How to choose a sewing machine
Choosing a sewing machine can be a complex process, whether it’s a basic model or one with more specific functions, such as a serger or a machine for quilting or embroidery. We’ve made this resource to help you with your decision.
How to choose the right machine
- Step 1: Assess your needs
- Step 2: Familiarize yourself with features and functions of various machines
- Step 3: Get a demonstration and ask questions
Step 1: Assess your needs
Consider the projects you might want to do and look at some pattern requirements and directions to get a feel for the features you need. Are there projects you would tackle, if only you had the right machine features?
- Sew clothing
- Make bags
- Create quilted wall hangings
- Make home decor items like table runners, placemats, wall hangings, etc
- Make full-size quilts for bedding
- Add embroidery to projects
When choosing a sewing machine should you buy only what you need in the present, or look ahead to the future? Here are some things to consider.
For the beginner
If you’re a beginner, here are the basics. We hold classes at ABQ Sewing Studio to show you how to use your sewing machine, serger, quilting machine, or embroidery machine and if you purchase from us, you get lessons on how to use your machine for free until you completely understand it.
Do you need more than one machine?
A full-featured sewing machine with a variety of accessories and stitches can take you well into your sewing, quilting, and embroidery journey before you need to upgrade, but there are also some good reasons to have a second machine. Keep in mind that most sewing machines have a selection of linear embroidery designs and some small fonts built in, but if you really want to do embroidery you’ll want a machine that embroiders in a hoop.
If you’re new to sewing, you might be horrified at the thought of needing more than one machine. But experienced sewists know that this hobby grows over time and as you get into more and more sophisticated projects, so grows your desire for a variety of better tools.
Do you need a portable machine for classes?
You should also think about classes. If you enjoy the camaraderie of a group class and plan to join, you’ll need a sewing machine that you’re able to tote around. Many people who take a lot of classes have a second smaller and lighter sewing machine just for this purpose.
However, if you are into embroidery using a machine that embroiders in hoops and you are taking classes you’ll want to consider a rolling carrier bag to move your machine. Ditto with your serger for garment sewing classes. These machines can be heavy.
As with most things, the more features and extras a sewing machine has, the more expensive it is. Please don’t make the mistake of buying a machine just because it’s cheap. It’s better to buy a quality machine with fewer features than to buy a throwaway machine with extras. We call them throwaways because they break down quickly and it’s often cheaper to replace them than repair them. Your average sewing machine tune-up and cleaning runs about $130 and that’s before you repair anything that’s broken. So that machine you bought for $199 won’t be such a deal in the long run.
Be sure to factor in machine maintenance. Yearly maintenance keeps your machine humming along smoothly and saves you money in the long run by avoiding expensive repairs. Many fabric and quilt shops also provide maintenance services.
If you live in the London, Ontario area, at ABQ Sewing Studio we service and repair most sewing machine models.
Step 2: Choosing a sewing machine: features and functions to consider
Today, a computerized machine is more the norm than the exception. Sewing machines have become so sophisticated that they can do a lot of the work for you. All these new features and functions open up a new world of sewing possibilities.
High shank or low shank
The shank is the metal rod where the presser foot holder attaches.
Many entry-level sewing machines have a low shank but many higher-end machines have a high shank, which allows for more space for hands and fabric in the throat space.
This article tells you how to measure to find out if your machine is high shank or low shank and has some helpful advice about quilting rulers and feet.
The sewing machine foot
Sewing machines come with a variety of “feet” and simply by changing out a foot, you can change the machine’s suitability for various tasks. Foot selection is an important feature to consider when choosing a sewing machine.
Not all machines can use all types of feet and feet are not generally interchangeable from brand to brand. Some brands allow you to use the same feet on all their machines, so if you buy up in the same line you can take your feet with you and use them on the new machine. But with other brands, you need to buy a whole new set of specialty feet 🙁.
