Buying A Sewing Machine

A new sewing machine can cost thousands of dollars, so it is important to be sure you are getting the features YOU need.  It is easy to be seduced by the bells and whistles and the salesperson is going to make it all sound irresistible.  Here are some hints to make you an informed shopper and a satisfied owner.

Decide what features are important to you.  Make a list before you go to the store.  If you are fairly new to quilting and sewing, it is good to buy a machine that is a little more advanced than you are.  You will grow into the features.

Most new machines in the mid to high price range will have:

  • a knee lift
  • needle up/down position
  • ability to change stitch width and length
  • ability to move needle position
  • be able to lower feed dogs for free motion quilting

If you are planning to use the machine for quilting as well as piecing, these features are extremely helpful.

You now have a choice of several brands that provide a larger harp space.  An extra 4-5" between the needle and the head of the machine makes a huge difference in the amount of work it takes to manipulate a quilt. 

Does the machine come with a 1/4" foot?  Is it accurate?  Does it come with a free motion foot?  What kind is it?  How is the visibility when you are using it?  You can only answer these questions by sewing on the machine.  Prepare your own samples to take with you to the store or quilt show.  You want to know how the machine performs on the kinds of fabrics you will be using at home, not the stiff small samples provided by the dealer.

While you are sewing, pay attention to the light coming from the machine.  Is it adequate for you?  Is there a shadow cast by any part of the machine over the work area?  Is it awkward for you to manipulate the fabric?  Everyone has preferences and no machine will be a perfect fit for all users. 

Try different kinds of threads.  If you want to know if the machine will handle metallic threads, take some with you.  Take different needles with you.  Some stores will be accommodating and you should ask them for these things.  If they are not helpful, you have learned something about their service.  At a show, it will be more difficult for them to provide you with all the options you may want to try, so it is best to have needles and threads with you.  Be sure you take back everything that belongs to you.

Can the tension be adjusted easily?  Do some free motion quilting and look at the back.  See if the machine can be adjusted to your satisfaction. 

Can the presser foot pressure be adjusted?

How many different stitches are on the machine?  What stitches are you looking for?  If you do machine appliqué, you may want a blanket stitch or blind hem stitch and you will want to be able to reverse the stitch so you can sew from either side.  Is this feature easy to use?  Do you sew clothing?  If you will be using the buttonholes, find out how hard it is to make them and if you like how the buttonholes stitch out.

What is the mechanism for choosing stitches?  Is there a chart that is easy to see, buttons or screens that keep the choices at your fingertips? 

Is a free arm important?  Not all machines have this feature.  Several of the new machines with the wider harp no longer have a free arm.

Are you planning to take this machine to workshops?  Can you lift it?  Could you carry it up a flight of steps?  A heavy machine can be a workhorse and last a long time, but if you are in the habit of taking your machine on the road regularly, this is something you must consider.

Does the machine have a walking or even feed foot as an accessory or is the even feed capability built into the machine?  Is this important to you?  If you use your current walking foot a lot, you will probably want a machine with this feature built in, such as the Pfaff or the Janome 6600.  Often, these machines then require the purchase of additional feet to work with this system.  They may have other differences that you need to be aware of when operating the machine.  You not only want to ask the dealer, but it is a good idea to visit Yahoo and find a group dedicated to the machine.  You can ask questions of people who are using the machine and have no vested interest in whether you purchase it or not.

What other feet come with the machine?  How expensive are additional feet?  If you are in the store or a show booth, you can walk over to the accessories and price the feet yourself.  Choose a couple feet, such as the couching foot and the pintuck foot, and price it for several different brands of machine.

Is the bobbin top loading, front loading or side loading?  Side loading bobbins also have needles that thread from the side, such as the Juki 98L.  Is it easy to wind the bobbin?  Is it easy to change the bobbin?  Is there a light or buzzer when the bobbin is low?  Do you care?  If you plan to use this machine on a quilting frame, the location of the bobbin will be important.

How hard is it to open the machine and clean around the bobbin case?  If you plan to do bobbin thread work, you will want a separate bobbin case.  How expensive are they?

Does the machine come with an extension table?  Is it sturdy?  How are the accessories stored?  Does it come with a case or dust cover?  Is this important to you?

Unless you are already a person who loves machine embroidery, do not be seduced by the idea of having this feature on your machine.  If you want a machine that is great for machine quilting, you will be better off buying a machine that is made for that purpose and that does not have feed dogs that are wide set to accommodate the embroidery function.  Good quality machines that are dedicated to embroidery are available and you will have two machines that each perform their function without losing quality by having a machine that tries to do everything.  Often, two dedicated machines will be less expensive than one machine that supposedly does it all.

When you buy your machine from a dealer, you will usually get lessons, but never assume.  Ask what service is provided in the way of lessons and free check ups.  Dealers can also swap out the feet that come with the machine for other feet that better meet your needs.  Ask if there is something you want.  The dealer is not a mind reader.  The worst that can happen is that the dealer says no.

If you purchase your machine at a quilt show, you may get a good price but you will not have the support of a dealer.  The local dealer will not be obligated to provide lessons or service.  In some areas, they simply refuse to handle your machine at all.  Each dealership is independent and many do not answer to the parent company for their behavior.  If you are irritated with the dealer while you are shopping, it is a lot like not liking a date.  If they are not trying to impress you before you have spent money, it is a sure bet that things will only get worse after you have made your purchase.  If at all possible, find a dealer who will make you happy.  Ask around in your area or ask online.  It is easy to get reports from other customers if you take some time.

Yahoo groups are a great resource.  Almost every machine will have a dedicated group and if the particular model is not specified, you can certainly find a group for the brand.