"I decided I want to start sewing and I don't have a huge budget. What sewing machine should I get?"
Well, after typing up the same email about five times, I figured other people might want to know what I think as well. This is going to be kind of lengthy so feel free to come back tomorrow if you're not interested in getting a sewing machine. Please keep in mind that I am in no way a sewing expert, I am not affiliated with any dealers or brands and everyone has their own preferences and their own experiences with different machines and brands.
To determine what sewing machine you should get you first need to determine your budget and, even more importantly, what you want to use it for:
If you just want to do general sewing (make tote bags/purses, clothing or fun accessories, etc.) you can get by with a cheaper machine and not worry too much. At a minimum you will want the following features:
- Drop in bobbin with a see through cover: drop in bobbins are more reliable with the tension, easier to thread and the see through cover will let you see when the bobbin thread is running out
- Button Hole feature: If you ever want to sew buttons on something you are making you will want it to have a built in button hole feature (some machines also have button features that will sew on the button but at the very least it needs to be able to stitch out the button hole for you)
- Free arm: a free arm has a portion around the needle that slides off, allowing you to stitch something cylindrical (like a stocking for example) more easily because it can slide all the way onto the free arm of the sewing machine and more easily lay flat on the area you are sewing
- Feet: the machine should come with several different feet for the machine and you should be able to purchase other feet (specifically a “walking foot”) for the machine. Do some searching to see if other feet are compatible before you buy the machine or later you’ll be limited on what kinds of sewing you can do (you can still sew difficult things without the proper feet but they often don’t come out as well)
- Needle Up/Down function: it’s really nice if the machine has a button to raise or lower the needle. If you push the button to lower the needle, you can start sewing and whenever you stop (lift off the presser foot) the needle will stop in the down position so you don’t accidentally lose your place on the fabric and mess it up.
- Cheapest Option: If you want a low cost machine that will still do a pretty good job and be fairly easy to use, I would recommend the Brother XL2600i. it’s not computerized or fancy but it meets all the requirements I mentioned, has pretty good reviews (and brother makes pretty good machines) and you can buy it on Amazon for only $85.
If you think you might want to do any embroidery at all then you will need to get an embroidery machine. A beginner machine will likely limit the hoop size to 4” x 4” which if you’ve seen any of the baby onesie’s I’ve posted that’s what I used on most of them. It’s big enough to do a monogram on a shirt, or another small design but you won’t be able to do large designs (although you could do a big word if you did one letter at a time with each letter 4”). In addition to the above features, you'll want the following features in an embroidery machine:
- Hoop Size: the minimum hoop you would want is 4” x 4” and you’ll be happier with a 5” x 7” hoop (now that I’m doing more embroidery, even the 5” x 7” that I have feels limiting sometimes). The cost of the machine will definitely go up if you get one with a 5” x 7” hoop
- USB: you will want to be able to transfer the designs by USB stick or cable. The machines that still use a memory card are difficult to work with and they charge you an exorbitant amount to buy the designs on the cards. With USB you can buy designs anywhere (like www.planetapplique.com) for $.50 - $5 and you just transfer the file to the machine.
- File type: make sure it takes a “common” embroidery file format. Some of the most common files are ART, DST, EXP, HUS, JEF, PES, VIP, XXX and SEW. Mine is PES and it seems like EVERY embroidery file is available in that format so I think it’s a good choice.
- Some of the more expensive machines come with design or digitizing software. While this software is really cool, you won’t need it unless you are planning on drawing your own images and then converting them to embroidered designs. Like I mentioned above you can get cute designs for really cheap and some sites even have some free designs you can use (and you can get designs on Etsy as well).
- Recommendation: Brother SE400 embroidery machine. It has a 4”x 4” hoop size, about 70 built in designs and 5 built in fonts. It does use a memory card but I’m pretty sure it comes with a USB adapter so you can use them via USB (research this a little more to double check if you want this machine). You can buy it on amazon for $350 or I found one on craigslist for only $250! Not bad for an entry level embroidery machine!!
If you want to do quilting on it…
- If you are going to just quilt small projects like table runners, placemats, wall hangings, etc. then you can do this on any sewing machine that has the capability of lowering or dropping the feed dogs (the little jagged metal things that “grab” the fabric and move it) and comes with a “free motion foot” or a “darning foot”. My primary sewing machine is a Bernina Bernette 92c and it is not really meant for quilting (it’s a very small machine) but I have done some free motion work on it – it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good.
- If you are going to want to make baby quilts or lap quilts you will want a sewing machine with a larger throat space, preferably 7” or larger. The main reason I don’t use my primary machine for quilting on my baby gifts is because even for a small quilt, you have to really bunch it up to get it under the arm of the machine which leaves you little or no room to effectively do free motion quilting.
- Walking foot: regardless of whether you will be doing small projects or large, you will definitely want a walking foot for doing straight-line quilting. This foot has another set of feed dogs so that the upper and lower layers of fabric feed evenly and helps to make more perfect straight lines (like if you wanted to sew stripes or diamonds on a placemat)
- If you think you might want to do bed quilts, I would try to get a machine with a 9” or larger throat and you will still probably be mostly limited to straight line sewing (little or no free motion quilting done). The bed size quilts are really monstrous to deal with on the regular sewing machine – even just sewing on the binding at the end (easiest part) of a bed quilt can be a hassle. I'm sure there are quilters out there with the patience and skill to do a bed quilt on a regular machine but I sure don't.