Below are some basic sewing machine feet
The presser foot is the standard foot you’ll see on every sewing machine. Its function is to hold the fabric in place as you sew. You can sew straight and zig-zag with this foot along with some other stitches.
For a one-step buttonhole, insert the button for which you wish to make a buttonhole into the buttonhole foot. The machine senses the size of your button and stitches out the buttonhole to size.
Lower-end machines don’t have this functionality and instead have a foot that stitches out using a four-step process. This creates a less uniform buttonhole than the one-step process.
The zipper foot is recommended for flawless zipper installation. This is a narrower foot that is placed to the left or the right of the zipper.
There is also an invisible zipper foot available for invisible zipper application in fashion sewing.
The blind hem foot helps you get a great result when hemming. The visible stitching is on the inside of the hem, with a tiny, unnoticeable pick stitch that comes through to the outside of the garment.
If you’re a quilter, sewing machines for quilting have many features built right in, but even a regular sewing machine can use a walking foot that will help sew through the three layers of a quilt without puckering. We made a video to show you how sewing through layers becomes so much easier with the proper foot. Generally, the walking foot is not included with lower-end machines and needs to be purchased separately.
For those who work with heavy fabric such as denim, this illustrated walkthrough shows you how to use a foot with a leveling button. This foot will save you a lot of headaches. If you’ve ever tried to make a bag or hem some jeans and found that your sewing machine complained when you tried to sew uphill, you’ll love it. Most models come with one, but if not, there is another solution illustrated in the post.
Some projects, such as bags, call for vinyl to be used, and that can get a bit sticky – literally! What to do? Use a teflon foot, as shown in this video for the Ooh-La-La Travel Bag.
The piecing foot, or quilting foot, helps quilters with all those quarter-inch seams. Beware of the zig-zag stitch when using this foot! Along with precautions about that, Kelley also shows you how to get good quarter-inch seams if you don’t have this foot available.
There are several variations available on this foot: clear plastic, metal, one with a guide on the side to slide your fabric along, or the standard metal foot where you follow the edge of the foot to get ¼” seams.
Tension and stitches
A common question is “what should the tension be set at?”
Whenever you change to a different weight thread or fabric, unless your machine automatically adjusts tension to different fabric weights, you want to adjust the tension dial. If you need to adjust your tension, it will become easier over time, but at first you’ll have to experiment a bit. Check and adjust the tension gradually until it is right. If it’s too tight, it could snap the thread but if it’s too loose, your thread gets loopy.
Here’s an example of loopy thread caused by a tension imbalance.
Find out how to solve some common sewing machine tension problems.
Kinds of stitches range from basics, such as the default straight stitch and the zigzag stitch, to utility stitches like the blind hem stitch and stretch stitch (for sewing stretchy knits), all the way up to a range of decorative embroidery stitches and various fonts that can be stitched out.
With the exception of antiques, all sewing machines allow you to control the length and width of your stitches, but the fancier ones come with more built-in decorative stitches, giving you more ways to flex your creative muscles.
The stitch width dial is self-explanatory. It controls how far the needle travels side to side as you sew.
Decorative stitches are pre-programmed so that all you need to do is select the stitch and it will set the width automatically, although it can be adjusted for your specific requirements in most machines.
Stitching Tips & Techniques
Double or triple straight stitch gives you some nice detail
Topstitching a patch pocket without backstitching
An automatic needle threader hooks into the needle and pulls the thread through. This feature is a proven favourite of most sewists, especially in low light sitations or if your eyes refuse to see that pesky hole in the needle.
Needle position. Many machines allow you to adjust the needle right/left postition. Say you want to get really close to a seam to do topstitching. You can move the needle over while leaving the foot in position to hold the fabric down properly.
Machine Needle Sizing
Choose the size of the needle according to the thickness of your thread and the type of fabric you are sewing through. Modern home sewing machines use a flat shank needle – those are the types sold in your local sewing or quilting store.
