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4 Things to Consider when Choosing a Sewing Machine

Choosing a sewing machine can be tricky. Sewing machines are not cheap, and how do you know if you've got one that will work for what you want to sew? There are so (sew?) many options!

I've put together this blog post to discuss some of the key things to think about when looking for a sewing machine, whether you are a beginner looking to buy your first machine or looking to upgrade from the machine you have, or add to your collection. Here's what you really need to know: If it works, sews a straight stitch and a zig zag stitch, and can back stitch, it will work for most sewing projects. But if you want to dive a little deeper into some of the details of sewing machines, keep reading!

1) Domestic, industrial, serger, overlocker, coverstitch...what type do I need?

One question I hear a lot, especially when it comes to sewing clothing, is "Should I buy a serger or a domestic machine for my first sewing machine?"

The answer is always to buy a domestic machine first. As I mentioned above, a machine that can do a straight stitch and zig zag stitch can handle most sewing projects, and a serger can do neither of those things. A domestic machine can handle all the sewing needs a serger can, and can do so much more (such as patchwork, and bag making).

But when it is time to buy a serger? What about a coverstitch? Or an overlocker? What is the difference between these machines anyway? What if I need something that can handle thicker fabrics like vinyl, or cork?

A serger and overlocker are the same thing, basically. A serger can sew an overlock seam, which, if you look on the inside of most of your ready wear garments, is the type of seam you will see. It uses three to four threads to make this happen, and is excellent for sewing knit fabric, because the overlock seam is a strong seam that can stretch with knit fabric. I have used it for woven fabrics as well, although it's not great for super delicate wovens that fray easily, because sometimes they can fray right around the seam. If you are sewing lots of knits on your domestic machine and want a machine that can help you get through projects faster, it might be time to add a serger to your sewing room. There's a bit of a learning curve to using them, but if you plan a few hours to sit and play with your serger and some scraps of fabric, it will save so much time, and you will love the seams you get with a serger.

A coverstitch is used mostly for hemming. Lots of people use twin needles on their sewing machine to imitate the look of the coverstitch hem. Like the serger, it creates a hem that can stretch well with knit fabrics. If you have a domestic machine and a serger, and want something to save ever MORE time with your knit projects, adding a coverstitch is a great next step. It also has a bit of a learning curve, but less if you are comfortable with your serger. However, if you only have room in your budget for a serger or a coverstitch, I highly recommend serger first. Coverstitch machines save a lot of time with the hemming stage, but sergers are simply phenomenal for the main structure of your garment, and will really help it last longer. Plus, since they save time at basically every step of garment construction, you will get a lot more bang for your buck from them.

What about machines that can handle heavy duty fabrics, like vinyl, cork, leather? Well, a lot of domestic machines can, as long as you aren't trying to sew 10 layers of vinyl together or something. As with most things, you get what you pay for, so a $100 machine from JoAnn's is a lot less likely to be able to handle it than a $1000 Janome from your local dealer. That said, I personally use a Bernina, which is a higher end machine, and I've noticed that it can handle four layers of not-super-thin vinyl before it gets cranky (I've forced eight through. It was...well, let's just say I'm not doing that again). But if you find yourself making a lot of vinyl bags or leather clothing, it might be time to consider an industrial machine.

2) Age before beauty?

There are many, many people out there who will tell you that vintage and antique machines are the only way to go. These machines were definitely built to last, and if you can find one that was well cared for, you can usually get an excellent machine for a very reasonable price.

Plus, let's be real, antique machines are really quite gorgeous.

As I mentioned, I personally use a Bernina for my domestic machine, and it is...I think 30 years old? Maybe only 25. Regardless, it is in excellent shape, and I expect to get many more years out of it. It is a computerized machine, and so offers a wide variety of stitches, which is a distinct advantage over some of the antique machines. Often, if you can find a local sewing machine dealer, they will have a machine like this, one that has been well cared for and maintained, much less expensive than a brand new machine, but with the advantages of a more expensive machine.

The key with this though is "well maintained". I regularly take my Bernina in for service, and in my area, it costs upwards of $150 every time. This is generally a yearly expense. However, it is definitely way, way cheaper than buying a brand new Bernina, and as I mentioned, I expect it will last for many more years.

Older machines can be a great way to go for this reason. However, if you are just starting out and aren't sure how much you want to commit to sewing, a new machine, even if it's a cheap lower end model, is a good idea, so you don't have to commit to the regular maintenance! Plus, as someone who currently has six sewing machines in her sewing room, if you find you do love sewing, it's easy to quickly collect many others!

3) Stitch regulator, dual feed and other extras, oh my!

Often when you are looking at the description for sewing machines, you will see enticing features like a stitch regulator (which keeps the length of the stitch the same, this can be important for entering your sewing in competitions) or dual feeds (which feeds the top and the bottom fabric through at the same time). But what kind of extras are important to include?

As I wrote above, the most important features in a sewing machine is a straight stitch, and zig zag stitch and a back stitch. But some of the other extras can be pretty exciting. If you do want to enter your sewing in competitions, a stitch regulator can help make sure that the stitch length won't get you dinged. If you work with lots of bulky fabrics, or many layers, a dual feed can be a real bonus. If you have eyesight problems or difficulty with your fine motor muscles, an automatic needle threader can be exceptionally beneficial.

Describing all the extra features that could be in a sewing machine would take a whole new blog post, so instead I'll just say that if you are looking at a machine with lots of extra features, do your research and figure out how something might be useful to you. Try it out in the store if possible to make sure that the feature actually works for you. My machine does have an automatic needle threader, but I personally never use it because it's much easier for me to thread the needle myself. I'd be kicking myself if I had bought the machine for that feature. And if you don't know what something is, be sure to ask, or at the very least, Google it so you know exactly what you are getting into!

4) Does throat size really matter?

One other thing to consider is the throat size of the machine. Basically, the longer the throat, the more fabric you can fit underneath it. This is probably less important if most of your sewing is small shirts and bags, but because more important if you are doing a lot of quilting or larger clothes or bags. You will mostly hear throat size discussed for people who want to do the actual quilting (not just piecing) on their machines, but if you are sewing bulky coats or something, it's also a good idea to consider it. A longer throat will cost more money, so it's also important to consider the value of it it to your own sewing needs.

There are so many things to think about when you are looking at buying a sewing machine, and I've just barely scratched the surface here! What are some things you think are important to consider in a new sewing machine? Let me know in the comments below!


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