However, it takes some dexterity to reach and load the bobbin. I’ve heard from sewing machine technicians that the front loading bobbins perform better, but I suggest doing your own research. I’ve used both top loading and front loading bobbins successfully, and I think you’ll get used to whatever system you end up with.

    6. Nice, But Not Necessary Features:
    With today’s technology, sewing machines are becoming extremely smart and efficient. Sometimes I think mine is going to start a conversation with me (or at least brew me a cup of coffee). Here are some features that are “icing on the cake.”

    • Knee lift or automatic presser foot lift. This feature could be in the necessary category, depending on your level of expertise. I can’t live without mine now. A knee lift gives you hands-free control while sewing, and I use it most often while doing machine appliqué and machine quilting.
    • Automatic thread cutter. With the press of a button, the sewing machine cuts the top and bottom threads for you.
    • Automatic tension control. This can take some of the guess work out of tension adjustments. The machine will automatically change the tension depending on the type of stitch or fabric you’re working with.
    • Dual feed. This is an extra feeding system that works on the top layer of fabric, so multiple layers feed evenly from the top and bottom. It’s not the same as a walking foot as it is integrated into the machine and not a separate attachment.
    • Adjustable spool pin. Sometimes it’s necessary to place a spool of thread in a horizontal position versus a vertical position to allow it to unwind properly.
    • Extension table. Some machines come with an extension table which gives you a larger platform for sewing and quilting. It’s especially helpful for free motion quilting.
    • Adjustable presser foot pressure. This allows you to increase or decrease the amount of pressure applied by the presser foot. This is helpful when doing free motion quilting or appliqué.
    • Speed control dial. This is a nice feature that allows you to put a limit on how fast you stitch. Some of us need a little more speed control than others!
    • Built in buttonhole stitch. You never know when you’ll need to make a button hole, and it’s so easy with an automatic buttonhole stitch.

    7. Test Drive Different Makes + Models
    Yes, it’s kind of like shopping for a car! It’s so important to try out as many sewing machines as you can. This allows you to compare different brands, models, features, prices and functionality.

    If you’re a quilter, bring a small quilt sandwich with you to test on. You can try out free motion quilting or perhaps there is an integrated dual feed system that you want to play with. If you’re a bag maker, bring some thick fabrics to work with; you’re going to need a machine that can handle bulky seams and multiple thicknesses.

    Make sure the basic straight stitch has smooth, even stitches. I remember when I upgraded from a Kenmore sewing machine to a Viking (Lily 540). The stitches on the Viking were like butter; so smooth and even. It really affected the quality and accuracy of my quilting.

    Take notes about the machines you tested and your experience with it. Once you’ve tried all of the brands and models you intended to, compare your notes. Test drive again if necessary. Soon you’ll be ready to purchase the sewing machine that is a perfect fit for you.