Buying a sewing machine: A complete shopping guide

Posted on Posted in Sewing Tips

One of the most common questions I hear in the sewing community is “Which sewing machine should I get”?

It’s a fair question – unless you know exactly what you’re looking for it can be tricky to know the difference between the machine on the left for £200 and the identical looking machine on the right for £550!

Here’s some tips to make shopping for your perfect sewing companion a breeze!

The only stitches you really need:

Straight stitch and zig zag stitch come on every modern home sewing machine:


The 3-step zig zag is used for lingerie, so look out for this if you want to make underwear:

blind hem stitch can also be useful if you can’t stand hemming by hand and want invisible hems:


Want to sew shirts and shirtdresses?

There are two types of buttonhole stitches1 step and 4 step. 4 step will get you by, but If you plan to sew shirts and shirt dresses I highly recommend a 1 step buttonhole stitch. This is the symbol for a 1 step square hole, but you can get rounded and keyhole shapes too. A 4 step machine will have 3 different stitches that, together, make up a complete square buttonhole. You need to switch between the stitches manually, instead of just putting your foot down and taking a sip of your tea. Up to you.

A machine with the option to drop the feed teeth is good to sew buttons on by machine and is also essential for free motion embroidery (popular with quilters and very arty sewists!)


Which is the best brand of sewing machine?

Stick with the known names and you’ll be fine. Janome, Brother, Singer, Husqvana, Pfaff, Bernina, Toyota are all reputable manufacturers. The John Lewis machines are made by Janome, and are good starter models if you’re just looking to find your feet. You also want to make sure that any add on items you want like additional presser feet and needle plates (see below) are available for the model you’re looking at. Just be sure to stay clear of unbranded machines.


Sewing with stretch fabrics?

A machine with adjustable foot pressure will help to stop the fabric stretching as you sew – particularly important for hems, as well as a twin needle capability. The lightning stitch can be used to sew stretch fabrics and gives much better results than an ordinary zig zag, but my best advice is to buy an overlocker as well if you want to sew stretch.


Sewing with chiffon and fine fabrics?

The challenge with sewing fine fabrics is that they can get pushed down by the needle into the wide hole in the needle plate, but you can actually buy a second needle plate with a smaller hole that completely stops this happening. Look for a model that sells additional straight stitch needle plates.


Sewing with thick or heavy fabrics?

A heavier machine handles any fabric better, but especially upholstery fabrics and denim weights. Old vintage metal machines and modern weightier machines will give better results than a lightweight one, because the success of a machine lies in its motor and its shaft. Think of it like having big strong thighs and arms – it’s much easier to do the heavy lifting! 


Are computerised machines better?

Opinions vary here but I’m a fan. I find they have better precision, and computerisation allows a few other nice features like buttons that make your needle end in the up or down position (you choose!) when you finish sewing, and even snipping the thread ends for you! If you’re new to sewing, you’ll find a speed limiter handy to stop the machine going any faster than you’re comfortable with.



What about automatic tension?

Not essential but a nice feature to have.


Should I look for a top loading (rotary) or front loading (oscillating) bobbin?

The main difference here is that a top loader rotates fully, and a front loader oscillates back and forth. It’s not a set rule, but I’ve found top loading bobbins to be more reliable and less likely to jam up with thread. Top loading bobbins also often have a clear cover so you can see when you’re running low on bobbin thread before it happens!


I’d love an integrated needle threader!

Unless you struggle with your sight, these are often even more awkward to use than threading the needle yourself. If you like the sound of this feature, ask to give it a go in the shop and check if it’s actually helpful to you.


I want a really serious machine – what should I get?

If you’re already an experienced seamstress and you don’t plan on moving house anytime soon – go industrial. You’ll still need a home sewing machine for things like buttonholes and zig zags, but you can now buy a brand new industrial sewing machine for £500-600 pounds, the same price as many middle range home sewing machines. If a John Lewis JL110 is Fiat and a Janome DC6030 is a BMW, then an industrial Juki is a Ferrari! I recommend finding a local dealer, who usually let you try before you buy but prepare to be amazed by incredible speed, precision, agility and the most beautifully perfect little stitches you ever did see. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you!


This machine has 200 stitches so it must be awesome!

Woah, let’s not get carried away here! I’ve listed the ones you need for dressmaking above. If you want to do embroidery or add decorative trims to things than crack on, but don’t be fooled into thinking that more functions mean a better machine. The best sewing machines in the world are each made to do just one stitch. Remember that when you’re in the shop and you see all the cute patterns! Buy them if you want them, but don’t let them swing your vote.


Now make a list of your “must have” and “I might need these later on” features and you’re ready to go shopping!


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One thought on “Buying a sewing machine: A complete shopping guide

  1. Great article. I’m in the market for a new machine (it’s been awhile) and I can’t believe the prices. So many features and bells and whistles.

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