Needle size is determined by the numbers you see on the package, for example: 90/14. The first number, 90, is the European sizing system, and the second number, 14, is the American sizing system (think metric versus imperial). The larger the number, the thicker the blade of the needle. A thicker needle is generally needed for thicker fabric. As an example, use an 80/12 needle to sew quilting weight cotton but use a 90/14 needle to sew heavier fabrics like denim. You’ll notice that the needle eye is larger on the heavier blade needles.
Another variable on needles is the needle ‘scarf’. That’s the indentation above the eye of the needle. This is the part that lets the bobbin grab hold of the upper thread to make stitches. The scarf is manufactured differently for different sewing purposes and different types of thread.
Needles can also be coated with different metals like chrome or titanium; these cause less friction on the thread that passes through the eye and give better fabric penetration. Others have a super non-stick finish in case you are sewing through adhesive residue. Without this your needle can gather sticky adhesive making it difficult to sew. There are needles specifically made for embroidery, serging, sewing with leather, sewing knits, sewing a double row of stitches, sewing metalic threads, and more. If in doubt start off with the standards – a package of Universal 80/12 and 90/14 needles.
Twin needles can be used for various purposes. You might want to mimic the double row of serger stitches like the ones found on the hem of your knit T-shirt, use them to sew a double row of stitches along the leg of a pair of jeans, or do some decorative embroidery work.
Buy the appropriate twin needle for the kind of fabric you are sewing. There are twin needles for dual rows of embroidery, for metallic threads, and for knits and jeans.
There is also a choice for the distance between the needles. There are widely spaced and narrowly spaced twin needles.
Bobbins are not all the same and are not all interchangeable. Check the brand and size required and purchase only the correct bobbin for your machine. THE WRONG BOBBIN CAN RUIN YOUR MACHINE.
Beginner-level machines have a front-loading bobbin, where you have to remove the bobbin case part of the machine in order to load it.
Most other machines have a top-loading bobbin, which is easier to load and thread. Plus, you can see how much thread is left on the bobbin since the bobbin cover is clear plastic. When you get into the higher-end machines there is an automatic bobbin sensor that will tell you when you are just about out of bobbin thread.
You might think foot pedals are all the same, but they do vary. Your foot pedal is generally unique to your machine and brand. Remember to always bring it along if you are having your machine repaired or no repair can take place.
The higher-end machines, as well as having a foot pedal, also have a button that stops and starts the sewing function of your machine. Handy if you have broken your foot! There are even foot pedals that you can program to do multiple functions like fasten your thread, cut your thread or do needle up or needle down functions.
Little things with big impact
Use a recognized brand of thread when you sew. That rules out using discount store threads, which are generally cheap, lightweight polyester threads made of junk scraps. It has an uneven texture that causes tension issues. Cheap thread can result in an expensive repair as it breaks and gets stuck in the moving parts of your expensive sewing machine. It shreds and breaks and leaves a lot of fluff residue behind.
Beware of inexpensive cone thread as it is likely serger thread. Serger seams are always sewn with 3 or 4 threads and that’s what gives a serged seam its strength. One strand of serger thread by itself is weak.
Quality thread is key to quality results. Generally, you will sew your fabrics with ‘like’ threads. Sew cotton or natural fibres with cotton thread and sew manmade fibres with polyester threads.
But there are always exceptions. When sewing knits you’ll want to sew with polyester because of its strength and flexibility. We recommend Mettler threads in cotton and polyester.
Sewing machine table
If you like a lot of flat space around your sewing you will really enjoy an extension table for your sewing machine. Machine quilting is far easier using these tables. If one is not available through the sewing machine manufacturer, then one can be ordered specially made for your sewing machine.
The extension table stops fabric drag because you have more flat space to work on. These fold up for storage if you have limited table space in your sewing area.
