Smart Ways to Buy a Sewing Machine: Choosing A New Machine

After considering a used machine, you may decide after all that you want to buy a new one. I’ll tell you how you should choose one, including some features you may want to look for on a new machine.

I’ll also give you some tips on how you should test a machine before buying. But first, if you’re like me, you take sewing machines for granted and don’t spend much time thinking about how they are made. Recently, I was fortunate enough to learn firsthand about the process of bringing a sewing machine from the drawing board to the market.

My trip to a sewing-machine factory

I had the privilege of visiting the home office and factory of one of the world’s premier sewing-machine companies: Fritz Gegauf, Ltd., the manufacturer of Bernina machines.

I spent three days in northeastern Switzerland with significant members of the company talking about the future of sewing, marketing products, design of future machines, and sewing education. I was sworn to secrecy on a lot of exciting things I saw and heard, but I can tell you this: a heck of a lot of hard work goes into making a sewing machine.

You can’t imagine how much time and effort Bernina team members spend thinking, planning, designing, engineering, manufacturing, assembling, and marketing their products. The sewing educators, engineers, and marketers, all with the help of input from dealers and consumers, plan years ahead to bring a new model to the market. Not only do they have to predict the future needs of sewers but they also have to take into account sewing trends (will quilting continue to be strong in the year 2010?), the aging population (will baby boomers need larger displays and buttons as their eyesight weakens?), and cultural differences (sewers in Europe, for example, don't sew the same things or for the same reasons as sewers in the United States).

At Bernina (and throughout the industry, I’m sure), the talk around the conference table came to the same points over and over again: How can we make an affordable sewing machine and keep the quality high? How can we bring sewing back into the schools? What will the sewing trends of tomorrow be? New technology is forever being tested to improve the sewing machine. New plastics are as tough or tougher than metal but weigh much less, which is important when producing a portable machine. Several tiny step motors replace the single motor of older models, When the consumers want a special foot for sewing quilts, the Bernina engineers go to work designing one. It takes months before the foot is available from your dealer.

Sewing-machine manufacturing is a risky business. If the company makes a false move by introducing a bad product, it could be ruined. If the company makes one kind of machine and the consumer wants another, it has missed the boat and winds up with a warehouse full of machines nobody wants.

During my visit to the Bernina offices, the Bernina machine for the year 2000 was off the drawing boards and stood before us as a series of five nonworking shells. The owner of the company asked: Which one looks like a Bernina but not so much like the other models that it doesn’t have a personality of its own? Which shape will make sewing more comfortable? Which shape will be attractive to new sewers? What colors will be hot three years from now?

Next to the dummy models were the “guts” of the machine—the mechanical innards. The head engineer explained how it works. Others asked: Can we have this? Can we have that? The answer is always the same: Sure. I can give you anything you want, but it will raise the cost of the machine. What will the consumer pay for?

The sewing instructors looked at the buttons on the working model and asked the engineers when was the last time they actually sewed anything. What were they thinking when they put that button there? Engineer logic versus sewer logic. Like in any good partnership, the negotiating began. I can give up this, but not that. We can keep this if we use this kind of new money-saving technology. We can keep this by making it an option.

Meanwhile, in the factory, dozens of workers were making parts of machines that had been approved for production. Employees oversaw giant vats of pink stones that vibrate for hours to polish delicate metal parts to a mirror finish. Holes were drilled. Electronic boards had to be tested. The famous Bernina feet were assembled and adjusted one by one to ensure sewing accuracy. The parts reached the assembly teams: six people worked together to assemble an entire machine. The first person had nothing but parts in front of her; the last person was testing the stitches on the completely assembled machine.

And so it went, through packing, shipping, and delivery until the machine appeared in your dealer’s showroom, then on your sewing table.

Different Name, Same Machine

If you look in Consumer Reports for information on washing machines, you will see more than a dozen brands on the charts. Names like Amana, Kenmore, General Electric, and Speed Queen are familiar. But if you read the text, you will find that many of those names are made by the same company. General Electric also makes Hot Point, while Amana makes Speed Queen. And since Sears doesn’t make its own appliances, their Kenmore models are made by somebody else. It’s a fact of consumer life today.

The same thing is true of sewing machines. There are many labels on the market but the number of manufacturers is shrinking. Necchi, an Italian company, used to make high-quality sewing machines in Italy.

Now their mostly low-end machines are made by a company in Japan. Now American owned, Elna used to make its machines in Switzerland. High-end Elna machines are made by the Janome Company of Japan, which also makes the New Home line and machines for Sears. Pfaff of Germany was bought by Singer of Hong Kong and they are beginning to “exchange” products.

What this means to you is that you will find fewer and fewer interesting differences between machines since the technology is shared by more than one brand. And it means that you can shop for price. If two products are exactly the same except for the name and price, which one would you buy?

