How to Buy a Sewing Machine, Overlock, or Knitting Machine

At some Pont in the life of everyone who sews, the question arises: What is the best machine to buy? The answer is, there is no “best” machine. Each person’s skills, requirements, and imagination make that answer unique. There are many factors to consider before you will be able to come up with your best answer.

1. What dealerships and repair shops are available in your area?

2. Is the dealer capable of teaching and servicing?

3. Do you want a machine you can add attachments to?

4. What do you expect from your machine?

5. Will you be sewing or knitting primarily garments or crafts?

6. Will you be sewing and knitting frequently or seldom?

7. What kinds of fabrics or yarn will you be using most? Do you intend to expand your range?

8. What options or features are you willing to give up to meet your budget restraints?

9. Do you want to be able to make decorative stitches and patterns?

10. Will you be sewing and knitting for children?

All these answers make a difference in your decision, but you can make that choice more successfully by following a few guidelines.

Above all, never buy the first machine you see, no matter how swell the dealer tells you it's . When you start looking for machines, look around. Make a list of possible brands and stores and go to a minimum of three before choosing. No exceptions! If you are pressured or told that a certain deal is available only that day, they are trying too hard to sell .

The Demo

It is important to go through the demonstration the salesperson will give you. When he or she is finished, ask if you may try the machine yourself. Ask if lessons are included in the purchase price, or if they are extra. How many are there? How long do they last? Will you have some samples to take home? Will you be able to participate in the lessons or just watch? You don’t want a strictly demonstration lesson; it must be hands-on to learn correctly.

If possible, meet the person who will give the lessons. Is he or she a qualified and knowledgeable teacher who you would be comfortable learning from?

Ask about parts and the availability of attachments. Are they kept in stock or must they be ordered? Are they available nationwide (if you move)?

Be aware that many of the labor guarantees are linked to the store where you purchase the machine and not to the manufacturer. The parts are warrantied, but as a general rule, the biggest expense is labor: it can be three times as costly! Ask to see the Labor Warranty. It must be available for you to look at. (There will be exclusions about electrical parts, but that’s standard.)

When shopping for a sewing machine or serger, take a selection of fabrics with you to every store for each machine you try. Let the person give you guidance on stitch selection and thread, but don't let that person do all the sewing.

One fabric you should test is a long piece of medium-weight cotton, just to feel how evenly and smoothly it feeds through the machine. Let the feed dogs move the fabric both forward and in reverse for a few inches without you holding onto the fabric. A machine should sew straight, without veering to one side or the other. (Sewing in reverse will never work as well as forward because of the way a machine functions, but the difference should not be drastic.)

Another test should be to see how well the machine handles a thick or dense piece. You want to sew a seam to see how the machine travels up and over thick fabric. All machines have a limit to how much fabric can be fed through, but you need to know the possibilities of each machine and which one balks first.

Work on a knit, preferably tricot, to see if it skips and slides. You also want to try a piece of very thin material to see if the feed dogs hold it firmly enough as it flows through the machine. Remember, the test of a good machine is how it sews finer fabrics. This test should show the precision and care with which the machine moves this fabric, as problems show up most on fine, easily damaged material.

Last, bring a piece of fabric that has always given you problems. Don’t let the salesperson talk you into just using the stiff, white fabric-on-a-roll that always makes stitches look good.

Wind a bobbin yourself, following the manufacturer’s directions. Then check the following: Was it easy to set up? How does the bobbin look? Is it evenly filled across? Is the thread firmly against the bobbin with no loose spots?

Note: Do not wind through the eye of the needle no matter what anyone tells you. The slubs on threads make for inconsistencies in bobbin winding that can cause tension problems.

Sewing Machine Features and Options

Plastic Versus Metal

Be aware of salespeople who tell you that metal machines are better because any plastic is bad. That’s not necessarily true. Just as metal varies in quality (look at the range in pans), there are different qualities of plastic, from bulletproof shields to cheap combs whose teeth fall out at first use. Look into the kind of plastic they’re talking about and don’t assume that all metal machines are automatically stronger.

Stitch Formation

You may hear the terms “rotary” and “oscillator”. These refer to how the machine forms the stitch. “Rotary” means the race moves around in one continuous circle. “Oscillator” means a movement back and forth in semicircles. There are pros and cons to both. This feature should not influence you on a machine’s suitability for you.

You also will be confronted by options such as whether to buy a computerized machine. Keep in mind that a sewing machine is meant to sew your clothing together. The manner in which the stitches are selected (this is the only part that's computerized) isn't nearly as important as the quality of the stitches themselves. The machine still has to make its stitch; it still has to sew a seam. Don’t become so mesmerized by all the features that you stop looking at stitch quality.

When you’re looking at machines, be aware of oversimplified features. You don’t want to be locked into not being able to choose alternatives or override a computer. For example, you know that not every buttonhole will wind up on a flat surface. If you have a machine so over-automated that you can't deal with variables, you have lost a good deal of control.