- Free Motion quilting: this is the most exciting part of quilting and also the most difficult. Whenever you decide you want to do a project with free motion quilting, I recommend watching lots of YouTube tutorials and practicing on some scrap fabric pieces before attempting to do it on your actual project. You'll need to play with the thread tension to get it right and some machines still seem to have trouble. if you really want to use it for free motion quilting, I'd recommend trying out that feature on the machine before you buy it.
- I’ve heard that Juki is the only brand that offers a large throat sewing machine for under $1000 (they might even have one in the $500 range) but I have NO experience with Juki. You’d have to do some internet searching on that one. If you aren’t planning on doing bed quilts, then like I said, you should be able to use your regular sewing and/or embroidery machine with a free motion foot (may have to purchase that part separately).
Tips for buying any machine:
- I strongly recommend buying a used machine. I now own one machine I bought brand new and two that I bought off of craigslist. I had just as much of a learning curve with the new one as the two used ones and most people selling used ones didn’t use them very much – often times it’s people who bought it and loved it but want to upgrade or it’s people who tried it and decided they don’t like sewing. Both of my used machines I purchased cost me less than 1/3 the cost of what they would have cost new and they sew perfectly fine! Plus since you save so much money, you won’t take a big loss if later you decide to resell it to upgrade or because you decided you don’t like sewing.
- If you buy a machine on craigslist, be sure to ask the person selling it to demonstrate for you. Have them show you everything it comes with and ask questions about the accessories if you don’t know what they are for. Ask them to show you how to thread the machine, wind & load a bobbin, adjust the tension, choose a stitch, reverse or back stitch and just general use. You can tell them ahead of time that you would like to try it out but both of the ones I bought, the seller was prepared to let me try it out and show me how to use it.
- Be sure to ask if there are any “quirks” or things they have difficulty with on the machine. Don’t let this dissuade you from buying it - all machines have some little quirk about them where if you don’t do something in a precise way or don’t use a specific type of thread or something it won’t work as well… but you’ll want to know what things may be more difficult on the machine
- Read LOTs of reviews online, regardless of whether you are going to buy a new or used machine. You will find extremely varied reviews on all the machines (some people love them, some hate them) but beware of any machine that has recurring bad reviews that all mention the same big issue (ex: thread always breaks, or difficult to get the tension right, etc)
- Don’t get too hung up on brands: I don’t have much to tell you about some of the brands like Juki or Pfaff but don’t be scared to try an off-brand machine or one you’ve never heard of if it has good reviews online. I currently have a Bernina Bernette 92c sewing machine, a Babylock Ellure Plus embroidery machine and a Husqvarna Viking MegaQuilter.
Other Tools & Tips for Getting Started ($50 - $100)
- Thread: don’t skimp too much on your thread, Coats & Clark that they sell at Walmart isn’t going to work out well. I use Gutterman from Joann Fabrics and that’s about as cheap as I’ll go. Although, I also have had fairly decent success with cotton threads from www.ConnectingThreads.com. You’ll need to research what type of threads to use for each project (ex: I use Gutterman brand polyester thread for general sewing and quilting but I use Sulky brand Rayon thread for embroidery, also from Joann Fabrics). To get started I would just get white, black and maybe one or two other colors you really like of the Gutterman polyester all-purpose thread.
- Rotary Cutter: you will definitely want to get yourself a cutting mat, rotary cutter and fabric scissors. I believe you can get a Fiskars 18” x 24” cutting mat with a 6” x 24” ruler and a rotary cutter as a set from Joann Fabrics for around $50 and if you use a 50% off coupon it will only be $25. Honestly I think out of all my sewing tools my rotary cutter is what I use the most. Everyone has different preferences and there are fancier brands but my inexpensive Fiskars one has been going strong for several years now and I’ll probably keep using it until it dies, LOL
- Scissors: you will need to buy fabric scissors as well. You can get dressmakers shears or fancy fabric scissors but again, for me the fiskars fabric scissors at Joann fabrics work just fine and I haven’t even sharpened them or anything yet. Just make sure your fabric scissors don’t get used for ANYTHING besides fabric (no paper or cardboard) and they’ll last a while.
- Seam ripper: I guarantee you’re going to mess up (I still mess up all the time) so you need a seam ripper to help you take out the stitches. The cheapest one only costs a couple bucks and works fine but you can spend a little more to get a more ergonomic one if you prefer
- Marking utensils: you’ll need some marking utensils for your fabric. You can get pens that are water soluble or air soluble (disappear on their own rather quickly) or you can get pencils that are water soluble, either are fine but get more than one color so you will have choices when you buy different colors of fabrics
- Iron: I assume you have an iron you can use but if not you’ll need to get one, pressing is an important part of sewing and quilting
- Pins: get a container of sewing pins. I like the Dritz pins that come in the plastic containers that seal so I don’t knock them over and spill pins everywhere. I have small applique pins as well as long quilting pins and I end up using my quilting pins (yellow heads) for practically everything. The pin cushion is optional and you can get one for only a couple dollars or make one yourself. Some people sear by them and I have one but I rarely use it, I typically end up just setting my pin container right near the machine and dropping them back in the box when I’m done with each pin
- Other: there are about a million other notions, tools and little gadgets but I made the first several quilts and projects using ONLY the ones above and even now those are the ones I use the most. I would start with what I’ve shown and then if you are doing a project that for some reason requires some other fancy tool then you can get it at that time.
Ok I hope that was enough to get you started – don’t be overwhelmed, sewing really is easier than most people think and it’s so fun!