A Mini-Lesson in Sewing-Machine Economics

You have to look closely at the product literature and on the metal label on the back, side, or bottom of a sewing machine these days to find out where it was made.

Some machines that boldly and proudly proclaim engineered in country X (usually in Europe) are actually manufactured in Asia. There is a good business reason for this: It’s less costly to make a machine in Taiwan where the average hourly wage is much less than in the United States or Europe. But the manufacturer knows that its customers want to buy a machine made in a country noted for its fine watches ( Switzerland), fast trains ( Germany), beautiful steel knives ( Sweden), or all of the above ( Japan). So to keep competitive, these companies try to have the best of both worlds: They design the machine at home, then have it made less expensively where labor costs are lower. Many Japanese machines are now manufactured in China, Korea, Taiwan, or Thailand.

The bottom line is a good company will stand behind its products no matter where the products are manufactured. A company that sells shoddy merchandise in a competitive market soon loses customer loyalty, market share, and your business.

How to choose a sewing machine the right way

While it's sometimes fun to fling caution to the wind and buy on impulse, for most of us buying a car or any major appliance, including a sewing machine, isn't something to be done on a whim. After all, you are going to have to live with your purchase for a long time. And yet, most people make buying decisions the wrong way.

Let me give you an example that involves buying a computer: People often decide whether or not they want an IBM or a Macintosh, buy one, choose the software that will run on that machine, then go home and use it.

The reverse should happen. First, you should decide what you want to do with the computer (word processing, keep a large file of data you can look up easily, do your taxes), then you should find and buy the software that does the tasks you want to do and the way you like to do them. Once you have the software you like, ask the clerk what machines the software runs on. Then you buy the best machine you can afford that runs that software, no matter what the brand. Buying a sewing machine isn't any different. You shouldn’t start by asking what brand you should buy. You should start by asking yourself what you want to sew.

Last year, I wrote an article for Threads magazine that challenged sewing-machine manufacturers to pool their machines’ great features so we could have one machine that “does it all.” One year later, we are no closer to the machine that “does it all” than before. Each brand continues to offer something that the others don’t; it's still up to you, the consumer, to find the machine that fits your sewing preferences and your sewing temperament.

Nonetheless, there may be a sewing machine that makes you very happy even with some shortcomings. And if you have the money and the space, a second machine might be useful where your primary machine isn’t. For example, maybe your primary machine is wonderful but too heavy to transport to class. A smaller, more portable model might be just the thing to take along at times like these. You might be missing some of the bells and whistles that are on the big machine, but you can’t sew on the best of machines with a bad back either!

Hardware features:

Here are some hardware features you might look for when shopping for a new machine:

Good lighting Poor lighting can make sewing difficult, and uneven lighting can give you a headache. Look for a machine that has more than one light source, with one to the left and one to the right of the needle.

Speed control Many sewing tasks need reduced speed for good control and accuracy. Insist on at least two speeds; a fast-to-slow sliding speed button is better.

Instant reverse On old machines, this button or lever is always on the far right, but it's better placed directly above the needle. The larger the button is the better, so you can just raise your finger and touch it while you sew.

Sewing surface Most machines now come with slide-on accessory boxes that serve as mini-sewing tables. They are inadequate at best, so look for a machine that comes with an attachable, larger sewing surface. For accurate sewing, a larger surface is a must.

Foot-pressure control The foot pushes the fabric down on the feed “teeth” to move it forward, backward, and sideways. Different fabrics need different pressures, but on many machines this isn’t adjustable. If you want to sew delicate or heavy fabrics, look for this feature.

Feed dogs These are the teeth that move the fabric for sewing. Most are good, but they can be closer or further apart depending on the width of the zigzag stitch on the machine. It is easier to turn fabric when the teeth are closer together, so if you sew a lot of intricate things, you may want close teeth like they are on many older machines with a 4mm stitch.

Walking foot Feed dogs pull the bottom layer of fabric, but what pulls the top layer through? Nothing, and this causes the bottom to feed a little faster than the top, making it difficult to keep the ends matched. A top-feeding system can help. Built in or as an attachment, this feature is handy, especially for sewing slippery fabrics or plaids.

Sewing foot The right foot helps you place stitches accurately. If the foot wobbles or isn’t made well, it will not guide the fabric into the needle accurately, and you will not be happy. Also, a good foot is well marked and easy to look at for long periods of time; the less shiny it's the better.

Needle threader There are all kinds of needle-threading systems, but only some of them work well. If threading the needle is a problem for you, ask the dealer to let you use the needle-threading contraption that comes with the machine. And try it yourself; don’t just watch the dealer do it.

Automatic thread cutter Some machines automatically cut the upper and lower (bobbin) threads at the push of a button when you are finished sewing. This is a handy feature, especially on machines that do embroidery. Otherwise, most machines have a small holder/cutter on the left side of the machine.