Tote for travel or classes
Make traveling to class a lot more carefree with a tote to carry your sewing machine and accessories.
If you’ve got a lightweight machine you can use our popular pattern, the Sewing Machine Tote, to make your own. It holds a small machine, extension table, fabric and notions. There are side pockets for the cords and foot.
However, if you’ve got a larger sewing machine and are traveling to classes with it, you’ll want to invest in a rolling case. These are available by special order and are specially sized to fit your serger, sewing, or embroidery machine. The embroidery machine cases come with a case for your embroidery arm as well. They fold up for easier storage between trips.
Options to finish a quilt top
- Hand quilting is quickly becoming a lost art, but there are probably a few groups that still do it.
- Use your regular sewing machine to do free-motion quilting by dropping your feed dogs and using a special foot. This is not recommended for entry-level models as the throat space is very small.
- Pay someone with a long-arm quilting machine to quilt your quilt top.
- Purchase your own long-arm quilting machine. If you do a lot of quilts or plan to offer to do it for others, this can be worth it.
- Rent time on a quilting machine. At ABQ Sewing Studio, we certify you to use ours, then rent by the hour. Other shops do this as well.
How to choose a quilting machine
Most stores will let you try out a machine before you purchase. Test drive full-sized machines, hooped longarm machines, tabletop longarms and regular sewing machines.
If you have the room for a full-sized longarm quilting machine but are not sure about buying, take a class so you can rent time on a machine. Try quilting a few quilts and see how you like it before you buy.
Which quilting machine you decide upon depends on several factors:
- Your budget
- The space you have for the machine
- Whether you want to do just a little quilting or a lot
If you have space and want to quilt for others then a full-sized longarm machine is the way to go. If you have quite a few quilts to quilt but don’t have as much space, the hooped system longarm is a good bet. If you like to sit while quilting but want more space than you get under a sewing machine then the tabletop quilting machine is for you. If you’d like to just try your hand at machine quilting then take a lesson in free-motion quilting. It’s easier with a sewing machine with a larger throat space (the space between the needle and the machine).
Let’s have a look at four categories of quilting machines.
Full-size long arm quilting machine
A long-arm machine designed specifically for quilting does not have feed dogs like a regular sewing machine. There is a lot of harp space (usually between 16” – 20”) between the needle and the sewing machine. Using a long arm you guide the machine over the fabric rather than guide the fabric through the machine.
Generally, long-arm machines also have a stitch regulator. This gives automatic control of the length of the stitches no matter how fast you move the machine. Long-arm machines take up a considerable amount of space – about a 14ft by 8ft footprint is needed to accommodate one. The fabric is fed through the machine on a roller system that spans the width of the quilt. These machines come with numerous options to make quilting easier.
Long arm quilting machine with hoop system has a smaller footprint
One long arm machine option that works well for smaller spaces uses a hoop system. These machines have an approximate footprint of 6ft x 4ft.
You attach the part of the quilt you wish to quilt using the large hoop frame, quilt that portion, and then re-hoop another portion until the quilting is complete.
The machine attached to the frame is the same as a full-sized long-arm machine but there is more manipulation of the actual quilt. You can do any sized quilt on these smaller machines.
Tabletop quilting machines
Tabletop-style quilting machines incorporate a professional quilting machine on a table. These machines have large throat space but unlike a full-sized long-arm machine you move the fabric by hand under the needle.
The benefit to these machines is that you can sit down (or stand as some have an adjustable height) while quilting on a large smooth surface. Because of the increased throat space, space that’s not found in a household sewing machine, it is much easier to work on larger quilt projects.
Use a sewing machine to quilt
Free-motion quilting means that you control how the fabric moves under the needle as you also control how fast the machine runs. The trick is to get a fairly consistent length of stitch, which takes some practice. We run classes at ABQ Sewing Studio to teach this skill. Check out our classes schedule.
You can use a regular sewing machine to quilt free-motion style if you are able to drop the feed dogs to use a free-motion quilting foot.
