Posted by on Sep 22, 2014 in Lessons, Sewing, Theory | Comments Off on Buying a Sewing Machine

The next step in your sewing adventure may sound scary: to get the best results, you should become a sewing machine owner.

Take a couple deep breaths. I’m here to help.

There are a few questions I get when my friends start to ask me about investing in a sewing machine and this post is an attempt to answer those as best I can. I’m also more than willing to answer questions about sewing machines directed at my Twitter account or posted in the comments.

How much will this cost?

That’s a tricky question because it depends completely on what brand of machine you get and what options it has (discussing that later). It also depends on whether you buy new or used. The unfortunate answer is that you can spend anywhere from $50 on up to a couple thousand dollars. As a hunch, I’m guessing you don’t want to purchase something for $1500+ for a brand new hobby. The first sewing machine I ever bought cost me $50, and I got it on Craigslist. The one I have right now retails for over $1000, I bought used for $400. So, the answer is, this will only cost you what you want to pay, depending on how long you want to look.

What kind of machine should I buy?

At the absolute minimum, your machine should be able to sew in a straight line and do a zig-zag stitch. When you’re looking at a machine, the following icons represent these stitches:

straight and zigzag

This is the most basic of all sewing machines. You can buy a machine capable of more stitches, but you absolutely need those two.

What brand of machine should I buy?

First off, if you buy your machine used, you might not be able to be very choosy about what kind of machine you buy. However, there are some brands that, if you find them cheap and in working order, you should absolutely buy. These machines have been affected very little by the changes in technology of the last 20 years (I’ll talk about that later too). Those machine brands are:

  • Pfaff
  • Bernina
  • Husqvarna Viking
  • Brother

Unfortunately, those brands also tend to be very expensive, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t find one of them.

What if it isn’t one of those brands?

Just because it isn’t one of the brands I’ve grown to know and trust doesn’t mean it isn’t a good machine. The issue with many of the more popular brands is that, in the past 20 or so years, many brands have started switching out the metal gears inside their machines for plastic ones. This makes the machines much less expensive to produce, but plastic gears tend to break a lot easier than metal ones. If you have a gear break, your machine might as well be garbage.

The best way to tell if the machine you’re looking at is one of the “plastic” machines, is to lift it. A machine filled with metal gears will be really heavy. I haven’t met a great machine that I can lift with one arm easily. A quality sewing machine is not designed to be transported from place to place; it’s designed to sit in one place and sew in that place exclusively. At the most, you shouldn’t be expecting your machine to travel more than from your closet to your table and back again.

If you aren’t sure what denotes a “heavy” machine, you might consider going to a few different places and asking the store if you can pick up a model or two. Most places that sell sewing machines know that weight is actually an important factor when purchasing a machine. They’ll probably let you. A great place to feel what a “light” machine feels like is any supercentre, especially if it has the word “mart” in the name. The sewing machines sold there are generally cheap in price and quality, though you can sometimes find a Brother.

If you find a machine online, you should also do some research on the internet before you go to purchase it. Read at least 10 reviews, good and bad and judge whether it will suit your purposes.

What questions should I ask?

When buying from an individual (Craigslist, garage sale, etc.) or second hand (thrift store), you should always make sure the machine works. An individual should let you try the machine and make sure that it makes straight stitches and zig zags. If you don’t know how to do that, stay tuned, I’ll be covering it tomorrow. In fact, any sewing machine terminology in this section will be explained tomorrow. When contacting an individual make it clear that you won’t buy the machine until you get to try it. Bring a small piece of fabric and a spool of thread. Most people will have a bobbin (explanation tomorrow) available for you to really try the machine. If you’re at a garage sale, you might run into a few more issues, but most people understand.
When buying from a thrift store, you probably won’t be allowed to sew with the machine as it most likely won’t have a bobbin, and you can’t use the machine without one. If there weren’t more than one size of bobbin, I’d suggest you bring one, but there are. Instead, as, to plug the machine in and see if the machine works, unthreaded. Using the foot pedal, make sure the needle (if it has one) doesn’t catch as it goes up and down.
If I had to choose, I’d always suggest you choose to purchase from an individual because the person selling it should be able to answer a lot of questions about the machine, even if they weren’t the previous owner. Here are a few questions you should ask:

  • When was the machine purchased?
    Regardless of whether the seller is the previous owner or, for example, they’re selling “grandma’s” old machine, they should be able to give you a rough estimate. A person selling a machine that belonged to someone else will tell you something like, “I don’t know, but my relative’s been sewing on it for over 10 years,” or something.
  • When was the machine last used?
    If the machine hasn’t been used within 3 years, you should consider getting it cleaned and oiled as soon as possible. The longer it goes without use, the more the oil on the gears becomes sticky and clings to dirt and grime. The dirtier the machine, the worse it works.
  • When was the machine last serviced?
    Knowing if the previous owner took good care of the machine is very pertinent information. If they’ve had a machine for 15 years and never had it cleaned, there’s a probability that the machine could have problems down the road. If they took it in for regular maintenance, you’ve got a great foundation for your sewing.
  • Why are you getting rid of it?
    There are a whole series of reasons why people get rid of their sewing machines. Sometimes they are upgrading (how I got my Bernina). Sometimes, they decided they don’t want to sew any more (how I got my first machine). Sometimes they’re selling off an elderly relative’s possessions because they no longer have a use for it. Beware of the seller who has many machines to sell and doesn’t know what any of them do. However, if they work, you can still get a great deal.
  • What was it used for?
    Sometimes a person will disclose what they’ve made with the machine when you start asking question. The first $50 machine I bought was used to make “two pairs of pajamas and a set of curtains,” before the woman decided she didn’t want it any more. Sometimes, they’ll just say, “I’ve sewn all kind of things through the years.” That means it’s a pretty reliable machine. Of course, just because someone bought the machine and never used it doesn’t mean it’s not reliable.
  • Do you have the manual?
    It is possible that you can download said manual, but if they have the manual, take it!
  • Does it have any accessories?
    Every machine should come standard with a bobbin case and a basic presser foot. However, if you can get accessories with it, like a zipper foot, that would be great. You should try for that. Also, if the seller has a needle and a bobbin for the machine, take them. You can use them to buy new ones in a craft store.

Also, if the seller can show you how to thread the machine, you’ll be ahead of the game. Take pictures of the process with your phone camera to use for reference.


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