Bobbins Bobbins have to be small for technical reasons, but some are so dinky you have to fill them too often. The larger the bobbin the better.

Bobbin-empty indicator A machine with this feature will tell you when the bobbin thread is running low, some machines blink and some beep. I like the beep unless the blink is a little red light that I will notice.

Hook The hook carries the top thread around the bobbin to make stitches. A well-designed hook will make beautiful stitches and won’t jam. To test this feature, sew the beginning of a seam without holding the ends of the threads for the first few stitches. If the machine sews the first few stitches without jamming, you have a jam-free hook.

Foot lifter Just when the project is placed perfectly under the needle, you have to let go to lower the foot lever, which is placed behind the machine, Of course, everything slips and you have to start over again. With a slight movement of your knee, a foot lifter raises and lowers the foot so you don’t have to let go of the fabric. It’s really a blessing.

Automatic tension Some stitches require different thread tensions, and on most machines you have to remember to change the setting when you go from one stitch to another. Newer machines have tension that changes automatically when you select the stitch. It’s a very desirable feature.

Pedal The pedal starts and stops the machine and controls the speed. Poorly built ones are lightweight, slide around, and make the machine sew in fits and spurts. Look for one that's heavy enough to stay put, large enough to hold your entire foot, and sensitive enough to let you sew with precision.

Bobbin winder Bobbins need to be wound evenly and at moderate speed so the thread doesn’t stretch. Newer machines have a separate motor for the bobbin winder, so you don’t have to dink with the handwheel on the right side of the machine, Some machines allow you to fill the bobbin with thread right from the needle, a handy feature.

Stitches and functions

Here are some stitches and functions you might look for when shopping for a new machine:

Stitch variety Computerized models offer the most stitches, with some machines having open systems that let you add stitches via purchased cassette, computer linkup, or built-in stitch designer. If you intend to do only basic sewing, a good mechanical machine with a handful of stitches should do.

Horizontal and vertical pattern flip You can double the stitch effects by flipping the stitches over to create new combinations and new utilities, For example, you can flip a blanket stitch over and keep your bulky blanket on the left side of the needle as you sew. Most computerized machines have horizontal flip; the better ones have vertical flip as well.

Pattern begin, count, half, and end Computerized sewing allows you to automatically start a pattern at its beginning, then sew the pattern as a half, a whole, or in multiples. If you like decorating your projects with letters, numbers, and decorative stitches, you will appreciate these functions.

Double-needle function If you like to sew with a double needle, you must remember to limit the zigzag width of your stitches or you will break the needle. Computerized machines will automatically limit the stitch width for you.

Temporary memory and stitch recorder When you make changes to a stitch—say you set the length at 2.5mm instead of 2.0mm—you don’t want to have to repeat the change each time you return to that stitch after you have used another. Ask the dealer if the machine you are considering will remember the setting you have chosen, including the needle position, speed, and other function choices. Some machines can record stitches as you sew them. Touch a button to start the recording and touch it again to stop. Now the machine “plays back” the stitches as many times as you wish. This is very handy if you are sewing the same thing over and over again, such as when assembling a patchwork.

Permanent memory If you like to sew names or complicated assemblages of decorative stitches or like a special setting for a buttonhole, it's important that you have a place to save your recipe. If this function appeals to you, look for a machine that has plenty of memory “mailboxes” and plenty of room in each mailbox to store your creation. Ask the dealer what the memory capacity of the machine is.

Tacking, fixing, and knotting If you don’t somehow knot the threads at the end of your sewing, they will, of course, come undone in a matter of time. Back tacking isn’t always possible on decorative work, so you want the machine to automatically make a few stitches in place to lock the threads. If you do a lot of decorative sewing, this feature is a must.

On-screen help Since machines are getting so smart, they can memorize the operations manual and give you help instantly when you ask for it. If you are a beginning sewer, you might appreciate this feature that advanced sewers might never use.

Buttonholes Nothing makes a garment look more amateurish than poorly sewn buttonholes. Top-of-the-line computerized models will give you lots of styles of buttonholes and can repeat them to your specifications automatically. Different companies use different methods to achieve this, you’ll have to try the machines out to find the one that you like.

Needle positions—up/down, right/left For some sewing, you always want the needle to stop in the fabric so you can turn or adjust the fabric without it slipping. The needle up/down button on many machines will allow you to choose how the needle stops. Some machines allow you to change the needle position with a tap of the pedal. For accurate sewing, it's convenient to be able to locate the needle to the right or left of center. Basic machines give you 3 position choices, while elaborate ones give you as many as 25. Ten sounds like more than enough to me.

Large Stitches, Sideways Stitches, Embroidery Stitches

Early sewing machines sewed a simple straight stitch backward and forward, and sewers thought that was a miracle. Next came sideways needle movement that produced a 4mm-wide zigzag stitch. In combination with the forward motion, sideways needle movement could produce some simple patterns. Combined with forward and backward motion, it could produce some wonderful utility stitches.