If you are comfortable straight line quilting on your regular sewing machine you can use a ‘Walking Foot’ to keep the three layers feeding evenly under the foot.
A sewing machine that is designed with quilters in mind has a larger throat space. Most will offer an extension table, a free-motion quilting foot for hand-guided quilting, and a walking foot for straight-line quilting. It will also have feed dogs that drop but almost all sewing machines have this capability.
Machines made for quilters also have the option to sew very quickly and may have speed control. Speed control is handy because you can set the machine to a comfortable sewing speed so that when you press the foot to run the machine it will only sew as fast as the setting. That way you only need to concern yourself with how fast you move the fabric by hand under the presser foot, not how much speed you are getting pressing the foot control.
When do you need an embroidery machine?
Modern sewing machines come with lots of fancy decorative stitches. At what point do you need a dedicated embroidery machine?
Most machines come with some decorative stitches but if you really want to go to the next level there are a few options.
- A sewing machine that also does one-needle hoop embroidery
- A machine designed solely for one-needle hoop embroidery
- A professional-style machine that stitches with multiple needles
Having a dedicated embroidery machine can be handy when you spend a lot of time sewing and want to run an embroidery machine at the same time. Dedicated embroidery machines are less expensive than sewing/embroidery combination machines.
Entry-level embroidery machines come with smaller-sized hoops. Hoop sizes and functionality of the machine increase with the price.
Larger machines stitch faster, take large hoops, can stitch out embroideries with more stitches, and have a larger screen which makes setting up your embroidery easier. Some machines will even communicate with your phone to let you know how your embroidery is going!
Then there are the more professional style embroidery machines that are free standing and stitch with up to 10 needles.
There is such a variety of features, functions, and options that if you are in the market for an embroidery machine it’s best to call your local store and make an appointment so you can see them in person. If you live close to Strathroy, Ontario (London area), give us a call.
What is a serger and why do you want one?
A serger, sometimes called an overlock machine, provides professional quality finishes to garments and other projects. One of the benefits is how quickly you can get a great result on hems, seam finishes, and trims.
There are many people who own a serger but are afraid to use it. Why is this? They don’t understand how to use their serger and they are afraid of threading it. Admittedly, a lot of sergers in the past were not user-friendly.
These days, you can buy self-threading sergers that eliminate the time it takes to thread 4 – 8 threads through a complex system. Most modern sergers have automatic tension that takes the guesswork out of sewing with various fabrics. Baby Lock is renowned for its fine sergers.
Cover stitch machine
The cover stitch is the hemming stitch that finishes knit garments. Some sergers have this feature included or you can buy a dedicated cover stitch machine. This is handy if you do a lot of fashion sewing as you do not have to switch the machine back and forth from overlock stitching to cover stitching.
Number one priority when you purchase a serger
But the most important thing that you should watch for when you buy is the availability of continued customer education after the sale. We want you to love your serger as much as we love our sergers and are dedicated to teaching you how to use your machine. If your retailer does not offer this service you will very likely be one of those people who have a serger languishing in the closet.
Step 3: Get a demonstration and ask questions
You wouldn’t buy a car without a test drive, and it’s not a good idea to buy a sewing machine without testing it either. Look for a friendly environment with no sales pressure so you can take your time and get exactly what you need.
At ABQ Sewing Studio, staff members are experts who love to sew and quilt, and we want to be with you throughout your journey, not just sell you a machine and send you on your way.
Baby Lock brand at ABQ Sewing Studio
Choosing a sewing machine is easier with expert help, and we invite you to contact us with any further questions or to arrange a demonstration. We are an authorized retailer of Baby Lock, which is of the highest quality and has a full spectrum of features and pricing. When you purchase, you get access to all the help you need to learn your serger, sewing, embroidery, or quilting machine, both online and in person at ABQ Sewing Studio.