lots of people ask me how to choose a sewing machine, or what specific model they should buy. i don’t tell anyone what model to buy, in the same way i wouldn’t tell them what kind of car to buy, or what flavor of saltwater taffy they should like. you have to choose one that fits YOU. don’t be scared. you’ll be ok.
first off, remember that most of the choices ahead of you are good ones. your life will not be ruined if you buy the “wrong” machine. no one will mock or scorn you for not optimizing your purchase to the utmost. remember that with sewing machines (just like other things such as digital cameras and the like), the more time you spend reading about them, the more those high-end features will seem like necessities … and so your “dream machine” will get more and more expensive (and further and further out of reach).
to buy a sewing machine, first you need to figure out whether you are an experienced machine user or not. if you have never used a sewing machine, then no, you’re not. in that case, what machine you buy is a lot less important than where you buy it. you will want to buy locally from someone who offers classes, guarantee the machine, and offer a good warranty for repairs. (the exception to this rule: if you want to buy a machine from a friend who is upgrading their machine and promises they will teach you how to use it … and you believe him or her … go ahead and do it. otherwise, buy from a local shop.)
go to your local shop (if you’re lucky enough to have one!) and tell ‘em right off you’re not buying that day, only looking. if you are a complete novice, tell them that. ask to try out some machines. better yet, if some place near you offers sewing classes, take one before even thinking about buying your own machine. you’ll get comfortable with the classroom machine and will know what you like and dislike about it, and then you’ll be able to articulate what you want in your own machine (automatic threading, a knee lift, whatever).
take notes. tell them what you sew (dresses? handbags? quilts? fabric art? someone who alters a lot of jeans needs a sturdier machine than someone who makes organza wall hangings, for instance.), ask for recommendations, try things out, write down model numbers, and tell them you’ll be back. ask if there are things that people usually ask that you’re not asking. (this is a good question for buying just about anything. you’d be surprised how many people selling things don’t answer the questions you should be asking. “most people who come in to buy a howitzer ask about the kick. this one has quite a bit of a kick … this one over here is a little softer.”)
if you’re new to sewing, you might be feeling a bit of brain fog at this point. no worries…completely normal. new sewers might want to try for a used machine from your local shop. ask about their trade-in policy. most shops will be happy (or should be happy!) to sell you something a bit simpler and then have you trade it for something fancier later, rather than sell you something so intricate you’ll never use it and never come back.
if you are an intermediate-level machine user (you’ve taken a couple of classes, made some skirts or tote bags), you probably know roughly what you like in a machine, and i recommend buying a used machine that was higher-end when it was new. something with a good straight stitch and a good zigzag and maybe a buttonhole function, but not a lot of fancy embroidery stitches (unless embroidery stitches are your reason for sewing). keep looking and don’t get locked in to the first machine you see.
again, trying things out at a local shop is a good idea. you can also do the whole craigslist/pennysaver/estate sale thing if there’s a good local repair shop you trust, because the price of a used machine plus a tuneup is cheap enough to be worth it. (try to see if someone selling you a used machine will let you bring it back to them if the repair shop says it’s not repairable. an estate sale won’t let you do this, and if the machine is under $100 probably a craigslist seller won’t either. if the machine turns on and runs it is probably tune-uppable.
if it won’t run at all, makes horrible grinding noises, or smokes … not so much. also, don’t buy something that seems to be missing a lot of parts.) if you buy this kind of machine, you’ll know when you’ve outgrown it — you’ll start wanting to make things that need special presser feet or you’ll start being picky about the quality of your topstitching. then you can upgrade.
beginning and intermediate adult machine users: do not buy machines that are in a mass-market store like walmart or target. they are usually intended for small home alterations, not serious sewing. there are exceptions, but if you’re not an experienced user you won’t know if you have found an exception. also, these model numbers change a lot so it’s hard to find good reviews online. if you’re buying a simple machine for a child, however, to teach him or her how to sew, this is the way to go.
also, don’t buy machines that are advertised as “special class machines” or “special buys”. they’re not, and they aren’t. they’re usually low-end no-name models and won’t come with classes or a good warranty.
if you are an experienced machine user, then you need to figure out your price range and then only look at machines in that price range, unless you want to suffer wow-feature syndrome. WFS is what happens when you see that the next machine up (that is $200 more) not only has automatic buttonholes, but also orders you new buttons from the internet every time you use one (for example). wow! now only a button-ordering machine will do! waaaaah, waaaaaah, i want THAT ONE!!!
if you are tempted by WFS, can you make a list of five projects you’ve ever made that special feature “x” would have helped you complete? just one doesn’t count. and a special wow-feature that requires another purchase (like extra software, etc.) needs to have ten projects to justify it or it really doesn’t count. yeah, you get the idea. save yourself the hassle and don’t look outside your price range.
once you have a firm grasp on your budget, sit down and make a list. what do you like about your current machine, and what don’t you like? i liked that my old machine was quiet, simple, and made nice stitches. i didn’t like that the bobbin was complicated to load, and that it didn’t make good buttonholes. so what i was looking for was a machine that did everything my new one does and made good automatic buttonholes and had a drop-in bobbin.
then (and this is important) set yourself a time limit. say “i’m going to research machines for [one hour, one day, one week, one month]” and then stop. if you leave it open-ended you will never buy anything. think “satisficing”. to satisfice is “to decide on and pursue a course of action that will satisfy the minimum requirements necessary to achieve a particular goal”. don’t look for a perfect machine; look for a good enough machine. (don’t forget to figure in things like back-orders and so forth; a machine that has 9 of your 10 important features may be the best option if the all-10 machine won’t get to you for two months.)
when you’ve found the good-enough option, buy it. and don’t let yourself go back and read reviews of other machines after you’ve placed your order. therein lies a certain road to madness. instead, re-read good reviews of the machine you’ve picked out and wallow in your happy choice. make plans of what you’ll sew first, second, third … clean up your sewing area for the new arrival. buy some new machine needles (unless the dealer threw in a pack for free, which they should, honestly), and pull out that pincushion. it’s time.
once you have your new machine, don’t be intimidated. get some fabric scraps and some thread, sit down and work your way through the manual. try every single thing it says your machine will do (this may take you a while). don’t put off trying something out just because you don’t think you’ll ever need it…once you see how easy something is, you might find that the need magically appears. a sewing machine is not a terribly complicated device. most dvd players are more complicated than a sewing machine! don’t stress about it. you can do it. just jump right in and push all the buttons. if something doesn’t work the way you think it should, better to know right away, too, while there’s still a chance to return it. (if you find out in five months that the blind hemming foot has a crack in it, good luck returning it then!)
and that is how you buy a sewing machine.