Next, a wider zigzag up to 9-mm allowed more complicated stitch designs. The stitch was restricted, but a 9-mm scallop stitch is very impressive when you compare it to one less than half that size.

What would happen, the sewing-machine engineers asked, if we could move the fabric from side to side as well as forward and backward? They came up with sideways-motion machines, where the teeth under the fabric move the fabric in all directions, that go beyond the needle-motion limitation. Now you could sew stitches the size of a silver dollar.

What about a design larger than 40mm? Just put the fabric in a 5-in. by 7-in, or larger hoop, and let the machine automatically move the fabric all around. The needle doesn’t have to do anything but go up and down to produce exquisite multicolored, hand-sized embroideries.

What could be next?

Eleven things to do to test any sewing machine

The only way to find the right machine for you is to try it out and see if it fits. When you go shopping, here are some things you should do.

1. Take your time. If possible, call the dealer to make an appointment. It’s your money and your decision, so don’t rush.

2. Let the dealer or owner show you how to use the machine. He will show it off to its (and his) best advantage. When he is through with the demo, thank him and tell him politely and firmly to step aside. You are going to test the machine. If he balks at letting you try the machine, find another dealer.

3. Ask the dealer or owner to put the machine back in its case. You should start by unpacking the machine just as if you were taking it out of the box at home. Can you easily lift it? Does the handle feel sturdy? Is the machine easy to prepare for sewing?

4. Check the wires, especially on a used machine. They should be supple, not brittle and cracked. Carefully check the machine’s exterior. Are there any cracks or chips on the machine If there are a lot of scratches around the needle-plate area, it’s a good sign the machine was well used. If there are cracks or dents on the machine, it could have been dropped. Reject it.

5. Change the needle, even on a new machine. You are going to have to do that eventually, so you might as well know now if it's easy to do. Check under the needle plate. Is it easy to get to for cleaning out lint and threads? Is it clean down there? If it’s dirty under there, the machine has been well used and the dealer has not prepared it for sale. He should clean it.

6. Run the unthreaded machine, Listen to the motor. Does it sound healthy? Do you hear grinding, clickety-clacks, or stressful humming before the machine begins to sew?

7. Fill a bobbin and install it. Install the upper thread. Is it easy or difficult?

8. Take out your fabric samples and sew a little project typical of what you normally sew. For example, sew a pocket on a larger piece of fabric. Make a buttonhole. Sew in reverse. Try something decorative. If the machine has a memory, use it. Spend at least 30 minutes playing with the machine.

9. Compare your checklist of things that you liked and didn’t like about your old machine with the new machine. If you didn’t like something on your old machine, why would you buy the same feature now? If there was some feature missing from your old machine, will you get it on this one?

10. Look at the manual. Is it going to be a good friend when you get the machine home? Is it clearly written? Are there plenty of photos that illustrate threading, setup, and , on computerized models, use of the information on the screens?

11. Take your “project” over to a window and really look at the stitching in good, natural light.

Is it up to your standards? The stitching is never going to look better, so make sure you are satisfied.

Things to Bring with You when You Test a Machine

The atmosphere in a sewing-machine store is designed to sell sewing machines, and the biggest part of the atmosphere is the seller herself. If the salesperson is skilled at sewing and selling, the machine she is using will seem like it does everything and does everything well. That’s because she knows how to handle the quirks of the machine, and she knows what not to show you. You must sit at the machine yourself and take it for a spin. Here are some things you should take along:

• Fabric scraps from your last few sewing projects. If you are going to sew Polar fleece gloves on your machine, it isn’t going to do you any good to have stiff cotton swatches (what dealers call demo cloth) to sew on.

• Your eyeglasses.

• The checklist of things you liked and disliked about your old machine. Did you forget how annoying that feature was now that it’s in a shiny new box?

• The company brochure that lists all the exclusive features of the model you are looking at. Check them out one by one.

• A note pad or sticky notes to apply to the brochure of that model. Write down the model number, the suggested retail price, the selling price, and the things you liked and disliked about the machine. If you look at several machines, you’ll forget what belonged to what.

• Your sewing shoes. Carry them in a bag if they can’t be worn into the shop.

Here’s what not to bring: your credit card, checkbook, or cash. You are testing the machine, not buying it. Put all your energy into seeing if this is the right machine for you, and don’t worry about bargaining. There is no point in getting a good deal on a machine that you won’t be happy with. On your next visit, which could be as soon as a few hours later (but I’d sleep on it), you will focus on getting the best deal you can.

PREV: Smart Ways to Buy a Sewing Machine NEXT: How To Buy The Machine You Like Home

Friday, 2016-03-18 17:55