One of the biggest arguments you will hear is the “my tension is better than yours” syndrome. The better machines use heavier springs, so the tension does stay in adjustment. Many manufacturers use terms such as “universal” or “automatic,” but all machines must have some kind of tension-adjustment feature. Some have better locations or adjustment systems, but which one actually functions best is usually a matter of individual preference. Check how the stitch is balanced on your own fabric samples to judge which machine’s tension system you prefer.


When you look at the number of utility and decorative stitches offered, make sure they will be useful to you. If you have no children, never sew crafts, and rarely use knits, you probably don’t need all the options now available in many machines.

It is probably important to have some kind of reverse-cycle stretch stitches. They are especially useful as reinforcement stitches because they won’t rip out in high-stress areas. Some of these stitches also sew durable seams on knits.

If you plan to do a lot of mending, you might also be sure the machine you purchase features a “serpentine” or “running” stitch, which looks like a broken zigzag. It also is wonderful as an overcast stitch for facings and single layers if you don’t own an overlock or serger.

Free Arm

The free arm is another option that's handy, but it does have limited uses. It takes some effort and concentration to change your method of sewing if you’re used to a flat bed machine. Know that you want to change before you decide this is a feature you can’t live without. On the positive side, the free arm makes hemming pants and sewing cuffs on any tubular form much easier. On the bad side, with rare exception, your current sewing cabinet can't accommodate a free arm.

As well, make sure that the arm with or without an extension is wide enough to comfortably feed the fabric through. Sometimes it's uncomfortable to sew on the limited space of a free arm.

Bells and Whistles

Needle position aids in accurate, straight stitching lines, especially on edge- stitching and 1/4” seams. When you can move the needle instead of the fabric, you usually can keep the needle from falling off the edge and making wavy stitch lines by keeping more of the fabric in contact with the feed dogs. Without adjustable needle position, it's often impossible to properly adjust (line up) attachments such as a rolled hem foot.

Many brands have feed dogs that drop; in others, they can’t. There are some disadvantages to their not being able to drop, but these machines usually come with a piece that can be attached to the throat plate to cover the feed dogs—for example, for darning or outline quilting, or whenever you move the fabric horizontally as well as vertically.

Pressure regulators were invented to keep enough pressure between fabric and feed dogs for a smooth feed. Today, most machines are spring-loaded and the use of interchangeable feet makes this feature unnecessary.

If you look at a machine whose salespeople promise the look of an overlock or serger with certain overcast stitches, know that the two are completely different machines and can never make stitches that look identical. A serger forms its stitch without a bobbin. The thread comes directly off the spool through dials, and the machine forms its stitch with loopers that require very light tension or resistance on the thread to perform smoothly. The serger is very quick and offers variables not available with a home machine, no matter what salespeople may tell you.

If you are primarily interested in constructing garments, you might consider not buying a top-of-the-line sewing machine, and buy a serger as well.


When you look for attachments, make sure that nothing on the machine is so exclusive to it that you can’t use alternate attachments such as presser feet. For instance, some machines are available that can't take anything but the foot system that goes with them. Look for a machine with a standard shank that will accept interchangeable attachments. This will allow you versatility as new items come on the market. If the feet are not interchangeable, ask if there is an adaptor available so you might update and expand the system as desired. If you can use only the feet that come with the machine, they had better be the only ones you’ll ever want and they had better be well designed because you will be stuck.


While testing the various fabrics on each machine, make some mental notes on how the machine feels to you. Does it fit you? Is the height proper? Are the dials easy to see, read, and use? Is the foot pedal comfortable and easy to control? Is it portable in case you want to use it away from home? Does it have a handle or carrying case? How much does it weigh with and without the case?

Note: Several manufacturers offer a dual-voltage option if you plan to us their machine outside the United States, or with DC current.

It is also important to check the amount of control you will be able to achieve over both the needle’s penetrating power and the speed of the foot pedal or control. You don’t want a machine that only offers jack-rabbit starts or jerky sewing. It should suit your own style of sewing.


Reasons for the differences in the cost of machines are not always obvious. More expensive machines use higher-quality materials and surfaces, so all pieces are better tooled. Everything is more durable and runs more smoothly. Smoother separating plates on sewing machines and sergers, for example, while not visible to the naked eye perhaps, won’t catch the little thread fibers and create tension problems down the line.

Although quality products will cost more, don’t always go for price alone. Many times the most expensive machine isn't the best for you! It may have too many features you’ll never use, and the best deal isn't always the cheapest price. The difference in service, lessons, and overall customer relations can make or break a sale.

Last, But Not Least

Ask to see the owner’s manual. Take time to read a portion of it. Is it well written and complete? Are the illustrations sensible and clear? Check the section on making buttonholes. This usually is the most complicated process on machines and often the most confusing in the instructions. If it makes sense, that’s a good indication of a decent manual that will help you through the years.

You might also check you local Better Business Bureau for store background if you’re not sure you are dealing with an established, franchised dealer. Buy only from a licensed representative of the manufacturer. Above all, make sure that wherever you buy the best machine for you the store has the capacity for service and repair.

Be wary of offers that seem too good to be true. They are!

PREV:   NEXT:   Home

Wednesday, 2016-06-22 19:29