Too-much-info Collie!

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Sewing machine research
Sewing machine research

Synopsis: this is the results of an email request for advice on what sewing machine to purchase, with respondant names removed for privacy.

Conclusion: initially, buy a refurbished machine, and check with the shop for what they have and recommend.

Original question:

I'm on a quest to find a good, reasonably priced sewing machine for a beginner, and I'm seeking advice!

There are a few things I know I probably want, such as an arm for sewing things like sleeves, metal gears instead of plastic, a relatively sturdy machine that can handle denim or light leather, a good instruction booklet and an easy-to-use machine, and a handful of stitch types (like button holers, etc.).

Here's where I need the advice, and please feel free to pass this on to someone else if you feel they could help too: what machines would you recommend; and is there anything else you can think of which a beginner is likely to need to create sturdy, decent SCA garb/costuming?

Thanks for any suggestions or advice you may have, and cheers!


Depends on what she wants to spend. Give up on the metal gear idea unless she wants to buy an industrial or a machine older than I am.

Viking's are GREAT machines but costly. Singer is still a good brand and a good machine to start out on. Really the idea is to go to a Sewing Machine specialty shop. Any good store will give you an honest assessment of your needs and a free class on how to use your machine.

I'd stay away from Elna's and Brothers. Whites are ok. If she is really hot on an industrial machine and wants to lay down the bucks the Riecherts are impressive.

The best advice I can give is find a machine that you understand. Understand that you are going to have to have it tuned like a car every 6months to a year depending on how much you use it. If your machine is too hard to use or figure out, you won't use it. Simple and sturdy is best.

Consensus last night at [name] from three people who sew really, really well and quite a lot (they were discussing their costume plans for the year, as well as their horse riding plans) was that you should go buy a reconditioned Singer, metal gears, that does buttonholes.

The only thing I can suggest is to look at getting a refurbished machine. I have a second and Viking machine which has served me well since college. (I don't do lots of sewing but still...) Look for a place which repairs sewing machines. They often have second hand machines to sell, and since they refurbished them there is often a bit of a warranty.

You may need to try several stores or check back a few times to find the sort of machine you want at a price you like, but it could be worth it. Plus, the folks at the store might be able to give additional advice.

Singer and Viking both have good reputations, I believe.

Just for reference, I built some crazy costumes on my mom's Sears Kenmore machine that she bought shortly after I was born. I also made a pair of jeans on it and only had difficulty when it came to sewing down the belt loops! The machine I have now is also old-school - a Bernina 830, gifted to me by Aunt [name] for college graduation. It's a serious workhorse, and outperforms my mother's old machine on a number of things, though it does not have as many "features". There's one that is about to close on EBay for just shy of $700! Not too shabby for a machine built in 1971.

You don't need a digital machine, or an embroiderer (in fact I reccomend against it - they're madly expensive and usually very fragile). You probably can stay clear of any machine advertising a quilting package as well, though most of them are fine for other sewing as well. Any machine from Bernina, Pfaff, Juki or Janome is going to serve you well, though these machines are often expensive and have high resale values, meaning that finding one affordably may be difficult. Don't spend less than $200 or you won't get anything worthwhile, but you shouldn't need to spend a whole lot more than that, either.

You really can go to Sears and get something OK for a reasonable price (there's a Janome with 23 stitch features listed on their website for $219), but you might do better to go to a sewing and vacuum dealer and looking for a refurbished machine. They can also give you a basic education of what to look for. Now is also a good time of year to buy a new machine - dealers are clearing out last year's models. You can also try EBay or Craigslist, though I'll warn you - people buying sewing machines know what they're up to. There were a number of machines listed by a Singer dealer that were OK. These are things to look for in a machine:

  • 1, 3 or 4 step buttonhole
  • multiple stitch functions
  • an assortment of presser feet including at least a zigzag or satin stitch foot, a zipper foot, a straight stitch foot, a buttonholer (I like the sliding kind), and a blind hem foot. That last one is uncommon - but I really reccomend it, even if you wind up buying it separately!
  • the owner's manual
  • a free arm - this is on most modern machines not targeted for quilting and is sometimes not listed in the machine specs!
  • and any machine you buy MUST MUST MUST have the foot pedal or it's junk!

Also, look for a machine that has a FRONT LOADING bobbin case. They work better than drop-in or top-loading machines! And avoid the old Singers with the cam discs that change the stitch. They work OK but if you lose the cams you're screwed; lots of these machines turn up because, not shockingly, they're missing an "important" or very useful cam. I used one while I was in college and it sewed fine, but god forbid I lost the blind hem cam... suicide would be better.

Machines with stretch stitches are nice but I never really used the stretch features on mom's. A zigzag stitch is for just about everything! And now that I have a serger.... well... I already wish I had a five thread instead of four thread overlock machine. You're best off not looking at overlocks and sergers, though - you still need a regular machine, and you'll build better skills without one.

As a beginner, most costume patterns are pretty easy. But you should also look into a basic book about sewing; I have Simplicity's "Simply The Best Sewing Book" and it's a decent little reference book for how to do the basic things needed to complete most projects.

It was a pleasure to talk to you about sewing! It is one of my favorite things to do, and therefore fun to discuss as well.

Good luck on finding a wool you are happy with. Keep in mind that while felt is good, and it would surprise me if it is terribly appropriate for your persona, it is also possible to get woven wool which has been woven tightly enough so as to not fray, sometimes because it is slightly felted after weaving. You can do this yourself with a woven wool by washing it in hot water with plenty of soap in the roughest cycle of a washing machine. Makes the fabric shrink and the fibers felt together. Depending on how loose the weave was to begin with you can get quite a bit of shrinkage, but once it has been pre-abused like this you can get something which is wonderfully durable and not inclined to fray, which makes it very suitable for applique work.

it is sometimes possible to find usable wools in chain fabric stores, and even, if you are very lucky in places like wal-mart. But unless you enjoy shopping for shopping sake and are willing to go home without what you are looking for, it is probably better to go to a good store like Stone Mountain and Daughter in Berkley (which also carries some amazing linen suitable for wonderfully decadent inner layers of your clothing). Eilis will know how to get there.

I have seen large embroidery hoops, but I've never yet felt inclined to use a hoop when doing the wool on wool applique. Even if I didn't use the *Wonder-Under*(tm) to hold them together, it is still usually easy enough to get them to stay where I want them to. To my mind, the single biggest advantage to using the *Wonder-Under* is the ease in transferring the pattern to the wool in that one can trace it onto the paper (remember that the final [product will be mirror image of what you trace) and then once it is ironed to the fabric cut it out along those lines (using a pair of scissors you don't mind touching paper). If you are using a very thin fabric however, the *wonder-Under* does change the texture. If you opt to not use the *wonder-under* (I rarely use it anymore unless the pattern is quite complex)you can use a special carbon paper made for fabric to trace the pattern onto the fabric, and then darken the lines with a colored pencil (white or yellow for dark fabrics). Usually the lines rub off long before I've finished the project!

Good luck and happy stitching!